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Images of Faith in The Islamic World

2 minute read

Abbas, the Paris-based photographer known only by his given name, has lived outside his native Iran for almost 30 years, documenting religious practices with an artistic detachment born of his status both as an exile and a nonbeliever. The power of his images — which are stark, often startling, and embody the spontaneity of what he terms “the suspended moment” — owe much to that self-imposed distance. It’s particularly poignant, then, that his latest book, In Whose Name?: The Islamic World after 9/11, begins not in Kabul or Karbala but in Siberia, where Abbas watched on his hotel room TV as the Twin Towers collapsed in New York City, 13 time zones away.

Featuring 173 black-and-white photographs accompanied by the photographer’s own written recollections, In Whose Name? finds Abbas at ground zero a year after the tragedy, where he encounters a giant cross and resolves to explore “the secret ways Islamism and its extreme form, jihadism, feed on Islam.” Over the next five years, he travels around the planet, from Afghanistan to Zanzibar, in what is not so much a journey of geography as an odyssey across the ummah — the global community of Muslims. The scope of the images — from the ultra-contemporary fashion shoots of Turkey to the primal Ashura rituals in Iraq, the artificial ski slopes of Dubai to the sea of pilgrims keeping vigil on Saudi Arabia’s plain of Arafat — reveals the ummah not as a monolithic body of believers, but a complex collection of individuals each subscribing to Islam in different ways, their breadth and diversity impossible to capture in a single frame.

Abbas’ photographs are often informed by a sense of menace — the hazy vision of a U.S. soldier patrolling Afghanistan’s crumbling capital at dawn; the disturbing picture of a child in Thailand wearing an Osama bin Laden T shirt — but the book ends on a note of hope. In its final image, two smiling children in Zanzibar take a mock photo of the photographer using a coconut camera. If the book is driven by a question, Abbas’ answer is far from simple.

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