LIFESTYLE

Muslim Photographer's Ambitious Project Seeks To Showcase Islam's Diversity

13/07/2017 11:45 PM IST | Updated 14/07/2017 10:56 PM IST
Carlos Khalil Guzman photographer and owner of Carlos Khalil Guzman Photography and Studio
Carlos Khalil Guzman photographer and owner of Carlos Khalil Guzman Photography and Studio
Carlos Khalil Guzman's photo project aims to capture portraits of Muslims across all 50 states.

A Muslim photographer is working on an ambitious project that he hopes will tackle stereotypes about American Muslims and showcase the community’s rich diversity. 

Since the fall of 2015, Carlos Khalil Guzman has been using his free time and his own funds to travel across the country to interview an array of Muslims. In the series, titled “Muslims of America,” Guzman is attempting to capture portraits of Muslims from all 50 states in the country. The series includes people of different sects of Islam, ethnicities and backgrounds ― from Native American Muslims to Syrian refugees to queer Muslims. 

Frustrated by a lack of diversity and representation of Muslims in the mainstream media, Guzman said he decided to create a project that would help people learn about the many ways American Muslims practice their faith.

“I wanted to be proactive about it,” Guzman told HuffPost. “We need to find our own ways to educate people.” 

Guzman, a 28-year-old photographer of mixed ancestry from Brooklyn, New York, is an activist and a revert to Islam. He started exploring the religion in college, after getting to know Muslim activists through different networks on his campus. He found in Prophet Muhammad an example of what it means to be tolerant, charitable and compassionate ― and realized that Islam reinforced his own beliefs about social justice. 

Five years after his conversion in 2012, Guzman is putting that passion for social justice into practice with his project. 

Carlos Khalil Guzman photographer and owner of Carlos Khalil Guzman Photography and Studio
Kenneth, a college student from California, is one of the people featured in Guzman's series.

Along with the photos, Guzman is also asking each of his subjects to tell him their favorite saying of the prophet, or a verse from the Quran. The subjects are then asked to explain why that piece of scripture is important to them.

Some told him about verses (or ayat) that reassured them of God’s providence during a time of trouble. Others highlighted verses that helped them feel protected and loved, or verses that reminded them to care for their parents.

For Guzman, these reflections on scripture are an important way for people who are not Muslim to connect with the project. He’s convinced that there would be less misunderstanding about Islam if people were reminded of how the religion functions in the lives of American Muslims ― how it promotes charity, gives people a sense of purpose during suffering, and inspires its followers to work toward justice for all. 

“Islam is against all types of oppression, literally all of it,” Guzman said. “It’s against racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, you name it. I want people to see that in this project.” 

Guzman’s own favorite verse from the Quran is about how Islam guides everyone to connect with their humanity. 

The line, taken from chapter 29, verse 2, reads, “Do the people think that they will be left alone on saying, We believe, and not be tried?”

″[The verse] is meaningful to me because it is a constant reminder that God never does anything to punish us, rather every experience good or bad is God’s way of keeping us and guiding us toward the right path, one of compassion, understanding, justice, knowledge and love,” Guzman told HuffPost. “Islam is a guide to help everyone connect with their humanity regardless of ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or political view.”

Carlos Khalil Guzman photographer and owner of Carlos Khalil Guzman Photography and Studio
Fida, a librarian aide from Oregon, was featured in the photo project.

Guzman’s hope is that the series will serve as an educational tool for people who have been fed false narratives about Islam. He hopes it also demonstrates how Muslims were an integral part of the United States’ history and culture ever since the first Muslims arrived in the Americas as African slaves. 

“There’s always been a Muslim presence in the country. The values that our Constitution upholds are part of Islam, if people only took the time to learn about Islam,” Guzman said. “Islam is all about justice.” 

So far, he’s taken 52 portraits across about 26 states. His goal is to take 114 portraits, to symbolize the 114 chapters in the Quran. He hopes to finish the project this year, and later turn the entire series into an interactive traveling art exhibit. He said his sense of urgency to complete the project has been spurred on by reports of increasing levels of hate crimes against American Muslims. 

He hopes his audience can come to understand that the challenges faced by Muslims in America are connected to the challenges faced by other marginalized groups. 

“What affects one oppressed community in this country affects another oppressed community,” he said. 

Check out photos from Guzman’s project below, along with captions explaining each subject’s favorite verse. Some of their responses have been edited for clarity. Follow the series as it unfolds on Guzman’s Instagram account.

  • Myree, Medical Assistant, California
    Carlos Khalil Guzman / Carlos Khalil Guzman Photography and Studio
    “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.” – Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him)

    "This is so important to me not only as a Muslim but also as an Afro-Latina. This states that Islam is against racism and discrimination. All humans are created equal. All that matters to God is the good a person does and the devotion we have for our creator." - Myree
  • Shadi, College Student, Boston
    Carlos Khalil Guzman / Carlos Khalil Guzman Photography and Studio
    “Heaven lies under the feet of your mother” - Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him)

    "This hadith is one of my favorites because it talks about being mindful of our parents. In today’s world, a lot of people do not respect their parents and treat them as if they are nothing. Of course there are times when our parents get on our nerves but before I even think or dare to say anything to them, I remember this hadith and it brings me back to reality. It allows me to do good instead of bad and this has helped me build a stronger relationship with my parents." - Shadi
  • Kenneth, College Student, California
    Carlos Khalil Guzman / Carlos Khalil Guzman Photography and Studio
    “… And whoever fears God -- He will make a way out for him. And will provide for him from where he never expected. Whoever relies on God -- He will suffice him. God will accomplish His purpose. God has set a measure to all things.” - Quran Chapter 65 / Verses 2-3

    "These verses remind me to always place my trust in God, no matter how hard things get. I have had lots of ups and downs in my life in terms of mental health. During my downs, I remember this verse and it motivates me to keep hope in the future, and to keep hope in myself. It reminds me of the power of prayer, as God can turn any situation around. When we have faith in God, He will set things moving for us in ways that we cannot even imagine." - Kenneth
  • Rula, College Student, Louisiana
    Carlos Khalil Guzman / Carlos Khalil Guzman Photography and Studio
    “And never say of anything, 'Indeed, I will do that tomorrow,' without adding, 'If Allah wills.' And remember your Lord when you forget and say, 'Perhaps my Lord will guide me to what is nearer than this to right conduct.'" - Quran Chapter 18 / Verses 23-24

    "This verse, to me, is a significant reminder of Allah (God). Remembering to say 'inshallah,' if God wills, before speaking about plans is acknowledgement that as humans, we are not in control of everything. In a sense it is reassuring and personal because it relates to everybody. Growing up, it’s common that parents tell their kids 'inshallah' as a way to brush off their requests, as in 'OK, OK, if God wills.' I know my parents did. But as I grew older, I understood the value in relying on God and the love bestowed upon us. It’s a reminder of our humanity, and how not everything is in our control. To see God in all things is to also see God in our daily lives in the smallest plans we make, such as studying for a test, or even getting coffee. God is so great, and it is a reminder not to stress with all the free will we have." - Rula
  • Fida, Librarian Aide, Oregon
    Carlos Khalil Guzman / Carlos Khalil Guzman Photography and Studio
    “In the name of Allah, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful. [All] praise is [due] to Allah, Lord of the worlds. The Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful, Sovereign of the Day of Recompense. It is You we worship and You we ask for help. Guide us to the straight path. The path of those upon whom You have bestowed favor, not of those who have evoked [Your] anger or of those who are astray.” – Quran Chapter 1 / Verses 1-7

    "I chose the verses from the first chapter (Al-Fatiha) of the Quran. These verses remind me of my childhood. My sisters and I would all gather together and we would recite it together or one by one. We were so proud of ourselves when we memorized it and we could see our parents were proud of us too. This surah (chapter) is the first in the Quran and I have always said it in times of fear, when I would think a ghost was in the room or if I was walking home late. I knew Allah (God) was watching and helping me. These words are powerful and they have helped me feel and be protected." - Fida
  • Osoul, Nursing Student, New Jersey
    Carlos Khalil Guzman / Carlos Khalil Guzman Photography and Studio
    “Allah does not burden a soul beyond that it can bear.” - Quran Chapter 2 / Verse 286

    "This specific ayah has gotten me through so much in my life, Alhamdulillah [Praise be to Allah]. I have had to deal with a lot growing up, whether it was family, illnesses or loss. In a way I was forced to mature at an early age and growing up I always wondered, 'Why!' You know, like why things happened the way they happened. But once I started getting closer to Allah, I realized that asking why things happen the way they do is the wrong approach to life. Instead we should ask Allah to make us strong enough to handle any obstacles thrown our way. Now every time something happens, I read this ayah and I remember that Allah will not burden me with anything I cannot handle. Allah won’t burden me with something that will destroy me, it will only make me stronger for what is ahead inshallah. It is kind of like a little hope, you know, the light at the end of the tunnel." - Osoul
  • Nooran, College Student, New Hampshire
    Carlos Khalil Guzman / Carlos Khalil Guzman Photography and Studio
    “And Yunus (Jonah), when he went off in anger and thought that We would not decree anything upon him. And he called out within the darknesses, 'There is no deity except You; exalted are You. Indeed, I have been of the wrongdoers.'" - Quran Chapter 21 / Verse 87

    "I think it's the story and context of that verse that makes it my favorite. It is a prayer said by the Prophet Yunus (Jonah), who is swallowed by a whale and seems in a hopeless situation stuck in its belly. He makes this prayer when he realizes he has disobeyed God, and continues to repeat it so often that all the fish in the sea can hear him reciting it. God spares Yunus and he is spit out by the whale. This verse teaches me two very important things that I try to apply to my daily life. The first is that when a situation seems hopeless, put all your faith in God and rely on Him to make things better. The second is that self-critique is necessary even in hard times. The Prophet Yunus could not understand why God was doing this to him until he reflected and realized that he had been of the wrongdoers. In that very same way, we should strive to always reflect and better ourselves even in the hardest of times instead of being frustrated or angry at God." - Nooran
  • Hana, College Student, Georgia
    Carlos Khalil Guzman / Carlos Khalil Guzman Photography and Studio
    "[Moses] said, 'No! Indeed, with me is my Lord; He will guide me.'" - Quran Chapter 26 / Verse 62

    "An ayah (verse) so simple and powerful, yet can be difficult to recollect when we allow this reality and this world to cloud our own visions. When I thought I was capable of carrying and dealing with everything on my own, I found myself lost, hurt and misguided. I allowed myself to forget that Allah (swt) can heal all my wounds and guide me, if I just called on Him. I had willingly clouded my own vision.
    No doubt, this life can be difficult at times. Hardship, confusion, pain and doubt are inevitable. All of humanity, believers and atheists, experience suffering and aching, however, the ones who truly believe and call on Allah (swt) will be at ease. Despite any circumstances, they rest knowing The Lord of Heavens, Earth and everything in between is in charge. They trust His plan and allow their hearts to focus. They know they are not capable of everything; they are simply imperfect humans. Humans who don’t allow this reality to cloud their visions. A human I strive to be." - Hana
  • Bushra, College Student, Texas
    Carlos Khalil Guzman / Carlos Khalil Guzman Photography and Studio
    “And We have enjoined upon man [care] for his parents. His mother carried him, [increasing her] in weakness upon weakness, and his weaning is in two years. Be grateful to Me and to your parents; to Me is the [final] destination.” - Quran Chapter 31 / Verse 14

    "No religion puts greater emphasis on the status of parents in society than that which Islam puts. We always hear that a 'mother knows best,' but sometimes in life we get carried away by our own faults, forgetting to turn to those who know us the most. I'm always terrified that a day will come in which I can no longer write my mother's name and number as my emergency contact, whether it be for school or any other endeavor of mine. This verse keeps me grounded; it reminds me that life is short, so short, too short, and that one should never, ever take the lives of one's parents for granted." - Bushra
  • Zarin, College Student, South Dakota
    Carlos Khalil Guzman / Carlos Khalil Guzman Photography and Studio
    “And a sign for them is the night. We remove from it [the light of] day, so they are [left] in darkness. And the sun runs [on course] toward its stopping point. That is the determination of the Exalted in Might, the Knowing. And (as for) the moon, We have ordained for it stages till it becomes again as an old dry palm branch. It is not allowable for the sun to reach the moon, nor does the night overtake the day, but each, in an orbit, is swimming.” - Quran Chapter 36 / Verses 37-40

    "The reason I love these verses so much is that they are almost a reiteration of the age-old saying, and my personal favorite calming mechanism, that Allah does everything for a reason. If we ever look up to the sky to ask why the sun acts the way it does and why the moon acts the way it does, we can see that He has created a relationship between the two celestial bodies so that they work in harmony and makes sure that neither overpowers the other. It is also a beautiful image and representation and model of how we as humans should work, in harmony, never overtaking each other to benefit and 'over show' our power, but to work together and cooperate in peace as well as we can." - Zarin
  • Samah Safi Bayazid, Filmmaker, Washington, D.C.
    Carlos Khalil Guzman / Carlos Khalil Guzman Photography and Studio
    “Have you not considered how Allah sets forth a parable of a good word (being) like a good tree, whose root is firm and whose branches are in heaven.” - Quran Chapter 14 / Verse 24

    "This is one of my favorite verses in the Holy Quran. It really touches my heart, so I can relate to it in my life. 'Good word' and 'good work' is what I try to spread through my social media, where I’m very blessed and honored to have over 200,000 followers. As a filmmaker, some of our works like the American drama series 'Inspiration' got millions of views and cleared many misconceptions about Islam and American Muslims. Many people tell me that my words/works have inspired them and touched their hearts and lives. This always makes me think about the power of sincere words and actions, and how words can really be like 'a good tree whose roots are firm and whose branches are in heaven.' I hope that some of my words and works can become like a good tree in my lifetime and after I leave this world too." - Samah
  • Yousef, High School Student, Chicago
    Carlos Khalil Guzman / Carlos Khalil Guzman Photography and Studio
    “Actions are according to intentions, and everyone will get what was intended. Whoever migrates with an intention for Allah and His messenger, the migration will be for the sake of Allah and His messenger. And whoever migrates for the worldly gain or to marry a woman, then his migration will be for the sake of whatever he migrated for.” - Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him)

    "This hadith has had a great impact in my life. When I was a little younger, I loved to give charity to others in front of people. I wanted to be seen in the public eye as a good kid; it mattered what people thought of me. Little did I know I was only looking to gain the pleasure of the people around me and not the pleasure of Allah. I was not thinking whether or not what I was doing made Allah be pleased with me. Then one day I heard this hadith and I knew I had to change the way I did things and my intentions toward doing them. I realized that the way I thought was wrong and that if I wanted to do a good deed, I needed to do it for the sake of Allah only. I understood that only through the pleasure and love of Allah I could gain the love of the people." - Yousef

This piece has been updated with more information about Carlos Khalil Guzman. 

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