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