The captions may be brief but the portraits are both striking and revelatory. One photograph is that of an imam in Lanzhou, Gansu province, known for his laughter. Another is that of an imam from Quanzhou, Fujian province, whose child has surpassed his father’s warrior-like skills, embodying the wisdom of the dragon while striking a pose like a tiger. They form part of a new exhibition at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization titled Moments in the Lives of Muslims in China – Through the Lens of Peter Sanders.
Running until June 11, the exhibition offers a rare insight into the lives of Chinese Muslims.
Taken over the course of nearly two decades – there are no dates in any of the captions – they form comprehensive 50 large-scale photo essays documented by Peter Sanders, one of the world’s leading photographers of global Muslim communities.
The aim of the project is to open eyes and counter misconceptions.
“I want whoever visits this exhibition to feel surprised at how Chinese these Muslims remained, where they kept their identity and their culture as they practice their Islamic faith,” he says.
“The dragons inside the mosques, using the gong bell from Buddhist tradition alongside the adhan [call for prayer], and the women’s colourful hijabs, the Muslims in China remained true to their Chinese culture.”
The insight and capturing the love of life is all part of Sander’s work. His evocative portrait work dates back over five decades as one of London’s leading rock ‘n’ roll photographers; his taciturn black-and-white images of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan performing at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1969 provided important insights into those heady music times.
Then, upon embracing Islam in 1971 (his Muslim name is Abul Azim), and while trekking through various countries, he found his calling.
The 70-year-old explains it has been his mission for more than 45 years to search for the “role models” of Islam, capturing over half-a-million images reflecting the rich and traditional civilisations across the world.
His work has taken him to places such as Morocco, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Gambia.
Sanders first began documenting the lives and experiences of Chinese Muslims 20 years ago and has sporadically worked his way across the country.
“My aim is to show the real side of Islam, the peaceful, the compassionate and the human side of it through role models and the simple everyday heroes.”
The latest exhibition showcases the daily activities of Chinese Muslims – there are farmers working in the fields in Quanghe, Gansu province.
In his visit to Xian, Shanxi province, he found children reciting the Quran and singing songs, and in Najiaying, Yunnan province, he snapped a herbalist diagnosing patients.
At a “Muslim hotel” in Xining, Qinghai province, he captured a pair of receptionists standing in front an almost mystical mural of the Holy Kaaba in Mecca and the Prophet’s mosque in Madina, drawn around a landscape of sea, desert and trees.
The highest concentration of Chinese Muslims are in the north-west in the Xinjiang region – mostly home to the Uighurs, a small Turkic minority living there – and in the province of Gansu.
Other significant populations of Muslims reside in the regions of Ningxia and Qinghai.
Hailing from the latter is Ma Xuliang, the vice consul general of the People’s Republic of China in Dubai, who is also a Muslim.
He hailed the work as a “window” into his country’s Muslim citizens, who are relatively spread across China.
With a population of over 21 million, Xuliang states they are the fastest-growing minority religion in country.
“Islam came to China around AD679 through the Silk Road, as well as through the spice route via sea,” says Xuliang.
“The first Muslims that came to China called for peace and friendship, the same core foundation of Chinese culture and so Islam spread.”
Sanders says the greater Muslim world have a lot to learn from their spiritual Chinese brethren.
“While excitable in business and hard working, they spend a lot of time meditating in the mosque, and have mastered this art of mindfulness – something we are only now understanding in the West.”
With two books already published, there are plans to publish this series from China.
This will be followed by another book to be soon released by Sanders – Meetings with Mountains – a photographic record of Muslim saints from around the world.
“My work is an extension of my spiritual journey,” he says.
In the era of rising Islamophobia and the rise of extremism, Sanders says works highlighting the “true heart” of the Islamic culture is more important than ever.
•Moments in the Lives of Muslims in China – Through the Lens of Peter Sanders runs till June 11 at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization. For more details, go to www.sharjahmuseums.ae or call 06 556 6002. Adult ticket price is Dh10 and Dh5 for children