Life through the lens: images of Islam

British photographer Peter Sanders has been chronicling the Muslim world since the 1970s. He shares his four-decade-long journey

If it hadn’t been for Jimi Hendrix, British photographer Peter Sanders’ incredible archive of photographic images of the Islamic world may never have existed. Sanders, who was honoured for his work at the Global Islamic Economy Summit in Dubai last year, spent much of the 1960s photographing the most famous bands of the time, including The Doors, Bob Dylan, The Who and The Rolling Stones.

By 1970, he was looking to travel to India, as was fashionable then, for a “spiritual awakening”. In August that year Jimi Hendrix headed to England’s Isle of Wight Festival and Sanders also decided to go to take some pictures. Two weeks later, Hendrix was dead and those photographs turned out to be some of the last of the guitar legend in action. Sanders used the proceeds from the sales of the much sought-after images to fund his trip to India.

You can go to very remote places and people have iPhones and computers... hardly anywhere is really remote anymore

Peter Sanders

Seven months in India turned into 45 years of globe-trotting, during which time Sanders has built up a collection of over a quarter of a million images of the Islamic world, its people, traditions and architecture. Soon after he converted to Islam, Sanders decided to perform the Hajj, and was granted permission to photograph the event. “It was very unusual then for a Westerner to be able to do that,” says the photographer.

Sanders’ travels have taken him to some of the most remote places in the world, including Mauritania and Kashgar in China. He even visited Dubai in the 1980s, back when it was still emerging from its days as a pearl fishing centre and trading post. “There was hardly anything here then,” he says, casting his mind back to his early experience of the emirate.

Peter Sanders
Sanders has built up a collection of over a quarter of a million images of the Islamic world, its people, traditions and architectureImage: Peter Sanders

With his images of the more traditional aspects of Muslim life, he has captured a world that he believes is fast disappearing. “I think that during that period, 1971 to 2000, I witnessed the end of something,” he says. “Where I found a lot of spirituality, that has changed now.” It is partly, he believes, down to digital technology. “You can go to very remote places and people have iPhones and computers. The whole world is now connected and hardly anywhere is really remote anymore. I did see a big shift over the years, from the traditional way of learning, which was sitting with someone who was very learned, to people going onto the internet and finding all their knowledge there.”

One of Sanders’ favourite images from his portfolio is Tick Tock to the Rhythm of Life #1. The picture, taken in China’s Shanxi Province, depicts a group of 30 or so school children swaying and clapping their hands. “I was in China travelling round and I got to taken to this Madrasa – a school for small children,” he says. “They told me to wait for a few minutes, as the children were getting ready for the photos. Suddenly all these kids came out dressed in their best clothes and sat in front of me, and started singing, and they were swaying backwards and forwards, hence the title of the photograph. It’s a picture I’m quite fond of and I have it in my office. You could take any one of those faces and blow it up and it would make a great picture.”

Peter Sanders
Tick Tock to the Rhythm of Life #1, Xian Madrasah, Shanxi Province, ChinaImage: Peter Sanders

In 2003, Sanders decided to take on a subject closer to home. “The Art of Integration” was a five-year project that explored the lives of Muslims in the UK, and culminated in a book and exhibition. “I wanted to do something about indigenous Muslims, so people who were born and grew up in England and considered themselves English. I wanted to show this group of people who are very integrated, who you find everywhere from the House of Lords to the BBC to supermarkets, to posh tailors in Savile row.”

Sanders has mixed feelings about being considered an Islamic photographer. “There is no such thing as an Islamic photographer,” he says. “Hopefully I’m a photographer who has an interest in that world but I don’t want to be too defined by it. Photography is what I’m really interested in.” Being defined does come with advantages, though. “I have been given incredible access and photographed things that have never been photographed before.”