A different angle brought into focus

PORTRAIT OF ISLAM: A Journey Through The Muslim World. By Robin Laurance. Thames amp; Hudson pound;24.95.

Robin Laurance is that rare breed: a genuine photojournalist with a talent for telling stories in photographs and words. When he set out six years ago to take pictures of the Muslim world it was "for no better reason than that it seemed wonderfully photogenic". But as he travelled, his journey became not just a search for strong pictures but an attempt to "show that Islam was very different from the stereotyped image so often portrayed in the west". The scale and complexity of the Muslim world is often forgotten, perhaps because news reporting focuses on a few areas of conflict - Arab-Israeli fighting, the threat from Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the al-Qaeda network worldwide.

Since September 11 this has become an important issue for British teachers to address, not least because the UK is home to two million of the world's 1.25 billion Muslims.

Laurance's journey takes us from the Atlantic coast of Africa via the Middle East and northwards to the Caucasus, eastwards through Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, and southwards to Malaysia and the most populous Muslim state of all, Indonesia.

The pictures are arresting and the contrasts stark: an oil worker stops drilling to pray in the desert in Algeria, Moghul scenes are painted on to jewellery boxes in Iran, peasant farmers drag firewood through the snow in Azerbaijan, and a hotel worker and his bride wear gold braid costumes, lavish enough for royalty, at their marriage in Sumatra.

One shot sums up the ambiguity at the heart of the Muslim world: the dramatically modern forms of the Azadi Tower at the gateway to Tehran, dwarfing two women in their black hijab (Islamic headscarf and dress).

Through all the richness and variety of Muslim life, Laurance discovered a persistent theme of devotion and self-discipline - with everyone from bus drivers to businessmen fasting during Ramadan, and overflowing mosques on Fridays. But while Islam seemed resurgent, he found a hunger, especially among the young, for western culture and greater political freedom, which has created new tensions within Muslim societies and with the West.

Above all, these pictures remind us not to judge Muslims by the atrocities committed by a faction of extremists on September 11; that Islam has been responsible for some of the great cultural traditions and civilisations of the world. As Dr Robin Ostle points out in his useful introduction, it still inspires a fifth of the planet's population with values we all recognise: compassion, mercy, forgiveness, charity and concern for others.


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