Order in the house of God

7th July 2000 at 01:00
(Photograph) - Have you prayed today? For some people, such as monks or nuns, it's a way of life, as natural as breathing. For hundreds of millions of others, it's a daily comfort, a time for contemplation. Still others never dream of doing it.

It's only human to hope for things or give thanks for them. But, over time, these basic instincts have evolved alongside religion into highly prescribed expressions of faith.

People kneel or crouch, in submission and devotion, clasp hands or hold them outstretched, hold beads or books, in silent supplication or solemn incantation of ancient texts. It's a kind of timeless performance, repeated by generations of fellow believers, an attempt to transcendthe finite nature of our lives, an actof praise and pure devotion to ahigher power.

It is one of the mainstays of any religion. Without prayer, faith would have no expression. Psychologists and sociologists furrow their brows and wonder about its meaning. But perhaps the only person who knows what they pray for is the person praying.

The Muslim act of prayer, the salat, is one of the most regimented and demanding. Prayers take place five times every day - at dawn, midday, in the afternoon, at sunset and before bed. They are preceded by ritual washing of the hands, face and feet, characterised by changes in posture and punctuated with incantationsto Allah.

This is the Istiqlal mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia, the largest in the world, where more than 10,000 men worship in the main hall. In a way, these thousands of prostrate figures illustrate the essence of Islam, whose literal meaning is "surrender to the will of Allah", and a central tenet of the faith, that all are equal before Him. Women, however, ue a separate part of the building.

Believers are bound together in their faith, yet every man is alone with his maker. Viewed from this perspective, there seems a God-like sense of order and purpose to the scene.

Sebastiao Salgado, who took this picture, doesn't subscribe to this creed. His personal salvation came in 1973, when, at the age of 40, his work as an economist took him to Rwanda in Africa. He decided to use his wife's camera and found he got more enjoyment from the photographs than from the report he had to write. He decided "photography was a better way to get inside reality".

Since then he has travelled the world, documenting workers, refugees and the dispossessed. His epic, often lyrical scenes - such as the pictures of 50,000 workers at the cavernous open-cast gold mine at Serra Pelada in Brazil - have earned him the soubriquet of "Velazquez with a Leica". He has been called a PR man for humanitarian aid - a label he can live with if it makes people talk about the plight of those he photographs. Praying for them won't solve the problems, he says.

"People sometimes ask if I am a religious person. I am not a religious person. I don't believe in God, that there is only one superior being who directs all things in the universe. No, I believe there is one kind of god that is in men - the human god. If some people disappear in Ethiopia, it is part of all of us that is dying." Photograph by: Sebastio Salgado

WEBLINKS: Interview with Sebastio Salgado:


Salgado photo-essay from his book on refugees, Migrations: www.time.comtimedailyspecialphotosalgadoindex.html

International Muslim site: www.islam.org

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