Four years ago, architect-photographer Dr Basel Almisshal chanced upon the routine of the polymath Ibn al Haytham who lived during the Golden Age of the Muslim civilisation and found that the scholar made the most of his fasting hours during Ramadan by completing the remaining works of his research then.
It inspired Basel to start a photography competition that would last only during Ramadan, motivating people to use their time productively, and formed a Facebook page www.facebook.com/ramadanphotography. "It began with one 'Like'," said Lina Ali, senior director, marketing and communications, who stopped by Oman from her base in Pennsylvania, US. Today the project attracts entries from 60 countries, including Oman, and has a panel of distinguished judges including Steve McCurry, Shahidul Alam, Harvard lecturer Farah Pandith and Peter Sanders, apart from Basel.
The Capture the Spirit of Ramadan project also publishes an annual Ramadan photography book under the same name, a magazine called The Spirit of Ramadan, calendars and children's books. The book is available for sale online and customisable for corporate companies while the magazine can be viewed online.
The Capture the Spirit of Ramadan International Photography Competition (IRPC) is open to people from all backgrounds, 'non-partisan, non-profit' as Lina stresses, and has three categories – spiritual, architecture and culture. With IRPC, all the entries are shared on their online library every day for public viewing. "Each story is unique and shares a glimpse of Ramadan or Islam in it's particular context or location around the world. You can give a book to someone to read, but you can not be sure that he will, but with a photo, the viewer is curious, even for a split second and that makes way for question and dialogue."
Lina believes there's no telling where a photograph could lead people. "One of our winners went back to his subject of a shoe-maker in Hebron, Palestine whom he photographed in his shop reading the Quran while fasting, amidst the rubble, and created an entire photo essay which was later published and exhibited in Amsterdam." Winners, including those of a Viewer's Choice Award, are awarded cash prizes.
It is a time of immense gratification for the team as participants, including non-Muslims, share their experiences of new-found insight while clicking moments befitting the theme. "We have people saying they've learnt so much about Muslims this way. That serves our purpose." Lina recalls feedback from Tawfeek Martin, a resident of California, US who said his Ramadan had changed with the project. "He said his family gathered at the computer every night after taraweeh to view the photos saying it was like travelling to a new Muslim country every day from your own home."
She refers to the issues of unrest in many parts of the world that don't paint a flattering picture of the community. "The media hasn't exactly been projecting a good image about Muslims. This way, the photographs allow Muslims to know more about their brothers and sisters; for non-Muslims itproves that we have similarities, not just differences. We have had non-Muslim participants, volunteers and winners."
Photographs from Afghanistan to the Virgin Islands (US), of people offering prayers in varied environments, grandchildren huddled around their grandmother as she reads them verses from the Quran, places of significance like the Al Aqsa Mosque which Lina said is much-awaited by the project's Muslim followers, all draw viewers' appreciation. "It's not just about choosing the best photos of the competition, this platform brings together amateurs and professionals."
Lina admitted that she had to gather courage before making a call to McCurry's office. "You can't give up without trying. If it is a yes then wow! If not, then we have to move on. But Steve was sure he wanted to be part of the competition when he saw the impact of our work."
Fund raising remains a major challenge, team members choosing to pool in from their own sources. Volunteers and ambassadors keep the project alive. "Volunteers need to sift through thousands of entries. They become become ambassadors over time. We have a limited budget for marketing. It is mostly through word of mouth and social media."
Lina adds that contributions from the sultanate have also included those of illustrator Sarah al Mukhaini who drew pictures for their children's book. Oman- based Mohammed al Nahdi and Hussain al Bahrani decided to send in entries after coming across the competition's Facebook page. "I wanted the world to see something about Ramadan from here," Mohammed said. Hussain, who has participated more than twice, is pleased with the jury. "It raises the bar and makes for a difficult competition.
" Others include Mohammed Zawawi, Salim al Harthy who Lina said was awarded an honorary mention, Ayman al Toobi who submitted photos of Eid prayers from Izki, Shawana al Hinai and Sarah Ansari.
The IRPC hit a new high with an invitation from the Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia this year for a touring exhibition after which it will go to Istanbul, London, Paris and many other cities, taking glimpses of Ramadan all over the world.