National Geographic

A Photographer's Take On Island Islam

In Collaboration With National Geographic

James Nachtwey is in a league of his own. If you haven't heard of him, you've probably at least seen his work. It's been in local papers, national papers, Time and National Geographic magazine and has won numerous awards, including the Robert Capa Gold Medal (five times). He's a war and conflict photographer, and his images can be paradoxical: They're beautiful, but often really hard to look at. Some of them appear in the October issue of National Geographic, to tell the story of Islam in Indonesia.

  • The National Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia can hold 120,000 people for prayers. 86 percent of the country's 240 million citizens are Muslim.
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    The National Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia can hold 120,000 people for prayers. 86 percent of the country's 240 million citizens are Muslim.
    All photos by James Nachtwey/National Geographic
  • The red-letter motto on the hoods of Front Pembela Islam members reads, "Live respected or die as a martyr."
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    The red-letter motto on the hoods of Front Pembela Islam members reads, "Live respected or die as a martyr."
  • More than half of all women in Indonesia have jobs, largely because of recent economic crises.
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    More than half of all women in Indonesia have jobs, largely because of recent economic crises.
  • Certain groups, such as the men at one An-Nadzir commune in South Sulawesi, try to live their lives in a way that mirrors Muhammad's life. These men shun technology, tie their turbans and dye their as they believe Muhammad did, and they condemn violence.
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    Certain groups, such as the men at one An-Nadzir commune in South Sulawesi, try to live their lives in a way that mirrors Muhammad's life. These men shun technology, tie their turbans and dye their as they believe Muhammad did, and they condemn violence.
  • The women of the An-Nadzir commune begin Islam's Feast of the Sacrifice, celebrating the Koran's account of God sparing the prophet Ismail.
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    The women of the An-Nadzir commune begin Islam's Feast of the Sacrifice, celebrating the Koran's account of God sparing the prophet Ismail.
  • Pilgrims prepare to depart for Mecca. Last year, nearly 200,000 Indonesians made the pilgrimage.
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    Pilgrims prepare to depart for Mecca. Last year, nearly 200,000 Indonesians made the pilgrimage.
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Of the 240 million people inhabiting the 17,000 islands, 86 percent are Muslim — making Indonesia the most populous Muslim country in the world. And the face of Islam is as diverse as the country is populated. From violent extremists to practitioners of a more tolerant "Smiling Islam," the citizens of Indonesia are slowly adjusting to a democratization process that began about 10 years ago, after the fall of the authoritarian President Suharto.

Things are still uncertain, and the question of Islam's rapport with democracy is still on the table. Nachtwey's photos in National Geographic's October issue show the various incarnations of life in Indonesia, and the article is an approachable introduction to a culture that is both predominantly Muslim and richly complex.

View more of Nachtwey's work on his Web site, or check out this TED talk in which he accepts an award and discusses his career.

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