Finding Paradise in Syncretism

In Mexico, Giulia Iacolutti documented the daily life of an indigenous community who converted to Islam in the late 1990’s. Her series undermines the one-sided narrative too often associated to this much-discussed yet misunderstood religion. 

© Giulia Iacolutti, from the series Jannah. Salama Palamo Diaz was born muslim in 2000; in March of 2016 she gave birth to her first daughter, Asia. In the picture she wears the traditional tzotzil wool skirt and she poses in front of a maize field, staple food of the Indigenous Mexican Community

In 1995, a group of Muslims from the Murabitun World Movement decided to look for devotees in the post-Zapatista department of Chiapas, Mexico. Members from the revolutionary group probably never replied to their solicitations, but Islam nonetheless made its way through the depth of Chiapas’ tropical mountains. And this, against all odds, within Tzotzil indigenous communities.

Twenty years later, this disparate Muslim community settled around San Cristobal de las Casas counts about 400 people, divided in four branches. “It’s like a microcosm of what we see in the Middle East”, Giulia Iacolutti explains. While documenting them, her purpose though was rather to show “one of the unknown faces of this religion, far from the political influences of the Middle East”, she writes. “I have always been interested in Islam because my experience doesn’t coincide with media stigmatisation”, she says.

© Giulia Iacolutti, from the series, Jannah. A sajjāda, a prayer rug used by Muslims, placed between the ground and the worshipper to ensure cleanliness during the various positions of the Islamic prayers, spread out in the garden.

Upon arrival in Mexico a couple of years ago, she looked for a Muslim community who had converted to Islam of their own free will. “I wanted to show that Islam is not an obligation and that it’s stupid to stigmatize a religion. An investigation says that in 5 years Islam will be the most widely spread religion so, one can’t think that everybody is submissive”, she exclaims with laughter.

The discrete form of syncretism that Iacolutti encountered in Chiapas enabled her to show the flexibility of Islam. While they follow most of the rules of Islam, Tzotzil Muslims have not given up their indigenous culture - they keep speaking their language, wearing their traditional outfits, eating corn tortillas, and even occasionally haram meat. “An indigenous group said that they wanted to be Muslim but not submitted and split from the original founding group. They built a little mosque in their indigenous village and kept their indigenous clothes. This division was interesting in terms of identity”, Lacolutti recounts.

© Giulia Iacolutti, from the series, Jannah. The Ahmadi mosque. Ahmadiyya is an Islamic movement founded in the Punjab, British India, at the end of the 19th century, inspired by the life and teachings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908).

Her photographs convey a sense of harmony, mixing signs of both Muslim and Tzotzil cultures that she came across, and combining them with quiet exotic landscapes that could as well be pieces of Jannah (in Arabic "Garden", the Islamic concept of paradise). “It is good to think that in syncretism you can meet your own paradise”, she concludes, echoing the quote from the Koran that she introduces her series with: “Their reward with Allah will be gardens of perpetual residence beneath which rivers flow, wherein they will abide forever, Allah being pleased with them and they with Him. That is for whoever has feared his Lord.”

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Giulia Iacolutti is a freelance photojournalist and videographer living and working in Udine, Italy. Her work explores social and political issues that are strongly related to the construction of identity in Mexico. Follow her on Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

PHM 2018 Women Photographers Grant
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