Serving the Lord, through the lens

Updated 03 August 2012
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Serving the Lord, through the lens

Omer Faruk Aksoy describes himself as a servant to God and His Messenger (peace be upon him). No, he is not an imam or a daee. He is a photographer specializing in shooting in and around the Two Holy Mosques of Makkah and Madinah. “When my grandfather was 80 and I was five, he gathered us around and said: ‘Read, learn and be the servant of God and the Prophet.’ Shortly after that he passed away in his sajdah while praying in a mosque in Istanbul,” recalls Aksoy, who recently finished filming a documentary on the Makkah Clock Tower. The project took three years to shoot since it covered everything from the tower's inception, building, designing, etc.
He has produced several documentaries on Haj for the BBC, Nat Geo and Discovery channels, held photo exhibitions and workshops on Makkah and Madinah around the world and shot the famous Saudi comedy serial ‘Tash Ma Tash’.
Arab News chats up with Aksoy to find out more about his adventurous projects and how it felt to be on top of the Makkah Clock Tower:

Tell us about your latest documentary on the Makkah Clock Tower.
The Makkah Clock Tower documentary is a unique and a very special project for me. I was requested by Mahmood Bodo Rasch and Sheikh Bakr Binladen to be involved in it. It is one of the longest lasting documentaries and took us more than three years to make it. It has been directed by Bensalem Bouabdallah and produced by Achmed Rasch. It was a very challenging project.
We had three crews working on this project over the period of three years, from the designing till the putting it together in its place 500 meters above the ground level. Although there is more than 500 hours of footage, the film is 45 minutes only.

When will the documentary be released and where can we watch it?
The documentary will be released perhaps at the end of Ramadan. We are not sure where it can be viewed but the producers are in negotiations with several TV networks, such as Nat Geo, Discovery and Al Arabiya.

How did it feel to be on top of the Makkah Tower?
Being on top of the Makkah Clock Tower is a privilege. It is the second highest building in the world measuring 607 meters. Everything is different up there. In winter, it is very windy. There were times the tall tower cranes were not able to work. Even in hot summer days, it is windy and you do not feel the heat as much as you do on the ground.
It has a 360 degree full panorama view of Makkah. In January and February, when the clouds come down, they cover the top of the tower. Sometimes the mist or fog hides the clock and the crescent. No doubt, it is the best place to have a bird’s eye view of the holiest city of Makkah.

How did you obtain permission from the Saudi government to shoot the Makkah Tower as well as all your other projects?
To film at the Clock Tower, shooting permits were granted by the Bin Ladin and the main designing German company Sl-Rasch. However, filming the Clock Tower from different corners of the city certainly requires other permits, which were given by the related ministries and the Municipality of Makkah.
For my other projects across the Kingdom, I always secure the most important permit from the Ministry of Information and Culture. My team is the one that shot the very early TV commercials for Saudi and Middle East TV Channels. Most of those commercials were directed by Shane Martin. Banqu Saudi Fransi TVC was selected to be the best TVC in the Middle East in 1990. One of the Toyota commercials was also selected as the second best Toyota TVC in the world in the same year.

You have shot Makkah and Madinah since the 1980s. Please share with us any anecdotes/interesting stories from your experience.
The first time I came to Saudi Arabia was in 1981 from London to film the Islamic Countries Summit Conference held in Taif. After two weeks, I was supposed to return back to London. But my destiny kept me here for 30 years. I was offered a position at the King Abdul Aziz University’s media department to work as a cameraman. Later on, I was transferred to the Haj Research Center, where I worked under the leadership of Dr. Sami Angawi, making films on Haj-related subjects, such as, Tawaf, Jamarat, sacrificial meet, fires in Mina, etc.
One of the major Haram things I saw in Makkah was that the Hajis tried to slaughter the sheep with their pocket knives. Some professional butchers were unable to slaughter the camels properly. Once, the poor camel's neck was half way cut, it managed to escape and started running around with blood drizzling all over. It was crying. The scene was incredibly tragic. By the time the people could get it, the camel was weak and lay down powerlessly. It was no longer able to scream and it had lost much blood. These moments were captured by our 16 mm film camera. Together with other studies, which took around four to five years, all related government bodies such as the Ministry of Haj and Ministry of Interior have agreed to build here the largest sacrificed houses in the world. Now, a million big and small animals are annually slaughtered during the three-day Haj period and the meat is distributed to the poor in Makkah and some of that is sent to countries in need.
What are your future projects?
I have a few dream projects. One of them is based on an old saying, which is known by calligraphers around the world and goes like: “The Qur’an is revealed in Makkah and Madinah, read in Egypt and written in Istanbul.” Basically the recitation of Qur’an was done by the most beautiful voiced people from Egypt.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, calligraphy flourished in Istanbul during the Ottoman Empire and the most beautiful copies of the Qur’an were written by hand. As we know the Qur’an comprises around 600 pages and we can appreciate how difficult and time consuming it can be. Even today, tourists can see some of those glorious past writings at mosques and other monuments in Turkey.
Another documentary project idea is to produce a Haj film in 3D and show it around the world. Even non-Muslims who are unable to come to Makkah can experience Haj. The film can be titled as ‘The Haj experience.’

Tell us about your book ‘The blessed cities of Islam: Mecca-Medina’. Are there any new books in the cards?
So far I have only one book that has 232 pages. It is a coffee table sized book. It is forwarded by Prof. Dr. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary-general of the OIC. The photographs in the book reflect the last 30 years of Makkah and Madinah. Some of the places and buildings have changed forever. Few of the very first pictures in the book were taken during the time of King Khaled bin Abdulaziz. Some of the photographs were shot inside the Haram in Makkah with a very exclusive permit of the Riyasat Al-Haramain Al-Sharifain (The Two Holy Mosques Authorities).
There are a few very rare pictures, which are impossible to be shot again. One of them shows an Indian man who came for Haj on foot all the way from the north east of India, crossing Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Jordan and finally Makkah. It took him two years. A picture shows another slave of God aged 132, who came for pilgrimage with his grandsons aged 60 and 65. My book is translated into six languages and is sold around the world.

Apart from photography, what are your other interests?
When I was young and lived in Switzerland, I used to cycle. I was strong and sportive. I swam several times between the Princess Islands in Istanbul. I love traveling. So far I have traveled and filmed in 55 countries. I took my son, daughter and wife around the globe in 33 days. This was a rehearsal for a documentary project called ‘Around the World in 99 Days,’ which awaits generous sponsors for its production.

What is your message to aspiring cameramen/photographers?
I, poor Faruk, would like to give this message to the young Muslim generation who are inspired by television, movies, video games and animations: GO AHEAD with it. Learn it well and use it well in serving Islam and the entire humanity. This is the media era, which is countlessly beneficial but could be very dangerous too.


Email: [email protected] 


The beauty of prayer in Islam

Updated 23 September 2016
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The beauty of prayer in Islam

GOING deeper into our spiritual state during prayers (salah) requires that we have a presence of heart and are mindful of the words being said during the prayers.
Our prayer will feel shorter, yet when we look at how much time we actually spent, we will think, “Did I just spend 10 minutes?” or even 15 and 20 minutes.
A person who began applying this said he wished the prayer would never end.
A feeling that Ibn Al-Qayyim describes as “what the competitors compete for… it is nourishment for the soul and the delight of the eyes,” and he also said, “If this feeling leaves the heart, it is as though it is a body with no soul.”

The love of Allah
Some people’s relationship with Allah is limited to following orders and leaving prohibitions, so that one does not enter hell. Of course, we must follow orders and leave prohibitions, but it needs to be done out of more than fear and hope; it should also be done out of love for Allah. Allah says in the Qur’an: “… Allah will bring forth [in place of them] a people He will love and who will love Him.” (Qur’an, 5:54)
We often find that when a lover meets the beloved, hearts are stirred and there is warmth in that meeting. Yet when we meet Allah, there is not even an ounce of this same feeling. Allah says in the Qur’an: “And (yet) among the people are those who take other than Allah as equals (to Him). They love them as they (should) love Allah. But those who believe are stronger in love for Allah.” (Qur’an, 2:165)
And those who believe are stronger in love for Allah. There should be a feeling of longing, and when we raise our hands to start the prayer, warmth and love should fill our hearts because we are now meeting with Allah. A dua of the Prophet (peace be upon him): “O Allah, I ask You for the longing to meet You” (An-Nisa’i, Al-Hakim)
Ibn Al-Qayyim says in his book Tareeq Al-Hijratain that Allah loves His Messengers and His believing servants, and they love Him and nothing is more beloved to them than Him. The love of one’s parents has a certain type of sweetness, as does the love of one’s children, but the love of Allah far supersedes any of that. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: “Any person who combines these three qualities will experience the sweetness of faith: 1) that God and His messenger are dearer to him than anything else; 2) that his love of others is purely for God’s sake; and 3) that he hates to relapse into disbelief as much as he hates to be thrown in the fire.” (Bukhari)
Thus, the first thing he mentioned was: “… that God and His messenger are more beloved to him than anything else…”
Ibn Al-Qayyim says: “Since ‘there is nothing like unto Him’ (Qur’an, 42:11), there is nothing like experiencing love for Him.”
If you feel this love for Him, it will be a feeling so intense, so sweet, that you would wish the prayer would never ever end.
Do you truly want to feel this love? Then ask yourself: ‘why do you or should you love Allah?’
Know that you love people for one (or all, in varying degrees) of three reasons: For their beauty, because of their exalted character or/and because they have done good to you. And know that Allah combines all of these three to the utmost degree.

All-embracing beauty
We’ve all been touched by beauty. It is almost fitrah (natural disposition) to love what is beautiful. Ali ibn Abi Talib, may Allah be pleased with him, said about the Prophet, peace be upon him, that it was “as if the sun is shining from his face.” Jabir (may God be pleased with him) said: “The Messenger of Allah was more handsome, beautiful, and radiant than the full moon” (Tirmidhi)
Allah made all His Prophets have a certain beauty so that people would have a natural inclination toward them.
And beauty is more than what is in the face, because beauty is in all of creation and somehow has the ability to take our breath away and give us peace simultaneously. The glimmer of the crescent moon on a calm night, the intensity of a waterfall as the water drops for thousands of feet, the sunset by the sea … certain scenes of natural unspoiled beauty stirs something in us. As Allah is the One Who made it beautiful, so what of Allah’s beauty?
Ibn Al-Qayyim said: “And it is enough to realize Allah’s Beauty when we know that every internal and external beauty in this life and the next are created by Him, so what of the beauty of their Creator?”
This fitrah for loving what is beautiful is because Allah is beautiful. One of His Names is Al-Jameel (the Most Beautiful). Ibn Al-Qayyim states that the beauty of Allah is something that a person cannot imagine and only He knows it. There is nothing of it in creation save for glimpses.
Ibn Al-Qayyim says if all of creation were the most beautiful they could be (so let’s imagine, ever single human being looked as beautiful as Yusuf, peace be upon him, and the whole world was like Paradise), and all of them combined from the beginning of time until the Day of Judgment, they would not even be like a ray in comparison to the sun when compared to Allah. Allah’s beauty is so intense that we will not even be able to take it in this life. In the Qur’an, Allah describes Musa’s (peace be upon him) request: “And when Moses arrived at Our appointed time and his Lord spoke to him, he said, ‘My Lord, show me (Yourself) that I may look at You.’ (Allah) said: ‘You will not see Me but look at the mountain; if it should remain in place, then you will see Me.’ But when his Lord appeared to the mountain He rendered it level, and Moses fell unconscious.” (Qur’an, 7:143)
Even the mountain could not bear the beauty of Allah and crumbled, and when Musa, peace be upon him, saw this (he did not even see Allah), he fell unconscious. This is why on the Day of Judgment it is Allah’s light that will shine on everything. We talk about breathtaking beauty, but we have yet to experience Allah’s beauty. While things in this world can be beautiful or majestic or if they combine both they are finite, true majesty and beauty are for Allah: “And there will remain the Face of your Lord, Owner of Majesty and Honor.” (Qur’an, 55:27)
Keeping all of this in mind, the Prophet, peace be upon him, said: “Allah directs His Face toward the face of His servant who is praying, as long as he does not turn away” (Tirmidhi).
Remember this in your prayer, and ask Allah to allow you the joy of seeing Him in Paradise.