Keeping it Real

Mustafa Davis

Filmmaker, Photographer and Social Commentator

In this series of conversations, Peter Gould explores deep topics with creative leaders, designers and spiritual teachers from around the world. Here, he interviews filmmaker, photographer and social commentator, Mustafa Davis.
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Mustafa Davis is one of those artists who you feel was destined to inspire others. His journey as a filmmaker and photographer is full of profound lessons and exceptional output that have helped him become a guiding light for creatives around the world. Reconnecting after several years, we spoke about the importance of teachers and mentors, and the beauty of learning through failure.

One of the great blessings of this conversation series is that I get to reconnect with wonderful friends who have helped me throughout my spiritual and professional journey. 

One of these friends is Mustafa Davis — an award-winning filmmaker, photographer and visual artist from San Francisco (now Pennsylvania, via Istanbul), who has been pivotal in my journey to navigating my professional creative journey as a Muslim.  

Mustafa is a true pioneer in the global creative Muslim community; not just through his incredible artistic work (which has been showcased on PBS, POV, The Atlantic, Amazon Prime, and countless other places), but also his role in founding the transformative Ta’leef Collective in Fremont, California, and Chicago, Illinois — as well as the prolific Tabah Foundation in Abu Dhabi. He currently serves as Executive Director of Al-Maqasid in Pennsylvania, and works with Muslim-content streaming service, USHUB.

His list of roles, achievements and talents is as impressive as it is long, and I have gained so much inspiration from his output over the years — not least these past few months, as he and his studio explore the possibilities and potential of AI-generated art.

When we spoke, however, he explained that he might not have been an artist at all, but for the intervention of his spiritual teachers.

“I was doing art before I converted to Islam — doing photography and photojournalism, working for newspapers and such. But then I left art completely because I was taught you couldn’t do that as it was antithetical to the teachings of the religion.

“Fast-forward a few years, and I’ve connected with my teacher Habib Omar. I’m studying in Tarim, Yemen, and I thought I was going to be a scholar. It was a bit presumptuous of me, looking back, but that’s what I thought I was going to do.

“Anyway, I get pulled out of my studies and told that I was going to do art instead. My teachers told me this is going to be my path to reach Allah. I was afraid because, at that time in the mid 90s, it was kind of accepted that if you were serious, you went overseas and studied — that’s what you did. So I was worried that if I didn’t pursue scholarship, then I might not be a good Muslim. 

“It actually felt a bit like I was cheating; being told that I could do what I love to reach God, rather than going through the hardship of scholarship. Instead of staying up all night studying, I got to take photos and make films, and reach God that way. I really had to shift my thinking to be able to accept this!”

In at the deep end

He may have felt like he was cheating, but that didn’t mean Mustafa took his privilege for granted. Quite the contrary. Instead he took the opportunity to learn and develop through trial and error – determined to raise the standards of his own art, and the standards of contemporary Muslim art as a whole.

“I was told by my teachers ‘you need to learn how to swim – there’s the deep end; we’re going to throw you in’. So all this learning really came through making many mistakes, faltering, figuring out, getting help, getting guidance, and so on.

"All this learning really came through making many mistakes, faltering, figuring out, getting help, getting guidance."

“A lot of that learning came through my peers – conversations we had early on, because we were all emerging as young artists starting our careers. And it was at the advent of social media, so we were trying to figure this new thing out as well. Those conversations really helped me find balance with it all.”

I remember those conversations well, and the exciting, curious, innovative environment that framed them all. Technology was moving fast and opening up so many new opportunities for creative practitioners willing to experiment, so it was a fertile time – and one that allowed us to make mistakes as we found our feet, our niches, and our paths forward.

Mustafa explains, however, that this period presented him with one particular struggle that he wasn’t able to reconcile for several years: being comfortable with how he positioned himself as an artist.

“My struggle wasn’t Islam and art,” he says. “My struggle was more, who do I want to be? What kind of artist do I want to be? 

“So I’ve oscillated throughout the years between ‘okay, I’m going to be a Muslim artist – I’m going to work for the scholars, do Muslim promos, do films about overtly Islamic topics’, and ‘do I want mainstream success?’ You know, maybe I should be working for the likes of Etihad, doing corporate promos, and things like that.

“There were times when I felt like what I was doing wasn’t enough; I needed to do more. I needed to make an impact. And honestly, part of that feeling is that sometimes Muslims do celebrate mediocrity. As a photographer, I know I can take a mediocre snapshot of an overtly Muslim subject, and it’ll get praised by the people who follow me. So I wondered several times whether I needed to do something ‘more’ in order to prove myself.”

"There were times when I felt like what I was doing wasn’t enough; I needed to do more. I needed to make an impact."

What he found, however, was that his professional success mirrored his spiritual state, and that when he pursued more commercial, corporate projects, there seemed to be a lot less Barakah (blessing) in his work.

“Looking back, it’s clear to see that when I was following the path and guidance of my teachers, whatever I was doing was enough for me. More than enough. But when I left that and shied away from it, and followed my own devices instead – that’s when things got a little bit rocky for me.

“I used to give talks and say ‘I’m not a Muslim artist – I’m an artist and my faith is Islam’. Now I say, ‘yes, I am a Muslim artist, and it’s an honour to be that’. 

“There’s so much space for us to grow and excel as Muslim artists, and I’m excited to be part of that.”

Tell a wholesome story

Having been through the ups and downs of the creative, professional and spiritual paths, Mustafa has a deep well of experience and advice to draw from. So naturally I ask him what he might say to young artists on their own journeys.

“I’m in my late 40s now, so I’ve learned to preface my advice,” he laughs.

“It’s very likely that in two to five years I’m not going to believe exactly what I believe now, so please take anything I say with a grain of salt. That was one of my mistakes early on. I really took my art so seriously – like scholarship – and was adamant that other people had to be like this too. My intentions were hopefully sincere, but it wasn’t the best approach. Now I just try to share gems that I’ve learned from my teachers, and people can take it or leave it.”

One such gem is from his teacher Sayyid Habib Omar bin Hafiz, during one of his visits to the United States.

“We were filming his tour, and there was a young man I was training  named Jeremy who had a camera, and was taking photos of Habib Omar. He was very nervous and shy to take the photos, as we were all sitting in a gathering, so Habib Omar addressed him and said ‘you’re a photographer?’ Jeremy said ‘yes, I do photography and film’. So Habib Omar said ‘photography is like writing, but you’re writing with the camera. So make sure you tell a wholesome story’.

“This was a very simple piece of advice that profoundly affected me – even though it wasn’t directed at me. It really brought me back to the understanding that this can be a spiritual thing. I have to make sure I tell a good story with my camera. If somebody is going to write a book, they’re not just going to put any random quote or passage in there – it’s going to be calculated. So we should be intentional with our art as well. 

“Actions are by intentions, so make a good intention when we are doing this work. Don’t just be out there creating art for art’s sake. That intention connects us to Allah – the source of all creativity. And that’s what sets the spiritual artist apart from the artist who is ‘just an artist.”

"Actions are by intentions, so make a good intention when we are doing this work. Don’t just be out there creating art for art’s sake. That intention connects us to Allah – the source of all creativity."

This advice goes straight to my heart. Mustafa and I have had many deep talks over the years and developed a unique personal connection through stages of our journeys. On the day I moved to California, he was the first to visit and deliver food. We’ve had many laughs and a few tears. He helped me to see past the lure of popularity at a critical time, when my work was rapidly getting thousands of likes per day in the early days of social media. Over the years I’ve admired how Mustafa has found a way to keep it real in a world of online superficiality. 

Lessons through failure

As we relive our past experiences together, Mustafa touches on another theme that most (if not all) of us in the creative world have to face up to at one time or another: Failure. 

I was curious to learn whether he had gone through any failures that have taught him something important, or given him a new perspective of himself or his work. For example, I remember one particular design project early on in my career that didn’t work out, but taught me a valuable lesson about patience. It’s a lesson that has since helped me approach my work differently and, hopefully, with less anxiety and frustration.

“Oh yes, absolutely,” says Mustafa. “And unsurprisingly it happened after I left working for my teachers directly, and went to do my own thing. That’s where the trouble started.”

He goes on to tell me about a film he made in 2006 about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Malawi, entitled The Warm Heart of Africa. A film he spent a year and a half – and around $100,000 – making.

“This was supposed to be my opus,” he continues. “This was going to be the thing that launched my career. After creating the film I moved from Abu Dhabi to Hollywood because I thought, well, this is it. I’m going to be up for an Oscar soon; Steven Spielberg is going to call me and ask me to direct one of his films. This is it.

“But the film never got put out. It’s still on my hard drive here in my office. It was so disheartening. 

“I had done so much research; reached out to charity organisations to help me tell this story; and invested time, money and energy into this project that had a really hard impact on me. When you work on something like this, you carry people’s stories with you – you carry their trauma vicariously – you really feel it.

“But it never got put out, and I took it hard. Even now when I talk about it, it hurts, because it’s such an important and dear film to me. But I learned so much through the process. I learned so much about myself that I could never have learned in a different way.

“I learned about my resilience, I learned my thresholds, I learned where I was deficient in certain things as an artist, and so much more. So yes, the hurt is still there, but I learned so much through that process that I am truly grateful for.”

Guiding lights

Another lesson Mustafa says he’s learned – not through failure but through blessings – is the importance of mentors. 

We get onto the topic in quite a roundabout manner, through a passing reference to music megastar Cat Stevens, and his journey of transformation into Yusuf Islam.

“A little trivia,” says Mustafa. “When I left Tarim to go to work with renowned scholar Habib Ali al Jifri in Abu Dhabi in 2022, he had a series of meetings with Yusuf Islam over a couple of days, and I was there with them. This was right before Yusuf was coming back to music. And later, I was there when he first played guitar in public again after all those years.

“I remember he played Tala'a Al-Badru 'Alayna, which was so amazing to me. As Cat Stevens he sold 60 million records worldwide, was a two-time Hall of Famer, and he could have done literally anything he wanted to do when he came back to music. But he chooses this song – the song that was sung to greet Prophet Muhammed when he came to Medina. It’s amazing.”

Then came the surprise.

“It was actually Yusuf Islam who told me to go to film school. I really owe him that. I owe my career to all my teachers, but it was him who said ‘you have to go to film school’. He told me: ‘If we’re going to do this work, and we’re going to have intentionality in this work as adherent Muslims, we have to be as good as the mainstream, or better, so that they accept our art.

"It was actually Yusuf Islam who told me to go to film school. I really owe him that. I owe my career to all my teachers, but it was him who said ‘you have to go to film school’."

“This is the kind of guidance that we need more of in this space, and that I wish I had more of when I was younger. There are a lot of issues, clashes with people or mistakes that could have been avoided, or I might not have taken a job that didn’t really resonate with me.

“A big part of mentorship is helping people figure out how to monetize this thing we call art or creativity. At one point I went into branding, which was never really an intention, plan or goal, but I needed to make ends meet. And it became a point of angst for me, because I wanted to be doing something else. I should have been doing something else.”

This will be a familiar story to many – if not all – creative professionals. As designers, filmmakers, musicians, photographers, illustrators, animators, writers, etc, our focus and our expertise is typically the art itself; not the business that surrounds it. 

Some will choose to exercise their creativity as side projects, and fund them through their full-time jobs, but for those who pursue a creative career, mentorship can be vital.

I’ve personally found huge benefit in having a select group of mentors who each help me to focus on different things, including design itself, strategy and finance, personal aspirations and wellbeing, and spiritual growth. 

Without them, I’m quite certain that I would have struggled to navigate the world of design and entrepreneurship, let alone be able to stay on the spiritual path and the various challenges that can bring – one of which is the rise of the ego: a challenge Mustafa says he struggled with during a particular part of his early career.

“When I faltered, or when I started to transform in a way that isn’t right for me, was when I let my nafs (ego)  take centre stage, and take me away from what we might call my ‘right intention’.

“There was a point, for example, where I was thinking ‘this is good work that I’m doing’, but maybe there was a mixed intention, and I started to think, ‘maybe I want to be famous for this – maybe I want to be known as the guy who’s doing this’. And once the nafs is involved, it gets really tricky. If another guy started doing something similar, I’d think ‘hey, no man, that’s my thing – I’m the guy who’s doing that – you can’t come into this space, this is my space’. 

“So during those times when I didn’t have or accept guidance or mentorship, I faltered and wasn’t my best at all.”

Even more dangerous, he suggests, is detaching yourself from the spiritual root that mentors can provide, and allowing your art to become the core focus of your spiritual practice.

“When I left my studies and went full on with my art, I realise now in retrospect that I adopted art as my spiritual practice. Which really meant that I left my true spiritual practice. Taking a photo or making a film became more important than doing dhikr (remembrance of God). Making sure an edit was correct became more important than praying at times. It’s a dangerous path to go down.

"Taking a photo or making a film became more important than doing dhikr. Making sure an edit was correct became more important than praying at times. It’s a dangerous path to go down."

“Art and spirituality can work symbiotically, and based on your intention your art can be considered ibadah (an act of worship), but that doesn’t mean you get to leave your ibadah to do it.

“I see a lot of young artists struggling with this as well. I tell them ‘your art is brilliant – it’s really brilliant, man. You’re really, really doing it well. But you have to pray’. At the end of the day we’re Muslim. When we die, God’s not going to send angels in our grave and say, ‘well, that film you made – that suffices, man. Don’t worry about all those prayers you missed’.

“So having people to remind you of this is so important.”

With all this experience, and all these lessons learned, it’s now Mustafa’s turn to be the mentor to up and coming creatives: Something he has tried to do at his own studio in recent years.

“I was training a group of young filmmakers – eight students in full-time training. And we started our mornings just sitting in silence. You could do dhikr, read Qur’an, read your litany, read Arabic, or whatever you choose. This was quiet reflection, or mediation, however you like to see it. And then we made sure that we prayed all of our prayers together. 

“In between that, they could create the most amazing, outlandish, new-age art they want. But we always come back to this kind of anchor. I didn’t always have that – by my own fault. I didn’t always centre myself that way, which led to me faltering and making art the ‘everything’. If I can help young artists avoid this, then I’m happy.”

From my own experience of Mustafa, both as a spiritual seeker and a creative pioneer, he is a source of wisdom and deep experience that aspiring filmmakers and creative leaders would do well to learn from. I’m excited to see what his students and colleagues around the world will produce in the years to come; and, no doubt, a bright future for the teacher himself. 


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