In the wake of the massacre that took place in the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, I have been called upon as a scholar specializing in Islamic paintings of the Prophet to explain whether images of Muhammad are banned in Islam.
The short and simple answer is no. The Koran does not prohibit figural imagery. Rather, it castigates the worship of idols, which are understood as concrete embodiments of the polytheistic beliefs that Islam supplanted when it emerged as a purely monotheistic faith in the Arabian Peninsula during the seventh century.
Moreover, the Hadith, or Sayings of the Prophet, present us with an ambiguous picture at best: At turns we read of artists dared to breathe life into their figures and, at others, of pillows ornamented with figural imagery.
Try Newsweek: subscription offers
If we turn to Islamic law, there does not exist a single legal decree, or fatwa, in the historical corpus that explicitly and decisively prohibits figural imagery, including images of the Prophet. While more recent online fatwas can surely be found, the decree that comes closest to articulating this type of ban was published online in 2001 by the Taliban, as they set out to destroy the Buddhas of Bamiyan.
In their fatwa, the Taliban decreed that all non-Islamic statues and shrines in Afghanistan be destroyed. However, this very modern decree remains entirely silent on the issue of figural images and sculptures within Islam, which, conversely, had been praised as beneficial and educational by Muhammad 'Abduh, a prominent jurist in 19th century Egypt.
In sum, a search for a ban on images of Muhammad in pre-modern Islamic textual sources will yield no clear and firm results whatsoever.
www.newsweek.com/files/styles/embedded_full/public/2015/01/09/0109i..." alt="01_09_Islam_art_01" title="01_09_Islam_art_01" style="box-sizing: border-box; border: 0px; list-style: none outside none; margin: 0px; outline: none 0px; padding: 0px; -webkit-font-smoothing: antialiased; vertical-align: middle; max-width: 100%; height: auto;"/>Figure 1. The Prophet Muhammad enthroned, surmounted by angels, and surrounded by his companions, Firdawsi, Shahnama (Book of Kings), probably Shiraz, Iran, early 14th century. FREER/SACKLER MUSEUM OF ASIAN ART/SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION
While Islam has been described as a faith that is largely aniconic—i.e., that tends to avoid images—figural imagery has nevertheless been a staple of Islamic artistic expression, especially in secular, private contexts (and today, Muslim majority countries are saturated with images, dolls, and other representational arts). Indeed, a variety of Muslim patrons commissioned illustrated manuscripts replete with figural and animal imagery from the 13th century onward.
Over the past seven centuries, a variety of historical and poetic texts largely produced in Turkish and Persian spheres—both Sunni and Shiite—include beautiful depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. These many images were not only meant to praise and commemorate the Prophet; they also served as occasions and centerpieces for Muslim devotional practice, much like celebrations of the Prophet’s birthday (Mawlid) and visitations to his tomb in Medina.
As a result, this visual evidence clearly undermines the premise that images of Muhammad are banned in Islamic law and practice, thereby providing us with a less ideologically divisive and more fact-based way to speak about a subject that has grown increasingly contentious ever since 2005.
www.newsweek.com/files/styles/embedded_full/public/2015/01/09/0109i..." alt="01_09_Islam_art_02" title="01_09_Islam_art_02" style="box-sizing: border-box; border: 0px; list-style: none outside none; margin: 0px; outline: none 0px; padding: 0px; -webkit-font-smoothing: antialiased; vertical-align: middle; max-width: 100%; height: auto;"/>Figure 2. Black ink sketch of the Prophet Muhammad enthroned, Iran, 14th century. STAATSBIBLIOTHEK ZU BERLIN
Representations of the Prophet in Islamic traditions have varied over time, and they have catered to different needs and desires. During the fourteenth century, a number of Persian drawings and paintings depict Muhammad as an enthroned leader surmounted by angels and surrounded by his companions (figures 1-2). These images show the Prophet as a human messenger entrusted with divine revelation through the angelic figures that protect and accompany him.
At other times, medieval paintings depict Muhammad alongside other Abrahamic prophets, the latter frequently represented in 16th century illustrated copies of popular texts concerned with explaining the lives and tales of the prophets (qisas al-anbiya). In some instances, Muhammad is accompanied by Jesus Christ—revered as the Prophet ‘Isa in Islamic traditions—both of whom are said to have been seen in an apocalyptic vision by Isaiah (figure 3).
www.newsweek.com/files/styles/embedded_full/public/2015/01/09/0109i..." alt="01_09_Islam_art_03" title="01_09_Islam_art_03" style="box-sizing: border-box; border: 0px; list-style: none outside none; margin: 0px; outline: none 0px; padding: 0px; -webkit-font-smoothing: antialiased; vertical-align: middle; max-width: 100%; height: auto;"/>Figure 3. Isaiah’s vision of Jesus riding a donkey and Muhammad riding a camel, al-Biruni, al-Athar al-Baqiyya ‘an al-Qurun al-Khaliyya (Chronology of Ancient Nations), Tabriz, Iran, 1307-8. Edinburgh University Library. EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY LIBRARY
In other tales, especially those dedicated to narrating and illustrating the Prophet’s heavenly ascension (mi‘raj) from Mecca to Jerusalem and onward through the celestial spheres, Muhammad is depicted surrounded by the Abrahamic prophets as he sits in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (figure 4). In these medieval paintings, some of which were commissioned by a Sunni ruler in Iran, Muhammad is praised as the leader of his faith community, as the bearer of divine revelation, and as a messenger belonging to a long and respected line of monotheistic prophets.
www.newsweek.com/files/styles/embedded_full/public/2015/01/09/0109i..." alt="01_09_Islam_art_04" title="01_09_Islam_art_04" style="box-sizing: border-box; border: 0px; list-style: none outside none; margin: 0px; outline: none 0px; padding: 0px; -webkit-font-smoothing: antialiased; vertical-align: middle; max-width: 100%; height: auto;"/>Figure 4. The Prophet Muhammad sits with the Abrahamic prophets in Jerusalem, anonymous, Mi‘rajnama (Book of Ascension), Tabriz, ca. 1317-1330. TOPKAPI PALACE LIBRARY
After 1500, a major shift in representations of the Prophet occurs in both Persian-Shiite and Ottoman-Sunni lands. Muhammad’s facial features become covered by a white facial veil while his body is engulfed by a large gold aureole, visual devices that doubly stress his unseen, numinous qualities (figure 5).
www.newsweek.com/files/styles/embedded_full/public/2015/01/09/0109i..." alt="01_09_Islam_art_06" title="01_09_Islam_art_06" style="box-sizing: border-box; border: 0px; list-style: none outside none; margin: 0px; outline: none 0px; padding: 0px; -webkit-font-smoothing: antialiased; vertical-align: middle; max-width: 100%; height: auto;"/>Figure 5. The Prophet Muhammad receives revelations at Mount Hira, al-Darir, Siyer-i Nebi (The Biography of the Prophet), Istanbul, Ottoman lands, 1595-1596. TOPKAPI PALACE LIBRARY
While these more abstract depictions of the Prophet certainly show an emerging tendency to shy away from figural representation, they also praise the Prophet according to a metaphorical language that is a hallmark of Sufi (mystical) traditions found in both Sunni and Shiite spheres. Particularly interesting is a series of late 16th-century Sunni-Ottoman paintings of the Prophet’s biography (sira), in which Muhammad is shown confronting the very issue of idolatry as he approaches the Ka‘ba in Mecca (figure 6).
www.newsweek.com/files/styles/embedded_full/public/2015/01/09/0109i..." alt="01_09_Islam_art_07" title="01_09_Islam_art_07" style="box-sizing: border-box; border: 0px; list-style: none outside none; margin: 0px; outline: none 0px; padding: 0px; -webkit-font-smoothing: antialiased; vertical-align: middle; max-width: 100%; height: auto;"/>Figure 6. Ka‘ba, al-Darir, Siyer-i Nebi (The Biography of the Prophet), Istanbul, Ottoman lands, 1595-96. TOPKAPI PALACE LIBRARY
In this and other cases, the image of Muhammad is preserved in a pristine state, while the gold idol and its prostrating idolater have been rubbed away by the painting’s viewers. Here then, the problem is not so much the depiction of the Prophet, but rather paganism and polytheism, which are here visually excised in order to make symbolic way for a strictly monotheistic world order.
While images of the Prophet have waned since 1800, there nevertheless exist a number of modern and contemporary representations that reveal a rather unsteady, and thus not cohesive or uniform, approach to the production of Muhammad-centered imagery. While “blessed icons” of the Prophet made in Iran during the 19th and 20th centuries show Muhammad in his full corporeal form and touched by God through the symbol of the golden halo, depictions in Sunni and especially Arab lands remain largely abstract and show a clear preference for textual representations describing his physical attributes. Known as hilyas, these aniconic icons most recently have been printed in Turkey in the format of a state ID card.
As portable icons, these cards give details about Muhammad’s birth date and place as well as the date of his endowment with prophecy. Moreover, they depict the Prophet through three metaphors: the rose (known as the “rose of Muhammad”), his seal impression (reading “Muhammad is the Messenger of God”), and calligraphic renderings of his name in Arabic script.
The contemporary ID card of the Prophet highlights a number of issues that are of particular concern today. First, just last week these laminated hilyas were used as invitation cards for celebrations of the Prophet’s birthday in Turkey. At exactly the same time, ISIS suppressed all Mawlid celebrations in Iraq, and recently a document has revealed that Saudi Arabia has discussed plans to exhume the Prophet’s remains from his tomb in Medina, supposedly in order to prevent his worship.
Taken altogether, these images, sites and celebrations have one thing in common: namely, a very contemporary urge to erase various forms of devotion to the Prophet within discourses emanating from extremist and Salafi spheres. Such discourses, which present themselves as representing a “true Islam,” have been loudly present in the public sphere.
Couched as normative and thus representing a general consensus, they have the net effect of turning images of the Prophet into items that should not, in principle, exist. Theory and practice, along with fact and belief, find themselves at odds here, to say the least.
When one speaks of a “ban” of images of the Prophet in Islam, the negative repercussions are many. First, all doors to constructive dialogue on the topic are closed a priori, thus precluding a nuanced and apolitical discussion of historical Islamic images freed from the polarizing narratives of today. In addition, such images effectively become further endangered as a form of artistic heritage if merely speaking of and illustrating them is seen as a subversive, rather than a productive and reconstructive, act.
And so we must pose ourselves yet another question: why not celebrate this global artistic patrimony by flooding our eyes with beautiful images instead of unseemly cartoons? In so doing, such images will invite us to ponder, at least to a small degree, all that connects us as visual human beings, regardless of creed and conviction.
How the “Ban” on Images of Muhammad Came to Be
In the wake of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a flurry of articles have explored whether images of the Prophet Muhammad are “banned” in Islam. While some Muslim voices are adamant that this is strictly the case in Islamic law, others (both Muslim and non-Muslim) have cautioned that it is not so.
Most public discussions of this so-called ban have explored verses in the Koran and Sayings by the Prophet, neither of which yield decisive results. What has been lost in the mix, however, is an exploration of the evidence found within Islamic law. Indeed, if one is to speak of a “ban,” then one must canvas a variety of Islamic jurisprudential sources in order to determine the legality or illegality of representing the Prophet in Islamic traditions. And if one carefully mines the sources, the results become much clearer — and much more nuanced and complex than one might anticipate.
There exist many handbooks of Islamic law that compile opinions on a number of matters. In regard to image making, the earliest and most synthetic source is the medieval law book of Ibn Qudama (died 1223), a towering Sunni theologian of the medieval period. In his handbook, Ibn Qudama discusses the various possible “abominations” that can occur at wedding ceremonies, including the playing of music and backgammon, the consumption of liquor, and the presence of images. As for the legality of images, he notes that the question is complicated because it depends on what the images depict and where they are situated. (See footnote 1.)
Try Newsweek: subscription offers
He thus concludes that images are not prohibited per se; rather, their legality depends on content and context.
A century later, the staunchly Sunni theologian Ibn Taymiyya (died 1328)—who exerted great influence on today’s ultraconservative Wahhabi and Salafi theological movements—penned a hefty number of legal opinions. In his collection of fatwas, Ibn Taymiyya warns that images should not be used as a way to get closer to God, to seek His intercession, or to request a favor from Him. He also notes that Muslim practices must be differentiated from Christian ones, the latter defined by the prolific presence and use of images in churches.
As a consequence, in even this most conservative collection of medieval fatwas, there does not exist a single expressly stated “ban” on images. The crux of the matter, rather, is that “images” of saints should not be used for requests and when seeking intercession, as is the case in Christian religious traditions.
Moving forward through the centuries, the next major summary of legal opinions about images can be found in an essay-long fatwa written by Muhammad ‘Abduh (died 1905), best known as the reformist chief jurist (mufti) of modern Egypt. In his treatise titled Images and Representations: Their Benefits and The Opinions About Them, (see footnote 2) Muhammad ‘Abduh argues that the safeguarding of images and paintings represents a preservation of Islamic cultural heritage and knowledge. In addition, he stresses that, if images are not used in idolatry, then portraying people, plants and trees is not forbidden.
He goes even further, stating that: “None of the legal scholars (‘ulama) has ever opposed it. There is no opposition against the benefits of images in the abovementioned case.” With defiant gusto, he goes on to state that: “You cannot convince a jurist (mufti) that the image has been, in all cases, an object of idolatry!” Thus, he concludes that Islamic law (shari‘a) is “far from calling one of the greatest means of knowledge illegitimate, once it is ensured that it is not a threat to religion in either belief or practice. Indeed, Muslims are not keen to forbid themselves from something with obvious benefit.”
In sum, during the second half of the 19th century, this reputed grand jurist proclaimed in no uncertain terms that images and paintings were both beneficial and educational.
www.newsweek.com/files/styles/embedded_full/public/2015/01/19/0119m..." alt="01_19_Muhammad_01" title="01_19_Muhammad_01" style="box-sizing: border-box; border: 0px; list-style: none outside none; margin: 0px; outline: none 0px; padding: 0px; -webkit-font-smoothing: antialiased; vertical-align: middle; max-width: 100%; height: auto;"/>Figure 1. Moutapha Akkad's film "The Message" brings to the screen a depiction of Muhammad and the birth the Islam. FILMCO INTERNATIONAL PRODUCTIONS
Muhammad ‘Abduh’s exposé was likely composed as a response to the spread and multiplication of images via the newly emergent printing press in Egypt. By far and large, before the 19th century, images were not publicly available, since they were embedded in rare luxury manuscripts and therefore restricted to a very small elite. With the onset of the mass media, however, new anxieties arose around the production and consumption of images. For these reasons, new forms of legal control over prophetic representations began to emerge in the form of legal decrees.
Among them is a 1926 fatwa that was issued by the Sunni clerics at al-Azhar University in Cairo, which banned a film about Muhammad that was financed by the secular Turkish Republic. Fifty years later, the cinematographer Moustapha Akkad faced similar difficulties when he set out to film his biopic about Muhammad titled The Message (Figure 1). Although he received permission to produce the movie from the Sunni clerics at Al-Azhar, the Muslim World League—which is funded by Saudi Arabia and follows a strict Salafi interpretation of Islam—refused to approve the film even though Muhammad is never shown on screen (the movie is shot from the Prophet’s point of view). In the case of these two 20th-century movies, Egyptian and Saudi Arabian Sunni clerical bodies dissented on the manner in which Muhammad can be portrayed in film. This disagreement evidently did not fall along Sunni-Shi‘i sectarian lines.
Skipping forward a couple decades, the legal landscape and the wrangling over images of Muhammad in particular become much more muddled from the 1990s onward. It appears that the year 1997 was a watershed in this regard.
At this time, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) wrote to Chief Justice William Rehnquist to request that the sculpted representation of the Prophet Muhammad in the north frieze inside the Supreme Court of the United States be removed or sanded down (Figures 2-3). Included among the great lawgivers of history and standing between Justinian and Charlemagne, the turbaned Muhammad is shown holding the Qur’an—the source of Islamic law—and a sword—a symbol of justice within the Supreme Court’s pictorial program.
www.newsweek.com/files/styles/embedded_full/public/2015/01/19/0119m..." alt="01_19_Muhammad_02" title="01_19_Muhammad_02" style="box-sizing: border-box; border: 0px; list-style: none outside none; margin: 0px; outline: none 0px; padding: 0px; -webkit-font-smoothing: antialiased; vertical-align: middle; max-width: 100%; height: auto;"/>Figure 2. A frieze, designed by Adolph Weinman, on the north wall of the US Supreme Court depicts great lawgivers of the Middle Ages. US SUPREME COURT
Around the time that Rehnquist rejected CAIR’s request (as physical injury to an architectural feature in the Supreme Court building is unlawful), a fatwa on the matter was issued in 2000 by Taha Jaber al-Alwani, who at the time served as a professor of jurisprudence in Saudi Arabia and as the chairman of theIslamic Jurisprudence (Fiqh) Council of North America. With his bona fides firmly established, al-Alwani sets out to argue through traditional forms of Islamic legal argumentation that, first, there exist no firm prohibitions on images in Islam and, second, that the depiction of Muhammad in the Supreme Court is nothing but praiseworthy. He thus arrives at the following conclusion:
What I have seen in the Supreme Courtroom deserves nothing but appreciation and gratitude from American Muslims. This is a positive gesture toward Islam made by the architect and other architectural decision-makers of the highest Court in America. God willing, it will help ameliorate some of the unfortunate misinformation that has surrounded Islam and Muslims in this country.
Put simply, in the year 2000 one of the highest-ranking legal scholars who was then based in Saudi Arabia and also served as the chairman of the principal council on Islamic law in America judged a sculptural representation of Muhammad in the nation’s capital both permissible and laudable.
www.newsweek.com/files/styles/embedded_full/public/2015/01/19/0119m..." alt="01_19_Muhammad_03" title="01_19_Muhammad_03" style="box-sizing: border-box; border: 0px; list-style: none outside none; margin: 0px; outline: none 0px; padding: 0px; -webkit-font-smoothing: antialiased; vertical-align: middle; max-width: 100%; height: auto;"/>Figure 3. In a section of Weinman's work, the Prophet Muhammad holds the Qur'an and a sword while standing between Charlemagne and Justinian. US SUPREME COURT
But then 9/11, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the Danish cartoons of 2005 happened. Without a doubt, the derogatory Jyllands-Posten caricatures of Muhammad were enmeshed in the complex geopolitics, the shifting European demographic landscape and the Middle Eastern wars of the post-9/11 period. Understood as an attack and an affront to the Islamic faith, these cartoons were denounced by Saudi imams as sacrilegious in 2006. It is at this very moment that we suddenly see the more precise statement that “Islam considers images of prophets disrespectful and caricatures of them blasphemous.” Along with this brand new legal proclamation, Saudi companies and organizations launched a boycott against Danish goods, including medicine, dairy products and Lego toys. Flexing its monetary muscles to the tune of billions of dollars, Saudi Arabia’s counterblow resulted in hefty financial losses for Denmark. Thus, this relatively recent Saudi fatwa against images of Muhammad also shows how loudly money talks.
Since 2005, Islamic law has evolved with contemporary circumstances and further fatwas against images of Muhammad have emerged. A number of these are easily accessible because they are available online as electronic fatwas (or e-fatwas). Two representative examples reveal that the legality or illegality of representing Muhammad remains an unresolved issue within the Islamic world.
For instance, the Salafi position remains utterly uncompromising: Images of the Prophet and his companions are not permissible whatsoever. On the other hand, Ayatollah al-Sistani, the supreme Shi‘i legal authority in Iraq, opines that representations of the Prophet are acceptable as long as they show due deference (ta‘zim) and respect (tabjil) (in English and Arabic). It thus should come as no surprise that today reverential depictions of the Prophet can be found in Shi‘i-majority areas, especially Iraq, Iran and Lebanon (Figure 4). Indeed, there exists a lively market for these kinds of devotional pictures, objects and even rugs, which are purchased by many Muslims who do not tread the Salafi line.
www.newsweek.com/files/styles/embedded_full/public/2015/01/19/0119m..." alt="01_19_Muhammad_04" title="01_19_Muhammad_04" style="box-sizing: border-box; border: 0px; list-style: none outside none; margin: 0px; outline: none 0px; padding: 0px; -webkit-font-smoothing: antialiased; vertical-align: middle; max-width: 100%; height: auto;"/>Figure 4. The Prophet Muhammad holding the Qur'an, which emits flickers of radiant light, as he points his index finger to the proclamation of the faith (shahada), reading: "There is no god but God and Muhammad is His Messenger," in a post card sold in Tehran, Iran in 2001. ARTIST UNKNOWN
In these latest disagreements between Sunni-Salafi and Shi‘i scholars of Islamic law, it is easy to see how some might argue that the divergence in legal opinion falls along the sectarian divide. While this certainly rings true today, this was not the case before the Danish cartoons of 2005.
Indeed, in the year 2000, the Sunni legal scholar al-Alwani praised and expressed gratitude for the depiction of Muhammad in the Supreme Court while, during the 20th century, Sunni legal bodies disagreed with one another as they turned to tackling the emergence of public images of Muhammad precipitated by the printing press and the motion picture industry.
Before then and stretching back to the 12th century, scholars of Islamic law, among them famous Sunni luminaries, did not expressly forbid images, including representations of Muhammad. So the notion of a long-standing and immutable Islamic “ban” on images of the Prophet is nothing if not a contemporary innovation, catalyzed by the mass media, accelerated by insulting cartoons, and propelled throughout the world via the seismic influence of Saudi petrodollars.
Footnote 1: Michael Cook, Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 145-146, footnote 2.
Footnote 2: Muhammad ‘Abduh, Ta’rikh al-Ustadh al-Imam al-Shaykh Muhammad ‘Abduh (Cairo: Manar Publisher, 1344/1925), vol. 2, 498-502.