Islamic Figurative Art and Depictions of Muhammad


15th-century manuscript illustration of Muhammad (not shown) preaching to followers.



Persian illustration from 1320 of Bahrum Gur, hero of the Shah-nameh, killing a dragon. (Cleveland Museum of Art)
"Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in Heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God. "
-- Second Commandment (Exodus 20:4-5)

"Those who paint pictures would be punished on the Day of Resurrection and it would be said to them: Breathe soul into what you have created." (Hadith, Sahih Muslim vol.3, no. 5268)

The unique beauty of Islamic art derives in large part from its longstanding rejection of depictions of humans and animals in religious art. Instead of portraits or stories from the Qur'an, mosques and manuscripts are adorned with flourishes of Arabic calligraphy, delicate tilework, layers of gold and intricate floral decorations.





But attitudes towards figurative art have varied somewhat throughout the course of Islamic history and across different Islamic cultures. Animals and humans appear sporadically throughout the centuries, and there are many surviving examples of beautiful figurative art from the Islamic world, most of which come from the late medieval period in Iran. These depict events in the life of Muhammad, the prophets, scenes of Paradise and Hell, battles of Iranian kings, everyday life, and other human subjects.

Today, as is well known, figurative art is widely rejected in Islam and depictions of Muhammad are considered especially offensive. The following article seeks to provide a factual background for this, chronicling the history of figurative depictions in Islamic art, pinning down exactly what is prohibited in the Qur'an and hadith, and exploring the reasoning given for the special sensitivity to depictions of Muhammad.


Just want the facts? Scroll down or click here for our Summary and Conclusions.


Context: Religious Images in Judaism and Christianity

At least when it comes to their official teachings, Judaism, Christianity and Islam agree that (1) there is one great God who cannot be seen and that (2) idolatry (worship of images) is one of the worst sins. These shared fundamental values have been interepreted in a variety of ways over the course of history when it comes to religious art, historical illustrations, and depiction of human religious figures.

In Judaism and Christianity, the creation of images for worshipping is specifically forbidden by the Second Commandment. Jews do not use images in religious rituals and never depict God, but have occasionally painted pictures of the prophets and biblical stories (for example in the 2nd-century synagogue at Dura Europos, Syria).

Christians began to depict Jesus as early as the 2nd or 3rd century AD (see our Jesus Image Gallery) in the catacombs, on tombs, and eventually in churches. The practice became widespread and common. But for a period in the 8th century and again in the 9th century, some Byzantine emperors and bishops condemned images of Jesus and the saints, calling it an innovation introduced by the devil that breaks the Second Commandment:

"Satan misled men, so that they worshipped the creature instead of the Creator. The Law of Moses and the Prophets cooperated to remove this ruin... But the previously mentioned demiurge of evil...gradually brought back idolatry under the appearance of Christianity." (Iconoclast Council at Hieria, 754)

At the same time, other bishops and emperors strongly opposed this movement. They argued that: Christians do not worship images but the God who made them; that the images are not "false idols" (like images from other religions) but represent real things; and that they were depicting not divinity itself but Christ incarnate, who was after all a "figurative image" of God. This party won out by imperial decree in 843 AD, and religious images have been commonly used in Christianity ever since — except in Protestantism.

Like the Byzantine iconoclasts, Protestant Reformers of the 16th century believed that the veneration of images in Roman Catholicism amounted to idolatry. When churches became Protestant in Germany, Switzerland, and elsewhere, they were completely stripped of all religious statues and paintings on the walls were whitewashed. Protestant churches generally remain free of images today, yet many churches and families have modern portraits of Jesus hung on a wall.

Rules about Images in the Qur'an, Hadith and Islamic Law

Unlike the Hebrew Bible, and perhaps surprisingly, there is no commandment against making images of living beings in the Qur'an. But it does make clear that nothing should be honored alongside God:

"God does not forgive the joining of partners [Arabic: shirk] with him: anything less than that he forgives to whoever he will, but anyone who joins partners with God is lying and committing a tremendous sin" (4:48).

All the Islamic injunctions against making religious images come from the hadith, traditions recorded by various followers about what the Prophet said and did. Although not divine revelation like the Qur'an, hadith is considered binding when multiple trustworthy sources agree. Following are some examples of hadith on images:

"Ibn 'Umar reported Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) having said: Those who paint pictures would be punished on the Day of Resurrection and it would be said to them: Breathe soul into what you have created." (Sahih Muslim vol.3, no.5268)

"This hadith has been reported on the authority of Abu Mu'awiya though another chain of transmitters (and the words are): Verily the most grievously tormented people amongst the denizens [inhabitants] of Hell on the Day of Resurrection would be the painters of pictures...." (Sahih Muslim vol.3, no.5271)

"Narrated [Muhammad's wife] 'Aisha: Allah's Apostle said, 'The painter of these pictures will be punished on the Day of Resurrection, and it will be said to them, Make alive what you have created.'" (Bukhari vol.9, book 93 no.646)

"Narrated ‘Aisha: The Prophet entered upon me while there was a curtain having pictures (of animals) in the house. His face got red with anger, and then he got hold of the curtain and tore it into pieces. The Prophet said, ‘Such people as paint these pictures will receive the severest punishment on the Day of Resurrection.’" (Bukhari vol.8, book 73, no.130)

"Umar said, ‘We do not enter your churches because of the statues and pictures.’ Ibn ‘Abbas used to pray in the church provided there were no statues in it." (Bukhari vol.1, chapter 54)

"‘Aisha played with dolls while her husband Muhammad was with her. (Sahih Muslim vol.4, book 29 ch.1005, no.5981)

"Muhammad went to Fatimah’s house, but turned back when he saw a figured curtain." (Sunan Abu Dawud vol.3, book 21, no.3746)

History of Images and Figurative Art in Islam

In the earliest days of Islam, a specifically "Islamic art" had not yet begun to develop and art in general was not a prominent issue. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

"Earliest Islam as seen in the Qur'an or in the more verifiable accounts of the Prophet's life simply do not deal with the arts, either on the practical level of requiring or suggesting forms as expressions of the culture or on the ideological level of defining a Muslim attitude toward images.... There is no prohibition against representations of living things, and not a single Qur'anic passage refers clearly to the mosque, eventually to become the most characteristically Muslim religious building." {1}

But as the Islamic community grew and conquered a great deal of new territory, it came into contact with the religious art and architecture of other cultures and began to develop its own. By the mid-8th century there was a clear Muslim doctrine against the creation of images, as seen in the hadith above.

It is interesting that Islam came into contact with Byzantine culture at the height of the iconoclastic controversy. It is possible that those intensely negative associations of religious art influenced or strengthened Islamic views on the matter. Regardless,

"it is likely that, more or less intuitively, the Muslims felt a certain reluctance toward representations from the very beginning. For all monuments of religious art are devoid of any representations; even a number of attempts at representational symbolism in the official art of coinage were soon abandoned." {1}

In the 8th and 9th centuries, Islamic art experimented with a wide variety of materials, techniques and designs, many of which were influenced by China and other parts of the world. But the decorative arts remained generally consistent in excluding depictions of humans and animals. Some minor exceptions are birds drawn from the folkloric past of the Near East and "occasionally human figures drawn in a strikingly abstract fashion." {1}

Fatimid figurative art
Fatimid bowl from the 12th century, depicting a Byzantine Christian priest swinging a censer. (Victoria & Albert Museum, London)

The art of the Fatimids (a Shi'ite dynasty that ruled 909–1171 AD) continued to focus mainly on calligraphy and decorative vines, but also frequently depicted animals and humans. The celebrated lustre-painted Fatimid ceramics from Egypt are especially distinguished by "the representation of the human figure. Some of these ceramics have been decorated with simplified copies of illustrations of the princely themes, but others have depictions of scenes of Egyptian daily life." {1} The Fatimids also developed an art of manuscript illustration.

The Seljuk Turks sought to restore Islamic orthodoxy. They made many contributions to Islamic art and architecture, including monumental minarets, mausoleums of holy men (to which pilgrimages were made), citadels and madrasas. Paintings and sculptures of animals and people were among the decorations employed for the monumental new architecture, but the Seljuks were especially interested in geometry and mathematical proportion in art. {1}

The Mamluks ruled Egypt, Palestine, and Syria from 1260 to 1517 and were very wealthy. The Mamluks are especially known for their splendid architecture, which included the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Mamluk art seems to have been virtually devoid of human and animal depiction.

Meanwhile, in the Mongol period in Iran, Persian art became especially notable for its figurative art in wall painting and illuminated manuscripts. These include many narrative scenes of the Prophet, Iranian kings and other humans. Examples include the 56 minature paintings of the 14th-century Shah-nameh ("Book of Kings"); illustrations of the Jami' at-tawarikh (“Universal History of Rashid ad-Din”); and the Khwaju Kermani manuscript from 1396. The Iranian style of painting was influenced by Seljuk art, but more so by Chinese painting. The most celebrated Islamic painter was Behzad (1455-1536), who led an academy of art in Iran.

The Ottoman Turks (15th-19th centuries) are best known for their tiles and pottery, but also developed their own form of miniature figurative painting.

Ottoman miniatures do have a character of their own, either in the almost folk art effect of religious images or in the precise depictions of such daily events as military expeditions or great festivals. Among the finest examples of the latter is the manuscript Surname-i Vehbi (Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul) painted by Levnî in the early 18th century. {1}

To view examples of Islamic art depicting Muhammad, please see our separate page, Examples of Islamic Depictions of Muhammad. All the depictions are respectful and Islamic, but Muslims who are offended by seeing such images or feel they are breaking religious laws by doing so, should not follow the link.


From this brief history, it is clear that figurative art (depictions of humans and animals) has made regular appearances in the Islamic world. However, figurative art has largely been a private and secular matter, with most mosques kept free of such imagery. As explained on the website of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art:

Contrary to a popular misconception, however, figural imagery is an important aspect of Islamic art. Such images occur primarily in secular and especially courtly arts and appear in a wide variety of media and in most periods and places in which Islam flourished. It is important to note, nevertheless, that representational imagery is almost invariably restricted to a private context. Figurative art is excluded from the decoration of religious monuments. This absence may be attributed to an Islamic antipathy toward anything that might be mistaken for idols or idolatry, which are explicitly forbidden by the Qur'an. {2}

Today, the depiction of prophets and especially Muhammad is widely rejected. The 1976 film The Message, directed by Moustapha Akkad and starring Anthony Quinn, tells the story of Muhammad, but follows Islamic law by not showing Muhammad or even portraying his voice (it is filmed from his perspective).

But aside from the taboo about Muhammad, and despite the clear rules in hadith, only the most conservative Muslims (such as the Taliban) believe it is wrong to create images in general, such as portraits or photographs. The introduction of television into Saudi Arabia was widely protested at first because of its images, but is now a common part of Saudi life.

Depictions of Muhammad

The outrage and violence occasioned by the infamous "Danish cartoon controversy" perhaps had more to do with disrespect for Islam than depictions of the Prophet. But many of today's Muslims consider any public depictions of the Prophet Muhammad offensive and objectionable, no matter how respectful, and frequently request their removal.

The reasons for this sensitivity to depictions of Muhammad are not immediately clear, since Muhammad is as human as anyone else, Islamic sources do not prohibit depictions of him any more than other images, and past Islamic art has depicted Muhammad.

Islamic scholars have explained that the main reason for the ban on depicting Muhammad is the fear that the images of Muhammad might be worshipped. Political scientist As'ad AbuKhalil, visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley, explained:

"In the Holy Koran of Islam, the one sin unforgivable is that of polytheism. The prohibition is intended to protect the faithful from that sin. The fear was that intense reverence for the prophet might if unrestrained cross over into worship. In the 8th and the 9th centuries a general consensus banning such depictions arose among the clerics, but not all Muslims knew of it, paid attention, or obeyed." {3}

According to Imam Talal Eid, director of the Islamic Institute of Boston:

"He [the Prophet] instructed his companions not to draw a picture of him, and this has been taken as a general prohibition. He also told them not to pray in places that have images. There also is a general prohibition against full statues. And -- though today, of course, we find photos in all passports -- many Muslims have felt some hesitance about permitting portraits of any kind." {3}

Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan, told NPR.

"The fear was, both in Judaism and Islam, that if you represented a holy figure like a prophet who had discussions with the divine, there would be a danger of people worshipping the image." {4}

Muslims certainly do revere the Prophet extremely highly. As Professor of Islamic Studies John Esposito put it,

"To criticize the prophet Muhammad is as direct an attack as mocking or attacking the Koran, which is seen as the word of God or the sacred Scripture. Muhammad is seen as the living Koran. His life Muslims are to emulate." {4}

Summary and Conclusions

The above evidence might be summarized in the following facts:

  1. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all consider idolatry a heinous sin.
  2. The Qur'an does not prohibit making images, only worshipping them.
  3. Hadith clearly and consistently prohibits all images of any living being, with special mention of punishment for painters.
  4. One exception to this rule is dolls for children, probably because children are not considered in danger of worshipping them as idols.
  5. Neither the Qur'an nor hadith mention depictions of Muhammad.
  6. The hadith prohibiting images are directed at Muslims only (e.g. Muslims are instructed not to enter buildings where there are images, not to demand their removal).
  7. Muslim outrage against depictions of the Prophet does not usually extend to outrage against all images.
  8. The hadith prohibiting images do not call for Muslims to take action against those who make images, but instead say that God will punish them severely at the Day of Judgment.
  9. Muslims have applied the prohibitions against images in various ways throughout history and there is still some variation today.
  10. Figurative art of Muhammad and other humans has been a significant part of late medieval Islamic art. But it was generally limited to secular contexts and elite classes who could afford fine art.
  11. Shi'ites tend to be more open to religious images than Sunnis.
  12. The main reason given for not depicting Muhammad is to avoid the temptation to worship the image.
  13. Neither the Qur'an nor hadith say that viewing an image accidentally is a sin, but in the hadith the Prophet teaches Muslims to avoid them.

Sources

  1. "Islamic arts." Encyclopædia Britannica (2007). Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  2. "Islamic Art." Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).
  3. Paul Richard, "In Art Museums, Portraits Illuminate A Religious Taboo." Washington Post, February 14, 2006.
  4. "Why Cartoons of the Prophet Insult Muslims." NPR analysis, February 8, 2006.
  5. "Are Pictures of Muhammad Really Forbidden In Islam?" Answering Islam.
  6. Amir Taheri, "Bonfire of the Pieties." Wall Street Journal editorial, February 8, 2006.
  7. "Q&A: Depicting the Prophet Muhammad." BBC News, February 2, 2006.
  8. Serpil Bagci, "From Translated Word to Translated Image: The Illustrated Şehnâme-i Türkî Copies." Muqarnas, Vol. 17, p. 162.

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