How the “Ban” on Images of Muhammad Came to Be


Have We not opened for thee (Muhammad) thy bosom, and removed from thee thy burden, Which had well nigh broken thy back, and We exalted thy name? (Al Quran 94:2-5)

A frieze, designed by Adolph Weinman, on the north wall of the US Supreme Court depicts great lawgivers of the Middle Ages.  Holy Prophet Muhammad is shown holding a Quran and a sword (presumably for defensive war)

A frieze, designed by Adolph Weinman, on the north wall of the US Supreme Court depicts great lawgivers of the Middle Ages. Holy Prophet Muhammad is shown holding a Quran and a sword (presumably for defensive war)

Courtesy: Zakaria Virk, the Muslim Times’ Editor for Canada

Source: Newsweek

BY 1/19/15 AT 1:32 PM

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.) 

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

Christiane Gruber is associate professor and director of graduate studies at the University of Michigan. Her primary field of research is Islamic book arts, paintings of the Prophet Muhammad, and Islamic ascension texts and images, about which she has written two books and edited a volume of articles. She also pursues research in Islamic book arts and codicology, having authored the online catalog of Islamic calligraphies in the Library of Congress as well as edited the volume of articles, The Islamic Manuscript Tradition. Her third field of specialization is modern Islamic visual culture and post-revolutionary Iranian visual and material culture, about which she has written several articles. She also has co-edited two volumes on Islamic and crosscultural visual cultures. She is currently writing her next book, titled The Praiseworthy One: The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Texts and Images.

19 replies

  1. I think that this is a very nice article. I am no authority on this subject but I find it acceptable to have a real portrait of a Prophet, provided it indicates praiseworthiness.

    We see portraits/statues of Jesus, Moses, Abraham, Solomon, Krishna, Socrates, Confucius (peace be on all of them) everywhere and I have not seen any movements among Muslims against such portraits. No objections despite the Quranic statement: We make no distinction between any of the Messengers”. !!!

    If/When Jesus returns to earth, will anyone object when CNN shows him all over the world?

  2. I object to portrait of any Prophet, the biggest objection I have with a portrait of any Prophet,human tendency to revere an image that is not 100% accurate representation.

  3. Hmmm … This frieze has been there is the Supreme court for the last 80 years and has not hurt anyone physically, morally or spiritually.

    It has only introduced the Holy Prophet to countless visitors of the Supreme Court.

    We only need to show the world that he taught self defense only and never suggested preemptive wars and we have plenty of materials to demonstrate that under the category “Muhammad,” under the tab of “Law and Religion,” in the menu under the header picture.


  4. This article is trying to striking at the very basics of Islam and is indulging in promoting the making of imaginary images and idols just like the previous religions condoning and the result was their followers started worshiping the prophets as God which brought about a great divide between people of the past and present as they strayed from the straight path of believing in one God the concept which would unite everyone. This is the concept Islam reiterated as the final message, which is precisely what this article is trying to obliterate through irrelevant talks by some scholars trying to research literal texts instead of upholding the basic message meaning and concept behind not having images and idols. It’s irrelevant who requested and who approved the inclusion of the prophets sculpture in the US high court and what noble cause of veneration it serves to glorify the prophet as a person, this article from Islamic Times has lost track of the core Islamic message itself…FYI

  5. Humanity in general has steadily grown away from idol worship, so the risks that existed 1400 years ago are not realistic any more.

    The Muslims do not have to make idols or pictures of prophets, but, if non-Muslims or others do that it need not be our top priority to resist.

    Our top priority should be human rights for all Muslims and every human being.

  6. Very good and informative article I agree with the contents and also with Dr Zia Shah.
    Dr Bhoodhun has raised a very interesting point about Jesus, as the majority of Muslims believe in his return, what would their reaction be when the Media show him or his images throughout the globe?

  7. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and He shall guide your paths. Proverbs 3: 5-6

    A picture helps us its just being human. Its part of education its normal and natural.

  8. Indeed there is no need to resist or retaliate, but to express our concerns humbly as there is no compulsion on anybody and nothing should be enforced on anybody but it would be wrong to be silent and not support the truth while you have been enlightened by it through Islam. For if you you do not up for your basic belief being compromised then making such assumptions that ignorance does not exist in the present times will be a mistake.

  9. This is an informative and timely article. I do wish the author had said more about the opinion of the four major Sunni imams (Abu Hanifah, Malik, Ahmad bin Hanbal and Al-Shafi’i) about images. Ibn Qudama is pretty late – the basic opinions were settled long before that, and are in the record However, the use of images in Muslim artifacts, art and even architecture goes back to the beginning of Islam, and while it may have waxed and waned regionally, a sustained blanket prohibition never really existed. The use of the Prophet’s images is much rarer, but also fairly persistent.

    One concrete piece of evidence for early controversy on this topic comes from the numismatic history of Islam. Before 77 AH, the coins used in the Muslim caliphate were either modified Sassanian and Byzantine coins with images of the respective emperors, or coins minted by the second Umayyad caliph, Abd-al Malik, many of which had a picture of the caliph or, in lower denominations, of ducks, flowers, etc. However, strong objection gradually developed to these images, and in 77 AH, Abd-al Malik issued a “reform” coinage in gold and silver that had no images. This remained the standard style in the Muslim world for the next 400 years, and in some areas, much later. Clearly, there was enough controversy about the coins with images at that time.

    It has also been noted that, under some interpretations, the Islamic prohibition on images applies only to images that cast shadows, i.e., to statues. Given the concern with idol-worship, this makes some sense.

  10. Just imagine that any Muslim like to draw the picture of Hazoor saw in the shape of conqueror or the warrior or the brave person punishing those who fight with Allah.The other one draws him as a Noor in the shape of moon or Sun.
    Yet someone else shows him in the Jannah with the pious ladies of Janna, and so on where are you going to draw the line. How are you going to define good depiction and bad one or the genuine one. It is slippery slope sir.

  11. The Muslim Times does not want to draw any new pictures.

    We just realized that there are millions of pictures in Shiite Iran, so this is nothing new, as far as the Muslims are concerned.

    We just do not want to quibble with the non-Muslims on this issue.

    Additionally, this 80 year old frieze from the supreme court puts the Prophet in very bright light, as a great law-giver of the world, and as we are jealous of his honor, we do not want to not share this reality with the world. There is no slippery slope here as it has existed for 8 decades already, introducing the Holy Prophet to countless visitors to the Supreme Court.

    This we believe is in service and love of the Prophet and our track record is a clear testimony to that.

  12. The worst sort of idol worship is that desire that leads us to say and do those very actions that our soul abhors; and the worst set of idols are those that we carry around with us in our hearts and minds!

    Idol worship has been a phenomenon with human beings since time immemorial, and this is set to continue, albeit changing with times in form and process.

    It would not be the picture of the idol of a prophet that would induce anyone to idolize him, it would be the weakness within each one of us which would set us to do so. The reason for doing so in not merely because of our awe and respect for the prophet but because we want them on pedestals that we can later declare to be unreachable by normal human beings like us. This would give us the chance to come out with the excuse that they are so exalted and we are so lowly…how can we live the way they have. This has, and always will be the way ahead.

    Despite the Holy Quran clearly stating that Allah intended for one amongst them to lead human beings towards Him, else he would have sent Angels as messengers, we still deify those very same messengers who were mere mortals as us; those who eat food, feel pain, fall sick and die due to natural/unnatural causes.

    The blame is not in the painting, nor is it in the stone carving; the blame is in the weak hearts and souls of those who prostrate before them.

  13. Thank you every one for your useful comments. Non-Muslims make pictures of the prophets and there are countless movies about Jesus and Moses, may peace be on them.

    Shiite Muslims very commonly make pictures of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, in Iran.

    These are ground realities and the Muslim Times can do nothing about these, except to acknowledge these facts.

    We are not creating any new pictures. Our focus is only that the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, has been recognized as a great law giver, by US Supreme Court, since 1935.

    With this I am ending any discussions in this post and no further comments will be approved in this post.

    Thank you for your co-operation.

  14. Muslim should not support the portraying of Proph. S.A.W. Image because this article must be act of non-believers because we must think beyond our generation when ppl might start worshipping the image as there God, This is unfair while we battle with some association like tijaniyat(senegal) that believed and worshipped Niyass like prophet.if we have image of him then are we not entitled to having it inside our home ? Which is idolised… We must beware !

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