May 4, 2014 By Interactive scholars

Visual Representations of Prophet

q and a

Why is it that visual representation of Prophet Muhammad is banned in Islam? What is the theological rationale for the ban? I stumbled upon an article, where the following is stated: ‘In certain reference works and books about Islam, we may come across the claim that even if the Prophet Muhammad was represented in pictorial form in earlier times, no pictorial representation of Him is permitted in our times. This reflects the state in Sunni areas, where images of the Prophet are rare. In Shia Islam, however, the situation is different, and pictures of the Prophet are quite common.’

Will you please clarify?


Aversion to pictorial representation is part of Muslim ethos. Some, if a minority, of Muslims have taken this aversion to an extreme limit and banned almost all pictures in the public as wells private spheres of Muslim lives. The influence of Wahhabi reform on them is telling. Die-hard objection of Taliban to the images of Buddha in Kandahar is an example of this trend. The rationale of this aversion can be found in the negation of idol worship, which is a concomitant of tawhid, loosely translated as Islamic monotheism. The Qura’ic verse : ‘God does not forgive that he be the associate of anyone, but forgives what is less than that to whomsoever he pleases. Whoso associates another with God has committed the most grievous sin.’ (4:48) is the standard enunciation of the principle of tawhid. Also, there are verses and anecdotes in the Quran detailing Prophets, especially Abraham and Moses, disparaging idols and destroying them.

But this verse, nor do any other verses for that matter, does not proscribe pictorial representation as such. It is possible that a painter who draws pictures can be said to scrupulously heed this Qura’ic dictum.

However, there are a number of Prophetic traditions which inveigh against pictorial representations. Two of them are quoted below.
“Ibn ‘Umar reported Allah’s Messenger 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 ‘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)

There have been various Muslim attitudes formed by these traditions. These attitudes can be broadly classified into three:

1, Strong negation to any form of pictorial representation.

2, Circumventing the dictates through alternative representations in such a way that the dictates are respected on the one hand, while venting artistic impulses in permissible ways. Calligraphy is one of the alternative representations, to which only a puritan minority is averse. 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.” (… ).

3, Contextual analysis of the Traditions quoted above has placed the disregard of the Prophet for images and icons in the context of his surveillance of the attitudes of the nascent Muslim community. It is possible that a community which was born in the tradition of idol worship might, if their bias for pictorial representation is promoted and is not nipped, be reluctant to go beyond the idols and images (significations) to the meaning (signified) whose metaphor they are. As Islam is a belief which focuses on eternal values, to be lost in the representation of values at the cost of values themselves will be detrimental to its very basis. That Islam considers as shirk not the representation per se, but the hardcore attachment to the representation is borne out by the following verses of the Quran, where the attitude of an avaricious man is strongly criticized as shirk. In the anecdote of the avaricious man and the noble advisor, the former who was proud of his wealth (I am greater in wealth than you are and more powerful in kin, 18:34). His companion said: “Do you disbelieve in Him Who created you from dust, then from a small seed, then He made you a perfect man?” (18:37) But he went on in his pride and display of wealth. “And his wealth was destroyed; so he began to wring his hands for what he had spent on it, while it lay, having fallen down upon its roofs, and he said: Ah me! would that I had not associated anyone with my Lord.” (18:42).

Tawhid and shirk are the two key terms in the Quran. They can’t be simply taken as terms referring the opposite of idol worship. In the strict application of the terms in the Quran, they signify attachment to god head (in the case of tawhid) and detachment from everything else (in the case of shirk). It is true that an idol placed in a sanctuary will end up as signified in the long run and will cease to exist as signifier. That is why Islam proscribes worshipping or making idols. That must be the reason why the Prophet turned his face away from carpets with pictures, which, he must have thought, would supplement, in the minds of nascent believers, the void for images and would exist as new idols.

The history of Islam is rich in drawings and paintings. ‘In the Mongol period in Iran, Persian art became especially notable for its figurative art in wall painting and illuminated manuscripts. 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. It is impossible that these artisans were unaware of the Prophetic and Quranic injunctions, which they must have taken metaphorically.’ (…)

To come back to your question, Prophet Muhammad has varied representations in the popular imagery. To celebrate the birth day of Prophet is a case in point. Scholars with Wahhabi or Salafi leanings have disapproved the celebration and the concomitant encomiums (mawlid). Prophet was not only a historical figure but an object of intense love, when he was alive. His followers themselves sang encomiums.

The pictorial representations of the Prophet came to exist in the Mongol period, when the Persian figurative arts included many narrative scenes of the Prophet, Iranian kings and other humans. Prophet appeared in these arts with his face in halo and otherwise. Many of these illustrated manuscripts can be seen in museums around the world. Some depict the Prophet in full, while others leave him faceless or with his head engulfed in the sacred flame, representing his contact with God. (…).   Jami’s Tawariq was illustrated in Tabriz in 1315, where the birth of the Prophet, his meeting with monk Bahira, his re-dedication of black stone to Ka’aba are all illustrated. The prophet appeared in these illustrations with his face unveiled. Also, the Photos of the Prophet and Ali are popular among the Shii Muslims, especially Alavis in Turkey. These representations is for those who take them as real what the Prophet himself was for his followers who saw them and lived with them. They can either worship him or treat him as Prophet.

Omid Safi’s book Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters is an important text for anyone interested in the popular imaginings of the Prophet.

These representations can’t be seen as aberrant. Nor can they be paired with, say, the Danish cartoons or Rushdie’s verbal caricatures. Rather than seeing them as disparaging the Prophet, they are part of the popular imagining and conceptualization of the Prophet. One can criticize them in terms of authenticity or accuracy (since the Prophet himself did not commission these representations, what came to be taken as models for the same? And is it possible that an artist can take himself as the model for painting, which came later to be accepted as that of the Prophet -an artist’s whim and fancy)

It is also true that without Prophet being ever starkly shown, he has been visualized and represented in the popular media. Moustapha Akkad’s Mohammed, Messenger of God is a case in point. Also, that the Prophet without model or illustration has itself become part of rich poetic and artistic legacy.

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