Does Islam Really Forbid Images Of Muhammad?

Does Islam Really Forbid Images Of Muhammad?
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 07: A man holds a phone displaying 'Je suis Charlie' (I am Charlie) during a vigil in Trafalgar Square for victims of the terrorist attack in Paris on January 7, 2015 in London, United Kingdom. Twelve people were killed including two police officers as two gunmen opened fire at the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 07: A man holds a phone displaying 'Je suis Charlie' (I am Charlie) during a vigil in Trafalgar Square for victims of the terrorist attack in Paris on January 7, 2015 in London, United Kingdom. Twelve people were killed including two police officers as two gunmen opened fire at the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

Muslims the world over have strongly condemned Wednesday’s terrorist attack against the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 people were killed by masked gunmen. The paper is believed to have been targeted because of its history of publishing provocative cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. But what do the teachings of Islam actually say about creating images of the prophet?

There's no part in the Quran where Muhammad says that images of him are forbidden. But the issue is mentioned in the hadith, a secondary text that many Muslims consult for instruction on how to live a good life.

The theological underpinnings of the ban can be traced back to the very beginnings of Islam in Arabia, according to John Esposito, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University. Early followers of Muhammad held themselves apart from their Christian neighbors, whom they believed to be too deeply attached to icons and images. The ban is also informed by one of the central tenets of Islam -- the idea that the Prophet Muhammad was a man, and not a god.

“It comes from the notion that God is transcendent and that nothing should be put in God’s place,” Esposito told The Huffington Post. “Anything like that is idolatry. You don’t want to have a statue or a picture of God, because people may wind up praying to it.”

For similar reasons, some Muslims object to depictions of Jesus or Moses, who are also considered prophets in Islam. In several Muslim countries, the films "Noah" and "Exodus" were banned this year because of their portrayal of these important figures, CNN reports.


The issue isn’t unique to Islam -- it has also come up in the other Abrahamic traditions. In Judaism, the Bible depicts God as becoming deeply troubled after the ancient Israelites created and worshipped a golden calf. The Byzantine Empire saw the rise of the Iconoclasm movement, a name that literally means “image breaking.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art offers a primer on the period:

Imperial legislation barred the production and use of figural images; simultaneously, the cross was promoted as the most acceptable decorative form for Byzantine churches. Archaeological evidence suggests that in certain regions of Byzantium, including Constantinople and Nicaea, existing icons were destroyed or plastered over. Very few early Byzantine icons survived the Iconoclastic period.

An opposition to icons flared up again during the Protestant Reformation. The prominent Protestant theologian John Calvin wrote fiery sermons decrying man’s audacity in attempting to give God a human form.

“God’s glory is corrupted by an impious falsehood whenever any form is attached to him,” Calvin wrote in his landmark 16th-century work Institutes of the Christian Religion.

At around the same time, during the reign of King Edward VI in England, some believers went as far as to whitewash murals and destroy stained-glass windows that depicted Christ.


In Islam, particularly in the Sunni tradition that developed in Arabia, there was never a strong impulse to represent Muhammad with images, according to Christiane Gruber, a professor of Islamic art at the University of Michigan. This resulted in the explosion of another kind of art that was used to beautify sacred spaces: elaborate calligraphy and intricate geometric patterns.

islamic calligraphy
An Egyptian worker engraves Arabic calligraphy as part of a three-year, $1.4. million project to restore the Aslam al-Silahdar Mosque in Cairo.

But the so-called "Muslim world" is not a monolith, and in fact, faithful Muslims have created images of the prophet for centuries.

Gruber says the earliest paintings of Muhammad date from around the 1300s and originated in a region now made up of Turkey, Iraq and Iran. These were miniature images that would have been found in handwritten manuscripts illustrating the prophet’s life and teachings. Such manuscripts were rare luxuries, meant for private use inside a secular structure, like a king’s palace. They were likely commissioned by a ruling class that was “declaratively Sunni,” Gruber says.

“It was a way for people to read about and contemplate the life of the prophet,” Gruber told HuffPost. “It was quite devotional.”

By the 1500s, artists had begun to cover Muhammad’s face with a white veil, as seen in this example from 16th-century Iran.

Some artists would give the prophet a normal human body, but would draw a bundle of bright flames in place of his head. It was their way of signaling that Muhammad was different -- not that he was divine, but that he was touched by the divine.


Artwork featuring Muhammad had become less common by the 1800s, although many examples still exist in Iran and Turkey. While the practice isn’t explicitly prohibited in the Quran, a consensus gradually developed among Muslim scholars that images of the prophet just aren’t acceptable.

The turning point came in 2005, according to Gruber, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons depicting the prophet. Muslim leaders around the world came forward to categorically condemn all images of Muhammad. Unlike the paintings lovingly created by devout Muslim artists in past centuries, some of the Danish cartoons, which were widely reprinted in Western media during the controversy, were unmistakably meant to provoke.

“It was a reactionary, traditionalist response to an event that was considered extraordinarily disrespectful to Muslim sensibilities,” Gruber said of the outcry in Muslim communities. “The problem with the images is not so much that they are images but that they are disrespectful images.”

Extremists latched onto the cartoons as an opportunity to cause chaos and violence. Similarly, in 2011, Charlie Hebdo’s office in Paris was firebombed after the paper ran another inflammatory cover featuring the prophet.

In 2012, an Egyptian-American immigrant named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula uploaded a video to YouTube called “Innocence of Muslims,” which depicted Muhammad as a drunk and a pedophile. The video led to international outrage, and The New York Times has suggested that the video helped to fuel the attacks on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012.

Imam Dr. Omar Shahin, the president of the North American Imam’s Federation, emphasized the importance of showing respect for other people's deeply held religious beliefs. He doesn't believe the prophet should ever be represented in an image. But he insists that the only proper ways for Muslims to speak out against depictions of Muhammad are by taking legal action or by educating the public -- not by committing acts of violence.

“What those Muslims did was wrong, but what the newspaper did is also wrong. Two wrongs don’t make one right,” Shahin told HuffPost. “But we do not approve killing people, regardless of the reason. To us, this is a crime, and no Muslims should allow this to happen.”

charlie hebdo vigil
Papers reading 'We are Charlie' lie on the ground while people gather at a vigil in front of the French Embassy in Berlin following the terrorist attack in Paris on Jan. 7, 2015.

Authorities haven’t yet confirmed the motivation behind Wednesday’s shooting, and the principal suspects are still at large as of this writing. Esposito said this type of terrorist attack is often committed by radicalized militants who use religion to legitimize their cause.

“Given this kind of profile, these are people who really believe that there is a clash of civilizations and want to promote a clash,” said Esposito.

But violence of the kind seen on Wednesday is by no means an inevitable result of religious differences. Many, like Omid Safi, director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center, believe that a compromise can be reached -- and Safi says it will begin with acknowledging and reclaiming Islam’s rich art history.

"There are other options available to Muslims than either accepting the Danish Cartoonist caricatures of the Prophet, or responding in pure anger and hatred," Safi wrote in a 2010 blog post for FaithStreet. "One such answer is a return to the rich pietistic Islamic tradition of depicting the Prophet who was sent, according to the Qur’an, as a mercy to all the Universe."

In an email to HuffPost Thursday, Safi argued that while "we need to hang on to and honor freedom of speech," people still need to be mindful of how they use that freedom.

"Yes, the freedom of speech includes the right to speak offensive words, including words that disturb and unsettle," he wrote. "I simply want us to always keep the context in mind ... I wonder how much we have gained if we honor free speech and degrade human beings. I have no ultimate answers, but I do wonder."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said that Safi is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is at Duke University.

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