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Muslim iconoclasm
Other terms: Image prohibition in Islam, Muslim Aniconism



The Message from 1976

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NOTE: Though approved by scholars at al-Azhar University and Shi'i scholars of Lebanon, this movie is peppered with errors, simplifications, falsifications and euphemistic portrayals of the early Muslims. Still, it actually presents a fair and respectful image of Muhammad's opponents.

Modern Shi'i presentation of Muhammad

Among Muslims, the idea of a prohibition against life-like imagery of either all living creatures, or of figures central to Islam, and most specifically of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, and of God.

The Koran
There are a few passages in the Koran that appear relevant to image prohibition:

Koran sura 42: Counsel
9 The originator of the heavens and the earth [...] There is nothing equal to Him 11 [...] not to part into sects therein-a great thing to the idolaters.

COMMENT: Other translations of 42:9 state, "Nothing can be compared with Him" (N.J.Dawood)". This may well be understood to mean that any representation, whether it be in images or in words, may reflect the greatness of God, hence any attempt to represent him beyond the words of the Koran will be to reduce him, which would be a grave sin. From 42:9 to 42:11, wherein "idolaters" is stated, there is a shift in the discourse, yet the two ayas seem to be seen within one context by Muslim theology. From this, an indication for a regulation against icons of God has been understood, relegating the use of such icons to "idolaters."

Koran sura 21: The Prophets
53 When he said to his father and to his people, ‘What are these images to which ye pay devotion?’ 54 Said they, ‘We found our fathers serving them.’ 55 Said he, ‘Both you and your fathers have been in obvious error.’

COMMENT: The ayas above may be understood in one of two ways. Either it is just a clear regulation against false idols. Or it may be expanded to be understood as an indication that any imagery of a divine nature is prohibited.

The Hadiths
In the hadiths, more information relevant to image prohibition is given.

Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 62
110 As told by Aisha (the wife of the Prophet):
I bought a cushion having on it pictures (of animals). When God's Apostle saw it, he stood at the door and did not enter. I noticed the sign of disapproval on his face and said, "O God's Apostle! I repent to God and His Apostle. What sin have I committed?' God's Apostle said. "What is this cushion?" I said, "I have bought it for you so that you may sit on it and recline on it." God's Apostle said, "The makers of these pictures will be punished on the Day of Resurrection, and it will be said to them, 'Give life to what you have created.' " The Prophet added, "The Angels of (Mercy) do not enter a house in which there are pictures (of animals)."

Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 55
571 As told by Ibn Abbas:
When the Prophet saw pictures in the Ka'ba, he did not enter it till he ordered them to be erased. When he saw (the pictures of) Ibrahim and Ismail carrying the arrows of divination, he said, "May God curse them (i.e. the Quraysh)! By God, neither Ibrahim nor Ismail practiced divination by arrows."

COMMENT: Neither of the two traditions above give definite instructions, and are subject to interpretation. The first has either what appears to be a total prohibition against any representation of a living creature, or it may be seen as an indicator of Muhammad rejecting representations of animals, either for being inside the house of humans, or simply to be represented at all. There is still nothing in this tradition that unequivocally distinguishes the representation of the divine or of Muhammad himself.
The second tradition may be interpreted in two different ways, of which one may be correct but also the two. The first understanding is that it can be understood as a prohibition against imagery on sacred ground, not only in the Ka'ba, but also in mosques. The other interpretation is that Muhammad rejects the type of cult presented in the images, divination, which in Mecca was a pre-Islamic custom.

Understanding and Implementation
Regulations against any form of imagery seem to have taken effect quite early on in Islam. The earliest traces of defined regulations date back to the middle of the 8th century, some 120 years after the death of Muhammad, but there may well have been established regulations before this.
While the theories behind image prohibition did not go through the same sophisticated theology as so many other questions of Islam, the challenge of Bukhari, vol 7, book 62, 110: "... The makers of these pictures will be punished on the Day of Resurrection, and it will be said to them, 'Give life to what you have created.' " was turned into a general and absolute regulation against any life-like representation of any living creature, at least within religious art. In early Islam, there were examples of life-like representations in the official art of coinage, but even this would be abandoned.
Among Shi'is and Sufis the regulations were implemented in a different way. Within Shi'i Islam, and especially among the Twelvers, the most revered figures have a long tradition of being represented by images, always delicatly and respectfully.
Despite the limitations of image prohibition, Islam explored much creativity in related fields of art, especially calligraphy and the use of patterns. Muslim art is today much celebrated for its developments in these fields.
Much confusion relates to the image prohibition in modern Islam. Somehow, a joint Muslim world has come to the conclusion that images of humans and animals, whether it be by photo, painting, drawing, sculpture, movies or theatre is allowed. At the same time, the strict regulations now applies for the central religious figures, like Muhammad, even though there exists no textual basis for this distinction.
Modern reinterpretation of the image prohibition has led to a few interesting solutions. In cinematic movies like The Egyptian, the 1950's "Hijra ar-Rasul", and the US "The Message" from 1976, both of which depict central incidents from Muhammad's life, non of the revered figures appear. This applies to Muhammad, his wives, children, relatives or the earliest caliphs.
The image prohibition has led to a number of riots in the Muslim world. Salman Rushdie's use of Muhammad in an artistic manner, though literary, caused great anger among Muslims, culminating a fatwa from the ulama of Iran calling for the death of Rushdie. He was understood to be disrespectfully breaking the image prohibition, as his writings created non-Sunna images of the prophet in the mind of the reader.
In early 2006, Muslims in the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and in the rest of the world were angered by cartoons depicting Muhammad in a critical way, first published in a Danish newspaper in September 2005. Incited by Muslim leaders who equated the cartoons with a general disrespect for Islam and Muslims, demonstrations and violence in several countries, especially Syria, resulted.
The rules of Muslim iconoclasm have many times been used to destroy the representation of gods, divine figures or semi-divine figures of other religions. In modern times, the destruction of gigantic Buddha-statues in Afghanistan in 2001 is the best known example. An older example is the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, when the church of Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque, and had its mosaics covered with plaster.




By Tore Kjeilen