The Prohibition of Images

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The Prohibition of Images



Ethos . Muslim art was influenced by preceding civilizations, but the overall ethos it derives from the Qur’an and from the teachings and the acts of the Prophet Muhammad is a unifying thread in the midst of Muslim diversity. In particular, the doctrine against figural representations of humans and animals has shaped the whole direction of Muslim art. Although this prohibition might seem restrictive to Westerners, from the viewpoint of Muslim artists, it has actually been liberating. Because of humans’ fascination with representations of their own species, images of humans tend to dominate the art of cultures in which they are allowed, as evidenced by most ancient Near Eastern, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Indian, and Western art. The exclusion of figures opens up other possibilities, which have been thoroughly elaborated in Muslim art. In Islam, the word of God replaces the human figure as the center of attention. In general, God’s word is represented in two ways: in calligraphy, which adorns the first dated Muslim building still standing, and in decoration with geometric, floral, and vegetational designs.

Religious Images . Even though the Qur’an includes no direct prohibition on the manufacture or veneration of images—as is frequently reiterated in the Bible (Exodus 20:4–5, 23 and 34:17; Leviticus 19:4 and 26:1; Deuteronomy 4:15–18, 23 and 5:8–9; Ezekiel 20:7, 18; 1 Corinthians 10:7, 14; and 1 John 5:21)—it nevertheless disparages them. In fact, it describes such idols, whether carved images or mere stones (ansab), as the filth of Satan (Qur’an 5: 90). As in the parallel biblical text, the Qur’an includes an account of how, after the Prophet Musa (Moses) prohibited idol worship, his people in his absence made a golden calf and suffered punishment for their transgression (Qur’an 7: 138–140,148–152 and 20: 88–91, 97). The Qur’an also relates how the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) denounced the veneration of idols (asnam, tamathil) by his father and his people as “manifest error” (6: 74 and 21: 52–54), ridiculed idols as powerless and as representing nonexistent gods (21: 63 and 37: 91–92, 95), expressed disgust at their worship (21: 67), and smashed them to pieces (21: 58; 37: 93). At Makkah, Ibrahim prayed to God that his descendants might never worship idols (asnam) (14: 35). Although the Prophet Sulayman (Solomon) had power over jinn who make statues (tamathil) for him, their connection with their malevolent makers is clear (34:13). The Qur’an also denies that the idols of the pagan Arabs have any substance whatever (53: 19–23). These and other verses against polytheism—along with certain hadiths—are the basis for the prohibition of religious images.

Figural Representation . Furthermore, the Qur’an insists that God created human beings and then fashioned them in their particular forms (7: 11) with the best of appearances (40: 64 and 64: 3). Thus, the fashioning of forms—as well as the creation of matter and the elements—are manifestations of God’s creative power. God permitted the Prophet ‘Isa (Jesus) to make clay birds and then breathe life into them to demonstrate God’s vivifying and resurrectionary power, but the miracle happened specifically and only by God’s permission (3: 49 and 5: 110). Perhaps commenting on these texts, in the extra-Qur’anic tradition of the hadith, the Prophet states that on the Day of Judgment, God will ask people who have made images of humans and animals to blow life into their representations, and when they cannot do so, they will be thrown into hellfire. This statement reserves the fashioning of forms as one of God’s exclusive creative prerogatives, disallowing the making of human and animal images by Muslims. The prohibition against human and animal representation in Islam is further reinforced by the history of the Prophet Muhammad and other statements attributed to him. Before Islam, the pagan Arabs who frequented the Inviolable Sanctuary containing the Ka’bah at Makkah, had filled the building and its enclosure with more than three hundred statues and sacred stones representing various deities. In the year 630, after the Prophet Muhammad obtained the surrender of Makkah from the nonbelievers, his first act was to cleanse the sanctuary of all idols. As each of the idols was dumped on its face and hewn to pieces, he recited the Qur’anic verse “Truth has come and falsehood has perished, and falsehood was ever perishing” (17: 81). Down through the centuries this famous action has turned Muslims away from figural representation. The stipulation against figural imagery is still respected by the majority of Muslims, who fear that having images might also drive the angels away; as the Prophet also said in a hadith: “Angels do not enter a house in which there is an image.” Such a stipulation has always discouraged Muslim artists and craftsmen from incorporating naturalistic human or animal imagery into their works of art.

Islamic Law and Muslim Practice . Aside from the relevant scriptural texts on the subject of images, one needs also to consider traditional Muslim law that scholars have studied and interpreted for fourteen centuries. In this law the making or owning of images is in general forbidden. Exceptions are sometimes made for carpets and cushions that one might walk on, sit on, or otherwise treat disrespectfully. While some less-strict religious scholars have stated that flat or photographic images might be allowed, all agree on prohibiting figures that cast any shadow, including, specifically, pictures of humans or animals on coins. The almost complete absence of representational art from public spaces in Muslim countries until the twentieth century demonstrates the general effectiveness of this law. Yet, it seems that the prohibition against figural representation was not as thoroughly upheld during the early years of Islam. The first coins used by the Muslims were the Persian and Byzantine money that had already been circulating in the area. They not only had pictures of monarchs on one side of each coin but also carried the religious symbol of each state on the other, a cross on the Byzantine coins and a sacred fire tended by two Zoroastrian priests on the Persian money. These coins were the only ones in circulation in the khilafah until the reign of Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (685–705), who replaced the cross with a pole and who put his own full-length picture on the new khalifal gold coins in 693. Starting in 696, however, the khilafah began replacing these “khalifah-standing” coins with completely epi-graphic gold coins (coins bearing only writing and decorative motifs and no figural representations at all). In 698 the old silver coins depicting a Persian king were replaced with epigraphic silver coins. That the khalifah should be forced to remove his picture and his name from the coinage is an indication of the force of the ideological movement during the early years of Islam to ban figural representation. By 700 it was clear that the Islamic ban on figural art was quite complete, as was also the case in Judaism. With a few marginal exceptions, epigraphic designs remained standard for all Muslim coinage until well into the twentieth century.


The title character of Hayy ibn Yaqzan (Alive, the Son of Awake), by Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Tufayl (died 1185), is a man who grew up on an island far from human contact and without social or religious influences. He achieves enlightenment through reflection, experiment, and intensive study of his surroundings:

Our forefathers, of blessed memory, tell of a certain equatorial island, lying off the coast of India, where human beings come into being without father or mother. This is possible, they say, because of all places on earth, that island bas the most tempered climate. And because a supernatural light streams down on it, it is the most perfectly adapted to accept the human form.…

…the newborn infant got hungrier and hungrier and began to cry, whereupon the doe with the lost fawn responded.… the doe that cared for him was richly pastured so she was fat and had plenty of milk, to give the baby the best possible nourishment.… So the child grew, nourished by bis mother’s doe-milk, until he was two years old. By then he’d learned to walk, and, having his teeth, he took to following the doe on her foraging expeditions.…

She was inseparable from him and he from her. When she grew old and weak be would lead her to rich pastures and gather sweet fruits to feed her. Even so, weakness and emaciation gradually tightened their hold, and finally death overtook her. All her movements and bodily functions came to a standstill. When the boy saw her in such a state, be was beside himself with grief.…

…What made him think there was something he could “take away” was his own past experience. He knew that when he shut his eyes or covered tbem, be saw nothing until the obstruction was removed; if he stopped his ears with his fingers he could not hear until the obstacle was gone.… These observations led him to believe that not only his senses, but every one of his other bodily functions was liable to obstructions that might block its work.… Hayy hoped that if he could find that organ and remove whatever lodged in it, it would revert to normal, its benefits would once more flow to the rest of the body and all the bodily functions would resume.… But there remained some hope of her recovery if he could find the critical organ and take away the hurt. So he decided to cut open her breast and find out what was inside.…

…Realizing the whatever had lived in that chamber [the heart] had left while its house was intact, before it had been ruined, Hayy saw that it was hardly likely to return.… The body now seemed something low and worthless compared to the being he was convinced had lived in it for a time and was now departed. Hayy turned the focus of his thoughts on that being. What was it? What was the manner of its existence? What had bound it to this body? Where had it gone, and how had it gotten out?… His mind was filled with these questions. He soon dropped the body and thought no more of it, knowing that the mother who had nursed him and showed him so much kindness could only be that being which had departed. From that— and not from this lifeless body—all those actions had issued. The whole body was simply a tool of his being, like the stick with which he fought the animals. His affection was transferred now from the body to the being that was its master and mover. All his love was directed toward that…

Source: Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yagzan, translated by Lenn Evan Goodman (New York: Twayne, 1972), pp. 103,105,109,111–115.

Defining Style . The move to define a separate Muslim style of art arose partly from the desire for a clear Muslim cultural self-definition, in contradistinction to the Christianity of the Byzantine Empire. With its capital at Constantinople, this empire withstood repeated Muslim attempts to conquer it and continued to hold out, even though greatly diminished, until 1453, when

Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. Furthermore, during the period 678–685, the Byzantines successfully took the offensive and threatened the khalifahs in their home province of Syria, extracting a humiliating treaty from the khalifah in 685. In 692 the Byzantines began an ideological offensive as well, changing their coins to show the bust of Christ as well as the emperor, and a few years later the Muslims responded with their epi-graphic coins. The opposition to images reached a peak in 721 when Khalifah Yazid II issued his iconoclastic decree commanding that all images of humans and animals, whether religious or secular, be effaced throughout the khilafah. This Muslim image smashing was also picked up by the Byzantines, albeit in a more moderate form. Though he had no objection to secular images, in 726 Byzantine emperor Leo III issued a ban on the use of religious images in churches. More than a century later, in 843—after periods in which images were allowed and again disallowed—religious images were definitively restored to Byzantine churches, again underlining the difference between Muslims and Eastern Christians. Art in any society is inevitably influenced by that society’s ideology. In the case of early Islam, the figural art of the pagans, Zoroastrians, and Christians required an alternative, if the new religion and ideology of Islam was to become securely established.

Public Art . Public works of Islamic art and architecture, which have survived in abundance from the medieval period—during which Muslim civilization was one of the greatest cultural forces in the world—are devoid of representational images of humans and animals. Every masjid or other religious institution built under Muslim sponsorship from the time of early Islam to the present has no figural imagery in its decoration. From a quite early period—whether in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey, India, Egypt, North Africa, or Spain—masjids were decorated in a highly ornate manner with floral and geometric motifs and Qur’anic inscriptions. Artists competed to invent beautiful scripts.

Private Art . Most Muslims still try to avoid having representational images in their private domains as well. Even in the medieval period, however, Muslims have sometimes produced works of art including human and animal images for use in private settings, but they have never been incorporated in religious settings. In such works the images are usually schematic, rather than naturalistic or detailed, so that the interest is still on the design more than on the figures.

Ideology and Practice . No doubt a major reason for Muslim preferences in art over the centuries has been the habit of liking what is familiar, but ideological consciousness has always been an important factor as well. For example, the historian Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) criticized the Spanish Muslims of his time because they “are found to assimilate themselves to the Galician nations [that is, Spanish Christians] in their dress, their emblems, and most of their customs and conditions. This goes so far that they even draw pictures on the walls and have them in buildings and houses. The intelligent observer will draw from this the conclusion that it is a sign of being dominated by others.” For Ibn Khaldun, at a time when the Muslims were gradually losing their Spanish territory to Christian forces, the fact that Spanish Muslims had pictures in their houses was a clear indication of their submission and humiliation at the hands of the conquering Spanish Christians. Some western scholars have objected to the claim that the special character of Muslim art derives from the religious prohibition on images. They point out that Muslim religious texts ban them less directly and strictly than the Bible; yet Christianity, with some few exceptions, has generally cultivated figural art, especially figural representation in religious art. They also point to the many extant exceptions to the prohibition in art produced by Muslims. Yet, however one reads Muslim religious sources, the prohibition is clearly there, and the Muslim reception of these texts, as expressed in Muslim law and practice over the centuries, is more important than the words themselves. There have been some exceptions, such as book illustrations (especially for scientific works), Persian and Indian court miniatures (many from after 1500), and decoration on household objects such as pottery and metalwork. Indeed, there are even European-style portraits of the Ottoman Sultan Muhammad II (ruled 1444–1448, 1451–1481), an early indication of European cultural influence, but the use of such pictures was purely private and limited. These exceptions, however, have almost always been limited to the private sphere and do not change the basic fact that Muslim art includes little figural representation, despite the strong human attraction to such representation that is demonstrated in most other artistic traditions.


Isma’il R. and Lois L. al-Faruqi, The Cultural Atlas of Islam (London: Collier Macmillan, 1986).

’Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, translated by Franz Rosenthal, edited and abridged by N. J. Dawood (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967).

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The Prohibition of Images

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