Images in Islam

By Paul S Armstrong

The ban on images is not a universal one and views on this vary a great deal due to context and interpretation. Islam shuns idolatry of any kind whether external or even more importantly, internal (e.g. pride, vanity).

The ban on images derives from a line of reasoning that forbids anything that could possibly lead to something bad. The trouble with that line of reasoning, is that we’d have to ban paper, as paper can be used to print pornographic magazines! Okay, so what then do we write/print copies of the Qur’an on? Hence, this line of reasoning isn’t something unanimously agreed upon and there are even some scholars who reject it outright. As for those who believe in such reasoning, even they can’t follow it properly, for reasons such as the aforementioned. Which means they follow it in a hypocritical fashion, and if anyone reads what the Holy Qur’an states on the subject of hypocrisy, they’d have to question these people’s legitimacy as scholars and representatives of Islam!

The evidence used for the banning of images outright, is found in the hadith literature, not in the Holy Qur’an. The hadith have long been recognised, even by professors of Islam, as being subject to many defects and even outright fraud. For this reason, each hadith narration is categorised according to it’s reliability, from very sound to most likely fraudulent. Indeed, a whole science of Islamic studies developed around the subject! The Holy Qur’an is the only truly sacred scripture of Islam, thus anything else which contradicts it’s teachings can be safely disregarded, including dodgy hadiths. Which leaves nothing left to support a ban on images!

The Ottomans and Persians especially, often drew or painted pictures and there exist illuminated manuscripts which even depict Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. The most fierce opposition to images at the present time, originates from the Saudi sponsored Wahhabi sect, which has been responsible for so much destruction of our Islamic heritage and even the present defamation of Islam, through their ever persistent fanaticism.

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4 thoughts on “Images in Islam

  1. That may well be so, and you have raised some pertinent points, but this is still a contentious issue, especially as there are different types of images, and even moving images, and more. Yet the primary concern in all regards is on the basis of intention, and whether this is good and wholesome, or bad and corruptive. This is to be assessed both on an individual level through personal soul searching and consulting with others for advice and guidance, but also to be assessed on its overall effects to the collective society (or jama’ah) and a collective decision should be made regarding such things as well.

    Pictures and images do not just depict worldly things, but can blur the difference between what is real and what is not, causing illusory affects and may also convey or appeal towards the viewers baser appetites and desires, while alluring the viewer in a visually illusory way. This has been exploited by many artists particularly during, as well as after the Renaissance period, but also by artists who painted and designed images for the purpose of manipulation and controversy, in both religion and politics, during many eras. Even in our time, we see the likes of photoshop images which blur the difference between reality and fiction, and many videos that are streamed online which have similar illusory effects. Many such graphics are no longer artistic for the sake of cultural expression but become repetitive, vain and illusory, and such are the videos posted on youtube etc which follow on in this vain. Perhaps there is an enriching side of them which may be culturally edifying, but where this is not the case, I fail to see the relevance of picture making to religious devotions, and were these to merge I think this would be morally and spiritually unnerving.

    Another issue is what the maker of the engraved image or idol intends through such work, and whether his or her intentions are validated through sincere faith. Even a small act with insincere intentions, or motivated by something other than real faith could feed the very enemies we constantly need to be alert for. It may be that we have chosen something we consider neutral/permitted, when we are either neglecting a duty or act of devotion, or some other such action which is more worthy of our time.

    Repeating something that we have observed others doing for the purpose of trying to vindicate our own actions is not necessarily the right-minded action that ought to be taken, should we be seeking a right-minded path, but rather it is better to have some dialogue as well as consultation with those specialists who may have more insight into these matters. God Almighty is All-Knowing, Omniscient.

    Perhaps it is better to admit that images are part of materialist society and have been for a very long time indeed and may continue to be for a long time afterwards and therefore from time to time we may be allured by them, perhaps in a similar vain as Adam and Eve were once originally allured. It does not necessarily make them ‘good’ or of use or benefit to right-minded people. Although common layfolk may indulge in them as also other people of varying religious and political orders may do so, primarily for cultural and worldly purposes. Whether they once were sanctioned or tolerated by those sent to glorify God on earth is maybe another issue, and may never truely be known for sure. One thing that seems clear, there were no surviving images of Jesus, Moses, Abraham, Zoroaster, Muhammad, and many more (Peace to them all). Making such images of these blessed messengers of the Divinity, or even images of any other creature may not be in our best interests, for this life and for the hereafter.

    Therefore there is a consensus that it is most likely better to avoid them altogether, or at least as much as is humanly practical keeping in mind that our intentions are a significant part of all our actions, and that we should be trying to refine ourselves and cleanse ourselves from any and all pollutants to the best of our ability, and according to what is humanly practical. We should question where the ‘need’ is for any of our actions and deeds, whether this is turning off the TV or dismantling idols.

    I hope that God Almighty guides us all and graces us with understanding, on all such issues that cause concern and doubt.

    Peace…

    • Good points regarding Photoshop and the trouble that the use of some forms of imagery can cause. None the less, there is still no grounds for the banning of all imagery and for the most part, even those who believe that usually carry a passport… Islam stresses a point about idols, but that is clearly a reference to images that were created specifically as objects of worship. Prophet Muhammad’s wife Ayesha, peace be upon them, is reported in hadiths as playing with dolls, clearly these were 3D objects, not so different from objects that were worshipped. Yet no where is it recorded that Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, discouraged Ayesha from owning or playing with such items. Some clerics have since suggested that this is only permissible for children, then believe Lady Ayesha was a child at the time she married, yet both these assertions can be clearly disproven! A point to consider regarding the dolls, is were they made by adults or children… The likely truth being they were made by adults. So were these adults sinning, through making children happy?! If there had been an issue, surely Prophet Muhammad would have said something about the matter, and it would have been recorded in the hadith referring to Ayesha playing with dolls! As this is not the case, we can only assume the issue is with graven images created with the sole purpose of being worshipped and the prohibition does not apply to art, paintings, photos, video and film etc.

      An interesting point drawn to my attention recently; before the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman religious authorities had made a fatwa certifying the permissibility of the television, which had just been invented! Something that would probably come as somewhat of a shock to many more puritanical Muslims today… While I’d be the first to acknowledge much of the content broadcast on this device is rubbish of little to no benefit whatsoever, I have no qualms about the technology in itself, which as the Ottomans must have realised, has great potential for good use. Like any media form or technology, the image whether still or moving can’t be uninvented. What matters is not so much their existence, but to what uses they’re put. As long as used responsibly, there is no issue and like so many other things, if used irresponsibly they can create problems. The media themselves are not at fault, what is, are the actions of some individuals.

  2. Thank you for a wonderful artical , i would also like to add that according to many great maliki scholars images are not haraam unless they are icons of worship.

    This is where the distiction is set as its all about iconism and worshipping creation rather than the creator Allah{ God }

  3. I would also like to give my thanks for this article, and the replies from Paul and ‘Celt Islam’ Abdullah, I think this certainly helps to clarify the matter. May it help in our guidance, the eternal guidance of our souls, in this life and the next.

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