Aniconism in Islam

Aniconism in Islam

Aniconism in Islam is a proscription against the creation of images of God in Islam. Other forms of aniconism in Islam prohibit the depiction of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, which is the consensual view among sunni Muslims,or even, in the case of more extreme case, other living creatures in artwork.

Theological views

The Qur'an, the Islamic holy book, does not explicitly prohibit the depiction of human figures; it merely condemns idolatry (ex.: , ). Interdictions of figurative representation are present in the Hadith, among a dozen of the hadith recorded during the latter part of the period when they were being written down. Because these hadith are tied to particular events in the life of Muhammad, they need to be interpreted in order to be applied in any general manner. Sunni exegetes, from the 9th century onward, increasingly saw in them categorical prohibitions against producing and using any representation of living beings. There are variations between religious schools and marked differences between different branches of Islam. Aniconism is common among fundamentalist Sunni sects such as Salafis and Wahhabis (which are also often iconoclastic), and less prevalent among liberal movements in Islam. Shi'a and mystical orders also have less stringent views on aniconism. On the individual level, whether or not specific Muslims believe in aniconism may depend on how much credence is given to hadith (e.g. Submitters do not believe in any hadith), and how liberal or strict they are in personal practice.

Aniconism in Islam not only deals with the material image, but touches upon mental representations as well. It is a thorny question, discussed by early theologians, as to how to describe God, Muhammad and other prophets, and, indeed, if it is permissible at all to do so. God is usually represented by immaterial attributes, such as "holy" or "merciful", commonly known from His "Ninety-nine beautiful names". Muhammad's physical appearance, however, is amply described, particularly in the traditions on his life and deeds recorded in the biographies known as "Sira al-Nabi". Of no less interest is the validity of sightings of holy personages made during dreams.

While talking about Islam, Titus Burckhardt sums up the role of aniconism in a way that might hold true for cases throughout a variety of cultures:

:"Islam is centred on Unity, and Unity is not expressible in terms of any image. Thus, Islamic art as a whole aims to create an ambiance which helps man to realise his primordial dignity; it therefore avoids everything that could be an 'idol' even in a relative and provisional manner - nothing must stand between man and the invisible presence of God - thus eliminating all the turmoil and passionate suggestions of the world and in their stead creating an order that expresses equilibrium, serenity and peace." [ [ Islamic Art,] ] Fact|date=February 2007

Hadith and exegesis examples

During its early days, aniconism in Islam was intended as a measure against idolatry, particularly against the statues worshipped by pagans. The following hadith presents Muhammad condemning pictures:

:Narrated Aisha: (a wife of the Prophet) I bought a cushion having on it pictures (of animals). When Allah'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 Allah's Apostle! I repent to Allah and His Apostle. What sin have I committed?' Allah'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." Allah'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 (i.e., these pictures).' "The Prophet added, "The Angels of (Mercy) do not enter a house in which there are pictures (of animals)."Bukhari|3|34|318 Bukhari|7|62|110 [Bukhari, "Sahih", vol. 7, book 62, no. 110. [] ]

:Narrated Aisha, Ummul Mu'minin: When the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) arrived after the expedition to Tabuk or Khaybar (the narrator is doubtful), the draught raised an end of a curtain which was hung in front of her store-room, revealing some dolls which belonged to her. He asked: What is this? She replied: My dolls. Among them he saw a horse with wings made of rags, and asked: What is this I see among them? She replied: A horse. He asked: What is this that it has on it? She replied: Two wings. He asked: A horse with two wings? She replied: Have you not heard that Solomon had horses with wings? She said: Thereupon the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) laughed so heartily that I could see his molar teeth. Abu Dawud:41:4914, Abu Dawud:41:4913

:Narrated Ali ibn AbuTalib: Safinah AbuAbdurRahman said that a man prepared food for Ali ibn AbuTalib who was his guest, and Fatimah said: I wish we had invited the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) and he had eaten with us. They invited him, and when he came he put his hands on the side-ports of the door, but when he saw the figured curtain which had been put at the end of the house, he went away. So Fatimah said to Ali: Follow him and see what turned him back. I (Ali) followed him and asked: What turned you back, Apostle of Allah? He replied: It is not fitting for me or for any Prophet to enter a house which is decorated. Abu Dawud:27:3746

: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|7|73|133

:Narrated 'Aisha:Allah's Apostle returned from a journey when I had placed a curtain of mine having pictures over (the door of) a chamber of mine. When Allah's Apostle saw it, he tore it and said, "The people who will receive the severest punishment on the Day of Resurrection will be those who try to make the like of Allah's creations." So we turned it (i.e., the curtain) into one or two cushions.Bukhari|7|72|838

To show the superiority of the monotheist faith, Muhammad smashed the idols at the Ka'ba. He also removed paintings that were blasphemous to Islam, while protecting others (the images of Mary and Jesus) inside the building [A. Guillaume, "The Life of Muhammad" (translation of Ibn Ishaq's "Sirat Rasulallah"), page 552. [] ] ). The hadith below emphasizes that aniconism depends not only on "what", but also on "how" things are depicted.

:Narrated 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 Abraham and Ishmael carrying the arrows of divination, he said, '"May Allah curse them (i.e. the Quraish)! By Allah, neither Abraham nor Ishmael practiced divination by arrows.'" [Bukhari, "Sahih", vol. 4, book 55, no. 571. [] ]

:Muslim b. Subaih reported: I was with Masriuq in the house which had the portrayals of Mary (hadrat Maryam). Thereupon Masriuq said: These are portraits of Kisra. I said: No, these are of Mary. Masruq said: I heard Abdullah b, Mas'ud as saying Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) had said: The most grievously tormented people on the Day of Resurrection would be the painters of pictures. (Muslim said): I read this before Nasr b. 'Ali at-Jahdami and he read it before other narrators, the last one being Ibn Sa'id b Abl at Hasan that a person came to Ibn 'Abbas and said: I am the person who paints pictures; give me a religious verdict about them. He (Ibn 'Abbas) said to him: Come near me (still further). He came near him so much so that he placed his hand upon his head and said: I am going to narrate to yor what I heard from Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him). I heard him say: All the painters who make pictures would be in the fire of Hell. The soul will be breathed in every picture prepared by him and it shall punish him in the Hell, and he (Ibn 'Abbas) said: If you have to do it at all, then paint the pictures of trees and lifeless things; and Nasr b. 'Ali confirmed it.Muslim|24|5272

It is interesting to note that pagans in Muhammad's times were also worshipping trees and stones. Muhammad, however, opposed only images of animated beings — humans and animals —, as reported by the Hadith. Subsequently, geometrical ornamentation became a sophisticated art form in Islam.

:Narrated Said bin Abu Al-Hasan: While I was with Ibn 'Abbas a man came and said, "O father of 'Abbas! My sustenance is from my manual profession and I make these pictures." Ibn 'Abbas said, "I will tell you only what I heard from Allah's Apostle. I heard him saying, 'Whoever makes a picture will be punished by Allah till he puts life in it, and he will never be able to put life in it.' " Hearing this, that man heaved a sigh and his face turned pale. Ibn 'Abbas said to him, "What a pity! If you insist on making pictures I advise you to make pictures of trees and any other inanimate objects." [Bukhari, "Sahih", vol. 3, book 34, no. 428. [] ]

:Aisha reported: We had a curtain with us which had portraits of birds upon it. Whenever a visitor came, he found them in front of him. Thereupon Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) said to me: Change them, for whenever I enter the room) I see them and it brings to my mind (the pleasures) of worldly life. She said: We had with us a sheet which had silk badges upon it and we used to wear it. This hadith has been transmitted on the authority of Ibn Muthanna but with this addition: 'Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) did not command us to tear that."Muslim|24|5255

:Aisha reported: Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) visited me. and I had a shelf with a thin cloth curtain hangin. over it and on which there were portraits. No sooner did he see it than he tore it and the colour of his face underwent a change and he said: A'isha, the most grievous torment from the Hand of Allah on the Day of Resurrection would be for those who imitate (Allah) in the act of His creation. A'isha said: We tore it into pieces and made a cushion or two cushions out of that.Muslim|24|5261

Mohammad also warned his followers of dying amongst people that builded places of worship at graves and placed pictures in it (i.e christians).:Narrated Aisha: Um Habiba and Um Salama mentioned about a church they had seen in Ethiopia in which there were pictures. They told the Prophet about it, on which he said, "If any religious man dies amongst those people they would build a place of worship at his grave and make these pictures in it. They will be the worst creature in the sight of Allah on the Day of Resurrection." Bukhari|1|8|419,

: Narrated Aisha: When the Prophet became ill, some of his wives talked about a church which they had seen in Ethiopia and it was called Mariya. Um Salma and Um Habiba had been to Ethiopia, and both of them narrated its (the Church's) beauty and the pictures it contained. The Prophet raised his head and said, "Those are the people who, whenever a pious man dies amongst them, make a place of worship at his grave and then they make those pictures in it. Those are the worst creatures in the Sight of Allah."Bukhari|2|23|425

Mohammad made it very clear that angels do not like picture.:Narrated Abu Talha: Allah's Apostle said, "Angels (of mercy) do not enter a house where there are pictures.'" The sub-narrator Busr added: "Then Zaid fell ill and we paid him a visit. Behold! There was, hanging at his door, a curtain decorated with a pictures. I said to 'Ubaidullah Al-Khaulani, the step son of Maimuna, the wife of the Prophet , "Didn't Zaid tell us about the picture the day before yesterday?" 'Ubaidullah said, "Didn't you hear him saying: 'except a design in a garment'?"Bukhari|7|72|841

:Narrated Salim's father: Once Gabriel promised to visit the Prophet but he delayed and the Prophet got worried about that. At last he came out and found Gabriel and complained to him of his grief (for his delay). Gabriel said to him, "We do not enter a place in which there is a pictures or a dog." Bukhari|7|72|843

:Narrated Ali ibn AbuTalib: The Prophet (peace_be_upon_him) said: Angels do not enter the house where there is a picture, or a dog, or a person who is sexually defiled. Abu Dawud:1:227, Abu Dawud:32:4140

Aniconism in practice

Religious core

In practice, the core of normative religion in Islam is consistently aniconic. Its embodiment are spaces such as the mosque and objects like the Qur'an or the white dress of pilgrims entering Mecca, deprived of figurative images. Other spheres of religion — schisms, mysticism, popular piety, private level — exhibit in this regard significant variability. Profane aniconism is even more fluctuating. Generally speaking aniconism in Islamic societies is restricted in modern times to specific religious contexts, while its prevalence in the past wasn't enforced in numerous areas and during extended periods.


Depending on which segment of Islamic societies are referred to, the application of aniconism is characterized with noteworthy differences. [See 'Sura' and 'Taswir' in "Encyclopædia of Islam" [] ] Factors are the epoch considered, the country, the religious orientation, the political intent, the popular beliefs, the private benefit or the dichotomy between reality and discourse. Today, the concept of an aniconic Islam coexists with a daily life for Muslims awash with images. TV stations and newspapers (which do present still and moving representations of living beings) have an exceptional impact on public opinion, sometimes, as in the case of Al-Jazira, with a global reach, beyond the Arabic speaking and Muslim audience. Portraits of secular and religious leaders are omnipresent on banknotes [ [ Petroleum-related banknotes: Saudi Arabia: Oil Refinery] ] [ [ Petroleum-related banknotes: Iran: Abadan Refinery, Iahanshahi-Amouzegar] ] and coins [ [] ] , in streets and offices (e.g.: presidents like Nasser and Mubarak, Arafat, Al-Asad or Hezbollah's Nasrallah and ayatollah Khomeini). Anthropomorphic statues in public places are to be found in most Muslim countries (Saddam Hussain's are infamous [ [ David Zucchino "U.S. military, not Iraqis, behind toppling of statue" "Honolulu Advertiser", July 5, 2004] ] ), as well as Arts schools training sculptors and painters. In the Egyptian countryside, it is fashionable to celebrate and advertise the returning of pilgrims from Mecca on the walls of their houses. Sometimes those who profess aniconism will practice figurative representation (cf. portraits of Talibans from the Kandahar photographic studios during their imposed ban on photography [J. L. Anderson, Thomas Dworzak, "Taliban", London (UK), Trolley, 2003, ISBN 0-9542648-5-1.] ). For Shi'a communities, portraits of the major figures of Shi'ite history are important elements of religious devotion. Portraits of 'Ali — with veiled and unveiled face alike — can be bought in Iran around shrines and in the streets, to be hung in homes or carried with oneself, while in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh they notoriously ornate trucks [ [ Saudi Aramco World : Masterpieces to Go: The Trucks of Pakistan] ] , buses and rickshaws. [ [ The Rickshaw Arts of Bangladesh] ] Contrary to the Sunni tradition, a photographic picture of the deceased can be placed on the Shi'ite tombs. [ [ Picture of Golestan e Shohoda cemetery Esfahan -Esfahan, Iran] ] [ [ Mashad Martyrs Cemetery at Best Iran] ] A curiosity in Iran is a has given a fatwa declaring the depiction of Muhammad, the prophets and other holy characters, permissible if it is made with the utmost respect. [Grand Ayatollah Uzma Sistani, "Fiqh & Beliefs: Istifa answers", personal website. (accessed 17 February 2006) ar icon [التصوير%20(الصور)&num=413&] en icon [] ]


Neither is the representation of living beings in Islamic countries a modern phenomenon or due to current technology, westernization or the cult of the personality. Statues of humans and animals adorned palaces of the Ummayad era, [ [ Allen, Terry, "Aniconism and Figural Representation in Islamic Art", Palm Tree Books] ] while frescoes were common under the Ummayads, [ [ Educational Site: Archaeological Sites: Qusayr `Amra] ] and later in many countries of Dar al-Islam, notably under the Safavids and various Central Asian dynasties. Figurative miniatures from Medieval Arabic countries, India, Persia and Turkey are one of the fleuron of Islamic Arts and a good deal of its attraction power for non-Muslim societies. [ [ Reza Abbasi Museum] ] [ [ "Portraits of the Sultans," Topkapi Palace Museum] ] Potent rulers like Shah Tahmasp in Persia and Akbar in India, patrons of some of the most beautiful figurative miniatures in arts from Islamic countries, migrated during their life between an extravagant 'figurative' and an extremist 'aniconic' period. During the 15th and 17th century representations of Muhammad (veiled [ Bibliotheque nationale de France - Torah, Bible, Coran] ] , unveiled [ [ Bibliotheque nationale de France - Torah, Bible, Coran] ] ) and other prophets or Biblical characters, like Adam [ ["Angels Kneeling before Adam from "Stories of the Prophets"] ] [ [ Bnf - Torah, Bible, Coran ] ] , Abraham [ [ Bibliotheque nationale de France - Torah, Bible, Coran] ] or Jesus [ [ Bnf - Torah, Bible, Coran ] ] and Salomon [ [ Bibliotheque nationale de France - Torah, Bible, Coran] /] and Alexander the Great [fr icon [ Consultation de la base des clichés Daguerre ] ] , became common in painted manuscripts from Persia, India and Turkey. Extreme rarities are an illustrated Qur'an depicting Muhammad and, in a Spanish-Muslim manuscript datable from the 16th century, five Ummayad and Abbasid caliphs. Iblis too is present in various illustrated manuscripts. [ [ "The Book of Nativities(Kitâb al-Mawalid) by Abû Ma'shar," Antiquities of the Illuminati] ] There aren't, however, known figurative depictions of God.

Circumvention methods

Medieval Muslim artists found various ways not to infringe any prohibition of the image, while still representing living beings. It can be argued that since God is absolute, the act of depiction is his own and not that of a human; and miniatures are obviously very crude representations of the reality, so the two can't be mistaken. [ [,1-0@2-3232,36-737929@51-735567,0.html : JEAN-FRANÇOIS CLÉMENT « Cette affaire de caricatures participe d'une mentalité de «victimisation» » des musulmans ] ] At the material level, prophets in manuscripts can have their face covered by a veil or all humans have a stroke drawn over their neck, a symbolical cut defending them to be alive. Calligraphy, the most Islamic of arts in the Muslim world, has also its figurative side due to anthropo- and zoomorphic calligrams.


It is equally important to stress that, wherever it surfaced, Islamic aniconism is partially due to the special historical relationship between images and Muslim identity. In the early days of Islam, for example, it was critical to distinguish the customs of the nascent Ummah from those of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and pagans. Therefore, emphasizing calligraphy [ [ Calligraphy from the Islamic Tradition] ] and abstract decoration over figurative painting and sculpture set the Qur'an apart from the Bible, the mosque from the church and — after a certain period of using Byzantine and Sassanid coins — the Muslim dinar from the Christian solidus. [ [ "Umayyad Coins," The Maskukat Collection of Medieval & Islamic Coins] ] After the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, there were lively debates in Persia about the merits of (Islamic) calligraphy and (Chinese influenced) painting. In modern times, the image-producing technologies of print, photography, movie, television and, more recently, the Internet, were all imports from a world outside the Muslim community, and thus easily perceived as threats to its integrity. These changes also came through difficult contexts for the Islamic world: colonization, modernization, authoritarian regimes, economic difficulties, and wars. Quite naturally, a paradoxical mix ensued, of an aniconist Islamic discourse propagated through representational mass media.


See also

*Censorship, Censorship by organized religion
* fr icon
*Depictions of Muhammad, Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy
* [ Aniconism in Islam]



*Jack Goody, "Representations and Contradictions: Ambivalence Towards Images, Theatre, Fiction, Relics and Sexuality", London, Blackwell Publishers, 1997. ISBN 0-631-20526-8.


*Oleg Grabar, "Postscriptum", "The Formation of Islamic Art", Yale University, 1987 (p209). ISBN 0-300-03969-7
*Terry Allen, "Aniconism and Figural Representation in Islamic Art", "Five Essays on Islamic Art", Occidental (CA), Solipsist, 1988. ISBN 0-944940-00-5 []
* Gilbert Beaugé & Jean-François Clément, "L'image dans le monde arabe [The image in the Arab world] ", Paris, CNRS Éditions, 1995, ISBN 2-271-05305-6 fr icon
* Rudi Paret, Das islamische Bilderverbot und die Schia [The Islamic prohibition of images and the Shi'a] , Erwin Gräf (ed.), "Festschrift Werner Caskel", Leiden, 1968, 224-32. de icon
* Almir Ibric, Das Bilderverbot im Islam. Eine Einführung, Marburg, 2004.ISBN 978-3-8288-8766-4 de icon
* Almir Ibric, Islamisches Bilderverbot vom Mittel- bis ins Digitalzeitalter, Münster, 2006.ISBN 978-3-8258-9597-6 de icon
* Almir Ibric, For a philosophy of aniconism in the Islam, London/Vienna, 2008.ISBN 978-3-8258-1051-1

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