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  • Regarding The Prohibition Of Portraits And Pictures

    Posted by Umer on June 26, 2020 at 3:51 pm

    It is believed that Islam prohibits making pictures of living-beings.[1] Unfortunately, the stance of Islam on this issue has been grossly misunderstood. It is not true that Islam prohibits pictures and portraits in the absolute sense. Only pictures which cultivate sentiments of worship in people are prohibited. Thus we see that not only does the Qur’ān not mention any such prohibition, it, in fact, praises the pictures and sculptures made by the Prophet Solomon (sws). Had there been any issue of prohibition with them, it would certainly have condemned this act:

    يَعْمَلُونَ لَهُ مَا يَشَاء مِن مَّحَارِيبَ وَتَمَاثِيلَ وَجِفَانٍ كَالْجَوَابِ وَقُدُورٍ رَّاسِيَاتٍ اعْمَلُوا آلَ دَاوُودَ شُكْرًا وَقَلِيلٌ مِّنْ عِبَادِيَ الشَّكُورُ (13:34)

    They made for him whatever he pleased: shrines and tamasil [2]and basins as large as watering-troughs, and built-in cauldrons. We said: “Act with gratitude House of David.” Yet few of My servants are truly thankful. (34:13)

    We find more detail in the Bible regarding the portraits and statues placed in the Temple of Solomon:

    In the inner sanctuary he made a pair of cherubim of olive wood, each ten cubits high. One wing of the first cherub was five cubits long, and the other wing five cubits—ten cubits from wing tip to wing tip. The second cherub also measured ten cubits, for the two cherubim were identical in size and shape. The height of each cherub was ten cubits. He placed the cherubim inside the innermost room of the temple, with their wings spread out. The wing of one cherub touched one wall, while the wing of the other touched the other wall, and their wings touched each other in the middle of the room. He overlaid the cherubim with gold. On the walls all around the temple, in both the inner and outer rooms, he carved cherubim, palm trees and open flowers. (1 Kings, 6:23-29)

    He also made ten movable stands of bronze; each was four cubits long, four wide and three high. This is how the stands were made: They had side panels attached to uprights. (1 Kings, 7:27-28)

    The face of a man toward the palm tree on one side and the face of a lion toward the palm tree on the other. They were carved all around the whole temple. From the floor to the area above the entrance, cherubim and palm trees were carved on the wall of the outer sanctuary. The outer sanctuary had a rectangular doorframe, and the one at the front of the Most Holy Place was similar. (Ezekiel, 41:19-21)

    It is thus clear that the Qur’ān does not prohibit portrait and images in the absolute sense. The source of this prohibition are certain Ahādīth. By collecting and analyzing all these Ahādīth, the complete picture which emerges is that a particular category of pictures and portraits had acquired the status of idols and were worshipped. They were regarded as deities by the people of Arabia. As such, they used to consider them alive and capable of granting them their wishes.[3] They used to bow down before them in adoration. There were many sacred pictures drawn on the walls, columns and the roof of the Ka‘bah, as a study of its history reveals. Consequently, there is mention of the fact that the portraits of Abraham (sws), Jesus (sws) and Maryam (rta) were sketched on its columns.[4]

    In the light of these details, the prohibition of portraits can easily be understood: only portraits which possess religious sanctity and lead people into worshipping them are prohibited. Pictures, photographs and image-making, it is clear, is not condemned because of any intrinsic evil in them, but because they contribute to the polytheistic tendencies of people. The Qur’ān regards monotheism as the fundamental article of faith, and the Prophet (sws) considered it his duty to eliminate any traces of polytheism in the society; therefore, he ordered for the elimination of portraits and images which had assumed the status of gods. Consequently, if these Ahādīth are carefully studied, the words which cannot be missed are “such pictures” and “these pictures”, which point only to a certain type of portraits and not to all forms.[5] In this regard, another Hadīth often quoted in support of their total and unconditional prohibition has also not been interpreted correctly. The words of the Prophet (sws) as quoted in the Sahīh of al-Bukhārī are:

    عَبْدَ اللَّهِ بن عُمَرَ رضي الله عنهما أخبره أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم قال إِنَّ الَّذِينَ يَصْنَعُونَ هذه الصُّوَرَ يُعَذَّبُونَ يوم الْقِيَامَةِ يُقَالُ لهم أَحْيُوا ما خَلَقْتُمْ

    ‘Abdullāh ibn ‘Umar reports from the Prophet (sws): “Indeed creators of such pictures will be punished on the Day of Judgement and it would be said to them: ‘Inject life in what you have created.’”[6]

    These words actually point to what has been stated earlier. People used to regard these images as living beings and as such used to invoke their help. The Hadīth warns such people and says that those who believe that these images are living creatures and will save them on the Day of Judgement from the wrath of the Almighty, shall actually be asked to inject life in them on that Day to redeem them of their punishment. This demand, of course, will only be meant to add insult to injury.

    It is therefore evident that the prohibition of pictures pertains to a specific form. If the art of image-making and sculpturing does not cultivate the sentiments of worship towards something, then it is certainly not disallowed. Islam has no objection against photographs, which, today, have become a social need as well in the form of identity cards, passports, etc, whether they are made by a still camera or a video camera. Similarly, pictures of one’s relatives and family bear no label of prohibition.

    (Dr. Shehzad Saleem)


    1. See, for example: Badr al-Dīn Mahmūd ibn Ahmad ibn Mūsā ibn Ahmad al-‘Aynī, ‘Umdah al-qarī sharh Sahī h al-Bukhārī, vol 22 (Beirut: Dār ihyā’ al-turāth al-‘arabī, n.d.), 70.

    2. The word tamāsīl is the plural of timsāl and denotes portraits and statues of both living and non-living beings.

    3. See: Jawwād ‘Alī, Al-Mufassal fī tārīkh al-‘arab qabl al-islām, 2nd ed. vol. 6 (Beirut: Dār al-‘ilm li al-malāyīn, 1986), 141; Ibid., vol. 6, 69.

    4. See, for example: Abū al-Walīd Muhammad ibn ‘Abdullāh ibn Ahmad al-Azraqī, Akhbār Makkah, vol. 1 (Beirut: Dār al-Andalus li al-nashr, 1996), 165.

    5. See, for example: Al-Bukhārī, Al-Jāmi ‘ al-sahīh, vol. 6, 2747, (no. 7119) ; Muslim, Al-Jāmi ‘ al-sahīh, vol. 3, 1629 (no. 2107).

    6. Al-Bukhārī, Al-Jāmi‘ al-sahīh, vol. 5, 2220, (no. 5607).

    Umer replied 3 years, 8 months ago 1 Member · 1 Reply
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