How the “Ban” on Images of Muhammad Came to Be


(Newsweek) – The notion of a long-standing and immutable Islamic “ban” on images of the Prophet is nothing if not a contemporary innovation, catalyzed by the mass media.

In the wake of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a flurry of articles have explored whether images of the Prophet Muhammad are “banned” in Islam. While some Muslim voices are adamant that this is strictly the case in Islamic law, others (both Muslim and non-Muslim) have cautioned that it is not so.

Most public discussions of this so-called ban have explored verses in the Koran and Sayings by the Prophet, neither of which yield decisive results. What has been lost in the mix, however, is an exploration of the evidence found within Islamic law. Indeed, if one is to speak of a “ban,” then one must canvas a variety of Islamic jurisprudential sources in order to determine the legality or illegality of representing the Prophet in Islamic traditions. And if one carefully mines the sources, the results become much clearer — and much more nuanced and complex than one might anticipate.

There exist many handbooks of Islamic law that compile opinions on a number of matters. In regard to image making, the earliest and most synthetic source is the medieval law book of Ibn Qudama (died 1223), a towering Sunni theologian of the medieval period. In his handbook, Ibn Qudama discusses the various possible “abominations” that can occur at wedding ceremonies, including the playing of music and backgammon, the consumption of liquor, and the presence of images. As for the legality of images, he notes that the question is complicated because it depends on what the images depict and where they are situated. (See footnote 1.) 

He thus concludes that images are not prohibited per se; rather, their legality depends on content and context.

A century later, the staunchly Sunni theologian Ibn Taymiyya (died 1328)—who exerted great influence on today’s ultraconservative Wahhabi and Salafi theological movements—penned a hefty number of legal opinions. In his collection of fatwas, Ibn Taymiyya warns that images should not be used as a way to get closer to God, to seek His intercession, or to request a favor from Him. He also notes that Muslim practices must be differentiated from Christian ones, the latter defined by the prolific presence and use of images in churches.

As a consequence, in even this most conservative collection of medieval fatwas, there does not exist a single expressly stated “ban” on images. The crux of the matter, rather, is that “images” of saints should not be used for requests and when seeking intercession, as is the case in Christian religious traditions.

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