Aniconism In Islam

Aniconism is the avoidance of images of sentient beings in some forms of Islamic art. Aniconism in Islam stems in part from the prohibition of idolatry and in part from the belief that creation of living forms is God’s prerogative. Although the Quran does not explicitly prohibit visual representation of any living being, it uses the word musawwir (maker of forms, artist) as an epithet of God. The corpus of hadith (sayings attributed to the Islamic prophet Muhammad) contains more explicit prohibitions of images of living beings, challenging painters to “breathe life” into their images and threatening them with punishment on the Day of Judgment. Muslims have interpreted these prohibitions in different ways in different times and places. Religious Islamic art has been typically characterized by the absence of figures and extensive use of calligraphic, geometric and abstract floral patterns.

However, representations of Muhammad (in some cases, with his face concealed) and other religious figures are found in some manuscripts from lands to the east of Anatolia, such as Persia and India. These pictures were meant to illustrate the story and not to infringe on the Islamic prohibition of idolatry, but many Muslims regard such images as forbidden. In secular art of the Muslim world, representations of human and animal forms historically flourished in nearly all Islamic cultures, although, partly because of opposing religious sentiments, figures in paintings were often stylized, giving rise to a variety of decorative figural designs. There were episodes of iconoclastic destruction of figurative art, such as the decree by the Umayyad caliph Yazid II in 721 CE ordering the destruction of all representational images in his realm. A number of historians have seen an Islamic influence on the Byzantine iconoclastic movement of the 8th century, though others regard this is as a legend that arose in later times in the Byzantine empire.

Muqarnas in the gate to the Shah (Abbasi) Mosque of Isfahan, Isfahan

Muqarnas in the gate to the Shah (Abbasi) Mosque of Isfahan, Isfahan

Theological views

The Quran, the Islamic holy book, does not explicitly prohibit the depiction of human figures; it merely condemns idolatry. 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 the Islamic prophet Muhammad, they need to be interpreted in order to be applied in any general manner.

Sunni exegetes of tafsir, 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 madhhab (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 within Islam. Shia 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, 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 problematic issue, 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 Sirah Rasul Allah. Of no less interest is the validity of sightings of holy personages made during dreams.

Titus Burckhardt sums up the role of aniconism in Islamic aesthetics as follows:

The absence of icons in Islam has not merely a negative but a positive role. By excluding all anthropomorphic images, at least within the religious realm, Islamic art aids man to be entirely himself. Instead of projecting his soul outside himself, he can remain in his ontological centre where he is both the viceregent (khalîfa) and slave (‘abd) of God. Islamic art as a whole aims at creating an ambience which helps man to realize 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 Islamic art creates a void; it eliminates in fact all the turmoil and passionate suggestions of the world, and in their stead creates an order that expresses equilibrium, serenity and peace.

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 Quran or the white dress of pilgrims entering Mecca, deprived of figurative images. Other spheres of religion (mysticism, popular piety, private level) exhibit in this regard significant variability. Aniconism in secular contexts is even more fluctuating. Generally speaking, aniconism in Islamic societies is restricted in modern times to specific religious contexts. In the past, it was enforced only in some times and places.


The Pisa Griffin, probably created in the 11th century in Al-Andalus, is the largest Islamic figurative sculpture to survive.

The Pisa Griffin, probably created in the 11th century in Al-Andalus, is the largest Islamic figurative sculpture to survive.

The representation of living beings in Islamic art is not just a modern phenomenon or because of current technology, Westernization or the cult of the personality. Frescos and reliefs of humans and animals adorned palaces of the Umayyad era, as on the famous Mshatta Facade now in Berlin. Figurative miniatures in books occur later in most Islamic countries but somewhat less in Arabic-speaking areas. The human figure is central to the Persian miniature and other traditions such as the Ottoman miniature and Mughal painting, and represents a good deal of the attractiveness of Islamic art for non-Muslims. The Persian miniature tradition began when Persian courts were Sunni but continued after the Shia Safavid dynasty took power. Shah Tahmasp I of Persia began as a keen patron and amateur artist himself, but he turned against painting and other forbidden activities after a religious midlife crisis. From the 13th century to the 17th century, depictions of Muhammad, the later ones usually veiled,) and other prophets or Biblical characters, like Adam (Adem), Abraham (Ibrahim) or Jesus (Isa) and Solomon (Sulaymān) and Alexander the Great (often identified as Dhul-Qarnayn, a figure in the Quran), 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 from the 16th century, five Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs. Iblis (the Devil) also is present in various illustrated manuscripts. The prohibition on the depiction of God has, as far as is known, remained absolute at all times.

The avoidance of idolatry is the main concern of the restrictions on images, and the traditional form for religious cult image, the free-standing sculpture, is extremely rare, and there are no large examples of humans. The Pisa Griffin, of a mythical beast and designed to spout water for a fountain, is the largest example, at three feet tall in bronze, and probably only survives because it was taken as booty by the city of Pisa in the Middle Ages. Like the famous lions supporting a fountain in the Alhambra, it probably came from Al-Andalus, one of the more relaxed Arabic-speaking regions in this respect. The griffin and lions cannot easily be regarded as potential idols, given their submissive position (and the lack of religions worshipping lions or griffins), and the same is true of small decorative figures in relief on objects in metalwork, or figures painted on Islamic pottery, both of which are relatively common. In particular hunting scenes of humans and animals were popular, and presumably regarded as clearly having no religious function. The figures in miniatures were, until the late 16th century, always numerous in each image, small (typically only an inch or two high), and showing the central figures at roughly the same size as the attendants and servants who are usually also shown, thus deflecting potential accusations of idolatry. The books illustrated were most often the classics of Persian poetry and historical chronicles.

The hadith show some concessions for context, as with the dolls, and condemn most strongly the makers rather than the owners of images. A long tradition of prefaces to muraqqas sought to justify the creation of images without getting involved in discussions of the specific texts, using arguments such as comparing God to an artist.

Miniature painting was mostly patronized by the court circle and is a private form of art; the owner chooses whom to show a book or muraqqa (album). But wall-paintings with large figures were found in early Islam, and in Safavid and later Persia, especially from the 17th century, but were always rare in the Arabic-speaking world. Such paintings are also mainly found in private palaces; examples in public buildings are rare though not unknown, in Iran there are even some in mosques.

In Islamic sacred architecture, ornamentation consists mainly in arabesques and geometrical patterns. Mosques do not feature dynamic elements, but aim for a quality of serenity and repose. Similarly, weight-bearing elements are not designed along anthropomorphic lines to present an image of physical strength; cupolas for example often feature muqarnas disguising the transition between the cupola and its supports, creating the impression that the supports, rather than holding up the cupola, have “congealed” from the divine void above.

For many years, Wahhabi clerics opposed the establishment of a television service in Saudi Arabia, as they believed it immoral to produce images of humans. The introduction of television in 1965 offended some Saudis, and one of King Faisal’s nephews, Prince Khalid ibn Musa’id ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, was killed in a police shootout in August 1965 after he led an assault on one of the new television stations.


Depending on which segment of Islamic societies are referred to, the application of aniconism is characterized by noteworthy differences. 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 Jazeera, with a global reach, beyond the Arabic speaking and Muslim audience. Portraits of secular and religious leaders are omnipresent on banknotes and coins, in streets and offices (e.g. presidents like Nasser and Mubarak, Arafat, al-Assad or Hezbollah’s Nasrallah and Ayatollah Khomeini). Anthropomorphic statues in public places are to be found in most Muslim countries (Saddam Hussein’s are infamous), as well as art 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.

The Taliban movement in Afghanistan banned photography and destroyed non-Muslim artifacts, especially carvings and statues such as the Buddhas of Bamiyan, generally tolerated by other Muslims, on the grounds that the artifacts are idolatrous or shirk. However, sometimes those who profess aniconism will practice figurative representation (cf. portraits of Talibans from the Kandahar photographic studios during their imposed ban on photography).

For Shia communities, portraits of the major figures of Shiite history are important elements of religious devotion. In Iran, portraits of Muhammad and of Ali, printed on pieces of cloth or woven into carpets, are called temsal (“likenesses”) and can be bought around shrines and in the streets, to be hung in homes or carried with oneself. In Pakistan, India and Bangladesh portraits of Ali can be found on notoriously ornate trucks, buses and rickshaws. Contrary to the Sunni tradition, a photographic picture of the deceased can be placed on the Shiite tombs. A curiosity in Iran is an Orientalist photography supposed to represent Muhammad as a young boy. The Grand Ayatollah Sistani of Najaf in Iraq has given a fatwā declaring the depiction of Muhammad, the prophets and other holy characters, permissible if it is made with the utmost respect.

Circumvention methods

A hilya or description in calligraphy of the appearance of Muhammad by the Ottoman calligrapher Hâfiz Osman (d. 1698).

A hilya containing a description of Muhammad, by Hâfiz Osman (1642–1698)

Medieval Muslim artists found various ways to represent especially sensitive figures such as Muhammad. He is sometimes shown with a fiery halo hiding his face, head, or whole body, and from about 1500 is often shown with a veiled face. Members of his immediate family and other prophets may be treated in the same way. More generally, it can be believed 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 cannot be mistaken. 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, symbolising the severing of the soul, and clarifying the fact that it is not something alive and imbued with a soul that is depicted: a purposeful flaw to make what is depicted impossible to live in reality (as merely impossible in reality is still often frowned upon or banned, such as representations of comic book characters or unicorns, although exceptions do exist). Calligraphy, the most Islamic of arts in the Muslim world, has also its figurative side due to anthropo- and zoomorphic calligrams. Few portraits were attempted, and the ability to create recognisable portraits was rare in Islamic art until the Mughal tradition began in the late 15th century, although in both Mughal India and Ottoman Turkey portraits of the ruler then became very popular in court circles.

Forms of Islamic calligraphy evolved, especially in the Ottoman period, to fulfill a function similar to that of representative art by means of calligraphic representation, when on paper usually with elaborate frames of Ottoman illumination. These include the name of Muhammad, the hilya, or description of his physical appearance, similar treatments of one or more of the names of God in Islam, and the tughra, a calligraphic version of the name of an Ottoman sultan.


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. All hadith presented in this section are Sunni, not Shia.

Narrated Aisha:
(the 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).”

— Muhammad al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari

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 Dawood, Sunan Abu Dawood

Narrated Ali ibn Abu Talib:
Safinah AbuAbdurRahman said that a man prepared food for Ali ibn Abu Talib 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 Dawood, Sunan Abu Dawood

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.

— Muhammad al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari

To show the superiority of the monotheist faith, Muhammad smashed the idols at the Kaaba. He also removed paintings that were blasphemous to Islam, while protecting others (the images of Mary and Jesus) inside the building. The hadith below emphasizes that aniconism depends not only on what, but also on how things are depicted.

Narrated Ibn Abbas:
When Allah’s Apostle arrived in Mecca, he refused to enter the Ka’ba while there were idols in it. So he ordered that they be taken out. The pictures of the (Prophets) Abraham and Ishmael, holding arrows of divination in their hands, were carried out. The Prophet said, “May Allah ruin them (i.e. the infidels) for they knew very well that they (i.e. Abraham and Ishmael) never drew lots by these (divination arrows). Then the Prophet entered the Ka’ba and said. “Allahu Akbar” in all its directions and came out and not offer any prayer therein.

— Muhammad al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari

Muslim b. Subaih reported: I was with Masriuq in the house which had the portrayals of Mary (hadrat Maryan). 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 ibn al-Hajjaj, Sahih Muslim

Although pagans in Muhammad’s times also worshiped trees and stones, Muhammad 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 unanimated objects.”

— Muhammad al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari

A’isha 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 ibn al-Hajjaj, Sahih Muslim

A’isha 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 ibn al-Hajjaj, Sahih Muslim

Muhammad also warned his followers of dying amongst people that built places of worship at graves and placed pictures in it (i.e. Christians).

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.”

— Muhammad al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari

Muhammad made it very clear that angels do not like pictures.

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 picture. 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’?”

— Muhammad al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari

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 picture or a dog.”

— Muhammad al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari

On the other hand, there are hadith stating that Muhammad permitted dolls belonging to both his wife and daughter in his own house.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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