Does Islam ban images of Mohammad?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 7 2006 7:08 PM

Graven Images 101

Does Islam really prohibit images of religious figures?

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for The Explainer's free daily podcast on iTunes.

Outrage over a series of Danish cartoons that depict the Prophet Mohammed continues to spread throughout the Muslim world. On Tuesday, protesters attacked a NATO base in Afghanistan; in Pakistan, demonstrators chanted, "Hang the man who insulted the prophet." Many news reports claim that the cartoons violate a Muslim stricture against the depiction of the prophet. Does Islam really prohibit images of religious figures?

Not all Islamic traditions ban images of Mohammed, and some are pretty lax about pictures of lesser figures. For Muslims, the rule against depicting God and the prophets comes from the Hadith, a collection of sayings and actions attributed to Mohammed. (A few passages in the Quran have been taken to offer oblique support to this notion.) The doctrine has been interpreted in various ways over the centuries. Persian art of the 15th and 16th centuries shows the figure of Mohammed with his face, hands, and feet covered. Some earlier Persian works show full views.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Advertisement

Arab Muslims tend to be the strictest about religious imagery. Shiites are more flexible than Sunnis; for example, they display images of Husayn, * the grandson of Mohammed. Devotional portraits of leading teachers are generally OK, as long as they don't fall under the Hadith ban on depicting the major prophets. Pictures of people in religious scenes—like pilgrims on the Hajj—are also allowed. These are more likely to be displayed in the home than at a mosque, and some conservative Muslims will refuse to pray in their presence.

Muslims are more or less unanimous on the subject of Allah—he can't be drawn under any circumstances. The prohibition on depicting God extends throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Second Commandment instructs the faithful not to make "any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." Jews have for the most part avoided visual representations of the deity, although there's been a great deal of Jewish figurative art throughout history. (Some Reform synagogues have stained-glass windows depicting figures from the Old Testament. More conservative Jews won't even write down the word "God.")

Christian attitudes vary widely. The Orthodox Church uses religious icons for worship: Since God became embodied in Jesus, you can represent Jesus and other holy figures. You can't draw a picture of the Lord above, though. Catholicism assigns religious imagery a more pedagogical role, interpreting the Bible to say that religious images are allowed as long as you don't worship them. That's why you'll find that white-bearded fellow on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Some Protestant traditions—like Calvinism—banned images outright. Today, you won't find much imagery in Baptist churches. Lutherans and Anglicans tend to be more accepting of religious images, believing that a picture can be used to teach an idea as long as it's not being worshipped.

Many Eastern religions make liberal use of imagery—pictures of the Buddha and of Hindu gods are particularly widespread. Some historians theorize that early Buddhists banned religious imagery: You can find ancient art that uses symbols—like a tree, a wheel, or a footprint—where a picture of the Buddha would normally go. Sikhism, which merges elements of Islam and Hinduism, prohibits the depiction of God. Sikhs do allow images of their most important spiritual figures for inspiration.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Charles Barber of the University of Notre Dame, David Morgan of Valparaiso University, and Robert Sharf of the University of California.

* Correction, February 8, 2006: This piece originally referred to the grandson of Mohammed as Ali. Mohammed's grandson, Husayn ibn Ali, is better known as Husayn. The imam known as Ali was Mohammed's cousin. Click here  to return to the corrected sentence.

TODAY IN SLATE

The Slatest

Ben Bradlee Dead at 93

The legendary Washington Post editor presided over the paper’s Watergate coverage.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.
Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

Walmart Is Crushing the Rest of Corporate America in Adopting Solar Power

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 5:38 PM Justified Paranoia Citizenfour offers a look into the mind of Edward Snowden.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.