One of the most prevalent misconceptions about Islam is that it strictly forbids images of the Prophet and other holy persons. This notion was widely circulated in 2005 to explain the angry reaction of some Muslims to the publication of satirical cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten, and again following the recent murders in the offices of Charlie Hebdo. In reality, however, the issue of whether Islam forbids images of the Prophet is deeply contested among Muslims.

When I was an undergraduate at Oklahoma State University in the 1970s, I purchased a used copy of “Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi,” by the great French scholar of Islamic mysticism Henri Corbin. The book included reproductions of several miniature paintings containing images of various Islamic prophets, including one of the Prophet Muhammad. The previous owner had scrawled the word “heresy” in block letters on the frontispiece and, throughout the book, had blacked out the faces of all of the human figures in the illustrations, including that of Muhammad.

Yet the images he defaced were most likely created by Muslim artists. This vandalized book provides a perfect example of the longstanding debate about images of revered persons within the Muslim world. While some Muslims believe that images of the Prophet are inherently blasphemous and forbidden by Islamic law, there is nonetheless a vibrant tradition of Muslim figurative art that includes images not only of the Prophet Muhammad but of the Shi’i imams and prominent Sufis as well.

As Professor Omid Safi of Duke University has pointed out—in his weekly online column for the website On Being—such paintings are “not rogue images, done in secret, but rather an elite art paid for and patronized by the Muslim caliphs and sultans, produced in the courts of
the Muslims.”

In his book “Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters,” Safi describes an image that his family brought to the United States when they fled the Iran-Iraq war in 1985. It depicts the Prophet Muhammad as “a handsome man with deep Persian eyes and eyebrows, wearing a green turban.” Safi describes the ways different Muslim visitors to his home responded to this image.

While most Iranian guests were familiar with such images and saw no problem, some Sunnis from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Egypt expressed disapproval. One Pakistani guest insisted, “Muslims do not depict the Prophet.” However, as Safi points out, the very existence of this image is proof that at least some Muslims do.

The uneasiness among some Muslims is related to a longstanding strand of aniconicism within Islam, which in its strictest form has discouraged the depiction of any living being. There are, for example, hadiths (reports about the speech or actions of the Prophet Muhammad) arguing that on the Day of Judgment those who make images will be punished unceasingly—forced to try, unsuccessfully, to breathe life into them. Human beings should not confuse their own limited creativity with that of the Creator.

This explains a tendency within Islam to privilege calligraphy and geometric patterns over figurative art. Particularly within the Sunni legal tradition, some jurists have argued that one should especially avoid images of the human form, in particular images of Muhammad and other exemplary individuals, for fear that one might be tempted to worship them rather than God.

Nevertheless, such images are widespread, especially within the Shi’i and Sufi traditions, which consider love for the Prophet Muhammad to be an essential element of Islam. On the other hand, more legalistic and exclusivist schools of thought, such as Wahabi and Salafi Islam, consider such devotion to the Prophet idolatry.

It should be noted that most of the Muslims who criticized the controversial images in Denmark and Paris objected to them not because of a blanket rejection of pious figurative art, but because they saw them as disrespectful and insulting. It should also be noted that those Muslims who have called for vengeance represent a tiny minority. In fact, Muslims overwhelmingly condemned the Charlie Hebdo murders on religious grounds, noting that the Prophet responded to insults with forgiveness and called on Muslims to follow his example. For most Muslims, such acts of violence are simply unacceptable and a violation of basic Islamic principles of behavior.

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