Image and Portrait Making in Islam

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. The bases of this view point are presented below:

By collecting and analyzing all the Ahadith on portrait and image making, 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. They used to bow down before them in adoration. Even in the Ka`bah, as a study of its history reveals, besides numerous idols, there were many sacred pictures drawn on its walls. Consequently, there is mention of the fact that the portraits of Abraham (sws) and Ismail (sws) were sketched on its walls. Moreover, A`isha (rta) has narrated some Ahadith in which it is stated that the portraits of Maryam (rta) and Jesus (sws) were suspended on the walls of churches and people used to bow to them.

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’an 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 Ahadith 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. In this regard, another Hadith often quoted in support of their total and unconditional prohibition, I am afraid, has not been interpreted correctly. The words of the Prophet (sws) as quoted in the Sahih of Bukhari are:

Creators of images shall be chastised and asked to inject life in them and they shall be unable to do so. (Kitab al-Libas)

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 Hadith 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.

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