Cultural History Themes

The Religious Prohibition Against Images

A conspicuous feature of art in the Islamic world is the limited use of naturalistic images of living beings. This is because Islam, like Judaism and in certain periods Christianity, practices a kind of prohibition against the making of images – though a prohibition that has always been interpreted in very different ways.

The Koran provides no specific guidelines for the use of images. The hadith – the traditions of the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad – do, in contrast, express a clear antipathy towards figurative depictions. Some hadiths make it absolutely clear that a person who tries to emulate God’s creative force will be hard pressed on the Day of Judgment.

“He who creates pictures in this world will be ordered to breathe life into them on the Day of Judgment, but he will be unable to do so.” Hadith, Sahih Muslim (818-875)

The purpose of a prohibition against images was initially to avoid idolatry. As Muhammad himself demonstrated when he purified the Kaaba of sculptures and idols, it was an important aspect of the new doctrine that no one should be induced to worship an object or an image instead of God.

The removal of idolatrous images did not, however, put an end to all interest in figurative art. The magnificent buildings and desert palaces of the Umayyad caliphs were decorated in the style of Christian Late Antiquity, which abounded in images. Later Muslim rulers in different periods and in both east and west surrounded themselves with monumental paintings, figurative stone reliefs, sculptures, and miniature paintings. But where figurative decorations were used, rarely were they the dominant form of expression and never were they used in religious contexts.

The non-figurative character of religious decoration has remained a fundamental principle throughout the history of Islam. At no point have images found their way into the interiors of mosques; as far as we know, no Muslim artist has endeavored to depict God; the Koran has never been illustrated; and depictions of the Prophet Muhammad are rare. With the reform of coinage carried out by the caliph Abd al-Malik in 696, even the portraits of rulers were removed from Islamic coins and replaced by calligraphic decoration.

The result of restraint in the use of figurative depictions in time led Muslim artists, more than those in other cultures, to concentrate on abstract forms of expression. In traditional Islamic art, vegetal ornamentation, geometric patterns, and a fascination with script – calligraphy – reached unprecedented heights.