Are Pictures of Muhammad Really Forbidden In Islam?

While some Muslims were outraged by a magazine printing cartoon pictures of Muhammad, we have to step back and calmly ask, are pictures of Muhammad really forbidden in Islam? – the answer might surprise you.

Numerous passages in the Qur’an prohibit idolatry, and worshipping statues or pictures, but there is not even single verse in the Qur’an that explicitly or implicitly says not to have any pictures of Muhammad. This bears repeating: There is not a single verse in the Qur’an that prohibits making or having pictures of Muhammad or people or animals or trees. In fact, there are some verses in the Qur’an which mention images in a positive context and which therefore presuppose that some statues or images were approved by God, see the article Muhammad and Images.

However, the vast majority of Muslims are Sunni Muslims, who regard six authorized collections of hadiths as the highest written authority in Islam after the Qur’an. The hadiths are records, often very detailed, of what Muhammad taught and did. We give multiple quotations to show that these teachings are not confined to just one writer/collector, but are spread throughout the different hadith collections.

Where multiple trustworthy hadiths agree, Sunni Muslims will take this as binding. In other words, people today are kicked out of Islam, or even killed based on the hadiths.

Pictures of Muhammad are "not exactly" forbidden in the hadiths either. The hadiths do not single out Muhammad’s picture. Rather, in the hadith we find the prohibition of all pictures of people or animals, which would include pictures from a camera.

For example, Sahih Muslim vol.3 no.5268 (p.1160) says, "Ibn ‘Umar reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) having said: Those who paint pictures would be punished on the Day of Resurrection and it would be said to them: Breathe soul into what you have created.2519"

Notice that the prohibition was not just against idolators who made pictures, or even Muslims who made pictures for other reasons, but for anyone who made pictures.

Sahih Muslim vol.3 no.5271 (p.1161) gives a little more detail: "This hadith has been reported on the authority of Abu Mu’awiya though another chain of transmitters (and the words are): ‘Verily the most grievously tormented people amongst the denizens [inhabitants] of Hell on the Day of Resurrection would be the painters of pictures.2520..."

"Narrated ‘Aisha: Allah’s Apostle said, ‘The painter of these pictures will be punished on the Day of Resurrection, and it will be said to them, Make alive what you have created.’" Bukhari vol.9 book 93 no.646 p.487. no.647 p.487 is the same except it is narrated by Ibn ‘Umar.

No pictures of people or animals according to Bukhari vol.4 book 54 no.447-450 p.297-299.

Conclusion: It is clear that the hadiths prohibit pictures of animals or people, especially in homes. There is no focus on pictures of Muhammad per se. All pictures of people and animals are forbidden. It is a completely general prohibition.


What Do These Hadiths Mean?

Footnote 2519 (p.1160) says, "The ahadith pertaining to the preparation of pictures whether with the help of colour, paint, or pencil or photographic cameras, declare this art to be unlawful in Islam. The famous scholar of Hadith and an eminent jurist of the seventh century of Hijra, Ibn Daqiq al-Id, has made the following observation in regard to this art:

‘The reasons of the Shari’ah are so eloquent and clear in regard to the prohibition of making pictures that they need no comment and elucidation. That person is missing the mark who says that this prohibition comes under the category of disapproval and is not absolutely unlawful and the stress which had been laid upon its prohibition was not because of the fact that idolatry had been quite recently curbed, ... in the ahadith the reason put forward for the unlawfulness of pictures is this: Those who prepare pictures would be asked to breathe soul on the Day of Resurrection in these pictures made by them. And then they would not be able to do this, they would be punished ... (Ihham al-Ahham, Sharh ‘Umdat al-Ahham, Vol II, pp 171-2)." The footnote goes on to give a lengthy discussion as to why all pictures are forbidden, but we will not quote those for the sake of space.

What about Muslims in more modern times? Footnote 2520 (p.1161) says, "A well-known scholar of our times ‘Allama Muhammad Munir (of Damascus) has clearly stated that the photos of the modern age fall under the category of pictures. He says: ‘The words of the Holy Prophet (may peace be upon him) that every maker of the photo would be tormented on the Day of Resurrection, include every artist whether he makes pictures with the help of his hand (with pencil or with the help of colour paint) or with the help of camera." (marginal notes on the book Ihham al-Ahham, Sharh ‘Umdat al-Ahham. Vol. II, p.37).

Conclusion: "No pictures" includes no photos (still or moving). "No pictures" might reduce idolatry, but the reason given is not that, but that Allah will torment all who have made pictures.

Observation: It is clear that making pictures is a horrible sin in Islam. There are dozens of narrations that emphasize and reiterate this point. However, it is always said that Allah will punish those people on the Day of Judgment. There is no command for Muslims to go out now and punish those painters themselves. This is particularly relevant since Muhammad was not shy in this regard. He ordered severe punishments, and at times even commanded torture, of many people who in his opinion had broken the law of Allah (c.f. this summary article for issues like whipping people who drink alcohol or gamble, cutting off the hands of thieves, etc., and this one for the issue of torture). Despite condemning the making of pictures as an especially grieveous sin, Muhammad does not prescribe earthly punishments for those who do.


Any Counter-Examples?

That is always a good question to ask when looking at the hadiths. Yes, there are two types of counter-examples, counter-example does not necessarily mean contradiction with what the rest of the hadiths say. Rather one is a qualification, and the other counter-example is "an exception that proves the rule."

Counter-example 1: Dolls, pictures of non-living things, and even some churches are OK

Dolls: A’ishah [‘Aisha/A’isha] played with dolls when she was with other girls. When Muhammad came in, the other girls went out, and when Muhammad went out, they came back in. Sunan Abu Dawud vol.3 chapter 1769 no.4913 p.1373

Footnote 4288 on this verse says, "This tradition show that playing with dolls by children is permissible. The dolls used as toys for children are not prohibited. They do not fall under the category of pictures of animate objects that are prohibited. But these dolls should be meant only for children."

‘Aisha and Muhammad married when she was seven years old, and ‘Aisha was "taken to his house as a bride when she was nine and her dolls were with her;" Sahih Muslim vol.2 book 8 ch. 551 no.3311 p.716

‘Aisha played with dolls while her husband Muhammad was with her. Sahih Muslim vol.4 book 29 ch.1005 no.5981 p.1299. One was a horse with wings. Sunan Abu Dawud chapter 1769 no.4914 p.1373.

Bukhari vol.8 book 73 no.151 p.95 says something very similar. On the other hand, the English translator of Bukhari (Muhammad Muhsin Khan) has a different opinion. The parenthesis below this narration says, "(The playing with the dolls and similar images is forbidden, but it was allowed for ‘Aisha, at that time as she was a little girl, not yet reached the age of puberty. Fateh-Al-Bari Page 143 Vol.13)." However, the parentheses are not in the Arabic.

Inanimate patterns: A’isha had a curtain with pictures. Muhammad told her to remove the picture, so she cut it in pieces and made pillows out of it, according to Sunan Nasa’i vol.1 chapter 454 no.764 p.471

A young girl from Ethiopia with a patterned dress made Muhammad happy. "214 Narrated Um Khalid bint Khalid: When I came from Ethiopia (to Medina), I was a young girl. Allah’s Apostle made me wear a sheet having marks on it. Allah’s Apostle was rubbing those marks with his hands saying, "Sanah! Sanah!" (i.e. good, good)." Bukhari vol.5 book 58 no.214 p.137

Churches: It might surprise some to hear that the hadiths are not against going to church, as long as there are no pictures. "(54) CHAPTER. To pray in a church or in a temple etc. ‘Umar said, ‘We do not enter your churches because of the statues and pictures.’ Ibn ‘Abbas used to pray in the church provided there were no statues in it." Bukhari vol.1 chapter 54 p.254

Counter-example 2: What happens if there are pictures in a Muslim house?

Angels do not enter a house with a dog or a picture Sahih Muslim vol.3 book 22 no.5246-5252 p.1157-1158 as well as Ibn-i-Majah vol.5 book 32 no.3649-3652 p.108-109

Angels do not enter a house where there is a picture or a dog or a junubi (Someone who is unclean because of sex). Sunan Nasa’i vol.1 no.264 p.240 also Sunan Abu Dawud vol.1 book 1 no.227 p.55-56

Narrated ‘Aisha, the mother of the faithful believers: I bought a cushion with pictures on it. When Allah’s Apostle saw it, he kept standing at the door and did not enter the house. I noticed the sign of disgust on his face, so I said, "O Allah’s Apostle (Please let me know) what sin I have done." Allah’s Apostle said, "What about this cushion?" I replied, "I bought it for you to sit and recline on." Allah’s Apostle said, "The painters (i.e. owners) of these pictures will be punished on the Day of Resurrection. It will be said to them, ‘Put life in what you have created (.i.e. painted).’" The Prophet added, "The angels do not enter a house where there are pictures." Bukhari vol.3 book 34 no.318 p.180

No pictures, even of animals. "Narrated ‘Aisha: The Prophet entered upon me while there was a curtain having pictures (of animals) in the house. His face got red with anger, and then he got hold of the curtain and tore it into pieces. The Prophet said, ‘Such people as paint these pictures will receive the severest punishment on the Day of Resurrection.’" Bukhari vol.8 book 73 no.130 p.83-84

Muhammad went to Fatimah’s house, but turned back when he saw a figured curtain. Sunan Abu Dawud vol.3 book 21 no.3746 p.1060

When ‘Ali [Fatima’s husband] invited Muhammad over for food, Muhammad saw in the house pictures and then went back home. Ibn-i-Majah vol.4 book 29 no.3359 p.481

Conclusion: Although these hadiths do not threaten eternal punishment for those who merely own pictures — it is always only the makers of the pictures that are cursed and condemned —, Muhammad’s very clear disapproval of having them in the house, and his example of destroying any picture in his own home, would be enough for any faithful Muslim to follow his example. A good Sharia Muslim would have no picture of people or animals, except perhaps dolls for children.

Observation: Apart from the destruction of idols (e.g. in the Kaaba) it seems that Muhammad did neither order the punishment of painters, nor the destruction of other privately owned images. There are dozens of hadiths like the above. We have not found any that give a clear command to destroy pictures in general.

Summary: In the most authoritative sources of Islam, there is no particular emphasis on forbidding pictures of prophets, or the person of Muhammad in particular. It is clear that Muslims should not make pictures of Muhammad but only as an application of the general prohibition against making pictures of people or animals.


Muslims and Pictures Today

No pictures in the home includes no television in the home. When television in Saudi Arabia began having pictures of people and animals, there were violent riots. On the other hand, in the west at least, most Muslims do not observe any prohibitions against pictures.

Moustapha Akkad was the Muslim who produced and directed the movie "Muhammad Messenger of God". It is widely used by Muslims as a missionary tool to invite people to Islam. Although the person of Muhammad is not shown in the movie, the actors are playing many of his companions, contradicting the above Islamic rules. It is ironic that the producer of this flattering movie was himself killed by Muslims. Moustapha was one of the people who died in the hotel bombing in Amman Jordan on November 9, 2005.

Moreover, you can see many pictures of Muhammad, created by Muslims themselves, in museums and on web sites, e.g. The Birth of Muhammad, Muhammad's call to prophethood, The Night Journey of Muhammad on His Steed, Buraq, etc. (1, 2, 3). The Mohammed Image Archive has two substantial collections of Muslim art containing depictions of Muhammad.

The following are examples of pictures of people from current Muslim books about prayer. While probably the majority of Muslims would have no problem with the book covers below, Sharia Muslims who tell people to follow the hadiths would see that this disobeys the previously mentioned hadiths.


(Source 1, Source 2)

These pictures were on the referenced sites as of February 6, 2006

Here is another picture, actually a large painting, of Saddam Hussain praying. Look at this, and then ask if this goes against the teaching of the hadiths. It is understandable though that no Muslims in Iraq voiced any criticism about this, because they would have been killed if they did. Hussein had numerous other pictures of him too. I am not aware of Muslims outside of Iran having outrage over this picture:

(Source, February 6, 2006)


Sharia Law, Pictures, and the Hypocrites

Moderate Muslims have no problem with pictures, as long as they are not used in idolatry. But for Sharia Muslims, are you criticizing what non-Muslims do based on the hadiths, when you as a Muslim break these same hadiths?

If you have been a Muslim hypocrite, but do not want to be anymore, I am ready to help. I will be happy to go over to your house, and help you destroy all of your books and newspapers that have photographs of people or animals in them, and break your TV, VCR, and video camera. When can I come over?   ;-)

So if a conservative Muslim tries to tell you that Sharia Law should be practiced today, or is outraged over a picture, ask them if they have a TV. If following the hadiths does not work for them, they are a hypocrite to demand from others to follow it.

Now God does not want us to be hypocrites. If you teach other people to follow something, then you should try to follow it yourself. But if you do not think you should follow something, such as Sharia, then do not tell others that they should follow it.

If you wish to discuss this, or have any comments, suggestions, or corrections, please contact me at

Summary: The points of this article are very simple:

Furthermore, this article was written as background information for gaining a better understanding in regard to the controversy about the Muhammad Cartoons. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have been protesting, and thousands of Muslims became violent, attacking and destroying embassies of Denmark and other countries, issuing death threats, etc.

The above discussion shows that the prohibition of pictures cannot be the reason. What then is really going on here? What is the reason for thousands of Muslims to go on a rampage?

To dig deeper into this topic, continue with this article: Is Islam above Criticism?

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