Does Islam Really Forbid Images Of Muhammad?

Muslims the world over have strongly condemned Wednesday’s terrorist attack against the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 people were killed by masked gunmen. The paper is believed to have been targeted because of its history of publishing provocative cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. But what do the teachings of Islam actually say about creating images of the prophet?

There’s no part in the Quran where Muhammad says that images of him are forbidden. But the issue is mentioned in the hadith, a secondary text that many Muslims consult for instruction on how to live a good life.

The theological underpinnings of the ban can be traced back to the very beginnings of Islam in Arabia, according to John Esposito, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University. Early followers of Muhammad held themselves apart from their Christian neighbors, whom they believed to be too deeply attached to icons and images. The ban is also informed by one of the central tenets of Islam — the idea that the Prophet Muhammad was a man, and not a god.

“It comes from the notion that God is transcendent and that nothing should be put in God’s place,” Esposito told The Huffington Post. “Anything like that is idolatry. You don’t want to have a statue or a picture of God, because people may wind up praying to it.”

For similar reasons, some Muslims object to depictions of Jesus or Moses, who are also considered prophets in Islam. In several Muslim countries, the films “Noah” and “Exodus” were banned this year because of their portrayal of these important figures, CNN reports.


The issue isn’t unique to Islam — it has also come up in the other Abrahamic traditions. In Judaism, the Bible depicts God as becoming deeply troubled after the ancient Israelites created and worshipped a golden calf. The Byzantine Empire saw the rise of the Iconoclasm movement, a name that literally means “image breaking.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art offers a primer on the period:

Imperial legislation barred the production and use of figural images; simultaneously, the cross was promoted as the most acceptable decorative form for Byzantine churches. Archaeological evidence suggests that in certain regions of Byzantium, including Constantinople and Nicaea, existing icons were destroyed or plastered over. Very few early Byzantine icons survived the Iconoclastic period.

An opposition to icons flared up again during the Protestant Reformation. The prominent Protestant theologian John Calvin wrote fiery sermons decrying man’s audacity in attempting to give God a human form.
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