Why are images of living beings that are not even idols prohibited?

Images of living things like humans, animals and even representations of imaginary beings are as a rule prohibited in Islam. This means that we Muslims cannot draw or sketch or paint or engrave or carve any objects of animate beings nor display them in our homes. This prohibition applies equally to two-dimensional representations like paintings as they do to three-dimensional images like statues or figurines.

     The prohibition is based on the teachings of our beloved Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him).  A man once came to a Companion of the Prophet named Ibn Abbas and said; “My sustenance is from my manual profession and I make these pictures“. The companion said, “I will tell you only what I heard from God’s Apostle. I heard him saying, ‘Whoever makes a picture will be punished by God till he puts life in it, and he will never be able to put life in it’” Hearing this, the man heaved a sigh and his face turned pale. The companion said to him: “What a pity! If you insist on making pictures I advise you to make pictures of trees and any other inanimate objects” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari)

    The Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) also made it clear to us that angels do not like pictures of animate things.  It once happened that the archangel Gabriel promised to visit him but delayed, so that the Prophet got worried about it. At last he came out and found Gabriel and complained to him of his grief (for his delay). Gabriel said to him: “We do not enter a place in which there is a picture or a dog” (Saheeh Muslim). Now you may wonder why our faith is so rigid when it comes to representations of living beings apart from idols that are worshipped. Let us hear what the Prophet (Peace Be  upon him) had to say what God Almighty Himself thought of it. He said: “God says: ‘Who does more wrong than the one who tries to create something like My creation; let him create a grain of wheat or an ear of corn.'” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari). Thus God Himself makes it clear to us that He does not take kindly to our creating a likeness of His living Creation.

    But there are other good reasons why even non-idol images are looked down upon by Muslims. Carving images has often been was closely associated with idolatry. People in the olden days – and indeed even today – were in the habit of carving images for the sake of worship. Thus images, known in Arabic by the general term tasweer (which can refer to a picture, image, statue etc) were deemed anathema by the earliest followers of Islam and faithfully followed by Muslims throughout the ages.

     But that’s not all. images themselves can lead to idolatry. Who knows, ignorant people who come across an image might be led to believe it’s a deity being represented and start worshipping it. But that’s not all, it can also lead to hero worship and to the provocation of sexual desire leading to immorality. How many young people today have pictures of their pop heroes or sports heroes or pin up girls in seductive poses given pride of place in their bedrooms? Isn’t this a form of idolatry? Little wonder that even a music show has to have a title like American Idol to capture these foolish young minds. The same holds true of portraits of rulers, chiefs, despots and monarchs with bloated egos which majestically hang on walls and tower over you as if watching over you like a divinity would. What arrogance and still people don’t see through it all. Undue reverence for men is the first step towards idolatry and all that is hateful to God.

    Statues of living beings, even though they be dead, are even worse than portraits as they more closely resemble living objects even to the extent of casting shadows and because of the undue respect and reverence people pay to them. Have you not noticed how such statues are often depicted larger than life as if to give an aura of divinity to the personage so depicted. Is there really a need to perpetuate the memory of the dead in this manner? Why not write about their feats and deeds rather than glorify them in this crude manner which only appeals to the baser instincts in man. Islam on the other hand gives dignity to man. It gives respect and self-esteem to each and every one of us.

   All men are equal before God, which is why it abhors excessive glorification of people, no matter how great they may have been. Men are created differently and some are more capable than others. Finally all that they accomplish is by the Grace of God.  God alone knows the secret and the hidden as much as he does the manifest. Men are forgetful but not God. How many a pious person would have passed away unsung and forgotten? But God never forgets and will give them the gift of immortality which the unbelievers with bloated egos yearn to achieve through statues and their like in order to be remembered by their fellow men.

    On the other hand neither our Prophet or the Caliphs who succeeded him or the pious saints among Muslims were ever ‘immortalized’ in statues. Their deeds are well known though, not by erecting statues, but by oral lore passed from parent to child or written record from teacher to student or at meetings or gatherings of the believers whose hearts and minds are filled with inspiration on hearing their achievements. Just ask yourself how has the life story of our beloved Prophet been preserved. Every single word and deed so faithfully recorded and passed down to posterity without resorting to visual representations of any sort. Even his beautiful countenance has been preserved for us, a fair man with broad head, aquiline nose and a kindly disposition, so that we can only imagine in our mind’s eye what he would have looked like, but even that is stretching it a bit too far.

   Once, when his Companions wanted to stand up to greet him out of respect, the Prophet (Peace Be Upon him) forbade them, saying:

Do not stand up as the Persians do, some people honouring the others

(Aboo Dawood )

On another occasion he said:

Do not praise me as the Christians praise the son of Mary, for I am but the servant of God and His Messenger

(Saheeh Al-Bukhari)

Thus how can a religion which does not even allow us to be lavish in glorifying even the Messenger of God (Peace be on him) tolerate the erection of statues meant to venerate people?

   Although some might argue that statues are meant for mere ornament or for remembering the dead, and not worship, they do not realize that ideas change with time, and that what seems unlikely in one environment can become acceptable in another. Could not idol worship have originated when men began making statues of their fathers and forefathers to remember them; before long they would have given them undue reverence, placing flowers at their feet and bowing before them and as one generation followed another the veneration would have turned into worship so that these statues themselves came to be worshiped as deities to be feared and at the same time implored for help. People’s memories after all are short and isn’t it possible that with the passage of time it will all be forgotten? So the further we are removed from the practice of the idolaters, who fashion and bow down to objects of their own creation, the better. Thus you will find that there is great wisdom behind Islam’s prohibition of animate representations, not the least among them, blocking every possible pathway through which idolatry can creep into the hearts and minds of men.

    Statuary is also a most unproductive and time-consuming affair as nothing is served in it except glorifying one’s fellow man which is even worse than its not serving any purpose. Sculptors often tend to feel pride in their work, as if they had created something out of nothing and in doing so arrogate to themselves a prerogative that belongs to God and God alone. Furthermore statues are even today symbols of a luxurious, nay decadent lifestyle. Have you not seen how selfish affluent folk having nothing else to do fill their palaces or houses with these statues just to show that they have a fine taste for art? Have you seen how even the poorest of nations spend stupendous sums of money putting up statues for their heroes like the statue recently dedicated to Vallabbhai Patel in India supposed to be the largest in the world and costing a mind-boggling 440 million US Dollars? All this at a time when their poor are suffering for want of basic needs. Why is it that nobody calls it a crime against humanity, when in fact it is!

    It is nevertheless permissible to keep statues that have had their heads broken off as they would then be deemed a lifeless object and not generate any feelings of respect, but rather ridicule which goes well with Islam’s strong sense of iconoclasm. It is said that the angel Gabriel once refused to enter the house of the Prophet because there was a statue by its door. The Prophet tells us:

Gabriel came to me and said: I came to you last night and was prevented from entering simply by the fact that there were statues at the door, and there was in the house a curtain with images. So, order that the head of the statue which is in the house be cut off so that it may become like the form of a tree; order that the curtain be cut up and made into two cushions spread out or use it as a floor-mat

                                                                                (Aboo Dawood)

    However, there is nothing wrong in having pictures or even three-dimensional representations of inanimate things like trees, flowers, fruits, houses, castles, mountains, lush scenery, ships in the sea and so on where no humans or animals are shown. This is why you will find in many Muslim households beautiful pictures of such scenes so pleasing to the eye. If you look closely, these are much more pleasing than pictures depicting people or other life forms. Muslims also resort to geometrical ornamentation and calligraphy to give beauty to their surroundings, especially in mosques.

    At the same time the prohibition against depicting living beings need not apply to photographs or children’s toys or cloth used in day to day life. Photographs because this is a mere captured image, a reflection much like a mirror image, of a being that has already been created by the Almighty Himself so that the question of creation does not arise. A word of caution here though, for the use of photographs depends on the intention of the one using it. Thus photographs of one’s ‘heroes’ whether they be leaders or pop stars who one glorifies or holds in great esteem hung on the walls of homes and offices go against the spirit, not only of the Islamic prohibition of pictures, but against the very spirit of Islam itself and hence may be deemed prohibited.

    The other exception is toys because these are meant for children in an age of innocence when Satanic influences cannot take hold. Such playthings like dolls or soft toys are not meant to be accorded adoration as statues are and are merely items of amusement that are played with and even thrown about. Further they have a tendency to nurture loving instincts even in little children. Thus they are permissible. By the same token it may be argued that animated illustrations in storybooks or television cartoons meant for children are also permissible.

    The Prophet’s wife Ayisha relates: “I used to play with dolls in the house of the Messenger of God (Peace be on Him) and my friends would come over to play with me. They would hide when they saw the Messenger of God approaching, but he was in fact very happy to see them with me, and so we played together” (Saheeh Muslim). On another occasion a gust of wind raised a curtain hung in front of a store-room belonging to Ayisha, revealing some dolls which belonged to her. The Prophet asked: “What is this?” She replied: “My dolls”. Among them he saw a horse with wings made of rags, and asked: “What is this I see among them?” She replied: “A horse”. He asked: “What is this that it has on it?” She replied: “Two wings”. He asked: “A horse with two wings?”. She replied: “Have you not heard that Solomon had horses with wings?” Thereupon the Prophet laughed so heartily that she could see his molar teeth (Aboo Dawood). This concession even the Bible does not allow and if you go by a literal interpretation of the Bible your kids will not even be able to enjoy their favourite Walt Disney characters.