Depictions of Muhammad

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Muhammad circular symbol

The permissibility of depictions of Muhammad in Islam has been a contentious issue. Oral and written descriptions of Muhammad are readily accepted by all traditions of Islam, but there is disagreement about visual depictions.[1][2] The Quran does not explicitly forbid images of Muhammad, but there are a few hadith (supplemental teachings) which have explicitly prohibited Muslims from creating visual depictions of figures.[3] It is agreed on all sides that there is no authentic visual tradition as to the appearance of Muhammad, although there are early legends of portraits of him, and written physical descriptions whose authenticity is often accepted.

The question of whether images in Islamic art, including those depicting Muhammad, can be considered as religious art remains a matter of contention among scholars.[4] They appear in illustrated books that are normally works of history or poetry, including those with religious subjects; the Quran is never illustrated: "context and intent are essential to understanding Islamic pictorial art. The Muslim artists creating images of Muhammad, and the public who beheld them, understood that the images were not objects of worship. Nor were the objects so decorated used as part of religious worship".[5]

However, scholars concede that such images have "a spiritual element", and were also sometimes used in informal religious devotions celebrating the day of the Mi'raj.[6] Many visual depictions only show Muhammad with his face veiled, or symbolically represent him as a flame; other images, notably from before about 1500, show his face.[7][8][9] With the notable exception of modern-day Iran,[10] depictions of Muhammad were rare, never numerous in any community or era throughout Islamic history,[11][12] and appeared almost exclusively in the private medium of Persian and other miniature book illustration.[13][14] The key medium of public religious art in Islam was and is calligraphy.[12][13] In Ottoman Turkey the hilya developed as a decorated visual arrangement of texts about Muhammad that was displayed as a portrait might be.

Visual images of Muhammad in the non-Islamic West have always been infrequent. In the Middle Ages they were mostly hostile, and most often appear in illustrations of Dante's poetry. In the Renaissance and Early Modern period, Muhammad was sometimes depicted, typically in a more neutral or heroic light. These depictions began to encounter protests from Muslims, and in the age of the internet, a handful of caricature depictions printed in the European press have caused global protests and controversy, and been associated with violence.


In Islam, although nothing in the Quran explicitly bans images, some supplemental hadith explicitly ban the drawing of images of any living creature; other hadith tolerate images, but never encourage them. Hence, most Muslims avoid visual depictions of Muhammad or any other prophet such as Moses or Abraham.[1][15][16]

Most Sunni Muslims believe that visual depictions of all the prophets of Islam should be prohibited[17] and are particularly averse to visual representations of Muhammad.[18] The key concern is that the use of images can encourage idolatry.[19] In Shia Islam, however, images of Muhammad are quite common nowadays, even though Shia scholars historically were against such depictions.[18][20] Still, many Muslims who take a stricter view of the supplemental traditions will sometimes challenge any depiction of Muhammad, including those created and published by non-Muslims.[21]

Some major religions have experienced times during their history when images of their religious figures were forbidden. In Judaism, one of the Ten Commandments forbids "graven images". In Byzantine Christianity during the periods of Iconoclasm in the 8th century, and again during the 9th century, visual representations of sacred figures were forbidden, and only the Cross could be depicted in churches. The visual representation of Jesus and other religious figures remains a concern in parts of Protestant Christianity.[22]