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Aniconism in Islam is a proscription against the creation of images of God in Islam. Other forms of aniconism in Islam prohibit the depiction of Muhammad, which is the consensual view among Sunni Muslims, or even, in the case of more extreme case, other living creatures in artwork.

Theological views

The Qur'an, the Islamic holy book, does not explicitly prohibit the depiction of human figures; it merely condemns idolatry ( , ). Interdictions of figurative representation are present in the Hadith, among a dozen of the hadith recorded during the latter part of the period when they were being written down. Because these hadith are tied to particular events in the life of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad, they need to be interpreted in order to be applied in any general manner. Sunni exegetes, from the 9th century onward, increasingly saw in them categorical prohibitions against producing and using any representation of living beings. There are variations between religious Madh'hab (schools) and marked differences between different branches of Islam. Aniconism is common among fundamentalist Sunni sects such as Salafis and Wahhabis (which are also often iconoclastic), and less prevalent among liberal movements within Islam. Shi'a and mystical orders also have less stringent views on aniconism. On the individual level, whether or not specific Muslims believe in aniconism may depend on how much credence is given to hadith (e.g. Submitters do not believe in any hadith), and how liberal or strict they are in personal practice.

Aniconism in Islam not only deals with the material image, but touches upon mental representations as well. It is a thorny question, discussed by early theologians, as to how to describe God, Muhammad and other prophets, and, indeed, if it is permissible at all to do so. God is usually represented by immaterial attributes, such as "holy" or "merciful", commonly known from His "Ninety-nine beautiful names". Muhammad's physical appearance, however, is amply described, particularly in the traditions on his life and deeds recorded in the biographies known as Sirah Rasul Allah. Of no less interest is the validity of sightings of holy personages made during dreams.

While talking about Islam, Titus Burckhardt sums up the role of aniconism in a way that might hold true for cases throughout a variety of cultures:

"Islam is centred on Unity, and Unity is not expressible in terms of any image. Thus, Islamic art as a whole aims to create an ambiance which helps man to realise his primordial dignity; it therefore avoids everything that could be an 'idol' even in a relative and provisional manner - nothing must stand between man and the invisible presence of God - thus eliminating all the turmoil and passionate suggestions of the world and in their stead creating an order that expresses equilibrium, serenity and peace."

Hadith and exegesis examples

During its early days, aniconism in Islam was intended as a measure against idolatry, particularly against the statues worshipped by pagans. The following hadith presents Muhammad condemning pictures:

Narrated Aisha (a wife of Muhammad):

Narrated Aisha, umm-al-mu'minīn:

Narrated Ali (Ali ibn AbuTalib):

Narrated Aisha:

Narrated Aisha:

To show the superiority of the monotheist faith, Muhammad smashed the idols at the Kaabamarker. He also removed paintings that were blasphemous to Islam, while protecting others (the images of Mary and Jesus) inside the building.) The hadith below emphasizes that aniconism depends not only on what, but also on how things are depicted.

Narrated `Abd Allah ibn `Abbas:

Muslim b. Subaih reported:

It is interesting to note that pagans in Muhammad's times were also worshipping trees and stones. Muhammad, however, opposed only images of animated beings — humans and animals —, as reported by the Hadith. Subsequently, geometrical ornamentation became a sophisticated art form in Islam.

Narrated Said bin Abu Al-Hasan:

Aisha reported:

Aisha reported:

Mohammad also warned his followers of dying amongst people that built places of worship at graves and placed pictures in it (i.e Christians).
Narrated Aisha:

Narrated Aisha:

Mohammad made it very clear that angels do not like picture.
Narrated Abu Talha:

Narrated Salim's father:

Narrated Ali ibn Abu Talib:

Aniconism in practice

Religious core

In practice, the core of normative religion in Islam is consistently aniconic. Its embodiment are spaces such as the mosque and objects like the Qur'an or the white dress of pilgrims entering Meccamarker, deprived of figurative images. Other spheres of religion — schisms, mysticism, popular piety, private level — exhibit in this regard significant variability. Profane aniconism is even more fluctuating. Generally speaking aniconism in Islamic societies is restricted in modern times to specific religious contexts, while its prevalence in the past wasn't enforced in numerous areas and during extended periods.


Depending on which segment of Islamic societies are referred to, the application of aniconism is characterized with noteworthy differences. Factors are the epoch considered, the country, the religious orientation, the political intent, the popular beliefs, the private benefit or the dichotomy between reality and discourse. Today, the concept of an aniconic Islam coexists with a daily life for Muslims awash with images. TV stations and newspapers (which do present still and moving representations of living beings) have an exceptional impact on public opinion, sometimes, as in the case of Al Jazeera, with a global reach, beyond the Arabic speaking and Muslim audience. Portraits of secular and religious leaders are omnipresent on banknotes and coins, in streets and offices (e.g. presidents like Nasser and Mubarak, Arafat, al-Assad or Hezbollah's Nasrallah and Ayatollah Khomeini). Anthropomorphic statues in public places are to be found in most Muslim countries (Saddam Hussein's are infamous ), as well as art schools training sculptors and painters. In the Egyptianmarker countryside, it is fashionable to celebrate and advertise the returning of pilgrims from Mecca on the walls of their houses. Sometimes those who profess aniconism will practice figurative representation (cf. portraits of Talibans from the Kandaharmarker photographic studios during their imposed ban on photography). For Shi'a communities, portraits of the major figures of Shi'ite history are important elements of religious devotion. Portraits of Ali — with veiled and unveiled face alike — can be bought in Iranmarker around shrines and in the streets, to be hung in homes or carried with oneself, while in Pakistanmarker, Indiamarker and Bangladeshmarker they notoriously ornate trucks, buses and rickshaws. Contrary to the Sunni tradition, a photographic picture of the deceased can be placed on the Shi'ite tombs. A curiosity in Iran is a Orientalist photography supposed to represent Muhammad as a young boy. The Grand Ayatollah Sistani of Najafmarker in Iraqmarker has given a fatwā declaring the depiction of Muhammad, the prophets and other holy characters, permissible if it is made with the utmost respect.


Neither is the representation of living beings in Islamic countries a modern phenomenon or due to current technology, westernization or the cult of the personality. Statues of humans and animals adorned palaces of the Ummayad era, while frescoes were common under the Ummayads, and later in many countries of Dar al-Islam, notably under the Safavid and various Central Asian dynasties. Figurative miniatures from Medieval Arabic countries, India, Persia and Turkeymarker are one of the fleuron of Islamic arts and a good deal of its attraction power for non-Muslim societies. Potent rulers like Shah Tahmasp in Persia and Akbar in India, patrons of some of the most beautiful figurative miniatures in arts from Islamic countries, migrated during their life between an extravagant 'figurative' and an extremist 'aniconic' period. During the 15th and 17th century representations of Muhammad (veiled, unveiled) and other prophets or Biblical characters, like Adam, Abraham or Jesus and Solomon and Alexander the Great, became common in painted manuscripts from Persia, India and Turkey. Extreme rarities are an illustrated Qur'an depicting Muhammad and, in a Spanish-Muslim manuscript datable from the 16th century, five Ummayad and Abbasid caliphs. Iblis too is present in various illustrated manuscripts. There aren't, however, known figurative depictions of God.

Circumvention methods

Medieval Muslim artists found various ways not to infringe any prohibition of the image, while still representing living beings. It can be argued that since God is absolute, the act of depiction is his own and not that of a human; and miniatures are obviously very crude representations of the reality, so the two can't be mistaken. At the material level, prophets in manuscripts can have their face covered by a veil or all humans have a stroke drawn over their neck, a symbolical cut defending them to be alive. Calligraphy, the most Islamic of arts in the Muslim world, has also its figurative side due to anthropo- and zoomorphic calligrams.


It is equally important to stress that, wherever it surfaced, Islamic aniconism is partially due to the special historical relationship between images and Muslim identity. In the early days of Islam, for example, it was critical to distinguish the customs of the nascent Ummah from those of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrian and pagans. Therefore, emphasizing calligraphy and abstract decoration over figurative painting and sculpture set the Qur'an apart from the Bible, the mosque from the church and — after a certain period of using Byzantine and Sassanid coins — the Muslim dinar from the Christian solidus. After the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, there were lively debates in Persia about the merits of (Islamic) calligraphy and (Chinese influenced) painting. In modern times, the image-producing technologies of print, photography, movie, television and, more recently, the Internet, were all imports from a world outside the Muslim community, and thus easily perceived as threats to its integrity. These changes also came through difficult contexts for the Islamic world: colonization, modernization, authoritarian regimes, economic difficulties, and wars. Quite naturally, a paradoxical mix ensued, of an aniconist Islamic discourse propagated through representational mass media.


  1. Islamic Art,
  2. A. Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad (translation of Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasulallah), page 552. The Life of Muhammad
  3. See 'Sura' and 'Taswir' in Encyclopaedia of Islam
  4. Petroleum-related banknotes: Saudi Arabia: Oil Refinery
  5. Petroleum-related banknotes: Iran: Abadan Refinery, Iahanshahi-Amouzegar
  6. David Zucchino "U.S. military, not Iraqis, behind toppling of statue" Honolulu Advertiser, July 5, 2004
  7. J. L. Anderson, Thomas Dworzak, Taliban, London (UK), Trolley, 2003, ISBN 0-9542648-5-1.
  8. Saudi Aramco World : Masterpieces to Go: The Trucks of Pakistan
  9. The Rickshaw Arts of Bangladesh
  10. Picture of Golestan e Shohoda cemetery Esfahan -Esfahan, Iran
  11. Mashad Martyrs Cemetery at Best Iran
  12. Photography by Lehnert & Landrock, titled "Mohamed", Tunis, c. 1906. Nicole Canet, Lehnert & Landrock. Photographies orientatlistes 1905-1930. (Paris: Galerie Au Bonheur du Jour, 2004): cover, p. 9. dead link. Historical context described in Patricia Briel,, 22/02/2006. Ces étranges portraits de Mahomet jeune
  13. Grand Ayatollah Uzma Sistani, Fiqh & Beliefs: Istifa answers, personal website. (accessed 17 February 2006) ,
  14. Allen, Terry, "Aniconism and Figural Representation in Islamic Art", Palm Tree Books
  15. Educational Site: Archaeological Sites: Qusayr `Amra
  16. Reza Abbasi Museum
  17. "Portraits of the Sultans," Topkapi Palace Museum
  18. Bibliotheque nationale de France - Torah, Bible, Coran
  19. Bibliotheque nationale de France - Torah, Bible, Coran
  20. "Angels Kneeling before Adam from Stories of the Prophets
  21. Bnf - Torah, Bible, Coran
  22. Bibliotheque nationale de France - Torah, Bible, Coran
  23. Bnf - Torah, Bible, Coran
  24. Bibliotheque nationale de France - Torah, Bible, Coran/
  25. Consultation de la base des clichés Daguerre
  26. "The Book of Nativities(Kitâb al-Mawalid) by Abû Ma'shar," Antiquities of the Illuminati
  27. : JEAN-FRANÇOIS CLÉMENT « Cette affaire de caricatures participe d'une mentalité de «victimisation» » des musulmans
  28. Calligraphy from the Islamic Tradition
  29. "Umayyad Coins," The Maskukat Collection of Medieval & Islamic Coins

See also



  • Jack Goody, Representations and Contradictions: Ambivalence Towards Images, Theatre, Fiction, Relics and Sexuality, London, Blackwell Publishers, 1997. ISBN 0-631-20526-8.


  • Oleg Grabar, "Postscriptum", The Formation of Islamic Art, Yale University, 1987 (p209). ISBN 0-300-03969-7
  • Terry Allen, "Aniconism and Figural Representation in Islamic Art", Five Essays on Islamic Art, Occidental (CA), Solipsist, 1988. ISBN 0-944940-00-5 [261315]
  • Gilbert Beaugé & Jean-François Clément, L'image dans le monde arabe [The image in the Arab world], Paris, CNRS Éditions, 1995, ISBN 2-271-05305-6
  • Rudi Paret, Das islamische Bilderverbot und die Schia [The Islamic prohibition of images and the Shi'a], Erwin Gräf (ed.), Festschrift Werner Caskel, Leiden, 1968, 224-32.

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