Why are images of Prophet Muhammad often avoided in Islamic art? – History and Major Facts

Within the diverse realm of world art, Islamic art stands out not only for its intricate designs and emphasis on patterns and geometry but also for its conspicuous absence of images depicting the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Delving into the reasons behind this absence requires an understanding of both religious principles and historical contexts.

Prophet Muhammad, the Messenger of God

An insight into the aversion to depicting Prophet Muhammad in Islamic art.

In the article below, World History Edu illuminate the reasons behind this unique and steadfast characteristic of Islamic art.

Foundation in Religious Doctrine

Islamic tradition is built on the bedrock of Tawhid, the oneness of God. This principle is so central to the faith that any potential threat to its purity is meticulously avoided. The aversion to depicting Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) – or any other prophet, for that matter – stems primarily from the earnest intention of preventing any form of idolatry. Islam aims to ensure that no entity is worshipped or venerated other than God.

In Christianity, religious icons became not just depictions but objects of veneration. With the Islamic tradition emerging amidst an environment where idol worship was rampant, particularly in pre-Islamic Arabia, a conscious effort was made to distance the new faith from practices that might compromise its monotheistic essence. While the Quran, the holy book of Muslims, does not explicitly prohibit images of Prophet Muhammad, it vehemently emphasizes the monotheistic nature of God and warns against Shirk – associating partners with God.

Hadith: Expanding on Quranic Principles

The Hadith, a collection of the sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammad, provides more explicit guidance on this topic. While there are numerous Hadiths, some indicate that those who create images of living beings will face punishment in the Hereafter. These Hadiths have been interpreted by scholars to include not only sculptures and idols but also drawn images, leading to the widespread aversion to depictions.

This understanding is strengthened by another set of Hadiths that note angels will not enter a house with images. Such teachings were aimed at ensuring that Muslims kept their homes and places of worship free from anything that might inadvertently become an object of veneration.

Historical Context

Historically, the earliest Muslims were surrounded by empires and cultures that heavily used images in religious contexts, notably the Byzantine and Sassanian empires. Both these civilizations had intricate traditions of iconography. The decision to not depict the Prophet was a distinguishing factor, setting Islam apart and emphasizing its unique monotheistic identity.

As the Islamic Empire expanded, incorporating regions with their own artistic traditions, the avoidance of depicting the Prophet became a definitive marker of Islamic art. This was not just a religious stance but also a cultural statement.

Veneration without Images

The avoidance of Prophet Muhammad’s depictions does not equate to a lack of veneration. Quite the opposite. Muslims deeply revere their Prophet, but this reverence is expressed through words, actions, and adherence to his teachings rather than through visual representations.

The name of the Prophet is often followed by the phrase “peace be upon him” or its abbreviation in written form (PBUH). This serves as a mark of respect and is uniformly practiced by Muslims worldwide. Furthermore, the life and teachings of the Prophet, known as the Seerah and Sunnah respectively, are studied in depth, guiding Muslims in various aspects of life.

Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him)

To prevent idolatry and maintain a focus on his teachings rather than his physical appearance, images of Prophet Muhammad are discouraged in most Islamic traditions. Image; The Muslim profession of faith the Shahadah illustrates the Muslim conception of the role of Muhummad, stating there is no God except God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God. Topkapı Palace, Istanbul, Turkiye.

Fear of Sectarianism and Misinterpretation

Depicting the Prophet could lead to various interpretations of his appearance, each possibly leading to a different ‘image’ associated with different groups. This might create divisions or even animosity between groups advocating for their version of the ‘true’ representation. Avoiding images mitigates such risks, ensuring unity in reverence.

Modern Controversies

In contemporary times, depictions of Prophet Muhammad in non-Islamic media have led to controversies and even violence. This underscores the sensitivity of the issue. For Muslims, any image of the Prophet, especially those portraying him in a negative light, is deeply offensive. This sentiment is rooted in the deep respect Muslims hold for their Prophet, and the belief that his honor is central to the faith.

In the 1976 film “ar-Risalah” (The Messenger), out of respect for Islamic traditions prohibiting the depiction of Prophet Muhammad, he was portrayed solely as a shadow. This creative approach allowed the filmmakers to tell his story while adhering to religious sensitivities.

For example, there was a huge uproar among many Muslims after the depictions of Prophet Muhammad in caricatures by French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Many Muslim nations saw those depictions as extremely offensive and blasphemous.

Artistic Expressions

Islamic art, in the absence of representational images of the Prophet, has flourished in other avenues. Calligraphy, for instance, has achieved paramount importance. Verses from the Quran, Hadith, and names of God and the Prophet are artistically rendered in beautiful scripts on canvases, architecture, ceramics, and textiles. This form of art is not just decorative but also spiritual, allowing viewers to meditate upon the words of God and his Prophet.

Geometry and patterns, too, became central to Islamic art. The intricate designs seen in mosques, madrasas, and palaces reflect the infinite nature of God. Nature motifs, particularly flowers and leaves, are also commonly used, symbolizing the beauty of God’s creation.

Frequently asked questions about the story of the Prophet Muhammad

Prophet Muhammad is considered the last prophet in Islam. Born in Mecca in 570 CE, he is believed by Muslims to have received divine revelations over 23 years, which form the Quran, the holy book of Islam. Image: “Muhammad, the Messenger of God.” inscribed on the gates of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina

Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) is a central figure in Islam, and there are many questions people often ask about him. Here are some of those questions:

What was Muhammad’s full name?

His full name is Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib ibn Hāshim.

When was Prophet Muhammad born Islamic date?

While the exact date is unknown, many commemorate Prophet Muhammad’s birth on the 12th day of the third month of the Islamic (lunar) calendar. This would mean that he was born on 12 Rabiulawal (29 August 570 CE).

How did he receive his first revelation?

At the age of 40, while meditating in the cave of Hira, he received his first revelation from the Angel Gabriel. The first words revealed were “Read” or “Recite” (Iqra).

What is the significance of the Hijra?

The Hijra refers to the migration of Prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE due to increasing persecution. This event is so pivotal that the Islamic lunar calendar begins from this year.

How did the spread of Islam begin under his leadership?

Beginning as a spiritual leader, Prophet Muhammad gradually attracted followers. Despite initial opposition, his message spread through his teachings, alliances, and, in some instances, military campaigns.

Muhammad in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkiye

What are the main teachings of Prophet Muhammad?

Central to his teachings is the belief in one God (Tawhid). He also emphasized social justice, moral rectitude, and the importance of community (Ummah).

How did Prophet Muhammad treat non-Muslims?

The Prophet signed treaties, engaged in dialogues, and ensured the rights and protections of non-Muslims, including Christians and Jews, in regions under his influence.

What is the Sunnah, and why is it important?

The Sunnah comprises the practices, actions, and sayings of Prophet Muhammad. Together with the Quran, it forms the primary foundation for Islamic jurisprudence and guidance.

Who were the wives of the Prophet?

Prophet Muhammad had multiple wives over his lifetime, each with distinct significance. His first wife, Khadijah, was his sole spouse for 25 years, and their union bore several children. After her death, he married Sawda, a widow, for companionship. Aisha, daughter of Abu Bakr, became a key Islamic scholar. Hafsa, Umm Salama, and others had political or social implications for alliances. Marriages to Zaynab, Juwayriya, and Safiyya were notable for their societal and religious ramifications. Collectively, his marriages reflected both personal bonds and broader socio-political strategies in early Islamic society.

How did Prophet Muhammad pass away?

Prophet Muhammad passed away in 632 CE in Medina. He is buried at Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (the Prophet’s Mosque) in Medina. The prophet died on his 63rd birthday.

The Green Dome, situated in Al-Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina, covers the tombs of Prophet Muhammad and Caliphs Abu Bakr and Umar. Originally Aisha’s chamber, this iconic structure dates back to 1279 C.E. when an unpainted wooden cupola was constructed over the tomb. It underwent reconstructions in the 15th century and 1817. In 1837, it was painted green, earning its distinctive name. Located in the mosque’s southeast corner, millions of pilgrims annually visit, typically around their Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Image: The Green Dome built over Muhammad’s tomb in Medina, Hejaz, Saudi Arabia

Why is Prophet Muhammad often called the “Seal of the Prophets”?

Muslims believe that Prophet Muhammad is the last in a line of prophets, which includes figures like Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. The term “Seal of the Prophets” signifies the end of prophetic revelations.

How did Prophet Muhammad’s teachings impact women’s rights in Arabia?

Prior to Islam, women in Arabia had limited rights. The Prophet’s teachings improved their status, granting rights in matters like inheritance, marriage, and divorce.

What is the significance of the Night Journey and Ascension (Isra and Mi’raj)?

This refers to the Prophet’s miraculous night-long journey said to have occurred with the Angel Gabriel. He was taken from Mecca to Jerusalem and then ascended to the heavens, meeting various prophets and conversing with God.

Al-Aqsa Mosque and its importance

While this stance on displaying images of the Prophet of Islam may seem perplexing to the outside world, especially in an age dominated by visual media, it encapsulates the essence of Islamic teachings: an emphasis on the unseen, the spiritual, and the profound connection between the believer and the Divine, unmediated by material representations. The Al-Aqsa Mosque is considered one of the holiest sites in Islam, and is believed to be the place where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven during his Night Journey. Image: A depiction of Muhammad’s ascent to heaven by Sultan Mohammed

How did Prophet Muhammad deal with opposition and challenges?

Throughout his prophetic mission, he faced various challenges, from ridicule and persecution to military opposition. He adopted a range of strategies, from peaceful dialogue and migration to defensive warfare.

What role did Prophet Muhammad play in drafting the Constitution of Medina?

The Constitution of Medina was drafted under his leadership to ensure a multi-religious Islamic state’s rights and duties, fostering coexistence between Muslim, Jewish, and other Arabian tribes.

What are Hadiths, and how are they connected to Prophet Muhammad?

Hadiths are records of the sayings, actions, and approvals of Prophet Muhammad. They provide context to the Quranic verses and are essential sources of Islamic teachings and laws.

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