Part of a series of articles on

Muhammad callig
Prophet of Islam

Family tree · In Mecca · In Medina · Conquest of Mecca · The Farewell Sermon · Succession

Diplomacy · Family · Wives · Military leadership

Farewell Pilgrimage · Ghadir Khumm · Pen and paper · Saqifah · General bay'ah

Interactions with
Slaves · Jews · Christians

Muslim (Poetic and Mawlid) · Medieval Christian · Historicity · Criticism · Depictions

The permissibility of depictions of Muhammad, the founder of Islam, has long been a concern in Islam's history. Oral and written descriptions are readily accepted by all traditions of Islam, but there is disagreement about visual depictions.[1][2]

The Qur'an does not explicitly forbid images of Muhammad, but there are a few hadith (supplemental traditions) which have explicitly prohibited Muslims from creating the visual depictions of figures under any circumstances. Most contemporary Sunni Muslims believe that visual depictions of the prophets generally should be prohibited, and they are particularly averse to visual representations of Muhammad.[3] The key concern is that the use of images can encourage idolatry, where the image becomes more important than what it represents. In Islamic art, some visual depictions only show Muhammad with his face veiled, or symbolically represent him as a flame; other images, notably from Persia of the Ilkhanate, and those made under the Ottomans, show him fully.[1]

Other Muslims have taken a more relaxed view. Most Shi'a scholars accept respectful depictions and use illustrations of Muhammad in books and architectural decoration, as have Sunnis at various points in the past.[4] However, 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.[5]


Some major religions have had times in their history when images of their religious figures were forbidden. In Judaism, one of the Ten Commandments forbade "graven images." In Byzantine Christianity during the period of Iconoclasm (8th century, and again during the 9th century) visual representations were forbidden, and only the Cross could be depicted in churches. Even in modern times, there are disputes within different groups of Protestant Christians about the appropriateness of having religious icons of saints. The concern generally boils down to the concept of whether or not the image is becoming more important than what is being represented.[6] In Islam, although nothing in the Qu'ran explicitly bans images, there are some supplemental hadith which explicitly ban the drawing of images of any living creature; other hadith tolerate images, but never encourage them. Hence, visual depictions of Muhammad, or prophets such as Moses or Abraham, are avoided.[1][3][7]

Depiction by Muslims

Verbal descriptions

In one of the earliest sources, Ibn Sa'd's Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, there are numerous verbal descriptions of Muhammad. One description sourced to Ali ibn Abi Talib is as follows:

The Apostle of Allah, may Allah bless him, is neither too short nor too tall. His hair are neither curly nor straight, but a mixture of the two. He is a man of black hair and large skull. His complexion has a tinge of redness. His shoulder bones are broad and his palms and feet are fleshy. He has long al-masrubah which means hair growing from neck to navel. He is of long eye-lashes, close eye-brows, smooth and shining fore-head and long space between two shoulders. When he walks he walks inclining as if coming down from a height. I never saw a man like him before him or after him.[8]

Athar Husain gives a non-pictorial description of his appearance, dress, etc. in "The Message of Mohammad". According to Husain, Muhammad was a little taller than average, sturdily built, and muscular. His fingers were long. His hair, which was long, had waves, and he had a thick beard, which had seventeen gray hairs at the time of his death. He had good teeth and spare cheeks, and brownish-black eyes. His complexion was fair and he was very handsome. He walked fast with firm gait. He always kept himself busy with something, did not speak unnecessarily, always spoke to the point and without verbosity, and did not behave in an emotional way. He usually wore a shirt, trousers, a sheet thrown round the shoulders, and a turban, all spotlessly clean, rarely wearing the fine clothes that had been presented to him. He wanted others to wear simple, but always clean, clothes.[9]

Visual depictions

Siyer-i Nebi 158b

Muhammad, shown with a veiled face and halo, at Mount Hira (16th century Ottoman illustration of the Siyer-i Nebi)

The Persian tradition of visual depictions of Muhammad begins around 1300 (Ilkhanid period). The earliest extant Persian manuscript representation of Muhammad is found in the Marzubannama manuscript, dating to 1299. The Ilkhanid MS Arab 161 of 1307/8 contains 25 illustrations of Al-Biruni's The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries, of which five include depictions Muhammad, including the two concluding images, the largest and most accomplished in the manuscript, which emphasize the relation of Muhammad and `Ali according to Shi`ite doctrine. Depictions of Muhammad remain common in Timurid Persian and Ottoman art throughout the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. Perhaps the most elaborate cycle of illustrations of Muhammad's life is the late 16th century copy of the 14th century biography Siyer-i Nebi produced by order of Murat III.

Muhammad is usually shown surrounded by a large flaming halo or aureole in the Persian or Chinese tradition rather than the circular form usual in the West. This may surround only his head, but often his whole body. In many images all that can be seen is the flames of the halo, a convenient compromise with aniconism. If the body is visible, the face may be covered with a veil (see gallery for examples of both types).

The Qur'an forbids idolatry, but does not specifically forbid representative art.

Behold! he said to his father and his people, "What are these images, to which ye are (so assiduously) devoted?" They said, "We found our fathers worshipping them." He said, "Indeed ye have been in manifest error - ye and your fathers." sura 21, 52-54)

However, there are hadith, or recorded oral traditions, that have been interpreted to forbid any representational art:

Muhammad destroying idols - L'Histoire Merveilleuse en Vers de Mahomet BNF

The destruction of icons at the Kaaba by Muhammad (represented as a flaming aureole at top left, and (?) on the horse or camel at right), in L'Histoire Merveilleuse en Vers de Mahomet, 11th century.

Allah, Most High said: "And who is more unjust than those who try to create the likeness of My creation? Let them create an atom, or let them create a wheat grain, or let them create a barley grain."[10]
[...] All the painters who make pictures would be in the fire of Hell.[11]

Just like "drinking of wine was more sternly and unequivocally forbidden in the Qur'an then was painting of pictures, but drunkenness has been a common features from days of Umayyads down to modern time". Similarly "despite the fulminations of the theologians the painter went drawing the figures of men and animals". However, "the figure of Muhammad seldom occurs in a picture painted by a Muslim artist, and when it is found the face is generally veiled or the prophet is symbolically represented by a flame of golden light. This very rarity of the subject matter" leads to presenting those figures in this article.[1]

T. W. Arnold says that

"It was not merely Sunni schools of law but Shia jurists also who fulminated against this figured art. Because the Persians are Shiites, many Europeans writers have assumed that the Shia sect had not the same objection to representing living being as the rival set of the Sunni; but such an opinion ignores the fact that Shiisum did not become the state church in Persia until the rise of Safivid dynasty at the beginning of the 16th century."


Very few films have depicted Muhammad. The only modern one to do so was the 1976 The Message, also known as Mohammad, Messenger of God. The movie focused on other persons and never directly showed Muhammad. When Muhammad was essential to a scene, the camera would show events from his point of view.[13]

Two well-known Fatwas from Al-Azhar University and Shiite Council of Lebanon were issued about The Message.

"It is certainly probable that this is not the result of the creativity of the filmmakers but of the rules announced by the Islamic scholars of the Azhar and the Shiite Council of Lebanon, who prohibited any representation of Muhammad’s wives as well as of the Prophet himself."[13]

A more severe case occurred in Egypt in 1926, around the anticipated production of a film about the grandeur of the early days of Islam. Upon learning of this plan, the Islamic Al-Azhar University in Cairo alerted Egyptian public opinion, and published a juridical decision (fatwa), stipulating that Islam categorically forbids the representation of Muhammad and his companions on the screen. King Fauad sent a severe warning to actor Youssef Wahbi, threatening to exile him and strip him of his Egyptian nationality"[14]

Other contemporary Shi'a scholars, outside Shi'a majority Iran, have taken a relaxed attitude towards pictures of Muhammad and his household, the Ahlul Bayt. A fatwa given by Ali al-Sistani, the Shi'a marja of Iraq, states that it is permissible to depict Muhammad, even in television or movies, if done with respect.[15][16]

A devotional cartoon called Muhammad: The Last Prophet was released in 2004[17]

Depiction by non-Muslims

Muhammad figures frequently in depictions of influential people in world history. Such depictions tend to be favourable or neutral in intent; one example can be found at the United States Supreme Court building in Washington, DC. A frieze including major historical lawgivers places Muhammad alongside Hammurabi, Moses, Confucius, and others. Because of a 1997 controversy surrounding the frieze, tourist materials have been edited so they call the depiction "a well-intentioned attempt by the sculptor to honor Muhammad" that "bears no resemblance to Muhammad."[18] In 1955, a statue of Muhammad was removed from a courthouse in New York City after the ambassadors of Indonesia, Pakistan, and Egypt requested its removal.[19]

There have also been numerous book illustrations showing Muhammad.

Dante, in The Divine Comedy: Inferno, placed Muhammad in Hell, with his entrails hanging out (Canto 28):

No barrel, not even one where the hoops and staves go every which way, was ever split open like one frayed Sinner I saw, ripped from chin to where we below.
His guts hung between his legs and displayed His vital organs, including that wretched sack Which converts to whatever gets conveyed down the gullet.
As I stared at him he looked back And with his hands pulled his chest open, Saying, "See how I split open the crack in myself! See how twisted and broken Mohammed is!" Before me walks Ali, his face Cleft from chin to crown, grief–stricken.

This scene is frequently shown in illustrations of the Divina Commedia. For example it is represented in a 15th century fresco in Bologna, Italy, in the Church of San Petronio,[20] and artwork by Salvador Dali, Auguste Rodin, William Blake, and Gustave Doré.[21]

Recent controversies

During the 2000s, controversies over depictions of Muhammad, both over recent caricatures or cartoons and over display of historical artwork, have received worldwide media attention, in particular the 2005 Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy.

In 2002, Italian police reported that they had disrupted a terrorist plot to destroy a church in Bologna, which contains a 15th century fresco depicting an image of Muhammad.[20][22]



In 2005, a Danish newspaper published a set of editorial cartoons, many of which depicted Muhammad. In late 2005 and early 2006, Danish Muslim organizations ignited a controversy through public protests and by spreading knowledge of the publication of the cartoons.[6] Western Muslims generally said that it was not simply the depiction of Muhammad that was offensive, but the implication that Muhammad was somehow a supporter of terrorism.[7] On 12 February 2008 the Danish police arrested three men alleged to be involved in a plot to assassinate Kurt Westergaard, one of the cartoonists.[23]

In 2006, the controversial American animated television comedy program South Park, which had previously depicted Muhammad as a superhero character in the July 4, 2001 episode "Super Best Friends", attempted to satirize the Danish newspaper incident. In the episode "Cartoon Wars Part II", they intended to show Muhammad handing a salmon helmet to Peter Griffin, a character in the Fox animated television show Family Guy. However, Comedy Central, the parent company of South Park, rejected the scene, citing concerns of violent protests in the Islamic world. The creators of South Park reacted by instead satirizing Comedy Central's double standard for censorship, instead including a segment in which American president George W. Bush and Jesus defecate on the flag of the United States.

The Lars Vilks Muhammad drawings controversy began in July 2007 with a series of drawings by Swedish artist Lars Vilks which depicted Muhammad as a roundabout dog. Several art galleries in Sweden declined to show the drawings, citing security concerns and fear of violence. The controversy gained international attention after the Örebro-based regional newspaper Nerikes Allehanda published one of the drawings on August 18 to illustrate an editorial on self-censorship and freedom of religion.[24] While several other leading Swedish newspapers had published the drawings already, this particular publication led to protests from Muslims in Sweden as well as official condemnations from several foreign governments including Iran,[25] Pakistan,[26] Afghanistan,[27] Egypt[28] and Jordan,[29] as well as by the inter-governmental Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).[30] The controversy occurred about one and a half year after the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy in Denmark in early 2006.

Another controversy emerged in September 2007 when Bangladeshi cartoonist Arifur Rahman was detained on suspicion of showing disrespect to Muhammad. The interim government confiscated copies of the Bengali-language Prothom Alo in which the drawings appeared. The cartoon consisted of a boy holding a cat conversing with an elderly man. The man asks the boy his name, and he replies "Babu". The older man chides him for not mentioning the name of Muhammad before his name. He then points to the cat and asks the boy what it is called, and the boy replies "Muhammad the cat". The cartoon caused a firestorm in Bangladesh, with militant Islamists demanding that Rahman be executed for blasphemy. A group of people torched copies of the paper and several Islamic groups protested, saying the drawings ridiculed Mohammad and his companions. They demanded "exemplary punishment" for the paper's editor and the cartoonist. Bangladesh, however, does not have a blasphemy law, although one had been demanded by the same extremist Islamic groups.

Sooreh Hera

In December 2007, controversy erupted in the Netherlands when Iranian artist Sooreh Hera exhibited photos of two Iranian gay men in a series of sexually provocative positions, wearing masks depicting Muhammad and his son-in-law Ali. The photo series was intended to highlight the hypocrisy the artist saw, of Muslim married men engaging in sexual relations with other men. The Hague Municipal Museum expressed interest in buying the series, but refused to display it, citing fear that it could "offend certain groups". Dutch politician Geert Wilders, leader of the Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom), excoriated the museum’s decision, saying it was “based on fear”.[31]

Wikipedia article

In 2008, several Muslims protested against the inclusion of Muhammad's depictions in Wikipedia's Muhammad article.[note 1][32][33] An online petition claims to have collected over 450,000 signatures in three months (December 2007 to February 2008). The petition was started by Faraz Ahmad of Daska, Pakistan, resident in Glasgow, formerly editing Wikipedia as "Farazilu".[34] The petition specifies opposition to a reproduction of a 17th century Ottoman copy of a 14th century (Ilkhanate) manuscript image (MS Arabe 1489) showing Muhammad as he prohibits intercalation.[35] Jeremy Henzell-Thomas of The American Muslim deplored the petition as one of "these mechanical knee-jerk reactions" which

are gifts to those who seek every opportunity to decry Islam and ridicule Muslims and can only exacerbate a situation in which Muslims and the Western media seem to be locked in an ever-descending spiral of ignorance and mutual loathing.[36]

Wikipedia considered but rejected a compromise that would allow visitors to choose whether to view the page with images.[33] The Wikipedia community has not acted upon the petition.[37] The site's answers to frequently asked questions says Wikipedia does not censor itself for the benefit of any one group.[38]

  1. English Wikipedia's Muhammad article

See also

Controversial depictions


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 T. W. Arnold (June 1919). ""An Indian Picture of Muhammad and His Companions"". The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 34, No. 195.. pp. 249–252. Retrieved 2007-05-01. 
  2. Jonathan Bloom & Sheila Blair (1997). Islamic Arts. London: Phaidon. pp. 202. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Office of the Curator (2003-05-08). "Courtroom Friezes: North and South Walls" (pdf). Information Sheet, Supreme Court of the United States. Retrieved 2007-07-08. 
  4. citation needed
  5. "Islamic Figurative Art and Depictions of Muhammad". Retrieved 2007-07-06. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 Richard Halicks (2006-02-12). "Images of Muhammad: Three ways to see a cartoon". Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Explaining the outrage". Chicago Tribune. 2006-02-08. 
  8. Ibn Sa'd -- Kitabh al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, as translated by S. Moinul and H.K. Ghazanfar, Kitab Bhavan, New Delhi, n.d.
  9. "USC-MSA Compendium of Muslim Texts". Retrieved 2006-03-10. 
  10. Sahih Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 93, Number 648
  11. Sahih Muslim, 24, 5272
  12. From an illustrated manuscript of Al-Biruni's 11th c. Vestiges of the Past (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, Arabe 1489 fol. 5v. (Bibliotheque Nationale on-line catalog Mandragore
  13. 13.0 13.1 Freek L. Bakker (January 2006). "The image of Muhammad in The Message, the first and only feature film about the Prophet of Islam" (pdf). Routledge, "Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations," Vol. 17, No.1. Retrieved 2007-07-06. 
  14. Alessandra. Raengo & Robert Stam (2004). A Companion To Literature And Film. Blackwell Publishing. pp. 31. ISBN 063123053X. 
  15. "Istifta". Retrieved 2006-03-10. 
  16. Is Islam Tolerant?
  17. "Fine Media Group". Retrieved 2006-03-11. 
  18. "The Daily Republican: Supreme Court Frieze". Retrieved 2006-03-13. 
  19. "Archive "Montreal News Network": Images of Muhammad, Gone for Good". Retrieved 2006-03-10. 
  20. 20.0 20.1 Philip Willan (2002-06-24). "Al-Qaida plot to blow up Bologna church fresco". The Guardian.,11711,742914,00.html. 
  21. Ayesha Akram (2006-02-11). "What's behind Muslim cartoon outrage". San Francisco Chronicle. 
  22. "Italy frees Fresco Suspects". New York Times. 2002-08-22. 
  23. Staff. Danish cartoons 'plotters' held BBC, 12 February 2008
  24. Ströman, Lars (2007-08-18). "Rätten att förlöjliga en religion" (in Swedish). Nerikes Allehanda. Retrieved 2007-08-31. 
    English translation: Ströman, Lars (2007-08-28). "The right to ridicule a religion". Nerikes Allehanda. Retrieved 2007-08-31. 
  25. "Iran protests over Swedish Muhammad cartoon". Agence France-Presse. 2007-08-27. Retrieved 2007-08-27. 
  26. Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2007-08-30). "PAKISTAN CONDEMNS THE PUBLICATION OF OFFENSIVE SKETCH IN SWEDEN". Press release. Retrieved 2007-08-31. 
  27. Salahuddin, Sayed (2007-09-01). "Indignant Afghanistan slams Prophet Mohammad sketch". Reuters. Retrieved 2007-09-09. 
  28. Fouché, Gwladys (2007-09-03). "Egypt wades into Swedish cartoons row". The Guardian.,,2161595,00.html. Retrieved 2007-09-09. 
  29. "Jordan condemns new Swedish Mohammed cartoon". Agence France-Presse. 2007-09-03. Retrieved 2007-09-09. 
  30. Organisation of the Islamic Conference (2007-08-30). "The Secretary General strongly condemned the publishing of blasphemous caricatures of prophet Muhammad by Swedish artist". Press release. Retrieved 2007-09-09. 
  31. "Allah o gay bar";; Retrieved on 2007-12-06
  32. "Muslims Protest Wikipedia Images of Muhammad". Fox News. 2008-02-06.,2933,328966,00.html. Retrieved 2008-02-07. 
  33. 33.0 33.1 Noam Cohen (2008-02-05). "Wikipedia Islam Entry Is Criticized". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-02-07. 
  34. petition homepage (hosted by Care2). see also"Petition seeks to remove images of Muhammad" Wikipedia Signpost 11 February 2008.
  35. MS Arabe 1489. The image used by Wikipedia is hosted on Wikimedia Commons ( The reproduction originates from the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France [1].
  36. Wikipedia and Depictions of the Prophet Muhammad: The Latest Inane Distraction, 10 February 2008
  37. Wikipedia defies 180,000 demands to remove images of the Prophet The Guardian 17 February 2008
  38. Wikipedia Refuses To Delete Picture Of Muhammad Information Week 7 February 2008.

External links

Ad blocker interference detected!

Wikia is a free-to-use site that makes money from advertising. We have a modified experience for viewers using ad blockers

Wikia is not accessible if you’ve made further modifications. Remove the custom ad blocker rule(s) and the page will load as expected.