Comment: The Spectator’s Muhammad [ﷺ] – in Pictures

The Spectator has also published an article that purports to demonstrate that Muslims consider it permissible in Islam to make depictions of the Prophet ﷺ. Part of its demonstration rests on the claims that textual evidence and legal works are not clear enough to conclude that it is not permissible, and that contemporary Muslim practice towards photographs is evidence that it is. Sunni scholars of Quranic exegesis, hadith commentary, law, and principles of jurisprudence are likely to find fault with these claims.

The article reiterates Newsweek‘s claim that the Quran does not include a single injunction against depicting the Prophet ﷺ. This is not entirely accurate. Verses of the Quran can only be understood and interpreted after making reference to reports concerning their explanation. Many exegetes mention that the verse “Indeed, those who abuse Allah and His Messenger – Allah has cursed them in this world and the Hereafter and prepared for them a humiliating punishment,” Q33:57 concerns figure makers. This understanding of the verse is neither obscure nor rare. Many exegetes mention it, including al-Qurṭubī and Ibn Kathīr, whose tafsīrs are considered essential references for anyone working in Quranic exegesis. It’s very sloppy to make categorical statements about the Quran without returning to its explanatory references.

While those works are voluminous, this understanding of the verse is mentioned in small, single volume works. For example, my previous post mentioned two books of enormities (al-Dhahabī’s Kabāʾir, and Ibn Ḥajar’s Al-Zawājir ʿan iqtirāf al-kabāʾir) that are well-known and still read. Both of these books cite this verse as evidence that making figures and drawings of living creatures is an enormity. While the universality of the verse still holds (i.e., all forms of abuse), the existence of its more specific explanation (i.e., those who depict) cannot be denied as was done in these articles. Indeed: this verse is particularly relevant given the satirical cartoons which prompted these articles on depicting the Prophet ﷺ.

Failing to find evidence in the Quran, the article moves to Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī‘s hadith number 5963: “Whoever makes a picture [صَوَّرَ صُورَةً] in this world will be asked to put life into it on the Day of Resurrection, but he will not be able to do so.” It then summarized what Muslim scholars have said concerning this hadith:

On the one hand there are commentators who think this condemns every sketch and photograph ever made and their makers to eternal hellfire (including the snap used in your passport). On the other there are commentators who explain that this prohibition refers only to diabolical artists who attempt to create something with a soul — such as Dr Frankenstein. Still other scholars have pieced together all the relevant Hadith and argue that Mohammed was simply telling a parable to illustrate that mankind — for all its pretensions to creativity — will never make anything as useful or as beautifully compact as even a seed of barley.

It is a humorous, hip, and modern summary. I appreciate the article trying to simplify and summarize the different positions with their nuances in a way that popular audiences will find easy to digest. But it does so at the expense of accuracy since it skips over essential issues, like what sort of figures the hadith indicates directly and which by analogy. The article includes analogical cases like photographs and Frankensteinian monsters, while omitting base cases that the language of the hadith (ie., “صُورَةً”) refers to directly, like figurines.

The summary also states that the scholars who examined all relevant evidence concluded that it is just a parable. The implication is that no scholar who did similarly looked at all the relevant evidence concluded that they are to be taken as literal, and that those who did understood the texts to be literal were negligent and incomplete in their research. Balderdash! The Sunni hadith masters who transmitted the hadith corpus and the scholars of the four extant schools of Sunni law who analyzed all relevant evidence came to the conclusion that these hadiths are literal. A legal interpretive principle states that texts are assumed to be literal in the absence of a sufficient justification to divert to a figurative interpretation. The article should have included a hint at what this evidence is and who said it. There is agreement among Ḥanafīs, Mālikīs, Shāfiʿīs, and Ḥanbalīs that the evidence is literal and that it is unlawful to make three dimensional figures of living creatures; the Ḥanafīs, Shāfiʿīs, and Ḥanbalīs consider the evidence to also apply to two dimensional drawings.

The article then moves to contemporary Muslim practices related to photographs:

Nevertheless, a sort of consensus has emerged. Most Muslims accept that two-dimensional images (photographs, films and television) are absolutely fine but that three-dimensional sculptures that cast a shadow are best avoided. If you go into a typical Sunni Muslim home, you will usually find a television on in the sitting room, often showing a football match or an Egyptian soap. There may also be a photograph of a heroic football team. Practically all public spaces are decorated with large photographs of the current ruler of the country.

When the article mentions consensus, it must be referring to a consensus amongst the masses who are not scholars since the scholars do not have a consensus concerning the legal status of two-dimensions images hand-drawn images. The scholars also do not have a consensus concerning the status of photography and whether it is analogous to drawing by hand, thus taking its ruling; or something else, like a reflection, and thus open to a wider range of legal rulings. There is no consensus that photographs and drawings are alike. In fact, many scholars who consider photographs impermissible do so because they consider them analogous, while those who consider them permissible do so because they consider them unrelated. So one cannot assume that legal rulings and practices related to photographs and hand-drawn pictures are interchangeable.

With that in mind, the article’s implicit argument is that if masses today consider it permissible to take photographs of their heroes and to place them on the wall out of veneration, that it must also be similarly permissible to take photographs of the Prophet ﷺ and to place his photo on the wall out of veneration. This argument appeals to custom. While some legal scholars do accept custom as a source of law, one of its conditions is that it not be in conflict with textual evidence or established principles. There is a considerable body of textual evidence forbidding making images of living creatures and warning against idolatry, so it does not appear that this is an appeal to custom that holds much legal weight. Additionally, the implicit argument is of no practical value since there are no photographs of the Prophet ﷺ, so there are no photographs of him to be placed on the wall. Muslim common practices towards photographs are not evidence that it is permissible to depict Prophet ﷺ.

While the rest of the article may be spot on, the portion related to classical legal scholarship leaves much to be desired. As with Newsweek‘s articles, this one fails to make a convincing legal argument that the Shariʿah permits the depiction of the Prophet ﷺ. While this article is better than Newsweek‘s articles on the same topic, its presentation of Islamic scholarship is similarly superficial, inaccurate, and misleading.