Comment: Newsweek’s articles on figurative depictions of the Prophet ﷺ and animate life in Islamic law

Newsweek has published two articles that purport to demonstrate that it is permissible in Islam to make figurative images of the Prophet ﷺ. Part of the demonstration rests on the claim that normative legal positions within Sunni Islam permit it. This argument, as presented in the articles, is methodologically flawed and misrepresents what is found in pre-modern classical legal texts, both of which lead to false conclusions.

The first article started with a search for textual evidence in the Quran and Sunnah. Next the article searched for legal rulings in fatwa collections:

If we turn to Islamic law, there does not exist a single legal decree, or fatwa, in the historical corpus that explicitly and decisively prohibits figural imagery, including images of the Prophet [ﷺ]. While more recent online fatwas can surely be found, the decree that comes closest to articulating this type of ban was published online in 2001 by the Taliban, as they set out to destroy the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

In their fatwa, the Taliban decreed that all non-Islamic statues and shrines in Afghanistan be destroyed. However, this very modern decree remains entirely silent on the issue of figural images and sculptures within Islam, which, conversely, had been praised as beneficial and educational by Muhammad ‘Abduh, a prominent jurist in 19th century Egypt.

The conclusion the article draws from this search for legal evidence and fatwas is that

In sum, a search for a ban on images of Muhammad [ﷺ] in pre-modern Islamic textual sources will yield no clear and firm results whatsoever.

The data behind this conclusion misses a crucial data-point since it jumps from textual evidence to fatwa collections without passing through fiqh. The article’s legal literature search was limited to sources one uses when looking for new issues and the issues people ask about, and ignored the sources one looks at for learning law in general and when looking for established rulings. So the data behind the article’s conclusion includes a major omission from the perspective of research methodology.

Additionally, the claim that “there does not exist a single legal decree, or fatwa, in the historical corpus that explicitly and decisively prohibits figurative imagery” is incorrect. Imām Shihāb al-Dīn al-Ramlī (957AH) was both explicit and decisive in declaring figurative depictions of animate life to be unlawful in his fatwa concerning figurative chess pieces.1 I found his fatwa after searching for just a few minutes. A longer search would produce additional fatwas related to figurative images – but nothing compared to the torrent of modern fatwas prompted by the birth of photography and other technologies for capturing images.

Nonetheless: the article’s methodology for arriving at its conclusion is flawed. Pre-modern fatwa collections do mention the prohibition of the figurative imagery of living creatures in terms that are explicit and decisive.

The second article does refer to a single classical work of fiqh when referencing a footnote in a reputable English academic work that itself refers to classical works in its study of a very, very specific topic within fiqh.2 But this is not enough to remedy the methodological omission mentioned above since a single data point is not sufficient to make general claims about Islamic legal history. The footnote in the article’s source gives only a very brief summary of the section – brevity which is justified for the purposes of that source but absolutely and utterly inadequate for making any claims about legal rulings of figurative images in Islam. This inadequacy results in the article misunderstanding and misrepresenting the status of its sole classic Islamic text and the contents therein. The article states that

There exist many handbooks of Islamic law that compile opinions on a number of matters. In regard to image making, the earliest and most synthetic source is the medieval law book of Ibn Qudama (died 1223), a towering Sunni theologian of the medieval period. In his handbook, Ibn Qudama discusses the various possible “abominations” that can occur at wedding ceremonies, including the playing of music and backgammon, the consumption of liquor, and the presence of images. As for the legality of images, he notes that the question is complicated because it depends on what the images depict and where they are situated.

Ibn Qudama’s Al-Mughni is an excellent book. It is definitely among the best works of Islamic legal literature. But is it definitely not “the earliest and most synthetic source.” Ibn Qudama passed away in 620AH. Similar “synthetic” works existed before him, including the Ḥanafī Badāʾiʿ al-ṣanāʾiʿ by al-Kāsānī (587AH), the Mālikī Bidāyat al-mujtahid by Ibn Rushd (595AH), the Shāfiʿī Al-Ishrāf ʿalā madhāhib al-ʿulemāʾ by Ibn Mundhir (317AH) and Al-Bayān by al-ʿUmrānī (558AH), and the Ḥanbalī Ikhtilāf al-aʾimah al-ʿulemāʾ by Ibn Hubayrah (560AH). Some of those works even indicate the impermissibility of images.3 There are even earlier “synthetic” works in each school. The important thing is that Ibn Qudma’s work is not the earliest – not even in his own school. As for it being the most “synthetic,” Sharḥ al-Muhadhdhab started by al-Nawawī (676AH), continued by al-Subkī, and finished by al-Muṭiʿī, is considered to be more “synthetic.” So the article’s source is neither “the earliest” nor “the most synthetic.” It is clear that the author of the article does not know Islamic legal literature.

In any case, let’s return to Ibn Qudama for a moment. The issue referred to in the article is included in the chapter on marriage within the section that deals with wedding feasts. This issue has been included in this location since at least the beginning of canonical fiqh compilation. Imām al-Shāfiʿī (204AH) included it there in Al-Umm,4 and it has been a standard practice for Shāfiʿī and Ḥanbalī texts to include it there ever since. In Al-Mughnī, Ibn Qudama writes that if someone attends a wedding feast and finds a picture of a living creature drawn on a place where it will be walked over or reclined upon, that he may stay. However, if he finds it on drapes, walls, and what is not walked over and he can remove it altogether or just its head, he can sit. But if he cannot remove it or its head he is to leave. He states that this is the opinion of the majority of scholars. He provides evidence to support this view and responds to the evidence cited by the minority who held a contrary view. He also clearly explained that images are permitted to remain if and only if they are placed in a way that humiliates or debases the image.5

These “complicated” legal details (especially that final explanation) are essential for any discussion on the status of figurative depiction of animate life in Islam. At the very least, their omission misrepresents the contents of Ibn Qudama’s work. Additionally, what Ibn Qudama writes lends absolutely no support to the permissibility of making figurative images of the Prophet ﷺ that show his noble face since images are permissible to remain only when they are decapitated, humiliated, or debased. And it is not merely impermissible to humiliate or debase the Prophet ﷺ: doing so is a manifest indication of disbelief.

Many books are utterly explicit and decisive in declaring it impermissible to make or display images of animate life. One does not even have to go to comprehensive fiqh books to find this. One of the titles in Imām al-Nawawī’s Riyāḍ al-ṣāliḥīn reads “The impermissibility of depicting animate life on floor coverings, stones, clothes, silver coins, pillows, gold coins, cushions, and other things. The impermissibility of making images on walls, roofs, coverings, turbans, clothes, and the like. And the command to remove images.”6 Al-Dhahabī (748AH) lists picture-making as the 48th entry in his Kabāʾir, a work that lists enormities (Ar. kabāʾir).7 Ibn Hajar al-Haythamī (974AH) included it as the 268th entry in his:

To make a representation of an animate creature upon anything, in a respectful or humiliated deployment, on the ground or elsewhere8

All of those works have been translated into English. So much for the first article‘s claim that

If we turn to Islamic law, there does not exist a single legal decree, or fatwa, in the historical corpus that explicitly and decisively prohibits figural imagery, including images of the Prophet [ﷺ].

While the rest of these two articles may be fine, the portion related to classic legal scholarship has tragic flaws when it comes to its research method and content, and those flaws lead to incorrect conclusions. These two articles fail to show that western academics know their Islamic law better than Muslim jurists, just as they fail to show that Muslims should not be the least bit upset about violence against the Prophet ﷺ. But perhaps every publisher and reporter is just trying to work out an angle that lets them profit from the events related to the Charlie Hedbo cartoons.

UPDATE 1 It looks like the Ḥanafīs are close to the Shāfiʿīs and Ḥanbalīs regarding the impermissibility of drawing animate life. A few people have mentioned that there is a strong opinion within the Mālikī school that states that it is permissible to draw two dimensional figures of living creatures. A short answer is available here:

According to the Maliki madhab, 3-dimensional complete figure of creatures possessing souls are prohibited. If the figure is not complete (like missing arms), or it is not 3-dimensional, then it would be disliked (makruh). Thus, drawings of animals and humans would not be prohibited.

The Maliki scholars mention that if the drawing is going to be in a place where it is degraded, then it goes from being disliked (makruh) to being permissible (mubah) but not the best thing to do (khilaf al awlaa). An example of when this would occur is if the drawing of an animal is on a plate that will be eaten from or a rug or pillow that will be used. [Dardir, Al-Sharh al-kabir]

Rami Nsour

A more detailed presentation is available here.

While Ibn Qudama did include Imām Mālik’s opinion concerning drawings, this was not mentioned in Cook’s book which was cited in the second Newsweek article.

My criticism of the articles stands: Its methodology for researching and presenting Islamic law is flawed, there are pre-modern fatwas indicating that making figurative images is unlawful, the article misrepresents Ibn Qudama’s work and its content, there are explicit and decisive prohibitions of figurative imagery in legal texts. Anyone who wishes to follow the Mālikī opinion is free to do so. However, they are not free to revise Islamic legal history by ignoring or denying the dominant position in the other three extant schools of Sunni law.

  1. Al-Ramlī, Fatāwā al-Ramlī. (Al-Maktabah al-Islāmiyyah, n.d.), 4:155. 
  2. Michael Cook, Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 145-146. Amazon 
  3. Al-Kāsānī, Badāʾiʿ al-ṣanāʾiʿ. (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyyah, 1986), 1:116. Al-ʿUmrānī, Al-Bayān fī madhhab al-imām al-Shāfiʿī. (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2000), 9:488–489. 
  4. Al-Shāfiʿī, Al-Umm. (Beirut: Dar al-Maʿrifah, 1990), 6:196. 
  5. Ibn Qudāma, Al-Mugnī. (Cairo: Maktabah al-Qāhirah, n.d.), 7:280–281. 
  6. Al-Nawawī, Riyāḍ al-ṣāliḥīn. (Damascus: Dar Ibn Kathir, 2007), 469. This chapter corresponds to the 1678th hadith in the book. 
  7. Al-Dhahabī, Al-Kabāʾir. (Beirut: Dar al-Nadwah al-Jadidah, n.d.), 181–183. 
  8. Al-Haytamī, Al-Zawājir ʿan iqtirāf al-kabāʾir. (Dar al-Fikr: Beirut, 1987), 2:48–53 

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