With regard to recent nonstop news reports on the gun attack on Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that drew cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), I would like to discuss an important question from the Qur’anic perspective: Does God, in the Qur’an, prohibit image-making?
First of all, I’d like to clarify that I emphasize “in the Qu’ran” because of my belief that the Qur’an is the primary and the only authentic source of religious doctrines in Islam. That is to say, I am not convinced that the Hadith literature—the commonly cited secondary sources of Islamic doctrines—-has any real authority when it comes to prescribing religious rulings. My belief probably deviates from that of the majority of Muslims, but I stand firm on this position: The Qur’an is sufficient as a Guidance for Muslims.
The evidence is overwhelming. The Qur’an has been preserved perfectly whereas the Hadith literature has not. The Qur’an says God will preserve the Qu’ran, but did not say He will preserve any other texts. The Qur’an tells us in numerous places that it is fully detailed and the only “Hadith” that we should follow. It also says that any text that contains even a single contradiction cannot be from God, and the ahadith contain many contradictions.
If you would like to read more about this religious position (which, I admit, is not mainstream), here is a detailed article written by Joseph A Islam at www.quransmessage.com, a brother that is much more knowledgeable than me: The Quran Stands Alone as Sole Religious Guidance
Now, back to the question: Does God, in the Qur’an, prohibit making images?
This is an important question because the terrorists killed the cartoonists on the belief that it is forbidden to make images in Islam, especially of the Prophets, and especially the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). This reasoning comes from certain ahadith of the Prophet saying that image-makers will burn in hell. The logical appeal of these ahadith is this reasoning: because people are prone to worship images (especially images of the Prophets), and idolatry is the worst sin in Islam, image-makers are helping people to commit the worst sin of all. Islamic scholars then extrapolated this reasoning to make the ruling that all forms of image-making are haram (unlawful) and even used verses from the Qur’an saying that God is the Creator of the universe to justify this ruling, because only God can create.
But, if we examine only the Qur’an, we find absolutely no evidence that could support the ruling that all image-making is prohibited by God.
Let’s look first at the scholars’ primary argument in support of the unlawfulness of image-making with supposed Qur’anic evidence: “Allaah is the Only One Who has the power of giving shape to His creation and creating them in the best image. Making images implies that one is trying to match the creation of Allaah. …image-making is the exclusive preserve of Allaah. [Thus]…it is forbidden to make statues.” -Sheikh Muhammed Salih Al-Munajjid; Source: http://islamqa.info/en/7222
To put this into the form of an argument:
- God is the Only Creator—the only One who has the knowledge, power, etc. to create.
- Image-making such as painting and sculpting is a form of creation.
- Any human being that makes images is deceiving himself as to having God-like knowledge and power.
- Deceiving oneself to have God-like powers is blasphemous.
- Any action that results in blasphemy is haram (unlawful).
Therefore, any attempt to “create” or make images is haram.
For an argument to be sound, the argument has to be valid, and the premises also have to be true. The argument seems to be valid. But are the premises true?
Premise 1 is obviously true, if you are a Muslim who believes that the Qur’an is the Word of God. Premises 4 and 5 are also true. The problems lie with premises 2 and 3.
Creation means “the act or process of bringing something into existence”. By this definition, image-making is not a form of creation. What we think of as “creative” endeavors do not involve creation, after all. For example, when we paint or make a sculpture, are we bringing anything into existence that did not exist before? No. All the materials and laws of the universe remain the same. All we are doing is rearranging things and participating in the increase of entropy of the universe, as ordained by God.
In other words, by default we don’t really create anything in the real sense of the word—we can’t. Even if we make a new element, we are making it with things that already exist in the universe. “God is the Creator of all things” is a statement of a fact about the universe; nothing we do can change this.
But then why do we naturally think of painting and sculpting and other forms of image-making as acts of creation? I believe that this is but an example of our extensive use of conceptual metaphors, which refer to “the understanding of one idea, or conceptual domain, in terms of another, for example, understanding quantity in terms of directionality (e.g. “prices are rising”).” Or understanding time in terms of money, as implied in the phrase “spending some time”. Or, understanding human micro-manipulation of the universe in terms of the creation of the universe, as in “creating a piece of artwork”.
I believe, therefore, that Premise 2 is false: image-making is not a form of creation.
What about premise 3: “Any human being that makes images is deceiving himself as to having God-like knowledge and power”? Would an artist think that? Maybe—if he or she has a particularly unclear notion of what real “creation” means, and is consciously aware of the concept of God yet does not believe in Him. But is every human being like this? Obviously not. Premise 3 is essentially an unverifiable assumption about the attitude of people engaging in image-making that cannot, therefore, be judged as undoubtedly true, and indeed seems exceedingly false.
Now, the Qur’an does say explicitly and implicitly in numerous places that worshiping idols is prohibited. Making images for people to worship is obviously prohibited as well: “And We verily gave Abraham of old his proper course, and We were aware of him, When he said to his father and his folk: What are these statues (Arabic: Thamatheel) to which ye pay devotion? “ (21:51-52)
But then, as brother Joseph Islam astutely pointed out:
If a statue in itself is unlawful (Arabic: haram), then why did Prophet Soloman (pbuh) instruct the Jinn under his control to make them as captured in the following verse?:
“They made for him what he willed: synagogues and statues (Arabic: Thamatheel), basins like wells and boilers built into the ground. Give thanks, O House of David! Few of My bondmen are thankful” (34:13)
We note from the two examples above that the same Arabic word ‘Thamatheel’ (plural of Timthal and derived from its root M-TH-L) has been utilised. Would a Prophet of God (Solomon (pbuh)) go against the teachings of the Prophets before him and make statues / images that pleased him when these were forbidden?
Furthermore, it is clear from the verse that these actions were carried under the sanction of God.
The two simple examples above should make it clear that it is not the ‘statue’ in itself which is unlawful, but its intended purpose that determines whether something becomes forbidden or remains lawful.
In other words, in the Qur’anic view, the action of making images generally is not forbidden. What is forbidden is making images that are intended to be worshipped.
I strongly recommend reading the entire (short) article here: Are statues and images unlawful (haram)?
It is undeniable that many human beings do have the tendency to worship an image when they see one. Maybe it’s human nature to find something to worship, and images and statues are just easy targets. However, God, who understands human nature the best, obviously does not deem this irrational human tendency so uncontrollable by our intellect as to prohibit all forms of image-making—we know this because there is no support from the Qur’an for this ruling. God only prohibits the act of making images that are intended to be worshipped.
I think you could say, therefore, that if a person makes an image without the intention for that image to be worshipped, but someone still ends up worshipping that image, then it’s the problem of the worshipper and not of the image-maker. This view is consistent with the rest of the Qur’an, which views intention as the most important part of an action (for example: hypocrites are repeatedly described as worse than the disbelievers).
Conclusion: There is no evidence in the Qur’an that image-making in and of itself is prohibited. The terrorists’ act of violence was based on a belief that has no basis in the Qur’an, but one emanating purely from the Hadith—the secondary sources of Islam that are held so highly as to have even more authority than the Qur’an in Islam nowadays. The Hadith literature does have its historical value, and we should still read it, but no matter what, Qur’an must be our only source of religious guidance.
Afterthoughts: The other very strong motivation behind the terrorists’ act, other than the not completely true belief as detailed above that images of Prophets are prohibited in Islam, was probably their anger at how these cartoonists ignorantly and shamelessly mocked our beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). And I totally understand the source of that motivation. I am angry too. I am angry and offended every time I encounter people who have no respect for other peoples’ religions. However, if you are a Muslim or someone who is familiar with the life of the Prophet Muhammad (saw), then you know that the Prophet himself suffered mocking that was far worse than this. And how did he treat those people who mocked him? With gentleness and kindness that we can’t even imagine! He prayed for them. So much so that Allah had to tell him not to because it’s futile (as mentioned in the Qur’an). These terrorists have learned nothing from the Qur’an, and nothing from the Prophet (saw). So far away are their actions from Islam that I have to question: Are they really Muslims? Maybe they are, only Allah SWT knows. But what they did has nothing to do with Islam.