Long History of Islamic Art

In dealing with the issue of photography, we naturally have to reach back and talk about Islamic art since they both deal with the thing people object to, images.  Art creativity has been around since long before the time of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), but as Islam expanded to new regions different attitudes towards the arts emerged.  As Islam spread rapidly throughout the middle east, the Umayyids (661–750CE) made some advances in the arts but were the predecessors of the Islamic Golden Age.  The Umayyids spread Islam as a dynamic religion which adapted to local cultures and the arts within the limitations of Islamic civilisation.

The Umayyids were a ruling tribe from the tribe Banu Umayya. The Banu Umayya were a tribe of Quraysh who converted to Islam during the time of the Prophet, the most notable of them Uthman ibn Affan who went on to become the third Caliph during the Rashidun period.  Uthman ibn Affan is considered the third of four ‘Rightly Guided Caliphs‘ who Sunni look to (in addition to Qur’an and Hadith) when interpreting Shari’ah.  Caliph Uthman is also attributed with completing the very first full edition of the Qur’an begun under Abu Bakr’s term as Caliph.

The Umayyid Caliphate was established by Caliph Muawiya I ibn Abu Sufyan who succeeded Caliph ‘Ali ibn Abi-Talib. The Umayyid period (661 CE – 750 CE) is the second to rule Islamic civilisation after the Rashidun Caliphate period (the four Rightly Guided Caliphs, 632 CE – 661 CE).  Islamic civilisation since thrived in the sciences and arts, some of which have survived until today.

Umayyid Caliphate 727 CE. Her features are those of an Arab woman. Archaeologists believe she is a songstress from the palace. Historical sources mention that songstresses were brought from the Hijaz region, in the western Arabian Desert, to sing in the Umayyad palaces of the Syrian Desert. (Source)
Umayyid Caliphate 734 CE. Mosaic of Hisham’s Palace representation of the lion attacking the gazelle. It is thought the be the peace that follows the victory of Islam.

The Abassids where direct descendants of Al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib, the youngest uncle of the Prophet Muhammad and overthrew the Umayyids in 750 CE.  The Abassid reign under Caliph Harun al-Rashid built upon the culture and sciences of the Umayyids.  The result was an explosion of advances in art, music, literature, science, medicine and much more that led Islam into a full blown Golden Age, while Europe plunged itself into the Dark Ages.  It was this age that Europeans traveled to Islamic lands to study in Islamic universities to acquire education which they would carry back to Europe.  Eventually, this led to the renaissance in 1300 CE pulling Europe out of the Dark Ages.

In the illustration on the right, a doctor and his assistant or patient stand on either side. (Source)

The Abbasid rule lasted from 750 CE until the Mongol invasion and sack of Baghdad in 1258 CE and killed Caliph al-Musta’sim.  Dynastic struggles brought about political instability and declining institutions but it was this moment that marked the decline in Islamic civilisation.  Islamic civilisation has not fully recovered since.

Traditionally, as seen in Islamic History, even human portrayals can be found in all eras of Islamic art.  In addition to humans, animals and plant portrayals are common even in Islam’s fourth most revered mosque, The Great Mosque of Damascus.  Since the earliest days of the Islamic empire Muslims have designed coinage and miniatures with depictions as well.

Islamic coin featuring human figure in art. American University of Beirut, Lebanon
Abbasid Bowl, 9th Century, Iraq. Qatar Museum of Islamic Art

Since the beginning, Islamic civilisation has been familiar with depictions of Allah’s creation. 1400 years of Islamic history tells us that these depictions were mostly permitted unless there was an element of shirk (idolatry) associated with it.  Even in the case of art that had idolatrous significance that became owned by Muslims, it was often marked but not destroyed. Human (or any) representation for the purpose of worship is shirk (idolatry) and is strictly forbidden.  However, the evidence shows that Muslims from all eras have never conclusively viewed representation of mundane figures as forbidden.

However, if we reach back to the Prophet’s example, although shirk is forbidden, we still do not see a total destruction or defacement of works of art among non-Muslim communities who were in alliances with Muslims.  The Prophet himself demanded that Muslims respect other faiths and even participate in maintaining and repairing their religious buildings, which were decorated with paintings, statues and other works that would naturally have items of religious value considered shirk by Muslims.  Examples:

“No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it… Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants.” – Prophet Muhammad, Promise to the Monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery Until the End of Days

“Assist in reconstruct (patch, remodel) their churches and monasteries, and this would be as aid to them in their religion and for their commitment to the covenant.” – Prophet Muhammad, Covenant penned in the Prophet’s Mosque by Ali bin Abi Taleb

In recent centuries an effort to re-establish the past glory of Islam’s Golden Age, many Muslims have come to believe that instead of building from where we were at the height of the Golden Age that we must dial back Islamic civilisation by viewing it all as bid’ah (innovation) involving varying degrees of shirk (idolatry).  In doing so, there is considerable effort put into regressive ideologies that do not consider the ‘larger picture’ of the facts of Islamic history, modern living, culture, science, economy and governance.  One such movement today, the Salafist movement, is preoccupied with forbidding the things that were once the pinnacle of Islamic civilisation from its earliest days to its decline at the hands of the Mongols.  This movement began 300 years ago in the mid 1700s and is rooted in Saudi Arabian history. The fundamentals of this revivalist Salafist movement seems sound on the surface. It is more often overly zealous to avoid what it identifies as unnecessary bid’ah (innovation) and ascribes shirk (polytheism) where none exists. It’s marriage to the Saudi Arabian government often is problematic when interpreting Islam as it applies autocratic ideology within the country and in the movement worldwide.  Since the earliest days, Islam has always been a more dynamic faith.

O people, beware of exaggeration in religious matters for those who came before you were doomed because of exaggeration in religious matters. – Sunan Ibn Majah 

There is nothing wrong with being overly cautious, however, this seemingly monastic outlook is unnecessary and shouldn’t be put off as the only correct Islamic view.  Furthermore, it is over-burdensome in a way Allah and the Prophet (PBUH) never intended for the believers.  Such puritan ideas in the arts (among other things) are themselves a destructive bid’ah (innovation) of religion in my view.

God wants ease for you, not hardship. He wants you to complete the prescribed period and to glorify Him for having guided you, so that you may be thankful. – Qur’an 2:185b

God does not wish to place any burden on you: He only wishes to cleanse you and perfect His blessing on you, so that you may be thankful. – Qur’an 5:6

A bedouin urinated in the mosque and some people rushed to beat him up. The Prophet said: “Leave him alone and pour a bucket of water over it. You have been sent to make things easy and not to make them difficult.” – Riyad as-Salihin (Bukhari)

Interestingly, one of the things that most Muslims do not think about is the representation of one celestial body (sometimes accompanied by a second) that were once used by pagan idolaters that exists on most Mosques, many national flags or religious accessories today (like carpets).  Like representations of humans, animals or plants, and unlike other symbols of faith, they are representations of Allah’s creation and people in the past have gone astray to worship them or use them for polytheistic purpose.

The Star and Crescent signifies victory, sovereignty and divinity. According to tradition, in 339 BC a brilliant crescent moon saved Byzantium (now Istanbul) from attack by Philip of Macedon. To mark their gratitude, the citizens adopted the Crescent of Diana as the city’s emblem. After Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, Byzantium became a Christian city in 330 AD and was renamed Constantinople.  The Crescent was adopted from the goddess Diana and given a Star by the Emperor as symbolic of the Virgin Mary.

After 1299, during the reign of Sultan Osman Gazi of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan had a dream of a crescent moon in every corner of the world with a “mighty wind, and turned the points of the sword-leaves towards the various cities of the world, but especially towards Constantinople.”  The dream then became a symbol of the Ottoman dynasty. When Constantinople was conquered by Mehmed II in 1453, the crescent came to represent both Islam and the Turkish empire.

It is understood by all Muslims that this is merely symbolic and has no religious significance or polytheistic merit despite its idolatrous origins.

The night, the day, the sun, the moon, are only a few of His signs. Do not bow down in worship to the sun or the moon, but bow down to God who created them, if it is truly Him that you worship. – Qur’an 41:37

Yet, the Crescent and Star decorate our Islamic societies in the same way as picture art since the earliest days of Islam (unlike the Crescent and Star, such Islamic art never had any polytheistic or religious merit).  We know with certainty that picture art decorated Mosques, town centers, palaces, homes, etc. since the Umayyids.  There is one similarity between these two things (Crescent decoration and art) that tie this up into a neat bundle of understanding and is perfectly in line with Quran and Hadith.  In creating and using these items, there is no intent to create a relic for people to venerate.  No shirk is involved.

Modern Photography

Since the development of the camera, there has been the ongoing debate over whether or not taking a photograph is forbidden or permitted in Islam, but there has been little understanding about what photography actually is.  There are two forms of photography addressed by the scholars, ‘still photo’ and ‘video’.

Though it shares all of the characteristics of imagination involved in creating a painting, photography today is not creating a picture, nor is it taking a picture.  A photograph is a reflection of a scene that already exists.  Photography is the control of reflective light bouncing off of a subject.  Controlling this light is similar to the control of water if you were to open a water tap and fill a jug for use at a later date. Photography is both an art form and a science.  Photography is applying the talent that Allah has given you to see something and adjusting the mechanisms to control light which in turn determines how it is recorded on a micro storage chip, resulting in a great photograph for you to consume (use) at a later date.  Here is how it works:

In the above diagram light rays already exist, even in total darkness.  You can adjust light with a flash or simply have a longer exposure.  Light bounces off or radiates from something in the world and is constantly travelling towards your camera. When you point the camera at a subject, the image is bouncing off of your mirror (or shutter in the case of mirror-less).  The aperture in your lens can be adjusted for a faster (larger) or slower (smaller) light setting. The shutter can be set slower to allow more light or faster to allow less light.  The sensor that will record the light can be set to more or less light sensitive.  When the settings are optimal the shutter is released for the specified time.  When the shutter is released, light that is already travelling into your camera continues on its way to the sensor.  The sensor is electronic and the light from the scene is interpreted by the CPU, converted to data and stored in your data drive.  The still photo is called a ‘frame’.  The data from the photo frame can be exported for data manipulation on your PC, stored or printed for whatever reason.

Whether you have a camera dedicated for television or movies, DSLR or mobile phone, all digital cameras are video capable. A video is a series of still photo frames that are taken with the correct lighting controls (aperture, shutter speed and sensor strength) that are recorded for playback into what is called ‘frame rate’.  When they are played back, the frame rate is the number of images that are played back, displayed or projected per second.  Although video can be viewed as a separate art form, it works in the exact same way that still photography works, with one exception:  audio.  Audio breathes life into the collection of rapidly projected photographs and is imprinted on what we call television, computer screens, tablets and mobile phones.  It can also be frozen by frame and printed the same as a still photo with the right software.  Although this is less quality and overlooked in place of more appropriate still photography, Ultra-High Definition is making for clearer television pictures as technology advances.

Photography has many beneficial uses and as with anything that exists can be abused.  It has some very relevant purposes, such as to communicate, tell a story, inspire, capture history, innocent retention of memories and challenge creativity.  All of this can be used for good causes like remembering lost loved ones, making a record of your life for your family, communicating beauty on various subjects, conveying emotions, identification for ID cards or social media profiles, journalism, education in all sciences, and much more.

Scholarly Opinions, are Opinions

In large part, scholars do ‘permit’ photographs, even if they forbid painting art. However, most Salafis, who have now propagated their movement worldwide with the support of the Saudi Arabian government, have taught that still photography is forbidden except for photo ID like passports, etc.  Interestingly, in the same stroke of a brush they claim that taking video is permitted.  In fact, there is no difference between the two from a photographic standpoint.

It seems a lot of us Muslims get amnesia when it comes to leaders like the Saudi Arabian King Salman and a number of other Muslim dictators across Arab ‘Muslim’ countries.  Their imposing portrait paintings and photographs are plastered all over our Islamic societies.  These types of paintings and photos are designed to remind us who is in charge, who we should fear and who we should admire, and I don’t think they have Qur’an, Sunnah or Allah in mind.  Still two wrongs wouldn’t make a right and someone’s disingenuous argumentation doesn’t allow us a free pass, so lets examine this topic further.

Saudi Arabian King Salman

The evidences the scholars use to come to these conclusions are not based in Qur’an.  There is no prohibition on drawing, painting, or creating art of any type in the Qur’an.  The core message of Allah to Muslims is Tawheed (Oneness) and in the Qur’an He warns us about engaging in forms of idolatry.  In other words, ascribing a supernatural quality, partnership, or divinity to corruptible things, either in Creation or that we create.  If one examines the totality of hadith on the topic, there is a clear line in Islam between permissibly and discretion that indicates to us at what point our intent becomes the idolatrous behaviour which is prohibited in the Qur’an.  Allah does not prohibit us from enjoying his creation through the arts, but limits us in our acts of divine adoration, supplication and worship to Him only.  What I am speaking of is plain in the Quran:

If any, after this, invent a lie and attribute it to Allah, they are indeed unjust wrong-doers. – Qur’an 3:94

Say: He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; And there is none like unto Him. – Qur’an 112

Further to the discussion, according to the Qur’an Allah even blessed Prophet Sulaiman (a.s.) and his family to enjoy these things that were made for them.

They made him whatever he wanted- palaces, statues, basins as large as water troughs, fixed cauldrons. We said, ‘Work thankfully, family of David, for few of my servants are truly thankful.’ – Qur’an 34:13

The Qur’an is our primary source as it is the most authentic source.  The hadith are our secondary source because they are not the words of Allah but a series of chain narrations that have been authenticated and recorded hundreds of years later (longer than it took for parts of the Bible to be put on papyrus), hence all hadith must be looked at in light of the Qur’an.

The prohibitions imposed by scholars who prohibit photographic art are entirely based on a group of hadith that if seen together, in light of Qur’anic verses and the history of what purpose many images served in the time of the Prophet, they can be easily understood as they always have been since the time of the Prophet Muhammad when Islam was perfected.

This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed My favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion. – Qur’an 5:3

Here is what the scholars say:

According to Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the subject matter of a photograph is factor in prohibition.  For example, nude or semi-nude photographs, drawings or paintings would be forbidden because they go squarely against Islamic morals.  Such a prohibition would also include portraits of tyrants or people who are leaders or celebrities that propagate immoral behavior.  He also includes subject matter like religious symbols, such as crosses, idols, etc.

Sheikh Ahmad Kutty, says, “Photography as a medium of communication or for the simple, innocent retention of memories without the taint of reverence/shirk does not fall under the category of forbidden Tasweer [picture/image].

One finds a number of traditions from the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, condemning people who make Tasweer, which denotes painting or carving images or statues. It was closely associated with paganism or shirk [association of partners with Allah]. People were in the habit of carving images and statues for the sake of worship. Islam, therefore, declared Tasweer forbidden because of its close association with shirk. One of the stated principles of usul-u-Fiqh( Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence) is that if anything directly leads to haram [forbidden acts], it is likewise haram. In other words, Tasweer was forbidden precisely for the reason that it was a means leading to shirk.

The function of photography today does not fall under the above category. Even some of the scholars who had been once vehemently opposed to photography under the pretext that it was a form of forbiddenTasweerhave later changed their position on it – as they allow even for their own pictures to be taken and published in newspapers, for videotaping lectures and for presentations; whereas in the past, they would only allow it in exceptional cases such as passports, drivers’ licenses, etc. The change in their view of photography is based on their assessment of the role of photography.

Having said this, one must add a word of caution: To take pictures of leaders and heroes and hang them on the walls may not belong to the same category of permission. This may give rise to a feeling of reverence and hero worship, which was precisely the main thrust of the prohibition of Tasweer. Therefore, one cannot make an unqualified statement to the effect that all photography is halal. It all depends on the use and function of it. If it is for educational purpose and has not been tainted with the motive of reverence and hero worship, there is nothing in the sources to prohibit it.”

Imam Afroz Ali, writes, “…the dominant opinion of the modern Scholars of High Knowledge is that photography is permissible as long as they are of benefit and not for any harmful or prohibited purposes, and that photographs of humans and animals not be displayed [on a wall].”

Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah bin Baz (Source)

Sheikh Ibn Baz and other more restrictive scholars expressly forbids photographs and art, claiming that the areas that he deems ‘doubtful’ should be avoided. I’ve included a portrait of him here to illustrate that this type of outright restriction seems disingenuous.

The swiftness that Shiekh Ibn Baz and others exchange ‘avoidance’ (or other qualifiers) with ‘forbidden’ regarding photography is concerning.  Qur’an says:

Be a community that calls for what is good, urges what is right, and forbids what is wrong: those who do this are the successful ones. – Qur’an 3:104

God wants ease for you, not hardship. He wants you to complete the prescribed period and to glorify Him for having guided you, so that you may be thankful. – Qur’an 2:185b

You who believe, do not forbid the good things God has made lawful to you- do not exceed the limits: God does not love those who exceed the limits – Qur’an 5:87

Allah has never given a command forbidding picture making, but he has forbidden shirk, that we know in the Prophet’s time was more often associated with picture making.  In the same ease of saying it is a ‘doubtful’ area (since it isn’t mentioned directly in Qur’an, hadith and history seem to conflict) that the Sheikh forbids it, we can also say that it is permitted unless shirk is involved.  With the same logic to forbid it we can also make it permitted as something good for us, unless misused in ways against Qur’anic teaching of Tawheed.  It’s important to note also that where these scholars used to expressly forbid it in all cases, many have now changed their views regarding some of it.  Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi has even noted this among some of these Salafist scholars:

“The Salafis also have developed in several jurisprudence issues, such as “photography,” which they used to consider one of the major crimes, but now they consider it allowed.”

My viewpoint

As a photographer, I would also say that there is legitimate reason to photograph some of these things Sheikh Al-Qaradawi mentions depending on circumstance.  For example, education, journalism, news reporting, etc.  The line to draw is in the intent of the photograph.  For example, a picture of a cross can tell a story that can illustrate to the audience a valid educational opportunity or simply can serve as a mere collection of memories on a holiday trip to the Vatican, etc.  Conversely, a portrait of a nation’s regime leadership is intended to portray them in a false light that exalts them, normalises them, reinforces their rule or washes out their crimes.  I agree with Sheikh Kutty that the line is drawn at the use and function of it.

According to the sum of the hadith that even Sheikh Ibn Baz lists, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) dealt with issues where the images were closely associated with promoting shirk, which was common in the culture of his time.  The intent of such art was towards advancing beliefs contrary to Islam.  Centuries of Islamic civilisation dating back to the earliest surviving examples from the 7th century through the Islamic Golden Age serve as an indicator of how this topic was interpreted by the early sahabbah [companions] and subsequent scholars. Surviving documents dictated by the Prophet Muhammad himself tell us how even in some cases Muslims were ordered to repair and maintain properties of other faiths that (as common in that time) would have had religious statues, paintings and other image art incorporated into their architecture. Such a notion is still completely in line with Qur’an that expressly forbids Muslims from engaging in all forms of shirk while serving a higher purpose of Islamic civilisation.

If we consider the sum of all hadith, the Qur’an, historical context since the time of the Prophet and sahabbah, agreements the Prophet Muhammad has made with non-Muslim groups and even later Islamic history leading into the Golden Age, we can see that the hadith that many people today use to prohibit all image making is really only prohibiting Muslims from the making of relics.

I’ve also found that many scholars do not understand what photography is and have not properly consulted the industry and educated themselves on the science.  When making rulings on any topic this is imperative. In the end we are responsible to Allah for ourselves. Photography is a beautiful art that has many purposes.  When you take photographs, consider your subject matter, is it haram?  What is the intent of the image, education, saving a memory?  In the end, you are the best qualified to chart the course of your life.  Don’t surrender your mind to others who wish to use the ‘just in case’ reasoning to ban photography.

We have bound each human being’s destiny to his neck. On the Day of Resurrection, We shall bring out a record for each of them, which they will find spread wide open, ‘Read your record. Today your own soul is enough to calculate your account.’ Whoever accepts guidance does so for his own good; whoever strays does so at his own peril. No soul will bear another’s burden, nor do We punish until We have sent a messenger. – Qur’an 17:13-15

My view is that if you feel you need to go that extra mile to avoid something, then do it. However, such personal convictions shouldn’t be imposed on others. It could be that Allah has permitted it, as I believe is clearly shown in in light of all of the facts of Qur’an, hadith and history.  The one who does not transgress the limits set by Allah (shirk) is exercising a creative right given by Allah to enjoy for a better purpose. There are things Allah has made clear and other things He has not.  Of the things He hasn’t made clear He has left us room for growth. Both the conservative and liberal thinker can be right within the confines of what Allah has set out for us in the Qur’an.  In the end, we must have faith in Allah that He is the God He says He is, the Most Merciful.  Niyyah (intentions) is the foundation for every act in Islam.

Messenger of Allah said, “The deeds are considered by the intentions, and a person will get the reward according to his intention. So whoever emigrated for Allah and His Messenger, his emigration will be for Allah and His Messenger; and whoever emigrated for worldly benefits or for a woman to marry, his emigration would be for what he emigrated for”. – Riyad as-Salihin [Bukhari and Muslim]

Allah would, however, raise them according to their intention. – Sahih Muslim

Pray: Muhammad Berkati, Indonesia, Arts and Culture; 2015 Sony World Photography Awards

Allah has given us a beautiful gift and it should be used for His glory and our enjoyment.  An art that portrays a sense of skill, pride, joy and beauty in the world is not forbidden from Allah, it is a gift of Allah.

And (He has created) horses, mules, and donkeys, for you to ride and use for show; and He has created (other) things of which ye have no knowledge. – Qur’an 16:8

Article by BrJimC © 2017