Understanding historical images of the Prophet Muhammad


Images of the Prophet Muhammad

An issue that arises with some regularity in the study of Islamic art surrounds images of the Prophet Muhammad (who died in 632 C.E.) and whether it is permissible to make or view them. The historical record on this topic suggests one set of beliefs, but individual convictions, the teachings of different schools of Islamic theology, and current-day political rhetoric all suggest other points of view. This multiplicity of perspectives reflects the variety in the praxis of this (or indeed any) religion, and reinforces the fact that there is no one judgment on this matter that would encompass the beliefs of all Muslims in all parts of the world, or would apply to all moments in the past or present.

There are ways, however, to understand why this topic has been such a flashpoint. In part this is because it is embedded in the question of whether or not figural imagery is forbidden by the religion of Islam. The answer is unequivocal in certain realms. There are no representations of God, for instance, because God is understood as absolute, eternal, and omnipresent, having no bodily manifestation. Therefore, rather than using what would be inappropriate means to convey God’s qualities, in terms of the human form, artists in the Muslim tradition have created other devices to represent him, inspired by descriptions in the Qur’an or sayings of the Prophet (hadith). Clouds or lamps are among the common visual metaphors to represent him; calligraphy proclaiming the ninety-nine names that describe his attributes is another.

In addition, any images or icons that might be worshipped as idols are forbidden, and therefore no figures are ever depicted in mosques or in copies of the Qur’an. Yet there is variety in beliefs about whether images of religious figures such as prophets can appear in other contexts, and there are many instances in which they do. This includes biographical, historical, or literary texts in which paintings of figures such as Ibrahim/Abraham or Musa/Moses illustrate stories of their lives; here they provide instruction and were not intended for worship. Two examples showing the Prophet Muhammad in this context have gained some fame because they were shown and discussed as part of a class lecture that raised controversy in late 2022–early 2023. [1]

Both come from manuscripts, and so viewing them would have been a personal experience, as these manuscripts were meant to be held and read by an individual. They were painted onto pages to accompany a text, and as such were surrounded by writing. In addition, the pages before and after would have also included related illustrations.

The angel Gabriel appears to Muhammad

The first was included in a world history called the Compendium of Chronicles (Jami al-Tawarikh), written in the early 14th century and copied several times. The copy from which this painting comes is dated to c. 1306–14, and was made in present-day Iran. The painting falls within a section of the chronicle on the life of the Prophet Muhammad, one of several prophets and religious figures discussed in the text. There are other paintings that show Muhammad in the manuscript, illustrating a number of moments in his life.

The event depicted in this painting of Muhammad, which can be viewed here, is the first visitation the Prophet received from the angel Jibra’il/Gabriel. Muhammad often spent time in prayer in the hills outside the city of Mecca, where he lived, and was sitting in a cave there when Gabriel (on the left) appeared to him and started to deliver the revelations from God that form the contents of the Qur’an. A rocky landscape indicating the hills of Mecca is indicated below, but otherwise the focus is on the two figures.

The second painting is part of a manuscript produced in present-day Turkey in 1595–96. Titled the Biography of the Prophet’ (Siyer-i Nebi), the lengthy, Turkish-language text is illustrated with more than 800 paintings of Muhammad. This particular one, viewable here, shows the Prophet at a similar moment in time to the previous painting, at the hill where he started receiving revelations. Here, however, Gabriel is not shown and the hill, known as Jabal al-Nur (The Mountain of Light), is given more prominence. It appears as a golden mountain rising from a golden plain, with a host of angels watching from above.

Another significant difference between the two paintings is that the face of the Prophet is shown in the first, but is veiled in the second, which also shows his body as framed by flames. While the earliest surviving paintings portraying Muhammad in manuscripts from the 13th and 14th centuries include neither veil nor flames, these features became increasingly common in the early 16th century. It has been suggested that the veil shields a direct view of Muhammad’s face, so that a truly spiritual perception of him, undistracted by a visual form, might occur, while the flames are the materialization of God’s light, said to emanate from Muhammad. The symbol of the flames also helped to convey Muhammad’s special status as the last of the Prophets to be sent by God to spread his divine message. [2]

From a Persian poem called “The Orchard’”

Paintings of Muhammad have also been included in poems that describe events from his life. One of the most often illustrated of these events, known as the mi‘raj, is the night he traveled to Jerusalem, then ascended to heaven where he met with God and the earlier prophets. A beautifully executed example showing Muhammad rising to the heavens, which you can see here, comes from an illustrated copy of a Persian poem called “The Orchard” (Bustan) by the 13th-century author Sa‘di. It shows the Prophet as he is carried into the sky by the Buraq, a mythical beast with the body of a horse and the head of a human. Muhammad’s left hand is in a gesture indicating speaking, reflecting the fact that he conversed with the Buraq during the flight. Below is the sacred sanctuary at Mecca (the haram al-sharif). Here, the face of the Prophet is shown, but his head is surrounded by a halo of flames. Similarly, the manuscript of the Qur’an in the mosque below is also shrouded in flames, expressing the exalted nature of both Prophet and holy book.

The question of religious images

The existence of these works of art, among many hundreds of depictions of the prophets of Islam, may give rise to the question as to why there have been such vociferous, and sometimes violent, reactions to teaching or publishing them. In some cases, the response has been to images that were disrespectful, demeaning, and racist, as in the cartoons published in Denmark and France in the early 2000s. [3] In other cases, however, the response has been to the types of images presented above, made by Muslims, included in the kinds of texts where such imagery was commonplace, and wholly reverential in the minds of the people who created them.

This reflects the fact that not all Muslims hold the same views on the issue of representing religious figures, and most especially the Prophet Muhammad. While some Muslims have considered depiction of him acceptable in specific contexts, there are others who would disagree and who believe that any depiction of the Prophet is offensive, even when made by Muslims and out of respect. Even if such images exist, they consider them sacrilegious and do not want to view them; some believe that no one should view them. This is the case in many Muslim cultures past and present. Accommodating this point of view is difficult given the concept of academic freedom that universities in many parts of the world espouse, but it is important to recognize that this conundrum is not particular to Muslims, Islam, or Islamic art.

We might consider the broader question of showing any religious art in art history courses. The primary content of most includes paintings, sculptures, manuscripts, and other materials originally produced for purposes of worship. In calling these works “art,” much is lost about the reasons or modes of their production and their potential to speak to audiences of believers. It also overlooks the sensitivities in many religious traditions to showing images of icons that in their original contexts might only be viewed during certain ceremonies, at certain times of year, and by certain believers. We could equally consider the impact when the objects themselves are shown in museums for any member of the public to behold. These are issues that pertain to traditions from around the globe, from the Americas, Africa, and the Pacific as well as Europe and Asia, and are not just confined to the art of Muslims.

It is also important to note that responses to these kinds of paintings have also been heightened by the current political climate. On the one hand, the promotion of certain interpretations of Islam has set up conflicts among Muslim communities with differing practices. The last two centuries, for instance, have seen the spread of the teachings of an 18th-century legal scholar from Saudi Arabia, Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. ‘Abd al-Wahhab promoted a movement of purification and reform in the practice of Islam and averred even the suggestion of veneration of any figure other than God. This form of Islam has gained prominence as the wealth and political influence of Saudi Arabia has grown, and ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s adherents are able to promote their perspective among Muslims in other parts of the world. Other communities have also long espoused orthodoxy, quite separate from the Saudi doctrine. As the differences between these and other Muslim communities play out on a public stage, there has been a rise in denouncements of practices that have been acceptable in various Muslim societies—including the making of figural art.

The actions of groups that use the destruction of art for political purposes further muddy the water. The images of the dynamiting of the Buddha statues at Bamiyan and the devastation of the monuments of Palmyra have been the most widely publicized. However, as many have commented, these acts were not inspired only by religious sentiment but were shrewdly orchestrated to generate outrage among foreign media and cultural institutions—they do not reflect the beliefs of all Muslims today, let alone the views of Muslims everywhere in the past. [4]

The role of history

In understanding all of these contextual layers, the role of art history must also be examined. Past scholars are responsible for creating and reinforcing the stereotype that Islamic art forbids figural imagery and the subsequent characterization of Muslim civilizations that this perception has enabled. Despite thousands of examples of representational art, the earliest 20th-century publications in Islamic art history promoted the notion that figures were problematic in this body of art, and the perception has persisted despite decades of subsequent revision on the topic. Having been thus reinforced, politicians in North America and Europe have recently seized upon this issue of figuration, holding it as a sign of cultural advancement and liberal society. They use an alleged inimical attitude toward images to justify discriminatory policies against “backward” Muslim-majority countries. This in fact is a centuries-old tactic, one that also has resonance with 19th-century characterizations of Jewish cultures as also being regressive. This way of thinking privileges the depiction of the human figure as the height of artistic expression (itself a way a reifying certain Eurocentric values), discounts the varied reasons for eschewing figuration in certain contexts, and indeed overlooks the Christian history of doing so.

These are some of the reasons why teaching certain images in Islamic art have become a tricky proposition, but the lessons to be learned from recent episodes should not be that Islamic art is simply too dangerous a topic to address in the classroom. For those not as familiar with the subject, it may seem too easy to wander into areas that could lead to censure or other consequences. But it is important not to conflate the paintings shown in the class with the highly offensive and intentionally provocative cartoons and other imagery that have sparked violent responses in the recent past, nor to assume that all Muslims will respond the same way to viewing images of the Prophet. This aspect of the historical record should and must not be lost in the present heavily politicized environment—but they must be taught with a sensitivity that we can continue to develop.

Notes:

[1] Virmal Patel, “A Lecturer Showed a Painting of the Prophet Muhammad. She Lost Her Job,” The New York Times (January 8, 2023).

[2] Christiane Gruber, “When Nubuvvat Encounters Valayat: Safavid Paintings of the Prophet Muhammad’s Mi‘raj, ca. 1500–1550,” The Art and Material Culture of Iranian Shi‘ism: Iconography and Religious Devotion in Shi‘i Islam, edited by Pedram Khosronejad (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010), pp. 46–73.

[3] Norimitsu Onishi, “Charlie Hebdo Republishes Cartoons That Prompted Deadly 2015 Attack,” The New York Times (September 1, 2020).

[4] Finbarr Barry Flood, “Between Cult and Culture: Bamiyan, Islamic Iconoclasm, and the Museum,” The Art Bulletin, volume 84, number 4 (2002), pp. 651–54.


Additional resources

Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100–1450 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012).

Finbarr Barry Flood, “Between Cult and Culture: Bamiyan, Islamic Iconoclasm, and the Museum,” The Art Bulletin, volume 84, number 4 (2002), pp. 651–54.

Finbarr Barry Flood, “Inciting Modernity? Images, Alterities and the Contexts of ‘Cartoon Wars,’Images That Move, edited by Patricia Spyer and Mary Margaret Steedly (Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press, 2013), pp. 41–72.

Christiane Gruber, “Between Logos (Kalima) and Light (Nur): Representations of the Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Painting,” Muqarnas, volume 26 (2009), pp. 229–62.

Christiane Gruber, “When Nubuvvat Encounters Valayat: Safavid Paintings of the Prophet Muhammad’s Mi‘raj, ca. 1500–1550,” The Art and Material Culture of Iranian Shi‘ism: Iconography and Religious Devotion in Shi‘i Islam, edited by Pedram Khosronejad (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010), pp. 46–73.

Cite this page as: Dr. Marika Sardar, "Understanding historical images of the Prophet Muhammad," in Smarthistory, February 5, 2024, accessed February 23, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/understanding-historical-images-prophet-muhammad/.