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Why Islam Does (Not) Ban Images of the Prophet

Since our return to the United States, the icon has once again been displayed in our house. Our home also features images of Christ and the Buddha, but having an icon through which to imagine the presence of the Prophet has been important for me and my family.

Whenever Iranians and Turks came to our home, they would recognize the image as a common one they had seen on posters in Iran. But something strange would happen when we invited to our home Sunni Muslim friends from Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Egypt, who experienced a cognitive dissonance of sorts: how could a pious Muslim not only make an image of the Prophet but also display it proudly in his home?

Once a dear friend from Pakistan came to our home for dinner, and we shared a wonderful meal. A great lover of Islamic arts, he admired the many examples of Islamic calligraphy around our home, and we had a lovely time deciphering the Arabic inscriptions. He finally came to pause in front of the image of the Prophet and politely asked who the image depicted. I was surprised that this learned friend, very knowledgeable about Islam, would not have immediately identified the very common image of Muhammad; I stated that, of course, it was the Prophet. My friend's complexion changed from disbelief to offense, and he proceeded to emphatically state that it could not be, because "Muslims do not depict the Prophet." His insistence was partially out of concern that, in our devotion and love toward the Prophet, Muslims not fall into the trap of worshiping Muhammad instead of the God of Muhammad.

I did my best to inform him that there were millions of such depictions in Iran and elsewhere, and that for many of us it was not a distraction from God but rather a reminder of God to focus on the Messenger of God. And yet I remained unsure of how to respond to his assertion that "Muslims do not depict the Prophet." Wasn't the very item that he was standing in front of proof that at least some do? Faith is sometimes a very delicate matter that is best handled with care and sensitivity. Now when Muslim friends come over to our home and ask about the image, I try to surmise from what I know about them whether I should reveal the identity or simply state: "It is an image of a holy man who is exceedingly dear to me."

Image: Muhammad on buraq Nezami I bring up this example to indicate that different Muslims have always had differing memories of Muhammad. Over the years I have come to see that many of these memories are motivated by differing aesthetics and varying understandings, but that the memories of almost all Muslims are rooted in a devotion to Muhammad. My family's display of the image remains part of our devotion, and the friend's protest was also part of his devotion to make sure that the memory of the Prophet was not sullied by undue innovations.

In my biography of the Prophet, I have taken care to produce about twenty of the pietistic and sacred images produced by Muslim artists over the centuries. These are as far from the Danish cartoon images as one can get: they are works of devotion, illuminated by faith, and imbued with a deep sense of love. There are other options available to Muslims than either accepting the Danish cartoonist caricatures of the Prophet, or responding in pure anger and hatred. One such answer is a return to the rich pietistic Islamic tradition of depicting the Prophet who was sent, according to the Qur'an, as a mercy to all the Universe.   

Omid Safi is a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina and the author of Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters (2009).

5/6/2010 4:00:00 AM