Muhammad/FAQ - Legacy - Muslim Views - Islamic Depictions of Muhammad

Islamic Depictions of Muhammad

In line with the hadith prohibition against creating images of sentient living beings, which is particularly strictly observed with respect to the "God and Prophet's, Islamic religious art is focused on the word. Muslims generally avoid depictions of Muhammad, and mosques are decorated with calligraphy and Quranic inscriptions or geometrical designs, not images or sculptures. Today, the interdiction against images of Muhammad – designed to prevent worship of Muhammad, rather than God – is much more strictly observed in Sunni Islam (85%–90% of Muslims) than among Shias (10%–15%). While both Sunnis and Shiites have created images of Muhammad in the past, Islamic depictions of Muhammad are rare. They have, until recently, mostly been limited to the private and elite medium of the miniature, and since about 1500 most depictions show Muhammad with his face veiled, or symbolically represent him as a flame.

The earliest extant depictions come from 13th-century Anatolian Seljuk and Ilkhanid Persian miniatures, typically in literary genres describing the life and deeds of Muhammad. During the Ilkhanid period, when Persia's Mongol rulers converted to Islam, competing Sunni and Shi'a groups used visual imagery, including images of Muhammad, to promote their particular interpretation of Islam's key events. Influenced by the Buddhist tradition of representational religious art predating the Mongol elite's conversion, this innovation was unprecedented in the Islamic world, and accompanied by a "broader shift in Islamic artistic culture away from abstraction toward representation" in "mosques, on tapestries, silks, ceramics, and in glass and metalwork" besides books. In the Persian lands, this tradition of realistic depictions lasted through the Timurid dynasty until the Safavids took power in the early 16th century. The Safavaids, who made Shi'i Islam the state religion, initiated a departure from the traditional Ilkhanid and Timurid artistic style by covering Muhammad's face with a veil to obscure his features and at the same time represent his luminous essence. Concomitantly, some of the unveiled images from earlier periods were defaced. Later images were produced in Ottoman Turkey and elsewhere, but mosques were never decorated with images of Muhammad. Illustrated accounts of the night journey (mi'raj) were particularly popular from the Ilkhanid period through the Safavid era. During the 19th century, Iran saw a boom of printed and illustrated mi'raj books, with Muhammad's face veiled, aimed in particular at illiterates and children in the manner of graphic novels; reproduced through lithography these were essentially "printed manuscripts". Today, millions of historical reproductions and modern images are available in some Muslim countries, especially Turkey and Iran, on posters, postcards, and even in coffee-table books, but are unknown in most other parts of the Islamic world, and when encountered by Muslims from other countries they can cause considerable consternation and offense.

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