Illustration 1 The Prophet Muhammad on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Anonymous, Book of the Ascension Tabriz, Iran, ca. 1317-35. Taken from the Topkapi Palace Library

Islam and non-representation, a historical research of figurative representation

The issue of figurative representation in Islam has gone through different stages in recent years with cases so notorious and at the same time controversial as the Charlie Hebdo cartoons or the also cartoons published “by the Danish newspaper Jillands Posten, on the 30th of September 2005, linked to Islam and its Prophet Muhammad, which led to a deep controversy in the world regarding freedom of expression and religious tolerance. ” (Klein, 2009 p.1.) Much has been written about the reasons why in Islam there is no figurative representation of characters like Muhammad, Mary, and even God. However, this practice of artistic abstraction attends more to historical reasons that eventually became canon, than to an explicit rule written in the Koran.

Talking about what artistic manifestations were like before Islam is a task that requires one or many different articles on the subject. This is mainly because Islam, like Christianity, was a religion of conquerors. So the forms, styles and notions with respect to art are incredibly varied and rich in each of the places where Islam put its banner.1

An important factor to take into account is that thanks to the conquest processes carried out by the different caliphates, each country developed a way of representing art using the iconographic-symbolic legacy and transforming it into forms with a high level of syncretism. In this way, although there is an undoubted visual uniformity in Islamic art, the historical process of consolidation of these plastic forms was considerably varied according to each country. In fact, it was not until the middle of the 19th century that this heterogeneity gradually began to be lost and figurative representation was practically banned.


Represent a deity

Between the 8th and 11th centuries, the Byzantine Empire went through one of its most convulsive times known today as “the iconoclastic quarrel” (a word that refers to the destruction of icons). In fact, “the Greek word icon (from the Greek εἰκών, eikon:„ image ‟) in a broad sense refers to any figure. But in Byzantium it was understood as a sacred image worthy of veneration. ” (Pablo, LJ 2013 p.2.) From the 5th century, Byzantine mosaics and icons began to flood the buildings of the Orthodox church, in this way “it was thus that their worship became exaggerated among the faithful and it did not take long for be the object of criticism from the intellectuals, politicians and merchants of the Empire […] ”(Pablo, LJ 2013 p.2.). Likewise, around the year 726 AD, the Emperor Leo III, after a series of edicts, initiated the iconoclassical reform, beginning the persecution and production of the images.

The debate was certainly complex: is it possible to represent God? How to capture that divine aspect in an image? It’s worth a try? Without a doubt, these were the questions that haunted the thoughts of many intellectuals and theologians in the Byzantine Empire during the eighth century. Naturally, there were positions for and against. However, the western tradition began to prevail in favor of divine representation with figures such as Juan Mansur22 , also known as Juan Damasceno, the maximum defender of the figurative representation of God during the lawsuit.

By the 8th century Islam had already been born as a religion (622 AD), however, there was still no prohibition regarding representation, indeed, Juan Damasceno, a strong defender of iconic positions – those in favor of divine images – He was born in Damascus during the Umayyad Caliphate, which opens up a very attractive point in historical terms, since, although he was a theologian of the church, his training was the product of Islam. The case of Juan Damasceno is a crucial historical factor to understand that the prohibition of figurative representation in Islam did not always exist.3 On the contrary, characters formed under the baton of Islam were great squires of the representation of God and prophets. But then when did this start to change? At what point in history did Islam take such a momentous turn?


Illustration 1 The Prophet Muhammad on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Anonymous, Book of the
Ascension Tabriz, Iran, ca. 1317-35. Taken from the Topkapi Palace Library

The first thing to keep in mind is that Islam was a religion whose birth was marked by the appearance of the Koran in a geographical area of the world where a particular language is spoken, which in this case is Arabic. This means that unlike the New Testament, which is a compilation book that was written and organized many decades after the death of Jesus, the Qur’an is a holy book that gave birth to a new religion 4, because it did not appear after the death of Jesus. Prophet Muhammad, but it was the prophet himself who introduced him to the world. In that sense, the importance of both the figure of Muhammad and that of the Koran go hand in hand. Muhammad is as important to the Qur’an as the Qur’an is to Muhammad, and it is this synchronicity between these two historical figures that makes Islam (including Mecca) meaningful.


Although the Catholic Church based all its logic of representation on images of the life of Jesus, prophets and saints, particularly on the image of Jesus crucified, Islam did not do the same because the Koran itself, understood as a book, and attending to the logic that a book has power not because of images but because of words, phrases, and even letters5 based his creative efforts on calligraphy. Although we can see small sculptures and even pre-Islamic busts from the south of ancient Arabia (today Yemen) with representations of kings or princes from some areas, the arrival and subsequent expansion of Islam led to a development of calligraphy at the same level as sculpture or art. painting. In fact, before the emergence of Islam, Arab peoples, like many other cultures of the time, had mostly oral traditions6, which means that their way of transmitting knowledge was more linked to speech than to writing. Thus, the appearance of the Koran not only created a strong roots in calligraphy as an artistic form from the 8th century, but also led to the development of the Arabic language at the written level: “In short, with the appearance of Islam, writing Arab extends throughout the Arabian peninsula and beyond its limits. ” (Ochoa, 2005 p.45.)


Islam makes its difference with Westworld.

Around the twelfth century, the issue of the iconoclastic quarrel was already overcome in the Byzantine Empire. The use of the image to represent divine figures had triumphed and the production of icons was marching well. In the case of the Islamic Empire, which stretched from Ghazna to Córdoba, the use of the image began to have a certain social value, especially among wealthy families and aristocrats within the growing caliphates.7 XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, with the conquest of the Ottomans of Constantinople and much of Eastern Europe, multiple paintings of Muhammad can be traced in different contexts, almost all related to his mystical journey through the seven heavens.8An important aspect to keep in mind is that, in almost all the images, the prophet is represented with a veil or light that covers his face.9


Many of these representations took place in what is now Iran and Turkey, the common denominator of both countries is that in neither of them is Arabic their native language. This is extremely important because, as I explained previously, the appearance of Islam through a book such as the Koran, led to an evolution of the Arabic language, so that the Arab countries began to have a taste that began to grow in an organic way. direction towards his own language, that is, towards calligraphy. On the other hand, in Turkey and Iran, the development of art took a different course, they, although they were part of Islam as a religion, did not have a need to exalt Arabic (and consequently calligraphy), because for that they had their own own languages: Farsi (Iran) and Turkish (Turkey).


“In fact, beginning in the 13th century, various Muslim patrons commissioned illustrated manuscripts filled with figurative images and animals. In the past seven centuries, various historical and poetic texts, many of them created in Turkish and Persian contexts, include beautiful depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. The purpose of all these images was not only to praise and commemorate the Prophet; they also represented occasions and central elements for the practice of the Muslim faith ”. (Gruber, 2015 p.70.)


On a formal level, these types of paintings were mostly miniatures in manuscripts with compositions somewhat crammed with characters, such as that of Muhammad surrounded by the prophets of Abraham on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, from the Book of Ascension, produced in Iran between 1317 and 1335 and now preserved in the Topkapi Palace Libray. (Illustration 1) Now, if there was so much tradition in some areas of the growing Muslim Empire where figurative representation flourished, why did it end up opting for the opposite? Perhaps the main reason is found in many of the events that occurred with European colonialism during the 19th century


As a consolidation of the Industrial Revolution, the Europe of the 19th century begins an aggressive search to increase its trade and resources that will lead to conquests of countries and geographical areas with much less economic and military power: Egypt and Algeria by Great Britain, and the rest of the Maghreb through Italy, Portugal and Spain. Thus, the arrival of mass-circulation print media in the 18th and 19th centuries posed a challenge. The colonization of some Muslim territories by European forces and their ideas were also significant factors in the search for differentiation with the West. (Gruber, 2015) The generalized Islamic response was to emphasize the differences with Christianity at a symbolic and iconographic level, in addition, the appearance of radical figures such as the priest Abd al Wahhab, who sought a return to “a pure Islam”, in Saudi Arabia. He caused a rejection of the representation of divine images to be generated. In this way, “the portraits of Muhammad began to disappear and a new rhetoric against pictorial representation began to emerge.” (McManus, 2015) However, in countries such as Iran or Turkey there continues to be a tradition of figurative representation, so perhaps the question of whether or not images are allowed in Islam should turn towards is it really important that they are or are not images prohibited? Because, after all, both the Arabs and the Persians or Turks have developed a tremendous repertoire of artistic and symbolic forms in their own way, and all, absolutely all, are Muslim.




  • Bacarreza, C. M. S. (2010). Saint John Damascene, theologian of images. His importance and interference in the iconic defense during the first Iconoclast Complaint in Byzantium (726-787) and his contribution to the conciliar definitions of Nicaea II. Histories of the Orbis Terrarum, (4), 3-33.
  • Department of History of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters. National University of Cuyo. of Muhammad? imagenes_prohibicion_wbm#:~:text=Para%20la%20mayoría%20de%20los,las %20caricaturas%20del%20profeta%20Mahoma%3F
  • Gruber, C. J. (2015). The images of Muhammad in Islam. Afkar ideas: Quarterly magazine for dialogue between the Maghreb, Spain and Europe, (45), 70-72.
  • Klein, F. (2009). Art and Islam. Muhammad and the representation of him. Bet. Journal of Social Sciences, (40), 1-22.
  • McManus, J (January 18, 2015), BBC News Mundo, Have images always been prohibited?
  • Ochoa, F. O. (2005). THE ARABIC-The sacred language of Islam. La Tadeo Magazine (Ceased from 2012), (71).
  • Pablo, L. J. (2013). The Iconoclastic Complaint: Its consequences in the artistic, religious and political spheres. In XIV Interschool Conference / Departments of History.


    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published.