You may have noticed that primarily in Muslim countries or communities, there is beautiful geometric artwork everywhere. However, you will also notice a lack of art with any distinct living subjects, such as people or animals. This is because Muslims believe that Allah is the main artist, and only he has the right to form any rendition of a living thing.
Even if art is not a personal passion of yours, it is important to realize that having a restriction on art is something that will affect a Muslim every day. It will affect how they feel about expressing themselves and how they interact with their surroundings.
Typical approach to art in Islam
Islam practices “aniconism” which is the avoidance of any art of a living being. There is no verse in the Quran that prohibits images of people, Muhammad, or even Allah; instead, Muslims find this source in the Hadith, which is a collection of stories and sayings of Muhammad and his followers.
In the Hadith, Muslims are warned from depicting any living beings, human or animal, in artwork. The Hadith justifies this by connecting the art of living things to idolatry; images of living beings tempts people to worship them instead of worshiping Allah, so a quick-fix for that is an outright ban on that art.
Islamic art usually shows repeating patterns and geometric shapes. This is a reference to the unchanging laws of Allah, which makes art a reminder of the constant need to obey Allah’s rules. Most artists in Islam beautify Islamic verses with Arabic calligraphy and geometric colorful shapes.
What the Hadith says about art
The Hadith has very clear quotes from Muhammad saying that those who made art of living things will be tried on the Day of Resurrection and punished in hell.
“Those who paint pictures would be punished on the Day of Resurrection and it would be said to them: Breathe soul into what you have created.”
Sahih Muslim 2108a, Book 37, Hadith 148
“Aishah (May Allah be pleased with her) said: The Messenger of Allah (PBUH) visited me after returning from a journey, and I had a shelf with a thin cloth curtain hanging over it and on which there were portraits. When he saw it, the colour of his face changed (because of anger) and he said, "O 'Aishah! the most grievous torment from Allah on the Day of Resurrection will be for those who imitate (Allah) in the act of His creation."
Al-Bukhari and Muslim Hadith #1679
“I heard the Messenger of Allah saying, "Every painter will go to Hell, and for every portrait he has made, there will be appointed one who will chastise him in the Hell." Ibn 'Abbas said: If you have to do it, draw pictures of trees and other inanimate things.”
Riyad as-Salihin Book 17, Hadith 170
Angels won’t enter a home with art
“The angels do not enter a house in which there is an image.” Al-Bukhaari 3226
Muslims scholars explain that this Hadith means angels of mercy, protection, and blessings will not enter homes with art, but the angel of death and the angels who count sins will continue to enter. (See our source here)
The most conservative or devout Muslims who want to adhere to all Islamic laws will not hang pictures in their home, print pictures, or even have pictures on their phones. Parents warn their children to not allow anyone to take their picture. This means they have to keep happy moments as memories in their mind.
How does this affect the Muslim?
At the end of the day, this Islamic restriction on art and pictures is just another rule Muslims must follow in order to gain Allah’s favor. Once again, their salvation relies on their performance and Allah’s willingness (or unwillingness) to accept them.
This also robs Muslims from enjoying art in their spaces that can be used to depict their life, their surroundings, and memories they love. Art is used to honor and memorialize things and people that we love, but art is very limited for Muslims. It is mostly constrained and detached from emotions.
What does God care about when it comes to art?
In Islam, their rules around art are simply another hoop for the Muslim to jump through in their attempts to please Allah. In our relationship with God, we do not have to do things in order to gain our salvation. In Islam, following rules means you have a better chance of getting into Paradise. (In fact, if you want to read more about how Muslims must earn their salvation in Islam, read our blog post Can you earn salvation by doing good deeds in Islam?).
One of the most amazing things about our new covenant with God through Jesus Christ is how it removes the pressure of following rules. Instead, it focuses on our heart posture and loving God and others. God cares about the heart behind your actions more than anything else!
God does warn us in the Ten Commandments, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them…" (Exodus 20: 4-5a). But notice that the warning is about making images with the intent to worship these pieces of art and make them idols. We can easily idolize things in our lives like money, work, or beauty and make them gods. The commandment is about who or what we worship, not about making art.
When it comes to art, God wants us to use our gifts and talents to glorify Him! In fact, since we are made in God’s image, we have inherited His creative side. After all, God is the creator of all of the beautiful things around us. There is nothing wrong with using your talents to create art depicting the beautiful world around you, as long as your heart is in the right place– desiring to honor God above all else.
In the last century, art has played a major role in spreading the Gospel message to millions of people around the world. Just for an example, The Jesus Film that is watched in hundreds of languages and the picture book version of the Bible have reached remote villages and towns all over the world!
“Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men.” Colossians 3:23
How to talk to your Muslim friends about art
Even if you are not an artist, you still see art every day. You see art on social media, you have it hanging up in your home, and it is on the wall of every restaurant and store. Art is a part of everyone’s lives, whether you are a creative person or not. You can ask your Muslim friend for their opinion on art, and maybe you’ll get the chance to share what God and the Bible have to say too.
- What are you supposed to do if you have artistic talent if you cannot make art to show things you love?
- What does art mean to you?
“But now, O Lord, You are our Father, We are the clay, and You our potter; And all of us are the work of Your hand.” Isaiah 64:8.