Images of Muhammad

Question
The talking heads on TV say that not drawing pictures of Muhammad is the law within Islam and it can be enforced upon everyone. How do I as a Christian respond to this without offending anybody?
Answer

This is a very controversial issue. Some when speaking out on this issue base their arguments on the 1st Amendment of the Constitution (Freedom of Speech) and others like Franklin Graham speak of respect for other religions. While in some instances these may be valid answers, I would like to concentrate my answer to your question by looking at a brief history of Islam on the issue. While we could examine verbal and calligraphic representations of Muhammad (or, Muhammed), for the sake of this brief answer I will merely focus on figurative images.

Silence of the Qur'an and the Hadith on Images of Islam's Prophets

If one were to read the Qur'an they will find no mention of drawing images of Muhammad as being worthy of discipline. What they will find are restrictions on the worship of idols:

Qur'an 21:98 Verily ye, (unbelievers), and the (false) gods that ye worship besides Allah, are (but) fuel for Hell ! To it will ye (surely) come !

Qur'an 6:74 And Lo! Abraham said to his father Azar: "Takest thou idols for gods? For I see thee and thy people in manifest error."

Qur'an 7:138-138 We took the Children of Israel (with safety) across the sea. They came upon a people devoted entirely to some idols they had. They said: 'O Moses! fashion for us a god like unto the gods they have.' He said: 'Surely ye are a people without knowledge.' As to these folk, - the cult they are in is (but) a fragment of a ruin, and vain is the (worship) which they practise.

Qur'an 14:35 Remember Abraham said: 'O my Lord! make this city one of peace and security: and preserve me and my sons from worshipping idols.'

Qur'an 22:30 Such (is the Pilgrimage): whoever honours the sacred rites of God, for him it is good in the Sight of his Lord. Lawful to you (for food in Pilgrimage) are cattle, except those mentioned to you (as exception): but shun the abomination of idols, and shun the word that is false.

After the Qur'an the second most important Islamic text is the Hadith. It states, "At turns we read of artists who dared to breathe life into their figures and, at others, of pillows ornamented with figural imagery." I note that there is not a reference to Muhammad here, so at best this is ambiguous.

Simply put, there are no explicit verses in Islam against making images of Islam's prophets.

Islam's Early History of Images of Muhammad

Arts museums and libraries throughout the world have images of Muhammad. Among these are:

(1) Isaiah's vision of Jesus riding a donkey and Muhammad riding a camel at Edinburgh University Library.

(2) Mohammad flying over Mecca, at the beginning of his "Night Journey," at the British Museum.

(3) The Prophet Muhammad receives revelations at Mount Hira, at Topkapi Palace Museum.

(4) Mohammad exhorting his family before the battle of Badr at the Nour Foundations Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, London.

(5) The Night Journey of Muhammad on His Steed, Buraq at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, etc. See "Sanskriti" below.

These are dated from 1307 AD forward. There is a lithograph of Mohammad in the 1932 Spanish edition of the Qur'an. A portrait of Mohammed from Michel Baudier's "Histoire generale de la religion des turc" (1625) was sold at auction by Sotheby's in 2002. So, images do abound of Muhammad. See "Sanskriti" below.

So, early on in history we discover that images of Mohammad were not banned. As a matter a fact, in the early 1900s Muhammad Abduh in his "Images and Representations: Their Benefits and The Opinions About Them," argued that images needed to be safeguarded to preserve Islamic history.

Islam's Recent History of Images of Muhammad

The following comments are referenced in the Zombietime Mohammed Image Archive (see below). A 1919 political cartoon by Jay Darling depicts Mohammad as an allegorical figure representing inflationary price levels. It was previously displayed at the University of Iowa Libraries. There is a 1930s-era glass painting from Senegal which shows Mohammad's flight from Mecca to Medina in 622 A.D. Christina Varga, a New York artist, created a neo-Byzantine portrait in 2002 showing Mohammad, Jesus, and Buddha. This was displayed at The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City. Shriners' Hall in Maine has a 20th-century painting that shows Mohammad receiving a vision. There is a recent portrait of Muhammad as a youth by the contemporary Iranian woman painter Oranous. This painting was approved by the Shites in Iran as being in conformity with their laws.

Many recent books depict images of Muhammad. Among these are: (1) La Vie de Mahomet, by Virgil Gheorghiu (Editions Plon, 1962), (2) Mahomet, by Umberto Rizzitano (Editions Somogy, 1973), and (3) Mahomet le Prophete, by Gabriel Mendel Khan (Editions Acropole, 2002). The book, "It's All About Muhammad: A Biography of the World's Most Notorious Prophet," by F. W. Burleigh published October 11, 2014 is presently being sold on Amazon (05/08/15). Amazon has many other books online which depict the prophet Muhammad.

The obnoxious television cartoon-show South Park aired an episode on July 4, 2001 called "Super Best Friends." It depicted Mohammad as one of the founders of religion.

In the 1990s, the Council of American-Islamic Relations wrote to Chief Justice William Rehnquist to remove a statute representation of Muhammad in the north frieze of the Supreme Court. Rehnquist refused citing that it would be against U.S. law for him to do so. A fatwa (legal decision) was issued in 2000 by Taha Jaber al-Alwani, a professor of jurisprudence in Saudi Arabia and chairman of Islamic Jurisprudence (Fiqh) Council of North America. The Wall Street Journal (Gershman, WSJ below) quotes him saying:

What I have seen in the Supreme Courtroom deserves nothing but appreciation and gratitude from American Muslims. This is a positive gesture toward Islam made by the architect and other architectural decision-makers of the highest Court in America. God willing, it will help ameliorate some of the unfortunate misinformation that has surrounded Islam and Muslims in this country.

In a culture whose literary heritage is replete with disdainful images of the Prophet Muhammad . . . it is comforting to note that those in the highest Court in the United States were able to surmount these prejudices, and display his image among those of the greatest lawgivers in human history. Isn't that effort a noble gesture that deserves from us, who believe in him as the Prophet and Messenger, every encouragement, esteem, and gratitude instead of disapproval, condemnation, and outrage?

Clearly, not all images on Muhammad are considered sacrilegious. At best, Islam is inconsistent on the issue of images. However, maybe there is sinister reason for a "new" ban on such.

Islam's "New" Restrictions on Images of Their Prophets (all 25 of them)

From my reading this "new" complete image restriction of all prophets in Islam actually came in 2005 when Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons of Muhammad. It was only then that Muslim leaders around the world condemned all images of Muhammad as sacrilegious. It is then that the more precise statement of "Islam considers images of prophets [note the plural] disrespectful and caricatures of them blasphemous" (Gruber, NewsWeek below). I should note that the Taliban made a similar declaration in 2001, but it was not embraced by all Islam.

Some within Islam have unfortunately used this "new ban" as an opportunity for violence. They have chosen to rape, molest, behead, and burn to death those that they feel are against Islam. While their justifications for their violence may vary (and are radically sinful), now they have added another justification - images of Muhammad and Islam's other prophets - for their violence. However, this is their choice not based upon the Qur'an or Islamic history, but upon being "upset" about what they consider a proper representation of Muhammad to be. Now they are attempting to impose sharia law on others outside their religion. But this is forbidden in Islam. Attorney Qasim Rashid in Huff Post, states:

Remember, the Qur'an teaches that religion must not be a matter of the state. Shariah is a personal relationship with God. Prophet Muhammad, even as the de facto ruler of Arabia, wrote the Charter of Medina in which Muslims were held to Shariah Law, and Jews to the Law of the Torah. Not a single non-Muslim was held to Shariah because Shariah itself forbids compulsion. The Qur'an clearly says, "There is no compulsion in religion" (2:257). Furthermore, Shariah obliges Muslims to be loyal to their nation of residence. Therefore, American Muslims must adhere to the US Constitution as the supreme law of the land.

We should recognize that the Danish cartoons were only an opportunity for this "new" doctrine to set a "new" narrative for the imposition of Islam upon others in the name of tolerance. Ultimately Islam desires a one world government and religion. So, Islam has both religious and political goals. In my opinion, the Muslim faith is trying to spread this new narrative by weaving it into the laws of other countries (moderate Islam) and through violence (radical Islam). In a 2006 sermon by Sheikh Ali Al-Hudaify, imam of the Prophets Mosque in Madinah, stated, "We call upon governments, organizations and scholars in the Islamic world to extend support for campaigns protesting the sacrilegious attacks on the Prophet. They should also highlight the danger posed by such vilifications, using international forums and information media" (Ghafour, Arab News below). But, no matter their method, if they can enforce this false rhetoric then it will further promote the cause - both political and religious - of Muslims throughout the world.

So, to answer your question "Yes, there is a ban on images of Muhammad, but it is recent in origin." It is not established in the Qur'an or Islamic history. I would note that it is not only images of Muhammad that are outlawed, but those of Christ, Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses as well - see "prophets" (plural) in NewsWeek article below. Note there are twenty-five prophets in Islam.

A Difficult and Responsible Christian Response

As a citizen of the U.S. I am thankful for the First Amendment. In part, it is because of our Constitution that I can even post this answer. Freedom of Speech is an important right. However, with rights come responsibilities. The Bible teaches us of such responsibilities. We should use wisdom in our speech (Jas 3:1-12). Though there are times of war (Ecc 3:8), we should not use our speech to purposely begin wars (Jas 4:1-2). Paul has some Scriptural truth for Christians in Colossians 4:6 saying, "Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person." We should remember that "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word ['even a picture'] stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly" (Prov 15:1-2; cf. Prov 17:28; 18:20-21, etc,).

Jesus one day drew in the sand (John 8:1-11). We do not what he wrote, but we do know between what he drew and what he said that instead of a death by stoning that each person present went away convicted within himself. So, though America may have the 1st Amendment, following in Christ's example our words and pictures should reflect that which through the Spirit brings heart felt conviction. Christians should let the light of Jesus' first and second commandment shine here, "And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these"" (Mark 12:30-31).

However, to submit to tyranny is to fail to show love to one's neighbor, the second greatest commandment (Matt. 22:39). So, I would be remiss to fail to mention that at times even Christ used force to bring his points home (Deut 7:1-5; 20:17; Jos 12:7-24; 1 Kings 18:40: cf. John 2:15, et. al.).

A question arises as to when one could consider the use of violence "at some level" to make a point on this issue? By violence I include protests, marches, and even my own martyrdom if necessary. Since Islam is a political system and not just a religion, violence would also include war, based upon the Just War Theory. See Just War and Is Assassination Ethical?

I will illustrate this as my own personal conviction and not necessarily that of IIIM.

Let us remember the 2005 "newly contrived" demand of Muslims throughout the world; "Islam considers images of prophets [note the plural] disrespectful and caricatures of them blasphemous." This includes all 25 prophets of Islam, including Christ! So, based upon their stated demand let us say Islam insists upon the removal of all images of Christ from all Christian churches as they are an offense to Islam. This is not all that far-fetched considering the massacres of Christians in the Middle East and the number of government officials in countries that embrace the Muslim faith.

While our church does not have an image of Christ in it, I would oppose Islam on this issue. First I would oppose the above demand through an argument - in essence saying, "no way." I would write other Christian leaders and even government officials to express the dangers (religious and political) of such removals and the slippery slope of such.

While there would be much more to my arguments, one reason I would take this position is because "words" also are considered "images" within Islam. Therefore, if the churches first removed the images of Christ (pictures, statues, which by the way should never be worshipped - please see Images of Christ) because they offend Muslims, then we are merely one step away from the slippery slope of the removal of words such as "Christ" and "Jesus" (not to mention some other prophets in Islam; Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses) from our Bibles, hymnals, and sermons. In essence, Islam would be demanding that Christians forsake their religion, because the "words" (images) in it offend them.

Indeed, Islam's attack may be much less complex then I have expressed above. Muslims do not believe that Jesus actually died. They believe he was merely resuscitated after a proverbial 'bad day at the office.' Apologetic groups within Islam attack this great truth from many perspectives. Please see Islam and Jesus' Resurrection Body - Luke 24:39, Islam and Jesus' Death, and Touch Me Not? - John 20:17. The teaching of the resurrection of Christ offends Islam! Can the Christian church be the church it is called to be if it allows the very foundation of the gospel to be removed? Please see The Resurrection of Jesus: Why Was Jesus Resurrected? What if they attack this great essential truth (1 Cor 15:1-4; Jude 1:3)?

Second, if these verbal and written arguments did not work and Muslims or other government officials attempted to use force to impose their sanctions upon myself, family, church etc. then I would use (after prayer, fasting, and insuring the Just War parameters are met, etc.) whatever force deemed necessary to resist such. Jesus put methodical thought into his fashioning a whip for a specific purpose and he used it with skill (John 2:15). The church needs to begin thinking through this issue and determine how they will respond. Of course, if someone just walks into a church one day making these demands at sword or gunpoint then a more immediate reactive response needs to be thought through as well. It is noteworthy that Jesus instructed his disciples to go out and purchase swords, not shields - offensive weapons, not defensive (Luke 22:36). Although unlike Islam, Christians should not to try to spread the gospel with the "sword" (John 18:36), they can and should defend themselves against improper government control and acts of terrorism (Rom 13:1-4). God is no pacifist (Gen 3:24; Num 22:23; Deut 32:39; Jos 5:13-14; Psa 45:3; Rev 2:12). Please see Violent Resistance and Christians and Civil Government: Should I Obey the Government?

May God give us wisdom to discern when to use a peaceful argument or to use a whip, or both.

While I believe in defending my faith and combating that which is wrong, we need to be biblical in how we do it. This is not always easy. It is a place that I need work on. How about you?

Resources:

Gershman, Jacob. Muhammad Sculpture Inside Supreme Court a Gesture of Goodwill. Wall Street Journal Law Blog, (01/14/2015).

Ghafour, P.K. Abdul. Imams Back Call for Danish Boycott in Cartoons Row. Arab News. (01/28/2006).

Gruber, Christiane. How the Ban on the Images of Muhammad Came to Be. Newsweek. (01/19/2015).

Rashid, Qasim. Shariah Law: The Five Things Every Non-Muslim (and Muslim) Should Know. Huff Post, Religion. (05/08/2015).

Sanskriti. Islam's hidden history of Muhammad's images and paintings. (01/14/2015).

Zombietime. Mohammed Image Archive. (05/08/2015).

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).