Is photography permissible in Islam?
Are photos haram?
The permissibility of photography is a matter of disagreement among scholars. There are two camps and we can see why this has arisen by looking at the main hadith and how they derived their conclusions.
Context of the prohibition
It is important to understand the context in which the Quran and sunnah were sent. Islam came to a community steeped in idolatry. It came to wipe out the worship of idols and statues which was prevalent in Arabia, and also by this time, the message of monotheism which had been sent by Eesa (peace be on him) had become infused with the concept of the Trinity and with it paintings and statues, going against the grain of monotheism.
All previous nations were sent prophets and messengers who came with the message of monotheism. None of them were permitted to worship idols yet these practices crept in afterwards. When someone righteous or a prophet passed away, they wanted to remember them, so they made statues and paintings to represent them. Over time, they became objects of worship themselves.
The Quran came to cement the concept of the Oneness of God in the minds of humanity. This is why time and again we see the denunciation of idolatry to which humanity succumbed time and again throughout history.
وَإِذْ قَالَ إِبْرَاهِيمُ رَبِّ اجْعَلْ هَٰذَا الْبَلَدَ آمِنًا وَاجْنُبْنِي وَبَنِيَّ أَن نَّعْبُدَ الْأَصْنَامَ
Recall that Abraham said, “O my Lord, make this land peaceful, and keep me and my sons from worshiping idols.” (14:35)
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِنَّمَا الْخَمْرُ وَالْمَيْسِرُ وَالْأَنصَابُ وَالْأَزْلَامُ رِجْسٌ مِّنْ عَمَلِ الشَّيْطَانِ فَاجْتَنِبُوهُ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ
O you who believe! Intoxicants, gambling, idolatry, and divination are abominations of Satan’s doing. Avoid them, so that you may prosper. (5:90)
Why is there such strictness over making images?
Our ummah is meant to be an ummah of monotheism (tawhid) of Allah Almighty and nothing should detract from this. This is why the rules are so strict, and the punishment is so severe.
Abul-Haiyaj Haiyan bin Husain said that Ali bin Abu Talib (may Allah be pleased with him) said to him:
“Shall I not send you to do a task that the Messenger of Allah (peace be n him) had assigned to me? Spare no portrait unwiped out, and leave not a high grave unlevelled.” [Muslim]
In another narration the word statue is used instead of portrait.
Hence we see the Prophet (peace be upon him) in the very first hadith saying that the most unjust person is the one who is vying to be the Creator and challenges the creation of Allah Almighty. Yet, he is powerless to bring a tiny part of creation, like a grain of wheat or barley or mosquito to life.
عن أبي هُرَيْرَةَ ـ رضي الله عنه ـ قَالَ سَمِعْتُ النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَقُولُ “ قَالَ اللَّهُ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ: وَمَنْ أَظْلَمُ مِمَّنْ ذَهَبَ يَخْلُقُ كَخَلْقِي، فَلْيَخْلُقُوا ذَرَّةً، أَوْ لِيَخْلُقُوا حَبَّةً أَوْ شَعِيرَةً ”. البخاري.
Narrated Abu Hurairah:
I heard the Prophet (peace be upon him) saying, “Allah said, ‘Who are most unjust than those who try to create something like My creation? I challenge them to create even a smallest ant, a wheat grain or a barley grain.’ [Bukhari]
In this hadith we can see that Allah Almighty saying that those who try to create imitations of Allah’s creations to challenge Allah’s creation and will be severely punished on the day of judgement. There are plenty of other narrations similar to this.
Those who are creating images to challenge the creation of Allah Almighty are classified as being unjust, from adhalimoon. Allah Almighty doesn’t like those who are unjust and they will be punished for that.
In the narration of Musnad Imam Ahmad, we have an addition in the narration, Allah which says, ‘Let them create a mosquito or the smallest ant’.
عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ ، قَالَ : قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ : ” قَالَ اللَّهُ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ : وَمَنْ أَظْلَمُ مِمَّنْ يَخْلُقُ كَخَلْقِي، فَلْيَخْلُقُوا بَعُوضَةً، أَوْ لِيَخْلُقُوا ذَرَّةً “. مسند أحمد.
حكم الحديث: حديث صحيح وهذا إسناد حسن
Narrated Abu Hurairah:
I heard the Prophet (ﷺ) saying, “Allah said, ‘Who are most unjust than those who try to create something like My creation? I challenge them to create a mosquito or even a smallest ant.’ [Musnad Ahmad]
And in another hadith, we have Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her):
عَنْ عَائِشَةَ أُمِّ المُؤْمِنِينَ، أَنَّ أُمَّ حَبِيبَةَ، وَأُمَّ سَلَمَةَ ذَكَرَتَا كَنِيسَةً رَأَيْنَهَا بِالحَبَشَةِ فِيهَا تَصَاوِيرُ، فَذَكَرَتَا لِلنَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فَقَالَ: «إِنَّ أُولَئِكَ إِذَا كَانَ فِيهِمُ الرَّجُلُ الصَّالِحُ فَمَاتَ، بَنَوْا عَلَى قَبْرِهِ مَسْجِدًا، وَصَوَّرُوا فِيهِ تِلْكَ الصُّوَرَ، فَأُولَئِكَ شِرَارُ الخَلْقِ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ يَوْمَ القِيَامَةِ» متفق عليه.
The paintings and statues that were worshipped
Umm Habiba and Umm Salama (wives of the Prophet (peace be upon him) mentioned a church they had seen in Ethiopia (or Abyssinia in Habasha, at that time) in which there were pictures. They told the Prophet (peace be upon him) about it, to which he said, “If any religious man dies amongst those people, they would build a place of worship at his grave and make these pictures in it. They will be the worst creature in the sight of Allah on the Day of Resurrection.” [Bukhari and Muslim]
Creating pictures to be worshipped is abhorrent in Islam. This is why the Prophet (peace be upon him) warned of the punishment for it.
عَبْدَ اللَّهِ بْنَ مَسْعُودٍ يَقُولُ : قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ : ” أَشَدُّ النَّاسِ عَذَابًا يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ الْمُصَوِّرُونَ “.متفق عليه.
Ibn Mas’ud (may Allah be pleased with him) said:
I heard the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) saying, “Those who will receive the most severe punishment from Allah on the Day of Resurrection will be painters (of living objects).” [Bukhari and Muslim]
What are al musawiroon? The Arabic word means painters, as photography did not exist at that time. This is what it meant originally, and how it was understood by the companions. Punishment was decreed for those made paintings.
عَنِ ابْنِ عُمَرَ ، عَنِ النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَالَ : ” الْمُصَوِّرُونَ يُعَذَّبُونَ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ، فَيُقَالُ لَهُمْ : أَحْيُوا مَا خَلَقْتُمْ “. مسند أحمد.
حكم الحديث: حديث صحيح وهذا إسناد حسن.
Ibn ‘Umar reported Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) having said:
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. [Muslim]
The curtain with images
In a very famous story about Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her), she reported:
عَائِشَةَ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهَا : قَدِمَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ مِنْ سَفَرٍ، وَقَدْ سَتَرْتُ بِقِرَامٍ لِي عَلَى سَهْوَةٍ لِي فِيهَا تَمَاثِيلُ، فَلَمَّا رَآهُ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ هَتَكَهُ، وَقَالَ : ” أَشَدُّ النَّاسِ عَذَابًا يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ الَّذِينَ يُضَاهُونَ بِخَلْقِ اللَّهِ “. قَالَتْ : فَجَعَلْنَاهُ وِسَادَةً أَوْ وِسَادَتَيْنِ. البخاري.
The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) returned once from a journey, and saw a curtain, which I had hung along a platform with some pictures on it. The colour of his face changed. He tore it up and said, “O ‘Aisha, the most tormented people on the Day of Resurrection are those who challenge the creation of Allah.” [Bukhari and Muslim]
Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) said they cut the curtain, and made one or two cushions out of it. This is the important in the understanding of what is permissible and what is not. This hadith clarifies that Allah punishes those who challenge the creation of Allah Almighty. Abdullah ibn Umar these two narrations confirming the word, yadahuna which means they are challenging.
Images on fabrics
The hadith of Aisha is also important because it shows that the Prophet (peace be on him) did not discard the fabric with the images, but cut it and utilised it. In another narration, we see that images on fabrics were not considered the considered differently from paintings and statues.
Abu Talha (may Allah be pleased with him), the very famous companion, whose actual name was Zaid bin Sahl, reported:
عَنْ أَبِي طَلْحَةَ (زيد بن سهل)، صَاحِبِ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم أَنَّهُ قَالَ إِنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ “ إِنَّ الْمَلاَئِكَةَ لاَ تَدْخُلُ بَيْتًا فِيهِ صُورَةٌ ” . قَالَ بُسْرٌ ثُمَّ اشْتَكَى زَيْدٌ بَعْدُ فَعُدْنَاهُ فَإِذَا عَلَى بَابِهِ سِتْرٌ فِيهِ صُورَةٌ – قَالَ – فَقُلْتُ لِعُبَيْدِ اللَّهِ الْخَوْلاَنِيِّ رَبِيبِ مَيْمُونَةَ زَوْجِ النَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه وسلم أَلَمْ يُخْبِرْنَا زَيْدٌ عَنِ الصُّوَرِ يَوْمَ الأَوَّلِ فَقَالَ عُبَيْدُ اللَّهِ أَلَمْ تَسْمَعْهُ حِينَ قَالَ إِلاَّ رَقْمًا فِي ثَوْبٍ .مسلم.
Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said:
Verily, angels do not enter the house in which there is a picture. Busr reported: Zaid fell ill and we went to inquire after his health and (found) that there was hanging at his door a curtain with a picture on it. I said to ‘Ubaidullah Khawlani who had been under the patronage of Maimuna, the wife of Allah’s Apostle (peace be upon him): Did not Zaid himself inform us before about (the Holy Prophet’s command pertaining to the pictures), whereupon ‘Ubaidullah said: Did you not hear when he said:” Except for patterns on fabrics?” [Muslim]
We see from this narration that if the picture is a pattern on a fabric then it’s not regarded in the same way as the painting on the wall. This is treated in the same way as the curtain in the story of Aisha where she cut the curtain and turned it into two cushions.
Those who say all images – painting, and photos are prohibited
The topic of tasweer, paintings and images has generated much discussion amongst the scholars, which I’ll try my best insha Allah ta’ala to summarise.
First is photography haram (prohibited) or not? If it’s haram, why? If it’s not, why not? Scholars have mainly two views.
One which says that al musawiroon, those who paint or take pictures are the most tormented people and punished people on the day of judgement. Tasweer, for them means a photograph or painting, whether it has a shadow or not. In their opinion, regardless whether the image has a shadow, or not, it is haram. (A photo on paper has no shadow, unlike a statue, which does.
Those who say photos are only permitted when necessary
The other view does not bundle all images into the same category. Some scholars say that images which are required, such as passport photos, ID photos, are necessities and accordingly are permissible.
What about photos taken to preserve memories, for you, your friends and family, are they allowed or not? Some scholars say there’s no need for these, and you should stay away from any photos. On the other side, some scholars say unless you bring the evidence for prohibiting them, they do not agree with this generalisation.
Those who say photographs are not the same as paintings
What is the origin of the word tasweer? In the Prophet’s time (peace be upon him) it did not refer to photos, as the word tasweer has come to mean today. It is not fair to copy and paste the hadith regarding paintings and apply it to photography today.
A photo is not challenging Allah’s creation, rather it is holding a mirror up to it – capturing the image, not creating it. Allah Almighty is the One who created the image, this is why most scholars say it is permissible.
The evidence for prohibiting images is clear from the hadith of the Prophet (peace be upon him) as they are challenging Allah’s creation and the makers will be asked on the day of resurrection to breathe life into their creations which they will not be able to do.
Allah Almighty is the One who is Al Musawir, the Fashioner or the One who gives forms, as stated in the Quran He is the One who gives form and shape to His creation; not us:
وقال تعالى: ﴿ هُوَ اللَّهُ الْخَالِقُ الْبَارِئُ الْمُصَوِّرُ لَهُ الْأَسْمَاءُ الْحُسْنَى يُسَبِّحُ لَهُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَهُوَ الْعَزِيزُ الْحَكِيمُ ﴾
He is Allah—the Creator, the Inventor, the Fashioner. His are the Most Beautiful Names. Whatever is in the heavens and the earth praises Him. And He is the Majestic, the Wise. [59:24]
The limits of photography
Even if photography is permissible, this does not mean it has no limits, etiquettes, or boundaries. It’s only permissible when it is used in permissible things not in haram things, which is the opinion of many scholars, probably the majority of scholars.
Don’t use permissible means for impermissible things. For instance, you can take and keep photos for yourself, and your family, without breaking the limits which Allah Almighty has mentioned on different occasions. However you need to be careful, as you can take a picture for yourself but find it ends up being circulated somewhere bad.
Images are not to be worshipped
Moreover, photos should not be used to glorify people, such as leaders and rulers, as we find in many countries, where their portraits are ubiquitous, displayed prominently in government buildings to honour them. We do not glorify leaders, we glorify Allah Almighty.
Photos are not to be worshipped because the essence of the prohibition was to prevent people being deified. In the hadith mentioning the story of Umm Salama, it was the paintings and statues in the church which had gone from being mementos to objects of worship a few generations down the line.
This is what the Prophet (peace be upon him) feared would happen and would revert to idol worship, all the Jahiliyyah (ignorant) practices he had come to stop.
Accordingly scholars have said that photography is halal but has to be limited to what is halal. A blanket prohibition takes the hadith literally without understanding its context.
Do not display complete images
Are you allowed to hang photos in the house? If the photo depicts the complete form, scholars say it should not be displayed, as angels will not enter that house.
The fatwa which permits the display of pictures in the house is based on the hadith relating that Aisha cut the curtain and turned it into two cushions.
Based on the Hadith of tearing the curtain, if you want to display a photo it should not be a complete image. It could be be a portrait of the head and shoulders instead of a complete image.
Glorified vs humiliated images
The other point to note about the images that are acceptable is that they are not glorified. They are ‘humiliated’ for instance by being put on the floor, or used as a cushion, which is sat on it, this makes them permissable.
Secondly, that if the image has been severed, so it’s not in one piece, one whole body in the picture, but just the head alone, then the image could not ‘live’. By this token, a half image, or a very small print or pattern on the dress or piece of cloth is permissible.
Hanging photos in your homes and the presence of angels
It was narrated that Abu Talhah said:
The Messenger of Allah said: The angels do not enter a house in which there is a dog or a picture. (Bukhari)
Al-Khattabi (may Allah have mercy upon him) commented on the hadith: ‘The angels do not enter a house where there is a dog or animate pictures, and this only applies to what is forbidden to possess, either dogs or pictures. But what is not prohibited, like hunting dogs, farm dogs and sheep dogs, and animate pictures on the carpet or a rug, etc. does not prevent the angels from entering.
Al Qaadhi ‘Iyaadh and Ibn Hajar (may Allah have mercy on them) shared this opinion.
Other scholars like Imaam An-Nawawi and Al-Qurtubi (may Allah have mercy upon them) said that all animate pictures are absolutely forbidden.
Displaying faces – eyes, noses and mouth
Why are the majority of Islamic books made without facial features?
It is confirmed that a man came to ‘Abdullah Ibn ‘Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) and said: “O Ibn ‘Abbas! I am a human being and my sustenance comes from my manual profession and I make these pictures (or statues).”
Ibn ‘Abbaas (may Allah be pleased with him) said: “I will tell you only what I heard from the Prophet (peace be on him). I heard him saying: “Whoever makes a picture will be punished by Allah till he puts a soul in it, and he will never be able to put a soul in it.” (Bukhari).
Wearing clothes with images
Then Ibn ‘Abbas said to him: “You can draw the picture of a tree or anything that has no soul.” Nonetheless, some scholars permitted the drawing of living beings provided that one leaves out a vital part of that creature without which life is not possible, like if it has no head,
Ibn ‘Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that the Prophet (peace be on him) said: ”The picture is the head. If the head is left out there is no picture.” [Al-Isma’eeli]This is a weak narration although Al-Albani classified it correct narration but it isn’t a Marfou’ narration i.e not a narration by the Prophet (peace be on him) but Ibn ‘Abbas himself (i.e. a mawqouf Hadith) in which it says that leaving out vital parts of the body make the image acceptable.
Some youngsters come to pray in jammaah, with pictures on their T-shirts of celebrities. This is not appropriate. This may be a fashion or a trend, but they should avoid this.
The permissibility of dolls
Scholars have excluded children’s dolls from prohibition. They say that though dolls are an image, and have a shadow, like a statue they are not worshipped. They are clearly for playing and part of childhood, as such have been excluded the prohibition since the early centuries of Islam.
A’isha told that when God’s Messenger arrived after the expedition to Tabuk or Hunain the wind raised an end of a curtain which was placed before her storeroom, revealing some dolls which belonged to her. He asked her what this was and she replied that they were her dolls. Among them he saw a horse with wings made of rags and asked what that was that he saw among them. She told him that it was a horse, and when he asked what it was that it had on it and she replied that it had wings, he said, “A horse with wings!” She replied, “Have you not heard that Solomon had horses with wings?” She said that he laughed so heartily that she could see his back teeth. [Abu Dawud]
“I used to play with dolls when I was with the Messenger of Allah, and he used to bring my friends to me to play with me.” [Ibn Majah]
No one said that these dolls were eyeless or faceless.
Is it permissible to be a photographer?
Is being a photographer a halal profession? It’s agreed upon that you can from both schools of thought that you can paint or take pictures of nature like trees, the sky, rivers, the sea but not animals, or humans, which are the point of debate. If you want to take pictures of people and creatures, it depends which school you are following, but as long as you use the photos for halal things then insha Allah it should be fine. .
Is it right to call photography haram?
Those who say photography is haram are effectively pronouncing the majority of the people on the planet sinful. Who doesn’t have pictures? Some scholars who claim photographs are haram, say moving images are halal. What is the difference between a still image and a moving image? Either they are both haram, or both halal.
The two views
In conclusion, there are two opinions. Those who say paintings of people and animals is prohibited and those why say they are permitted with limits.
Those who say they are not permitted, though it is not their intention, make life difficult. I don’t doubt anyone’s intention. They are staying on the safe side and being cautious not to do anything that might be prohibited by the Prophet (peace be upon him).
Those who follow the essence of the prohibition from the hadith, take the prohibition to apply to anything which ‘challenges’ the creation of Allah Almighty. Photography does not do this. If you are not glorifying a person, taking lewd photographs, and observe the appropriate modesty, it is permissible.
Whatever you do, you have to follow the guidance of the sharia, even in the smallest things. I know some people have no idea that there is a discussion even in the permissibility and the prohibition of photography and paintings and it is an area of dispute. At the end of the day, the Prophet (peace be on him) wanted his ummah to maintain the purity of their faith til the end of time.
Whether you agree or disagree on the matter of photography as it is disagreed upon matter, you cannot pronounce somebody as doing haram if they take photos. If there is a matter of disagreement and both parties have their own evidences and their own understanding, one party cannot pronounce the other party is engaging in haram. They can say, they are doing something, which is disagreed upon, but they cannot say its haram because in order to pronounce something haram, it has to have 1) authentic evidence, 2) a clear meaning.
Unless these two elements are there, something cannot be declared haram. We have authentic evidence, which is in Bukhari, and Muslim and others. However their meaning is not one hundred percent clear. This is where the disagreements have arisen from.
Let’s respect each other’s opinion and try to understand the context. Even if you disagree with it, you see where each other is coming from and you may not be convinced but you can’t force each other to follow your opinion. We have to have this mutual respect and understanding and this is how we should deal with any disagreed upon matter, insha Allah ta’ala.
We cannot forbid evil and enjoin what is good when there is a disagreed upon matter.
This is the summary, if you want for this very disagreed upon issue. We ask Allah Almighty to help us to understand His Book and the sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and stay on the safe side and as well do what pleases Allah Almighty and not to do things that please people. We are not into pleasing people, we are into pleasing Allah Almighty and understanding the context in which the revelation and the sunnah has been delivered.
Do not embarrass the Prophet (peace be upon him)
He left his ummah with monotheism (tawhid) and he wants to meet his ummah on the day of judgement adhering to the tawhid of Allah Almighty.
It reminded me with the hadith which Imam Ahmad narrated in his Musnad; that the Prophet (peace be upon him) will intercede for some people on the day of judgement. And as he is about to give some water to some people from his ummah from his special fountain, where he will give people cup of water to drink, angels will remove them. When he will ask ‘Where are you taking them, these are from my ummah?’ The angels will say to him, ‘You do not know what they changed after you passed away, what they invented.’ He will be embarrassed at that time. So do not embarrass him on that day by changing parts of your religion, or doing things he asked you not to do. If you want his intercession, don’t overstep the limits.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) wants the ummah to live by the guidance of Allah Almighty, the guidance of the Quran, the guidance of the sunnah; and not to go to extreme right or extreme left but to be in the middle. And photography is in the middle here, without overstepping the limits of course and keeping to the guidance of the hadith.
We ask Allah Almighty to enable us to understand the context of the Quran and the sunnah, the meaning of the Quran and the sunnah.
Shaykh Haytham Tamim – The Hadith Qudsi series. 19th January 2021
Transcribed by Rose Swinburn.
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