Signs and Symbols

Is it true that Muslims never depict human or animal figures?

Browse the pages of virtually any publication designed for Muslim readers and you may be surprised at the number of illustrations featuring human and animal figures. Shelves of mosque bookstores are filled with books, especially those designed for children, similarly illustrated. Still, the notion persists, among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, that “Muslims don’t do pictures.” What most people popularly perceive as a blanket prohibition of images actually applies only to ritual settings. In other words, you will not find figural or representational imagery in a mosque. Islamic and Jewish tradition share the concern that inherent in representational visual imagery, especially of the three-dimensional sort (sculpture), is the risk of idolatry.

Muslim artists throughout the ages and across the globe have produced a great deal of figural art, even including images of prophets and other holy persons. But their images are so clearly abstract and unrealistic that they can scarcely be taken as the artist’s attempt to usurp God’s creative power. For purposes of education and entertainment, two-dimensional images generally have been perfectly acceptable. In fact, even the prohibition on three-dimensional imagery is far from absolute, except in the context of worship. For example, Muslim children play with dolls. Devout Muslims express a preference for educationally suitable imagery that exemplifies virtue and ethical values. Under the heading “Move Over Barbie!” one company markets a doll called Razanne, dressed in a white head-and-shoulder covering (the hijab) and green full-length gown (jilbab). The hijab is removable so that little girls can learn about donning the proper covering. Razanne’s clothes are decoratively trimmed, but she wears no makeup.


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