Academic Essays

Portraiture in Islamic Visual Culture: the Problem with Charlie Hebdo

Islam and the Islamic Arts are known to be “aniconic” in the West, shunning portraiture and favouring the geometric and abstract. But is this wholly the case?

Charlie Hebdo front page | The Times

In 2005, during the massacre at the Charlie Hedbo office in Paris, the gunman shouted and claimed that they had “avenged the Prophet”. Also in 2005, there was widespread international outcry over the publishing of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad unfavourably in the Danish Newspaper Jyllans-Posten. Both have led to the pervasive view of Islam and the Islamic Arts as “aniconic” in the West.

This, however, is a simplistic — perhaps Orientalist — view of the Islamic Arts, ignoring whole time periods where portraiture flourished and is a view devoid of nuance and cultural interpretations. For example, illustrations of the Prophet particularly flourished in the Persian lands during the Ilkhanid (1256–1353), Timurid (1370–1506), and Safavid (1501–1722) periods.

Furthermore, rather than forbidding figural imagery, Islam instead castigates idol-worship and there is no universally accepted “ban” on images within either the Hadith or the Islamic legal texts.

Whilst the Sunni hadith are generally hostile towards figurative representation, stating that on the Day of Judgement painters and sculptors will be challenged to “breathe life” into their creations, there are Hadith that suggest that certain representations are permissible. For instance, when the Prophet Mohammad objected to curtains depicting figurative images in his Medinah house, he allowed them to be cut and sewn into cushions as their “different orientation” made them unlikely to be misused as objects of prayer.

Furthermore, the scholarly work of Ibn Qudama (died 1223) noted the complex issues surrounding the legality of images, stating that it depended on their content as well as context. Even Ibn Taymiyya (died 1328), whose work has greatly influenced the Salafi and Wahhabi movements did not express a “ban” on images.

It is important to note, however, that the Islamic lands are vast, and that the avoidance of figurative art may not always as a result of Islamic scripture. Vasco Lourenco recorded the response of the Brunei king to a gifted tapestry of the marriage of the English King Henry VIII to Katherine of Aragon during a visit in 1526:

“He suspected that [the Portuguese] were sorcerers, and that these were magic figures that they wanted to introduce into his abode, so they might slay him at night and seize his kingdom. He was very frightened, and ordered that these things at once be taken away, and that out people should leave the port.”

In this instance, it was not religious scriptures that were cited, but fear of magic rooted in the indigenous belief that images were capable of containing a life essence.

Figure 1. Wayang gedog puppet, Java, Indonesia, late 19th Century. National Gallery of Australia [5]

It was, however, religious proscriptions that prompted the Indonesian Muslim leader Sunan Giri to alter the shape of the wayang kulit shadow puppets away from the human form whilst still keeping recognisable characteristics [Figure 1]. Whilst there was concern that the puppetry was “un-Islamic”, the change in form was enough to ensure its continued use, and was an important tool in the conversion of the Javanese population to Islam.

Furthermore, the royal calligrapher and courtier to the Safavid prince Bahram Mirza, Dust Mohammad, stated that the “masters of depiction need not hang their head[s] in shame in the face of manifest Muslim law because the beginnings of this craft can be traced back to the prophet Daniel”. By citing this story in the opening of his book, Dust Mohammad therefore sanctioned depictions by invoking a divine prototype.

Indeed, Muhammad ‘Abdih (died 1905) — the chief jurist (mufti) of modern Egypt — argued that safeguarding images and paintings preserves Islamic cultural heritage and knowledge, and portraying humans and animals is not forbidden so long as not used in idolatry. He stated that Islamic law is “far from calling one of the greatest means of knowledge illegitimate, once it is ensured that it is not a threat to religion in either belief or practice. Indeed, Muslims are not keen to forbid themselves from something with obvious benefit”.

Depictions of the prophets are, however, particularly sensitive, and approaches have changed and developed over the centuries. There was overall a gradual move from “veristic” or realistic representations in the 13th-15th Centuries to techniques of abstraction from the 16th Century onwards.

Figure 2. The Prophet Mohammad’s ascension (defaced) from Amir Khusraw Dihlavi’s Maţla’al-anvār (The Rising of the Lights), located in an anthology of Persian Poetry, Yazd, 810, at Topkapı Palace Library, Istanbul [2]

During this later time period, a good number of earlier paintings depicting the face of Prophet Mohammad were defaced, representing waves of iconoclastic practices over the centuries [Figure 2]. Overall, portraits of the Prophet Mohammad tend to embrace either non-naturalistic or abstract modes of representation, and non-figurative verbal descriptions (hilye) became popular in Ottoman spheres from the 17th Century — shunning pictorial representations altogether.

Furthermore, whereas European painting strove towards realism, portraits within Islamic Art maintained an abstract nature, thereby eliminating the risk of reading the painting as real. The use of optical naturalism was argued to be a “mode of visual trickery” that “misled viewers into equating what they saw with the real thing”.

Instead, artists attempted to find ways to depict the unseen in their images, and the abstraction surrounding the Prophet Mohammad is not just a round-about way of avoiding figurative representation, but an attempt to disclose the complexity and nuance of his character beyond the restrictive boundaries of realistic pictorial representation.

The physical characteristics of the Prophet Mohammad are, however, well known; mediated through early biographical compilations by his companions. The description of Mohammad is usually given on authority of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib who described the Prophet as:

“Neither exceedingly tall nor unduly short. He was of medium height. His hair was not too short, nor too curly, nor was it very straight or long. It was hung with a wave. He was not thin. His face was firm. His face had a roundness. His skin was of rosy whiteness. He had large black eyes with thick long lashes. His bones were large and strong. He had very broad shoulders . . . Between his shoulders he had the Seal of Prophethood . . . Whoever saw him for the first time was awestruck”.

Indeed, the period of Ilkhanid Mongol rule over present-day Iran was untroubled by the portrayal of the Prophet Mohammad, and Rashid al-Din’s Jami’ al-tawarikh (Compendium of Chronicles) shows numerous paintings of the Prophet depicting episodes of his life.

Figure 3. The Muslim angel of prayer (top) and the Prophet Mohammad meeting Zacharias and his son John (bottom). Mi’raj-nama (Book of ascension), Heart, 1436, opaque pigment on paper [7]

In addition, the Mi’raj-nama, made in Herat, Afghanistan, in 1436 during the time of Timurid ruler Shakrukh, is also heavily illustrated. Throughout the many paintings within the compendium, the Prophet Mohammad is consistently shown as a middle-aged man with a brown moustache and beard, wearing a white turban, green robe and sandals [Figure 3].

Figure 4. The wet-Nurse Halima Feeding the Prophet Mohammad, from Siyer-i Nebi, Istanbul, 1595, opaque pigment on paper. Commisioned by Ottoman Sultan Murad III (r. 1574–1595) and completed under Sultan Mehmed III (r. 1595–1603).

By the 16th Century there were a great deal of illustrated books portraying both sultans and prophets. However, within the six volumes of the Siyer-i Nebi (Life of the Prophet), containing more than 800 paintings depicting the life of the Prophet Mohammad, the Prophet is consistently hidden behind a white veil with his head framed by a golden aureole and body covered in cloth — even in infancy [Figure 4, above].

Figure 5. Nakkash Osman, Portrait of Mehmed I from a Kiyafetü’l-insaniye fi Sema’il ül-Osmaniye (The appearance of humanity in the dispositions of the Ottomans) of Lokman, Istanbul, 1579, opaque pigment on paper [7]

However, the rules governing the depiction of Prophets did not extend to normal people, even the ruling class. In Ottoman court historian Seyyid Lokman’s book Kiyafetü’l-insaniye fi Sema’il ül-Osmaniye, Lokman has fully portrayed the physical appearance of the Ottoman Sultans, as well as accompanying text describing their characteristics. Whilst he knew first-hand the appearances of the Sultans during his lifetime (Süleyman I, Selim II and Murad III), the portraits of the earlier Sultans were based on European portraits cross-matched with verbal descriptions collected by Lokman as well as visits to their burial sites in Bursa. Despite referencing European paintings however, Lokman still painted the Sultans without realism [Figure 5].

Figure 6. A Prince with a falcon. Akbar perior 1600–1605. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The Mughal emperors were also great patrons of the arts, and were avid collectors of both manuscripts and paintings. The inclusion of portraiture within Timurid paintings they collected may have encouraged the Mughal emperors to commission portraiture of themselves and their courts. However, whilst portraiture in the Mughal dynasty in India borrowed techniques from European art, they too may still be linked to earlier Perso-Oslamic traditions and show distinct Mughal style [Figure 6].

Figure 7. The Tortoise Trainer, Osman Hamdi Bey

By the 18th Century increasing influence of Europe on the Islamic Lands promoted the use of realism in paintings. Osman Hamdi Bey is one such painter, studying in France in the Orientalist School. His paintings are typical of the European ‘Orientalist’ style rather than ‘Islamic’, although his subject matter remains Ottoman [Figure 7]. However, in spite of the increasing influence of European art, there are accounts that whilst the Ottoman elite in the 18th Century commissioned portraits from European painters they were fearful that the existence of such depictions would become known to their compatriots, and Ottoman ‘Islamic’ sensibilities were retained.

Figure 8. Blessed Icon of the Prophet Muhammad, Iran, 19th Century, Imam Ali Museum of Religious Arts, Tehran [1]
Figure 9. The Prophet Mohammad with a radiant halo holds a Quran. Postcard. Iran, 21st Century [2]

The avoidance of portraying the Prophet Mohammad’s features is not universal, however. Perhaps more reminiscent of Christian iconography, the “Blessed icons” of the Prophet Mohammad from the 19th and 20th Century Iran show the Prophet in his full “corporeal” form with a golden halo denoting his status as a prophet [Figure 8]. This highlights sectarian differences within the broad umbrella of Islam: whereas the Salafi position remains uncompromising that no images of the prophet or his companions are permissible, Ayatolla al Sistani — the supreme Shi’I legal authority in Iraq — states that representations are permissible so long as they show due deference and respect. It is therefore no surprise that these reverential depictions of the Prophet Mohammad can be found in Shi’i-majority areas [Figure 9].

Furthermore, whilst the Salafi government of Saudi Arabia became uncompromising on their stance on images of the Prophet following the Danish cartoons, the Shi’i Iranian government promoted the use of his image in positive forms. Painted in response to the cartoons, Tehran’s municipality sponsored a five-story mural depicting the Prophet Mohammad’s ascension to heaven [Figure 10].

Figure 10. Five-story mural depicting the Prophet Mohammad’s celestial ascension, Rahmati, F. Tehran, Iran, 2008 [1]

However, unlike the original painting it is based on, the mural leaves the Prophet’s face blank, perhaps due to its public location. In addition, illustrated children’s books about the life of Mohammad include images of the prophet, often depicted with a veiled face and solar halo [Figure 11].

Figure 11. The Prophet Mohammad receives revelations on Mount Hira, from “Greeting, Rose of Muhammad”. Tehran, 2006 [1]

In conclusion, Islamic art is a term coined within the realms of European scholarship, encompassing a broad geographic area and time frame. Therefore, a conclusion based on one location or time period is not necessarily transferrable to another. However, whilst there is no clear definition of art within Islamic scripture, the love of beauty is a fundamental message of the Quran.

For many, creativity inspired by their faith becomes an exercise in piety (dhikr) and religious devotion. The forms best suited to this practice are not the figurative but the decorative, where the artist strives to express God’s transcendence. However, in the words of Mughal painter Akbar, “a [portrait] painter must come to feel that he cannot bestow individuality on his work, and is thus forced to think of God, the giver of life, and thus increase in knowledge”.


1. Gruber C. Images of the Prophet Muhammad: Brief Thoughts on Some European-Islamic Encounters. In: Fotouhi, S.; Zeiny E, editor. Seen and Unseen: Visual Cultures of Imperialism. 2017. p. 34–52.

2. Gruber C. Between Logo (Kalima) and Light (Nur): Representations of the Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Painting. Muqarnas An Annu Vis Cult Islam World. 2009;26:229–62.

3. Department of Islamic Art. Figural Representation in Islamic Art [Internet]. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. 2001 [cited 2019 Jan 27]. Available from:

4. Bennett J. Crescent moon : afterword. Crescent moon : Islamic art & civilisation in Southeast Asia. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia; 2005. p. 246–57.

5. National Gallery of Australia. Wayang kulit puppet, Minak Jingga [Wayang gedog puppet] [Internet]. National Gallery of Australia. [cited 2019 Jan 27]. Available from:

6. Suhardjono L. Wayang Kulit and the Growth of Islam in Java. Humaniora. 2016;7(2):231–41.

7. Roxburgh DJ. Concepts of the portrait in the Islamic lands, c. 1300–1600. In: Cropper E, editor. Dialogues in art history, from Mesopotamian to modern : readings for a new century. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press; 2009.

8. Soucek P. The Theory and Practice of Portraiture in the Persian Tradition. Muqarnas An Annu Vis Cult Islam World. 2000;17:97–108.




Rosalind is an Australia-based doctor and Fellow of the RACGP. She is currently studying for her Masters in Islamic Studies and Classical Arabic.

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Rosalind Noor

Rosalind Noor

Rosalind is an Australia-based doctor and Fellow of the RACGP. She is currently studying for her Masters in Islamic Studies and Classical Arabic.

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