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Why Islam discourages images of animate beings?

Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah

“Islam never forbids artistic progress. The only break put in is the one against the representation of animal (including human) figures. The prohibition does not seem to be absolute … yet the Prophet has placed a restraint on this activity. The reasons for this are metaphysical as well as psychological, biological and social. In the creation of the different kingdoms, animal life is the highest manifestation, the vegetables and minerals succeeding it in a lower order. Therefore in his anxiety to  pay his profound respect to the Creator, man reserves for God the privilege of the supreme creation, and contents himself with the representation of inferior objects. The psychologists point out that, seeing the privileged position which the animal kingdom occupies in the creation (with the faculty of movement and, for man in particular, the faculty of invention); the animal representation gives man the double temptation to which he cannot much resist: the temptation to believe that he ‘creates’, whereas he merely manufactures, (and as a proof the famous story of a Greek sculptor who had become amorous of his own sculpture), and the temptation to attribute to the representation the soul and the ideal virtues of an accessible Divinity  (cf. the history of human antiquity of idolatry, and the modern taste for the cult of heroes, champions and stars). The biological aspect is that an un-utilized talent reinforces those in constant use. Thus, a blind man possesses a memory and a sensibility which are far superior to those in ordinary men. By abstaining from animal representations in painting, engraving, sculpture, etc. the innate talent of the artist seeks other outlets and manifests itself with greater vigour in other domains of art (cf. the pruning down of the superfluous branches of a tree in order to increase its fruits). As regards the social aspect, the horror of Chauvinism, which degenerates into idolatry, and a restraint on animal representation would lead to restraint on idolatry. There are however several exceptions; such as toys of children, decoration of cushions and carpets – both these have expressly been tolerated by the Prophet, – scientific needs (for teaching anatomy, anthropology, etc.), security needs (of the police etc., for identification, for search of the absconding criminal), and others of like import, cannot be banned.”

Hamidullah, Muhammad, Introduction to Islam, (Lahore: Idara-e-Islamiat, 2004) para 482

Published : May 12, 2014

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