Revisiting the Ban on Depicting Prophets & Companions

Portraying Prophets in Drama: New Approach

Now and then the issues of cinematic and dramatic depiction of Prophet Muhammad’s Companions and of prophets and messengers is raised, especially by the month of Ramadan, when some religious figures are depicted in films and TV series. The topic is undoubtedly thorny, since it represents a stumbling block in terms of the stance of sheikhs and Fiqh academies, given the strict forbiddance of it in contemporary juristic literature.

The first political decision banning depiction of prophets was taken during the reign of the Ottoman Caliphate, when some Christians sought to visually portray the story of Prophet Yusuf (Joseph, peace be upon him) in some Syrian towns. Thereupon, the Muslim were infuriated and tried to prevent the actors by force from representing their work. When the issue was presented to the Astana, Sultan `Abdul-Hamid II banned visual depiction of this story and any similar story.

There is an almost unanimous agreement among Fiqh academies of diverse orientations, official and non-official, as to the banning of visual depiction of the Companions, especially the Ten Promised Paradise Companions and the household of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), not to mention strict banning of visual depiction of messengers, prophets and angels in general.

Opponents of Visual Depiction

Perhaps the best authority to adopt and theorize an evidence-backed banning of visual depiction of the Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him)and the Companions was Al-Azhar Al-Sharif, whose statement against Al-Risalah (The Message) film directed by the late Musafa Al-`Aqqad grounded the banning on the following proofs:

First: All the Muslims acknowledge that the Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) is the most perfect of all humans and the best of all creatures. His image in the minds of the Muslims is derived from their faith and belief that he (peace and blessings be upon him) embodied the pinnacle of noble manners. Hence, it is improper to (visually) depict him in a way that underrates his high rank and sanctity enacted through the (Divine) Message.

Besides, all the Companions – may Allah be pleased with them – were praised by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), who attributed to them noble attributes, and in turn visual depiction of them also belittle their noble rank.

Who would that actor representing the figure of Abu Bakr, `Uthman, `Aly or `Ubaydah (for instance)? Where is the actor who can (genuinely) represent the figure of the Master of Martyrs, Hamzah, paternal cousin of the Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him)? Indeed, any visual depiction of the Master of Martyrs undervalues his noble rank; for who would be peer to him so that he can represent his figure?

Second, actors are linked in audience’s minds to the several figures that they would have represented, some of which are frivolous, some long-practiced criminals and some engaging in lewd scenes. So, how can we permit such actors, whose past is linked to such immoral scenes, to break into the hold of sanctity, by depicting the figures of Hamzah or Abu Bakr?

Besides, Those actors shall play future artistic roles, depicting characters as diverse as those of thieves, lovers or clowns, and hence Al-Azhar shall not deem it lawful to visually depict the Companions.

A Review of Prohibition Fatwas

Indeed, a close scrutiny of all the Fatwas issued on the issue reveals that they are affected by certain circumstances and specific views of acting, its environment and those in charge of it, along with what such a background represents for the people of in a way that has overshadowed the opinions of all Muftis considering the issues.

Notes on Prohibition Ftwas

There are some remarks that cross the mind of any researcher examining the Fatwas issued by individual scholars or by decisions concluded by some Islamic academies and agencies, and they run as follows:

  1. It is noted that most scholars banning depiction grounded their opinion on sentiments and not on clear-cut or solid proofs derived from the Qur’an and the Sunnah or quoted from Islamic heritage.
  2. They were also considerably impressed by the public feelings and conception of the issue, as if public vision were influential in forming a Fatwa and not vice versa!
  3. They were also excessively and unjustifiably strict, being based on premonitions, misgivings and fears, and not on facts or studied certainties.
  4. They were preceded by a boisterous public opinion  caused by the public’s wrath and sensitivity in relation to this issue. This public sentimentality and popular anger were followed by a political interdiction that later rendered researchers examining the issue vulnerable  to two forms of severe pressure that impeded them from investigating the issue away from such influences, namely, authority’s pressure and public pressure. For, both pressures are influential in terms of their impact on the Mufti’s orientation and the jurist’s vision.

Contemporary Ijtihad

There are however contemporary Ijtihad-based opinions, represented in the Shiite Fiqh and then the Sunni Fiqh.

According to the Shiite Fiqh, it is not impermissible to depict or represent the figures of the Companions or of the prophets, though I do not know the grounds on which the Shiites based their opinion, knowing that the Shiite art, embodied in the Iranian cinema, portrayed such figures according to a Fatwa issued in advance. However, sheikh Faysal Mawlawi mentioned that there was already a Shiite Fatwa permitting such depiction, and that long time ago the Shittes permitted portrayal of religious figures and that they have drawings of `Ali ibn Abi Talib, may Alla be pleased with him.

As for the Sunni Fiqh, its stance on the issue is strict banning, with the exception of some shy Ijtihad-based opinions and in relation only to the honorable Companions. Such diffident opinions claimed the permissibility of depicting the Companions.

The first researcher to hold such opinion in the present time was the eminent scholar, Professor Muhammad `Emarah. In his paper presented to third Iqra Media (Fiqh) Seminar, `Emarah did not show any objection to the opinion legalizing depiction. It is strange, however, that `Emarah was a member of the Islamic Research Academy which emphatically adopted the banning of Companions’ depiction and he did not express any disagreement with this view nor did he point out that he already had a previous study in which he exerted Ijtihad on the issue and was inclined towards permissibility of depiction.

Reently, a number of scholars, including some prominent Shari`ah scholars well-known to the Muslim Ummah, gathered upon the invitation of an artistic company in Qatar. The convening scholars discussed the issue and came to the conclusion that it is permissible to visually depict the figures of the Companions, including the Ten Promised Paradise Companions. They also confirmed the prohibition of visually depicting prophets or messengers. Among those scholars were Dr. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, Dr. Salman Al-`Udah, sheikh `Abdullah bin Bayyah, and Dr. Ahmad Al-Raysuni. Yet, their Fatwa was made public only through media leaks, by a Saudi newspaper, and it was not denied by those scholars. Rather, some of them endorsed it and recommended that the Fatwa should not be published until the scholars document and publish it themselves.

My View on the Issue

I deemed that our Muslim sheikhs have been adamant on an issue that is liable to flexibility, and that their proposed proofs – which are all classified under the title of ‘blocking the means to evil’ – are refutable. I was arguing with a leading scholar about the permissibility of depicting the figure of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and examining the proofs of those prohibiting it, when he introduced as an evidence of the prohibition the claim that a Muslim preserves in his mind a halo of reverence for the Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) which would die out when an actor depicts the Prophet’s figure.

I believe that such a claim is not a 100 % true, since the Muslim’s conception and envisioning of the Prophet’s image is relative. Besides, the Companions (may Allah be pleased with them) view of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) as the most beautiful of all creatures is undoubtedly based on their love for him. However, Almighty Allah praised His Prophet’s (peace and blessings be upon him) noble manners, and not his physical beauty, in an indication that Islam cares about mentioning the noble manners of prophets rather than their physical beauty.

Hence, the fear from distortion of the Muslims’ mental image of the Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) is clear in the Companions’ way of describing the Prophet, which is influenced by their love and reverence for his character and his message. Thus, there are Hadiths describing him and indicating that he was manifestly distinguished from those around him. However, there are other Hadiths in which a person would approach the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) among the Companions and would ask, “Who among you is Muhammad?” or “Where is Muhammad?” or “Where is the Messenger of Allah?”! So, if the Prophet’s physical characteristics were so tangibly distinctive, the comer’s eye – of either a believer or a non-believer – would have not missed him.

So, his lauded noble characteristics are rather moral, and are based on the beauty of his message and not on a specific mien of the carrier of the Message (peace and blessings be upon him).

It is also scientifically proven that any event, either in audio or visual form, that occurs to a group of people or even to an individual is never wiped out from temporal memory, even if millions of years pass by, and even if it is not recorded by audio or visual means. Rather, it could be fully retrieved with all its occurrences and characters. Yet, so far, man has not been guided to the invention of the machine that allows them to retrieve any past occurrence in both audio and visual forms, knowing that such occurrences are not wiped out from time’s memory, but is rather still there. Yet, man’s skill has not so far allowed them to devise such (past events) retrieval machine.

So, let’s imagine that a genius human is guided by Almighty Allah to invent such a machine and is in consequence enabled to retrieve an event derived from the Prophet’s biography, involving a battle or an ordeal or his journey of enduring afflictions, for instance, and presented a taped material of it to the people; what would be the case then! It would not be a visual depiction of the event, but is rather a recording of the very event. Shall the mental image of the Messenger in the minds of the Muslims be distorted?

When the (Egyptian) actor `Abdullah Ghayth played the role of Hamzah ibn `Abdul-Muttalib (may Allah be pleased with him) and then played other roles in other artistic works, was the image of Hamzah distorted in our minds? Such a claim totally contradicts with reality, and therefore I invite eminent sheikhs to reconsider it through accurate scientific survey applied to the Muslims who have watched such artistic visual depiction of religious stories to find out the positive and negative impacts on viewers.As for the proofs I draw on from the Glorious Qur’an and the noble Sunnah as to the permissibility of depicting such figures, I shall introduce the following only as an example:

Almighty Allah says,

{And has there come to you the news of the adversaries, when they climbed over the wall of [his] prayer chamber – When they entered upon David and he was alarmed by them? They said, ‘Fear not. [We are] two adversaries, one of whom has wronged the other, so judge between us with truth and do not exceed [it] and guide us to the sound path. Indeed this, my brother, has ninety-nine ewes, and I have one ewe; so he said, ‘Entrust her to me,’ and he overpowered me in speech.’} (Saad: 21-3)

In this verse, we see the angels descending to Prophet Dawud (peace be upon him) in the image of two adversaries acting the roles of a complainer and a complained of, the oppressor and the oppressed, and waiting for his judgment. This incident is meant to instruct Prophet Dawud on how to arbitrate among people. So, if it is permissible for the angel, who is always obedient to Almighty Allah, to play the role of an oppressing person disobedient to Allah, it is then more entitled to permissibility to depict religious figures, even if the actor be far lower in moral and religious rank than the depicted Companions, knowing that there is no room for comparison between both at all, in this regard.

It is thus clear that the issue now revolves within a single circle, namely that of regulations and conditions that should be observed by those who play such roles or depict such figures.

Through this brief article, I just sought to call for a study of this topic anew, within a collective Ijtihad, in which the present time and contemporary developments and updates are considered. For, many old Fatwas have been changed due to changes in realities and developments. So, we hope that Al-Azhar, as well as other independent religious institutions, reconsiders this issue apart from any elements that are totally irrelevant to scientific research. We also hope that takes place soon!

Sheikh Essam Tallima is an Egyptian Da`iyah, scholar and a member of the International Union for Muslim Scholars.