Why are sculptures prohibited in Islam?

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

SCULPTURE is the image/symbol of a person or an animal made of durable materials like stone, bronze, marble and terra-cotta. In the Islamic terminology, sculpture is considered within the concept of "surah (picture)" and the term "picture with a shadow" is used to distinguish it from picture. Sculpture is the same as the idols worshiped by the polytheists in terms of shape but since it is not an idol in the sense of something being worshipped, it is included within the concept of picture and decreed accordingly.  

The Quran mentions sculpture in the sense other than idol in only one place and does not make any judgments about it. After it is stated in the chapter of Saba' that some jinn worked under the command of the Prophet Sulayman (Solomon), the following is stated: "They worked for him as he desired, (making) arches, images, basons as large as reservoirs, and (cooking) cauldrons fixed (in their places)." (Saba 34/13) According to scholars, the verse above states that it was permissible to make sculptures during the period of the Prophet Sulayman. However, the scholars also state that the permissibility that belonged to the period of Hz. Sulayman was abolished by the news from the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) and was abrogated by the religion of Islam.

The Quran narrates that Hz. Ibrahim broke the idols and sculptures. The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) had the idols (sculptures) in and around the Kaaba, on Safa and Marwa hills broken into pieces during the conquest of Makkah.

The hadiths reported from the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) prohibit making sculptures. The news about this issue is abundant enough to reach the degree of tawatur.

It is reported from Hz. Aisha that the Prophet (pbuh) said,

"The people who will receive the severest punishment on the Day of Resurrection will be those who try to make the like of Allah's creations." (Bukhari, Libas, 39; Nasai, Ziynah, 112-114).

A man from Iraq came to Ibn Abbas and said, 'I make these images. What do you say concerning them?' He gave the following answer: 'Come closer, come closer. I heard Muhammad (pbuh) say, "Whoever makes an image in this world will be commanded on the Day of Resurrection to breathe a soul into it, and he will not be able to do so." Another narration that Ibn Abbas and Abu Hurayra narrated is as follows: "Whoever makes an image will be punished until he breathes a soul into it, and he will not be able to do so." (Nasai, Ziynah,113). It is reported from Ibn Umar that the Prophet (pbuh) said, "The makers of these images will be punished on the Day of Resurrection, and it will be said to them: 'Breathe life into that which you have created'." (Nasai, Ziynah, 113).

Imam as-Sindi explains the hadiths reported from Ibn Abbas and Ibn Umar as follows in the Explanation of Nasai: What is meant by "surah" about whose decree Ibn Abbas is asked is "surahs (pictures) of living beings". What is meant by being punished until one breathes a soul into it stating the time when punishment will be over. Since it is stated in the hadith that he will never be able to do so, it is indicated that their punishment will be continuous. However, as-Sindi states that the punishment mentioned above is related to a person who exits the religion of Islam by making pictures. He also states that it can occur in three ways:   

a) To make pictures by accepting it as halal (permissible),
b) To make pictures (sculptures) in order to worship,
c) A person who is not a believer making pictures.

Those who are outside the three groups mentioned above will be regarded as "sinners" due to that deed if they do it without regarding it halal and without the purpose of worshipping. If Allah does not forgive the penalty he deserves, he will be punished; then, he will be saved. Or, what is meant by the punishment is to prevent making pictures by showing the ugliness of that deed and by prohibiting it. According to the last evaluation, it can be thought that the apparent meaning of the hadith is not meant. (as-Sindi, d. 136/1724 Hashiya Sunanin-Nasai, Istanbul 1931, VIII, 215).

The reason why sculptures are prohibited:

When the hadiths mentioned above are examined, it is seen that they also express the reason for the prohibition of sculptures. According to the common view of Islamic scholars, the reason for the prohibition of sculpture is that those who make them put themselves in the place of the Creator by trying to liken them to what Allah creates. The wisdom behind the prohibition is to drive people away from idolatry and to protect the pure belief of oneness from shirk (polytheism) and idolatry because idolatry entered all tribes through sculptures.

The following is stated in a verse about the nation of the Prophet Nuh (Noah):

"And they have said (to each other), ´Abandon not your gods: Abandon neither Wadd nor Suwa´, neither Yaguth nor Nasr´;- "They have already misled many; and grant Thou no increase to the wrong-doers but in straying (from their mark)." (Nuh, 71 /23-24).

They are the names of the idols that the people of Nuh worshipped besides Allah. The following is stated from Abdullah bin Abbas and Muhammed bin Qays: The names of idols mentioned in the verse were the names of some righteous people of the tribe of Nuh. After they died, Satan advised people to make their sculptures and erect them: "You will remember what they did through those sculptures." The people who were deceived by this misguidance of Satan made and erected the sculptures of those righteous people. The sculptures were at first means of remembering good deeds but after a few generations they were transformed into idols that were worshipped. Thus, these idols were taken over with new additions by the Arab society before Islam and the sun of Islam rose while people were worshipping them (Ibn Kathir, Mukhtasaru Tafsiri Ibn Kathir, 7th edition, Beirut 1402/1981, III, 554).

In conclusion, what underlies the prohibition of sculptures in Islam is to maintain the belief of oneness, to avoid resembling the supreme Creator in creation, to take measures against depiction of private parts, to avoid wastage in a field that has more harm than good, etc. On the other hand, neither the Prophet (pbuh) nor the great people of the religion of Islam need to be depicted with sculptures. They have settled in the hearts of believers, and their messages and doctrines have been treated with respect in the Islamic society. The Prophet Islam even prohibited people from praising him extremely. He states the following:

"Do not praise me as Christians praise Isa (Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary). Say 'he is Allah's slave and messenger' only." (Bukhari, Anbiya, 48; A.B. Hanbal, Musnad, I, 23, 24, 47, 55).

(Şamil İA)

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