The Question of Photography
Social Issues
Question asked by .
Answered by Dr Khalid Zaheer

Why is there a difference of opinion among scholars on the question of photography? Does Islam, in your opinion, prohibit it?.


Devout Muslims of the sub-continent have always taken a firm stand against impressions resembling living beings, whether hand-drawn pictures or photographs by the camera. Many scholars of the Middle-East, on the contrary, have lately tended to draw a line of distinction between the two: they are equally averse to the former but have invariably shown inclination towards the permissibility of photographs taken by cameras.

There are so many narrations of the Prophet (sws) condemning the use of pictures considered reliable according to the traditional criteria of authenticity that the direction certainly cannot be overlooked.

One such Statement attributed to the Prophet (sws), for instance, warns thus: ‘On the Day of Judgement creators of images will be chastised and asked to inject in them life and they will be unable to do so’. (Bukhārī).

This warning led many scholars, specially those belonging to the sub-continent, to believe that it is basically the insult to the sanctity of life in objects attempted to be captured through images that invites the displeasure of the Almighty. There is therefore no difference whatsoever, according to them, whether the images are photographs taken by a camera or hand-drawn pictures. Ironically, however, most of them do not object to the pictures of plants, which, it is well known, are equally living.

Many of the scholars belonging to the Arab world were led to take a different stance on the issue because of some other narrations, one of which can be translated thus: ‘Who does a greater wrong than one who tries to create something like My creation. Let them create a particle or a seed or a barley seed’. (Bukhārī & Muslim)

They contended that since the real cause of the Almighty's displeasure appears to be the inaccurate and deformed results of pictures and sculptures, and since camera helps in capturing the exact reflection of the original object, the consideration in the narration doesn’t appear to be applicable to photographs. The late Shaykh Muhammad Bakhīt a former Muftī of Egypt, for instance, opined that photography is an art of capturing a shade or a reflection by a special technique. He clarified that what is forbidden is to create a likeness which has no previous existence in order to produce something similar to what Allāh has created. Using camera to take a picture is, on the contrary, no different from what we see in the mirror.

Contrary to the two opinions on the subject mentioned above, we believe that a careful consideration of all the relevant narrations on the subject leads one to believe that images were condemned not for any intrinsic evil in them, but primarily because they contributed to the polytheistic tendencies of the people of that time. It appears that idolatory and picture-worship were rampant in that period and since the predominantly monotheistic attitude of Islam couldn’t have tolerated even the slightest deviation from the cause of Tawhīd (monotheism), all types of images were condemned to start with. The condemnation was intended for the purpose of blocking all ways leading to the evil. There are examples in some other areas of Islam as well which lead us to believe that if once an extreme step helps in obliterating an evil, and the condemnation of the mere cause is not needed for the purpose, Islam does not insist on continuing with restriction on such cases. When intoxicants were banned, for instance, the Prophet of Allāh (sws) had commanded discontinuance of use of all containers traditionally used to serve them even for othersiwe legitimate purposes. Once the extreme restriction helped in erasing the obssession for intoxicants, the ban on the use of such containers was lifted. We believe that the restriction on pictures and statues also falls in the same category. Therefore, all images, whether paintings, statues, or photographs which do not contribute to the cause of polytheism anymore are permissible, if they do not violate other principles of Islam.

Statues and images carrying any religious sanctity, for instance, would continue to be condemned for the same reason. Pictures contributing to obscenity, likewise, would be disallowed though for a different cause.

If the aforementioned point-of-view is accepted, the naration quoted earlier would mean that the creators of images who used to worship and pin all hopes of salvation on the lifeless gods would be asked to inject life in their self-created deities to rescue them from the wrath of the Almighty. The demand, naturally, would be meant only to add insult to their injury. Unable to do so, they would curse themselves for their past behaviour as mentioned in the Qur’ān:

And [the polytheists] will be told: ‘Invoke your partners’. They will call on them but they will not answer, and they will see the torment [and wish] if only they had come to guidance. [28:64]


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