While the Qur’an does condemn idolatry (see Sura V.90, XXI.52), there are no explicit interdictions on the representations of human figures. There are, however, numerous Hadiths (the sayings and deeds of the Prophet) that are often interpreted as prohibiting the depiction of living creatures.
Yet a contradictory story is to be found in an equally revered account of the life of the Prophet, the Sira of Ibn Ishaq, as preserved by Azraqi (died 858 c.e.)—which recounts how Muhammad preserved portraits of Jesus and Mary from destruction, and the Tabaqat of Ibn Sa’d (died ca. 845 c.e.), which tells us that on one occasion the Prophet Muhammad found his young bride Aisha playing with her dolls. He asked her what they were, and, on being told they were King Solomon's horsemen, made no adverse observations and allowed her to continue playing with them.
Despite these latter examples, artists depicting humans were accused by certain schools of Islamic law of trying to imitate God’s creative function. Some added a more subtle touch by saying that what was important was the artist’s intent and that Muhammad only objected to full-size human figures that could be mistaken for real persons; hence, miniatures or small dolls were permissible.
Islam is not monolithic. At the very least we can speak of "Islam 1" —the Qur'an; "Islam 2"—Islamic Law and the teachings developed by theologians from the deeds and saying of the Prophet; and “Islam 3”— the actual behavior of believing Muslims, the things that are actually said and done across Islamic civilization. As is often the case, Islam 3 has behaved quite differently than it should have as prescribed by Islam 1 and Islam 2. For in fact Islamic history is full of examples of paintings, particularly miniatures—one of the glories of Islamic art—that depict human beings, including the Prophet. Illustrated Qur’ans depicting Muhammad are also known to exist. Some of the paintings clearly show the Prophet’s face; others draw his body but leave his face blank. Some of the humans have a distinct line drawn over their necks, symbolically defying them to come to life and thereby demonstrating the artist’s denial of his intent to compete with God in creating life.
This contradiction continues in the present day. Across the Muslim world, we can find portraits, including portraits of religious leaders, on bank-notes, coins, and posters (yes, even posters of the Prophet) as well as in magazines and journals. Strictly speaking, the interdiction on representation should place television and even photography off limits; in reality, of course, all Islamic societies are addicted to the cinema and to soaps on television.
Ibn Warraq is the author of Why I Am Not a Muslim and the editor of The Origins of the Koran, The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, and What the Koran Really Says. He is a Center for Inquiry research fellow.