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Tattoos: The Good, the Bad, and the Haram

Although there is still a stigma against tattoos in several modern societies, tattoo art, and body modification are nothing new. Archaeological evidence suggests people may have tattooed their bodies as far back as 50,000 years ago. These early finds consist of possible tattoo tools and human figurines adorned with body art. The oldest discovery of tattooed human skin is found on Ötzi, the Iceman's body, dating to between 3370 and 3100 BC. While there are numerous mummies from Greenland, Alaska, Siberia, Mongolia, Egypt, Sudan, China, the Philippines, and the Andes, they all give way to Ötzi, nicknamed that because he was found in the Ötzal Alps between Austria and Italy back in 1991.

Different Religions, Different Perspectives

Let's explore other religions' perspectives before we investigate what Islam preaches about tattoos. Most scholars believe Hinduism started between 2300 BC and 1500 BC in the Indus Valley, near modern-day Pakistan. While Hinduism began over 1,000 years after Ötzi died, it would not have mattered because Hindus allow religious and contemporary tattoos. To them, body art is a non-issue.

Buddhism, a more recent religion, can be traced back to the 5th century BCE. Their stance is more pro-tattoo than not. They have a tradition of protective tattoos that incorporate Buddhist symbols and images.

While claiming Abraham as its founder in 2000 BC, Judaism gets its demeanor from Moses around the 15th century BCE. Scholars argue the book of Leviticus, the third book of Moses, was written around 1400 BC. I refer to Leviticus because chapter 19, verse 28 reads, "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you." Interpretations vary; however, some adherents believe this passage prohibits self-mutilation and tattooing. Christians, for the most part, also follow these scriptures that originate from Moses.

During the Crusades, Catholicism, a significant segment of Christianity, ruled that religious tattoos were permissible and even "praiseworthy." In the Middle Ages, Catholics in Africa and Eastern Europe utilized the tattooing of crosses for perceived protection against forced conversion to Islam and enslavement by the Ottoman Empire. Quite frequently, if a Christian pilgrim completed a trip to Jerusalem or some other religious festival, they would get a tattoo to commemorate the event. Even today, Pope Francis has come out in favor of tattoos. He encourages his young priests to get tattoos to signify that they are part of the youth movement. However, during mission trips to non-Christian lands, Catholics frequently rule non-religious tattoos as pagan activity. So, if the church ordains tattoos, they are blessed; otherwise, they are viewed as sinful.

In summary, modern tattooing traditions for Jews and Christians have become more lenient. In terms of numbers, it is estimated that one-fifth of all tattoos are religious-oriented. One study about Christian religious tattoos shows that more men (23%) than women (17%) had them. The trend for men was that their tattoos were more prominent and more visible on the body. Women had smaller tattoos that were in less visible places. Approximately half of the tattoos were of the cross, and about one-fourth were Bible verses. Here is an image of a Bible verse tattoo.

Are Muslims Allowed to Get Tattoos?

Yes and No. There are restrictions and prohibitions, but tattoos are becoming more accepted.

Both the Qur'an and hadith (actions and quotes from Muhammad) are interpreted as unfavorable for tattoos. First, the Qur'an: Four verses in Chapter 4, 118 through 121, mention that Satan will mislead humanity by "changing the creation of Allah." It is thought that seeking beautification by tattooing or body art will change the creation of Allah. Thus, tattooing is haram (forbidden).

Another Quranic verse (2:195) reads, "…and do not throw (yourselves) with your (own) hands into destruction." This verse is interpreted as not to inflict pain upon yourself or allow pain to be imposed upon you. It is also forbidden to make yourself susceptible to diseases or infections voluntarily. According to health experts at the Mayo Clinic, tattooing can cause several illnesses and complications, such as allergic reactions, skin infections, inflammation, and bloodborne diseases.

While numerous hadith portray tattooing as wrong, I will only mention a couple. Jami'at-Tirmidhi (vol 5, book 41, hadith 2782) writes, "The Prophet cursed the women who practice tattooing and those who seek to be tattooed." Al-Bukhari (book 77, hadith 162) reports a similar hadith where the companion heard the Prophet say, "Do not practice tattooing and do not get yourselves tattooed."

These Quranic verses and hadith set the groundwork for what is permissible and impermissible in Islam. First, tattoos and body art are thought by core conservative Muslims to be a means to make a person look different, thus changing the creation of Allah. Tattoos are considered deceptive, especially if they are on body parts readily seen by the public. Second, getting a permanent tattoo under the skin can be painful and, if done under poor sanitary conditions, can cause health problems.

While the Qur'an and hadith remain universal guidance for all Muslims, specific rulings diverge amongst the two main sects of Shia and Sunni Islam. Shia Ayatollahs Ali al-Sistani and Ali Khamenei believe there are no authoritative tattoo prohibitions since the Qur'an does not mention tattoos or tattooing at all. Egypt's former Grand Mufti (the head Iman for Egypt's largest mosque), a Sunni, declared a fatwa in 2017, stating that temporary tattoos - the kind that comes from henna – are okay for women. However, tattoos for boys are still haram. For a boy, it's like putting on lipstick or nail polish; it's imitating women, which is forbidden in Islam.

Temporary tattoos are considered permissible. What is temporary? Islamic scholars state that 2-3 weeks would qualify. Henna tattoos are the most popular temporary tattoos. In India, they are referred to as mehndi, but in either case, they are exotic patterns that can be placed on any part of the body and look like professional body art. Brides frequently use them for the exotic designs that can be displayed on their hands, arms, and backs. Henna comes from a plant dye that is used to stain the skin. After henna stains reach their peak color, they hold for a few days, then gradually wear off by exfoliation, typically within one to three weeks.

The tattoo must not contain pictures of animate creatures or obscene words, threats, or insults. Another hadith states that "the painter of these pictures will be punished on the day of Resurrection" (Al-Bukhari, book 97, hadith 182). Pictures of generic patterns and fancy calligraphy are allowable, as are images of trees, mountains, flowers, and everything but animate creatures.

Tattoos must be permeable. Since Muslims pray five times a day, they must ritually clean their body in places where grime and dirt are typical. During this purification process, water must touch the skin. If the tattoo is not permeable or breathable, as some temporary tattoos are not, the ritual would not be complete.

In summary, Muslims believe tattooing is a sin because it involves changing the natural creation of God and inflicting unnecessary pain in the process. Tattoos appear to be becoming more acceptable in Western culture, and that trend is gathering steam in the Arab world. Islamic sects look at tattoos differently, but women have an edge over men in getting tattoos.

Credit to Wikimedia Commons for Cross tattoo and Bible verse tattoo.

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