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The Religious Prohibition Against Images

The Qur'an provides no specific guidelines for the use of images. The hadith – the traditions of the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad – do, in contrast, express an apparent antipathy towards figurative depictions. Some hadith make it clear that a person who tries to emulate God's creative force will be hard-pressed on the Day of Judgment.

Most people think that the early caliphates did not put images on their coins. The purpose of a prohibition against images was initially to avoid idolatry. As Muhammad himself demonstrated when he purified the Kaaba of sculptures and idols, it was an essential aspect of the new doctrine that no one should be induced to worship an object or an image instead of God. At no point have pictures found their way into the interiors of mosques; no Muslim artist has endeavored to depict God; the Qur'an has never been illustrated, and depictions of the Prophet Muhammad are rare.


Numismatic research indicates that during the reign of the Marwanid caliph 'Abd al-Malik (685-705), many coins were minted between 692 and 696 with human figures and images of religious artifacts, much like the coins of the Byzantine empire. By that time, the Byzantine/Roman empire had been minting coins for 1,000 years and it would seem that they knew how to fabricate money. These Islamic coins with images are referred to as "experimental" or "transitional" by historians and numismatists. With the Caliph Abd al-Malik's reform of coinage in 696, even the portraits of rulers were removed from Islamic coins and replaced by calligraphic decoration. This standard was used for several hundred years as the way to design Islamic coinage. Pictured above and below is one of the gold dinars minted in 798 during Harun al-Rashid's, the Abbasid Caliph of Egypt, reign (786-809). On the front (above) is the shahada, and in the circular margin is the name of the mint and the date. On the reverse face (below) is the name of the Caliph and in the circular margin is a verse or sura from the Qur'an.


The coinage from the Byzantine Empire during this time was different. The Byzantines were not afraid to put images on the coins. Several of their emperors would put Jesus Christ on the front side of the coin and the emperor's bust on the reverse side. If Jesus Christ was not on the coin, there probably was a cross, an angel, or even the virgin Mary. The emperor wanted to be associated with Christianity, and what better way to do this than to put Christian images on one side and the emperor's image on the other. Unfortunately, I did not have a Byzantine coin from the same period as the Egyptian dinar pictured above, but I did have a Byzantine histamenon from 1078. In the top image, Emperor Nicephorus III is portrayed.



Below is an image of Jesus Christ.

The Qur'an provides no specific guidelines for the use of images. The hadith – the traditions of the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad – do, in contrast, express an apparent antipathy towards figurative depictions. Some hadiths make it clear that a person who tries to emulate God's creative force will be hard-pressed on the Day of Judgment.

"He who creates pictures in this world will be ordered to breathe life into them on the Day of Judgment, but he will be unable to do so." Hadith, Sahih Muslim (818-875)



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