Why are there so few living beings portrayed in Islamic Art?

Does it make a difference if it is secular or religious art work, human or animal figures?

I am familiar with the Ottoman and Persian paintings that show humans and animals but those seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Is this an accurate observation on my part?

Is portrait painting of an identifiable individual allowed?

Edit: I am not Muslim; I don't know the Arabic words and phrases used in the other answers. I live in the US. Please respond in English. Thank you.


4 Answers 4


Figurative Representation or drawing living/animate things is haram in Islam, despite what has been done previously in history by Muslims (Ottoman and Persian paintings), or what is currently being done, the ruling stands.

<< Every painter will go to Hell, and for every portrait he has made, there will be appointed one who will chastise him in the Hell. >> Ibn 'Abbas said: If you have to do it, draw pictures of trees and other inanimate things.

متفق عليه

  • Does it applies to simple illustration of person or simple motion graphics, such as this motion graphics
    – Murtaza
    Sep 4, 2014 at 20:17

Hadith is a narration about Mohammad(puh)'s words and actions. They are like "I heard from this man who heard from that man that Prophet Mohammad(puh) said this, or did this". The most ancient hadith books were written 200 years after the death of Mohammad(puh). They are called Kutub al-Sittah, which means "the 6 books". You can find them here. As you see, they were all written by Sunni scholars.

Hadiths are divided into 3 categories:

  1. Authentic ones: They seem as the most reliable ones.
  2. Made up ones: They are believed as they have been made up for political reasons etc. They are either against Quran clearly, or their narrators weren't trustworthy.
  3. Can't decidable ones: They are seem to be fine and accurate, but their narrators are not trustworthy or unknown.

About Quran's and Hadiths' points of view, please look at my answer in this question.

About the Ottomans and Persians, they did painting yes, but not similar to western painting. They either didn't draw the face, or they didn't draw it properly. Please search for miniature. In later period, they abandoned this and draw just like westerners. But somebody's decisions or actions don't change "the theory".

Why are there so few living beings portrayed in Islamic Art?

Because of the hadiths. Please look at the link I gave.

Does it make a difference if it is secular or religious art work, human or animal figures?

Yes. It has been allowed to draw non-living things. This is why Islamic societies draw trees and different geometric shapes through history. Please search for enamelled tile.

It differentiates if you support your claim with different hadiths. According to some, you can't draw anything at all. According to some another, you can't draw living things only. According to another interpretation, you can't draw faces. According to another interpretation, you can't draw properly. The Ottomans usually applied the last one, the Persians on the other had usually applied the 3rd.

Is portrait painting of an identifiable individual allowed?

Every authority in history seem to prohibited it. But in later periods, as I said, they painted like westerners.

The main purpose to prohibit painting and sculpturing was to keep people away from returning to idol worshiping. Some people take this literally and didn't look to the reason, while some other people tried to find a gap in this rule.


I've heard that imitating Allah's Creations is a sin, but to be honest, a lot of the hadiths they report, other people say they are forged. It doesn't look authentic to me, since of another Sunnah involving dolls. You'll have to see and decide for yourself.

  • I am not sure I understand your response. What is a hadith and how can it be forged? Aren't the other people quoting portions of the Koran to me? What do you mean about another sunnah involving dolls? I am not Muslim so you need to explain this to me. That is why I am asking here.
    – piquet
    Aug 6, 2014 at 0:52

Historically Speaking, in Arabia at the time of the Prophet (PBUH) the concept of art and portraits was Not a common thing. Hence since the early times of Islam especially in Arabia, art did not have a significant impact on the culture.

The Persian empire, on the other hand DID have such a culture and hence, you see how Islam inspired the Art in that culture and then later on the Ottoman empire.

I must tell you that the Islamic Art we are talking about is, Rather Art that which is inspired by Islam... Because the religion of Islam doesn't teach one, how to draw things... So we cant specifically point to one thing and say this is Islamic Art. But we can say, that art in which The painter was inspired by Islam, is Islamic Art.

Historically and Culturally Speaking drawing the picture of the Prophet, his Close Companions and His Family are forbidden (Especially the Face). Because to show respect towards the radiant existence of those people. It would be seen as lowering the respect of one, by misrepresenting them in the form of a picture... Because the painter hasn't seen the prophet hence, what ever he would draw would be a misrepresentation.

And hence when the Islamic painters would draw a depiction of the Prophet or His Family. They would leave out the face and instead draw a sort of radiance coming out of the face.

This is a good example: Depiction of Prophets Mi'raj:


What this radiance means is that; The Veiled Face symbolizes the self-effacement and absorption of the realized self into the mysteries of transcendence. It is the vanquishment of inner passions and outer desires.It is when man rids of his own ego, and the thing he calls "I" and dives into the ocean of Non-Existence... where he melts into the existence of God and his own existence and identity in front of God vanishes... and What is left is the radiance of God's own existence...

And the fire that you see encapsulating the entire face, is the depiction of ones self existence burning in front of the existence of God/Allah.

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