Is Picture Taking Forbidden in Islam?

New technology has raised new questions in Islamic law.
... Michael Blann/Digital Vision/Getty Images

For some Muslim scholars, photography is permissible, or halal, since it differs from the types of image-making prohibited in the Quran and the statements of Muhammad recorded in the Hadith. Other commentators, however, rely on the same texts to argue that picture taking is forbidden, or haram.

1 Images in Islam

According to "The Encyclopaedia of Islam," the Islamic terms used in regard to forbidden images are sura, which refers primarily to three-dimensional shapes, and taswir, which refers primarily to two-dimensional images but in the Quran can also be synonymous with sura. According to the Quran (59:24), God is the one who gives sura to all things in creation, while statements of Muhammad state that a human who attempts to create a sura commits idolatry by trying to imitate God. Similarly, passages in the Hadith indicate that someone who fashions a taswir will suffer severe punishment in the final judgment.

2 Arguments for Photography

In his book, "The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam," noted Egyptian Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi generally concludes that photography is halal unless the object being photographed is haram, such as an idol, a wicked leader or a sinful celebrity. Al-Qaradawi reasons that prohibitions on images in Islam refer mainly to three-dimensional statues. As for the prohibition on creating forms as a form of idolatry, al-Qaradawi cites a line of scholarly reasoning that a person who takes a picture does not actively create a form in imitation of God, but merely captures the image of an object that God himself created.

3 Arguments against Photography

According to some very conservative Islamic scholars, the prohibitions against images in the Quran and the Hadith are not so narrowly drawn. For example, Shaykh Saalih al-Fawzaan argues that the prohibitions on images apply to not just to statues, but to all pictures of any sort, including photos taken with digital cameras. Any Muslim who teaches otherwise, al-Fawzaan warns, will be severely punished on the day of judgment. A somewhat more moderate opinion limits the prohibition to images of humans and other animate beings, in accordance with a Hadith stating that anyone who creates an image of a living being will suffer excruciating punishment. Nonetheless, there is a carve out for images made out of necessity, such as a passport photo.

4 Video and Digital Photos

Despite believing in a broad prohibition on photographs, some conservative religious scholars have argued that video and digital images can actually be halal. Shaykh Mufti Taqi Usmani reasons that live video broadcasts are permissible because, unlike a photograph, there are not permanent or in a fixed form. Moreover, videotape and digital photographs are permitted, since they do not create a lasting image. Instead, they merely arrange particles and data such that they images only appear when retrieved. However, limits on prohibited subject matter still apply. For example, one fatwa, or opinion by a religious scholar, forbids married couples from making a video of their more intimate moments, since that would involve violating fundamental principles of modesty.

John Green is an attorney who has been writing on legal, business and media matters for more than 20 years. He has also taught law school and business courses in entrepreneurship, business enterprise, tax and ethics. Green received his J.D. from Yale Law School and his Ph.D. in religion from Duke.