Idols and Figural Images in Islam: A Dive into a Perennial Debate

Abraham destroying idols from Al-Biruni’s Al-Athar al-Bakiya

This presentation by University of Michigan Professor Christiane Gruber will explore some of the questions and debates concerning idolatry and figural representation form the beginning of Islam until today. It will focus in particular on the specific terminology used in the Qur’an and Hadith—in particular the terms tamathil (figural likenesses), asnam (idols), and ansab (sacred stones or betyls)—in order to distinguish the semantic and conceptual categories that were used by Muslim writers to classify various forms of art-making along with their associated practices. Such terms were further finessed within historical and jurisprudential writings, in which the Solomonic, Abrahamic, and Mosaic paradigms concerning statuary and idols served to both legitimize figural statuary while simultaneously castigating three-dimensional and even pendant imagery as potentially subject to devotional worship. In the majority of texts, images were not understood as prohibited per se. Rather, their modalities of display and use proved of paramount significance within the perennial debates concerned with image-making, as is the case in all global religious cultures. Skirting the “broad swath” method, this talk thus aims to pinpoint some the finer issues raised by the textual corpus as it intersects with artworks and paintings in order to demonstrate that practices of figural representation in Islamic traditions most often were (and still are) guided by cultural and political expediency rather than religious or legal principle.


(FC: John Simon Guggenheim Foundation)

Christiane Gruber is Professor of Islamic Art and Associate Chair in the History of Art Department at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research interests span medieval Islamic art to contemporary visual culture. She has authored two books on Islamic texts and images of the Prophet Muhammad’s ascension and has edited about a dozen volumes on Islamic book arts, ascension texts and images, and visual and material culture. Her third book, entitled The Praiseworthy One: The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Texts and Images, will appear in print in January 2019.



Sponsored by the Digital Islamic Studies Curriculum, University of Maryland Department of Art History & Archaeology