Ibn al-Qayyim

A Traditionalist Critique of the Islamic Prohibition on Taṣwīr (Making Drawings and Statues of Humans and Animals)

A Caravan with the Pyramids and Sphinx Beyond (Joseph Austin Benwell , 1868)

To many Muslims today, it will sound patently absurd if someone were to tell them that it is a mortal sin for them to draw a cat. But some religious scholars would tell you that drawing a cat is an act of taṣwīr (the depiction of living things in paintings, sculptures and elsewhere), a sin for which God supposedly promises the severest punishment.

Mainstream Sunni Muslims today follow the opinions of popular religious scholars like Muhammad al-Ghazali, Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Ali Gomaa, who by and large have no issue with drawings and statues. Since neither Muslims nor their respected scholars have an issue with taṣwīr, it is largely a theoretical issue within Islamic law. There is, however, a minority of puritan Muslims, especially on the internet, who often bring up this issue, claim that a severe and even violent distaste for taṣwīr is the proper Islamic stance, and who categorically reject the opinions of mainstream scholars like al-Ghazali, al-Qaradawi and Gomaa.

Such Muslims generally represent the influence of Ḥanbali thought. They wish to hold strongly to tradition and to please God as far as humanly possible in the manner of Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal and his admirers, who went on to be called Ahl al-Ḥadīth, “The People of Tradition”, known as the Traditionalists in modern English-language Islamic studies. The fact that some command or prohibition sounds absurd is not sufficient reason to reject it. If there is a text commanding or prohibiting something, human reason has no authority to judge the command or prohibition; the only correct stance is to say “we hear and we obey”. If God, who is infinitely wise and just, commands something, it is the height of foolishness for one to critique His command, as if humans could ever hope to compete with Him in wisdom and justice. The Traditionalists include some of the most respected personalities in Islamic history, starting from Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (known reverentially as Imam Aḥmad) to the imams al-Bukhārī and Muslim, to many of the best known members of the Shāfiʿī and Ḥanbalī schools, such as Abū Ḥāmid al-Isfarāʾīnī (Shāfiʿī), Abū Isḥāq al-Shīrazī (Shāfiʿī), Ibn al-Jawzī (Ḥanbalī), Ibn Ṣalāḥ al-Shāhrazūrī (Shāfiʿī), Imam al-Nawawī (Shāfiʿī), Shams al-Dīn al-Dhahabī (Shāfiʿī), Ibn Taymīya (Ḥanbalī) and Ibn al-Qayyim (Ḥanbalī).

It would be a mistake to dismiss the Traditionalists as a narrow-minded group who refuse to listen to reason (which is how Western pundits and some reform-minded Muslims have portrayed them). By all accounts, the Traditionalists, despite their faults, were perhaps the closest group of Muslim scholars to the prophets mentioned in the Quran in their manners, their piety and their devotion to God. Their teachings continue to attract educated Muslims seeking pure and unadulterated Islamic teachings. When it comes to an issue such as that of whether drawing living things should be permissible or not, such Muslims would seek the opinions of these scholars, rather than relying on their own reasoning. An outsider may see this as typical of the irrationalism promoted by religion. Skepticism toward human reason can certainly be a sign of a lack of knowledge and sophistication. But it can also be a sign of a great deal of knowledge that has made one aware of the immense range of errors humans can fall into when they rely on their own cleverness. History is full of examples of humans who thought they knew what was best for them and who got things completely wrong. Read Plato’s Republic, which aims to describe how to create an ideal state of happiness and virtue in a city, but which would in all likelihood create a hellish nightmare if it were to be implemented in real life. Communism is another good example of the suffering and misery created by humans following their own cleverness. Aiming to free the masses from oppression, it ended up causing the deaths of over 100 million people in the 20th century. Since Muslims are blessed with teachings from God, it is common sense to give preference to His teachings and those of His Prophet rather than to one’s own reason. We can be sure that God and His Prophet are correct, while from our limited point of view, we can never be sure of the correctness of our thinking when it comes to complex and problematic matters of law and theology.

I am not a Traditionalist myself in the Ḥanbali sense, since I consider its extreme focus on hadith to be at the expense of the Quran. The Traditionalist scholars historically appear to be Islam’s best and most pious representatives, but I believe it is now possible to have something better by placing a much greater focus on the Quran and putting it back in the center of Islamic life.

This article seeks to answer the needs of Traditionalist-minded Muslims on the matter of drawings and statues. Below I translate an Arabic article I discovered a few years ago by a well-informed Traditionalist author who criticizes the supposed prohibition on taṣwīr. This article is significant because when even such a Muslim can find good reasons to doubt the prohibition on taṣwīr, this acts as supporting evidence for the mainstream Islamic practice of tolerating it. The author is an anonymous user of the Traditionalist internet forum Multaqā Ahl al-Ḥadīth (The Meeting Place of the Traditionalists) who goes by the name of al-Shaykh Muḥammad ibn Amīn.

The author’s notes are in parentheses, while translator’s notes are in square brackets. I use the word “statue” to translate timthāl, a catch-all term for all statues, sculptures, effigies, murals and other three-dimensional figures depicting humans and animals. I use the word picture, painting, image and figure mostly interchangeably, choosing one over the other depending on the context.1

Ḥukm al-Ṣuwar wa-l-Tamāthīl – The Islamic Ruling Regarding Pictures and Statues

Praise be to God. There has long been a legal theoretic issue of dispute, in fact since the time of the Companions, and that issue is this: Do we enact the literal meaning of a text or do we enact its spirit? Meaning, do we apply the text in its literal and apparent sense, or do we try to understand its spirit and rationale? The Companions differed on this. You are probably aware of the hadith on the ʿaṣr prayer in the Banī Qurayẓa affair. Some of the Companion understood [the Prophet’s instructions ] in their apparent form, while others tried to understand the purpose behind the instructions. The Prophet approved of the actions of both groups.

The issue [surrounding drawings and statues] is confused because there are texts mentioning instructions regarding the destruction of statues and the obliteration of pictures. Those who take these texts in their literal meaning would consider it obligatory to destroy every statue and obliterate every picture. Most of them [those who take the texts literally] consider photographic pictures permissible because they are merely the capturing of projections of light. And whoever prohibits this falls into contradiction since he is bringing together two mutually exclusive views.2

The other opinion is that the reason for the prohibition of pictures and statues was to prevent them from becoming means of shirk [assigning divine powers to other than God] or tabarruk [considering an object a source of blessings]. Forbidding statues does not require that they should be worshiped. If they are regarded with veneration by people, then this is sufficient to prohibit them in order to prevent this veneration from developing into worship. For this reason many of the ulema [scholars] consider it permissible to place pictures in debased places. It is permissible [in their opinion] for a rug to have pictures on it since it is stepped on by people, preventing the pictures from being venerated. It is also permissible to create statues without heads, since this makes them appear deficient. And it is also permissible to place a picture in a place where it cannot be viewed. It is not permissible to place a picture (photographic or drawn) on a wall, but it is permissible to place it between the pages of a book if one can be sure that the picture is not venerated (for example if it is not the picture of a sheikh or wali). The majority permitted pictures of living things that do not have rūḥ [soul or spirit], such as plants and nature. There are even those who permitted the creation of statues and pictures if it was certain that they would not be venerated. Al-Qirāfī [a Mālikī legal theorist of the seventh century of the hijra] used to make statues himself, as he mentioned in his book Sharḥ al-Maḥṣūr.

Two types of statues are mentioned in the Book of God [the Quran]: The first type are those statues that are worshiped instead of God. These are called tamāthīlaṣnām and anṣāb. It is obvious for us to say that these types of statues are prohibited for a Muslim to create or buy, since in such an act would be an aid in shirk. The second type are those statues that are not worshiped instead of God, such statues are not aṣnām or anṣāb. The Quran, in fact, mentions the creation of statues as one of the blessings that God bestowed upon Solomon :

12. And for Solomon the wind—its outward journey was one month, and its return journey was one month. And We made a spring of tar flow for him. And there were sprites that worked under him, by the leave of his Lord. But whoever of them swerved from Our command, We make him taste of the punishment of the Inferno. 13. They made for him whatever he wished: sanctuaries, statues, bowls like pools, and heavy cauldrons. “O House of David, work with appreciation,” but a few of My servants are appreciative.3

Here, God refers to statues as timthāl-s [statues] rather than aṣnām [idols], since they were not meant to be worshiped in God’s stead. This matter has to do with monotheism and faith and is a shared doctrine among all of the Prophets. There is no disagreement among the ulema that when it comes to the ʿaqāʾid [plural of ʿaqīda, beliefs regarding the nature of God and other matters] have not undergone change and that they have always been one and the same among the Prophets, for God says:

He prescribed for you the same religion He enjoined upon Noah, and what We inspired to you, and what We enjoined upon Abraham, and Moses, and Jesus: “You shall uphold the religion, and be not divided therein.” ...4

Many authentic hadith narrations exist that insist that the muṣawwirīn [figure-makers] are in the Hellfire, and that they will be among those who suffer the severest punishment. The reason for their punishment according to the texts of the hadith narrations is that they imitate God’s creation, and muḍāhāt [the sin the texts accuse them of] is the same as mushākala [the creation of the likeness of something], meaning that they create sculptures in the likeness of God’s creation, so that on the Day of Judgment they are told: “Bring to life what you have created!” Al-Nawawī5 says in his Commentary on Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim (14/84): “They [i.e. the ulema] agreed on prohibiting all [figures] that have shadows and on the necessity of changing them.” But Ibn Ḥajar6 adds in al-Fatḥ [his commentary on Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī] (10/388): “This consensus does not include children’s toys.”

There is conclusive evidence that the Prophet used pillows and utensils that had pictures on them, but he used to remove and wipe out pictures of crosses. It is also proven that he permitted children’s toys in the form of small statues/dolls, as is narrated from the Mother of the Believers Aisha, may God be pleased with her. Qaḍī ʿIyāḍ7 mentions that the majority of jurists permitted buying these dolls for the training of girls in matters pertaining to childcare, which is recognized as a worthy aim in Islamic law. While his information is correct regarding the permissibility of dolls, his reasoning is incorrect, since Aisha mentions a horse that had two wings; what relationship does that have with children’s education? The correct opinion is that children’s playthings are permissible for males and females without any karāha (legal disapproval), since they [dolls] are far away from the potential for veneration. One of our teachers used to say: “Children’s wisdom is greater than that of many adults, for you never find a child worshiping the doll he or she plays with.”

But if statues are an imitation of God’s creations, or creating their likeness, then that makes them forbidden and is considered a mortal sin according to the authentic narrations on the matter. But creating a likeness of God’s creations or imitating them could be done through making sculptures of soulless things like the sun, the moon, mountains and trees, and through making girls’ dolls and similar things that the texts explicitly permit. For this reason some of the ulema say that what is intended are those who create statues or make pictures with the aim of challenging God’s power, or those who think that they have a similar power to create as God has. God shows such people their incapacity by asking them to bring life to what they create. In support of this, Ibn Ḥajar, in al-Fatḥ al-Bārī [his aforementioned commentary on Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī], regarding God’s saying in His ḥadīth qudsī: “And who is greater in injustice than one who goes in order to create a creature like My creation?” interprets “goes” here to mean “aims”. According to this, the forbidden thing here is related to the intention of the maker [of the statue, etc.], whether the product is a statue or a hand-drawing of any image. It is mentioned in the Mawsūʿa al-Fiqhīya  [The Encyclopedia of Islamic Jurisprudence, a 45-volume work by Kuwait’s Awqāf ministry including opinions from all of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence, completed in 2005 after 40 years of work], in Bāb al-Taṣwīr [the chapter on figure-making]:

The majority of ulema agree that prohibiting figures does not imply a prohibition on possessing them or using them, for regarding the process of making figures of things that have souls, it is mentioned that figure-makers are cursed and that they will be punished in the Hellfire and that they will be among the most severely punished among the people, but nothing is mentioned regarding possessing pictures, and there is no accepted evidence for the existence of a reason for prohibiting the user of such figures. Despite that, there are narrations that prohibit the possession and use of pictures, but they do not mention a punishment or equivalent that imply that possessing figures is a mortal sin. For these reasons, the judgment regarding the possessor of pictures whose possession is forbidden is that they have committed a small sin... Among those who were aware of the difference between figure-making and the [mere] possession of figures were: al-Nawawī... and most of the jurists are in agreement with this.

As for narrations saying that the angels do not enter a house in which there is a figure or a dog, the likely intent are the angels of revelation and not others. For this reason Ibn Ḥibbān8 made this restricted to the Prophet , for the angels that are assigned to each individual would enter such houses, and God knows best.

The majority of the jurists have permitted the user of statues and pictures in houses if they are not placed on curtains or walls with the intent to view them with veneration, and if they are subject to debasement as in people stepping on them and so on. ʿIkrima9 says: “They used to dislike statues set up on pedestals, but they saw no issues with those which feet could step on.” ʿIkrima here is transmitting from [mentioning the opinion of] the Companions. Muḥammad ibn Sīrīn10 said: “They used to see figures that were spread out or stepped upon as different from those that were set up on pedestals.” Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr11 says in the Tamhīd (21/199): “This is the most balanced among the opinions and the most moderate in this matter and most of the ulema are in agreement with it. Whoever is fatigued with narrations [unclear meaning] will not oppose this interpretation. This is the best of what I believe about this matter. God is the helper toward the correct opinion.”

It appears that the permissibility of leaving alone figures and statues that are not venerated is the creed of the majority of the Companions, even their consensus. For they did not destroy statues and pictures in the countries of Persia, the Levant and Iraq, but they did so in India and the Arabian countries. That is because these things were not worshiped in Persia, the Levant and Egypt. They did not touch those enormous edifices and great numbers of statues which remain there to this day. Consider this anecdote:

Saʿd bin Abī Waqqāṣ (the conqueror of Iraq and one of those promised Paradise) entered the palace of Khosrow II in al-Madāʾin [Ctesiphon, the Persian capital, near modern-day Baghdad]. In that palace there were many figures on the walls and many statues. He did not destroy any of them, in fact they remain where they are to our day. None of the Companions criticized him or anyone else for this. This is a consensus from them regarding the permissibility of letting such things remain undestroyed if they are not worshiped in God’s stead and they are not ascribed holiness. Al-Tabarī says in his Tarīkh (2/464): “When Saʿd entered al-Madāʾin and saw its desertedness, and went to Khosrow’s hall, he went on to recite: “How many gardens and fountains did they leave behind? And plantations, and splendid buildings. And comforts they used to enjoy. So it was; and We passed it on to another people.”12  He performed ṣalāt al-fatḥ [ritual prayer performed after a conquest], which is not performed communally. He performed eight rakʿāt [units of prayer, plural of rakʿa] without pausing between them, and turned the hall into a masjid [mosque or prayer hall]. In it there were statues made of gypsum, of men and horses. Neither he nor the Muslims opposed their presence and left them where they were. It is said: Saʿd completed the prayer on the day he entered it, for he wanted to take residence in it [or take it as a seat of the new government]. The first Friday in which the Muslims gathered for Friday prayers in Iraq in al-Madāʾin was in the year 16 [of the hijra].” Also see the al-Dhahabi’s History of Islam (3/158).

In Khosrow’s hall there were colorful and life-sized pictures done in great detail. These pictures survive to our day. These pictures were, of course, not buried in the sand, rather, numerous companions entered this palace and stayed in it. How did they then not see the pictures which can be seen clearly to our day? Even if they were not able to destroy the pictures, they could have blotted them out through white-washing, and this does not require great expenses nor a large number of workers. It would have been easy for the ruling power to command that the walls be repainted. There is no other interpretation other than that they understood the hadith narrations regarding the destruction of figures as being specific to those which were accorded veneration or were worshiped in God’s stead. These pictures continued to be viewed, being described by historians and writers. Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī says in his Muʿjam al-Buldān [his famous geographical dictionary] (1/295): “In the hall there was Khosrow Anūshirvān picture, and that of Caesar king of Antioch, who was besieging it and fighting its people.”

The famous Abbasid poet al-Buḥturī describes them in his wonderful qaṣīda al-sīnīya [a type of ode]. He describes these pictures as having such detail that one could imagine them real, so that one would want to touch them to reassure themselves that they were mere pictures. He says in his ode:13

Sorrows attend my saddle. I direct
my stout she-camel to Madāʾin [Ctesiphon].
When you see a panel of the Battle at Antioch,
you tremble among Byzantines and Persians.
The Fates stand still, while Anūshirvān
leads the ranks onward under the banner
In a deep green robe over yellow.
It appears dyed in saffron.
The eye depicts them very much alive:
they have between them speechless signs.
My wonder about them boils till
my hand explores them with a touch.

The question here is: Why did the Companions let the pictures in Khosrow’s hall remain? Those who disagree with thus are incapable of answering this. One of them says that we should only follow hadith and disregard the actions of the Companions. This is strange, for is it imaginable that the Companions would randomly follow their own inclinations? Aren’t the actions of the Companions and their sayings an interpretation and illustration of the teachings of the Prophet ? We have not abandoned the Prophet’s sayings , and neither did the Companions, may God be pleased with them. Rather, they understood the texts in a way different from those who disagree with us. It is the Companions who narrated those hadith narrations to us. And it is they to whom those narrations were directed, therefore their understanding takes precedence in matters of dispute. And the ijmaʿ [consensus] of the Companions is one of the acknowledged sources of Islamic legislation. Additionally, all of the 73 groups claim to follow the Quran and the Sunnah, but the distinguishing characteristic of al-firqa al-nājiya [“the group that attains salvation”, i.e. from the hellfire]14 is that the group follows the Companions of the Prophet .

As for the claim that during all of those years they were too busy [to destroy the paintings and statues], I do not think the person saying that believes it himself, it is just that he cannot find a better argument. Was it too difficult for Saʿd bin Abī Waqqāṣ or one of the rulers after him to command one of the slaves to repaint those walls that had pictures? As for denying that the Companions had seen the pictures, this is obstinacy and denialism, for Khosrow’s hall is the biggest building in al-Madāʾin, and the fact of the Muslims entering it is a well-known and multiply-transferred piece of information that no one denies. It was full of pictures and statues and poems were written about it. This same hall became the center of government in Iraq until the building of the city of Kūfa was finished.

The sheikh Dr. Aḥmad al-Ghāmidī answered this criticism by saying: “These pictures and statues were not worshiped aṣnām, they were rather figures depicting past events, and perhaps there was a lesson or benefit in letting them remain.” I say that it might be so, and using the fact of their not being worshiped in his reasoning is the same as what I say. He also said: “Fifth, the prohibited thing is the creation of pictures. As for the narration from Ali, may God be pleased with him, regarding the destruction of figures, it refers to three-dimensional statues.” But they weren’t pictures only; the hall of Khosrow was full of statues as is the wont of kings. Ali himself ruled Iraq and did not order the destruction of any of its statues.

The mention of Khosrow’s palace is merely an example. In reality great statues have been allowed to remain not only in Khosrow’s palaces but in [the rest of] Iraq, the Levant, Egypt and Persia. Yes, certain worshiped statues were destroyed in Sindh [a province of modern-day Pakistan] and Transoxania when the Companions discovered peoples who worshiped them, as happened in the Arabian peninsula itself. But other than these, then no. A comical event was that one contemporary caller for the destruction of statues claimed that the Pharaonic statues had been buried in the sand and were not visible during the time of the Companions! Saying the in fact they hadn’t been seen until the past two hundred years. In this saying is negligence toward the books of history, for history books are full of information regarding the familiarity of Muslims with these statues. Al-Jāḥīẓ (who was a contemporary of the imams Mālik, al-Shafiʿī and Aḥmad) enumerated the wonders of the world, saying in his Ḥusn al-Muḥāḍara (3/65): “The ṣanam [statue of religious significance, singular of aṣnām] of the two pyramids is Balhawīya, also called Balhunayt [?] and called Abū l-Hawl by the common people. It is said that it is placed there as a talisman so that the sand would not overcome the Giza.” Yaqūt al-Ḥamawī in his Muʿjam al-Buldān (5/401) says: “On the corner of one of them (meaning the pyramids) there is a great ṣanam that is called Bulhayt [?]. It is said that it is a talisman for the sand so that it would not overcome the area of Giza. It depicts a human head and neck, and the top of its shoulders are like that of the lion. And it is very large. It has a pleasant appearance, as if its creator had recently completed it. It is painted a red color that survives to this day despite the great length of time and the distance of the years.” Also see the words of Ibn Faḍl in Masālik al-Abṣār (1/235) and the words of al-Baghdādī in al-Ifāda (p. 96).

The number of the Companions who entered Egypt was greater than three hundred, as al-Suyūṭī confirmed in Ḥusn al-Muḥāḍara (1/166). The first city they besieged was ʿAin Shams [today a suburb of Cairo] as is mentioned in Ibn Kathīr’s al-Bidāya wa-l-Nihāya (7/98). It is filled with large statues as ʿAbd al-Laṭīf al-Baghdādī mentioned in the sixth century [of the hijra], saying in his travelogue (p. 96): “Of that [type?] are the antiquities in ʿAin Shams. It is a small city the ruins of whose surrounding wall are visible, it appears that it was a place of worship. In it there are enormous statues carved from rock. The length of a statue is around thirty cubits, and its limbs are proportionally large. There is much writing on those rocks and figures of humans and animals of the unintelligible [ancient Egyptian] writing.” The Companions resided in al-Fusṭāṭ [today part of Cairo] and Giza, which are very close to the pyramids. It is worth mentioning that the pyramids themselves were covered in the language of the pharaohs, some of whose letters are in the shapes of birds and animals. Al-Baghdādī says about the pyramids (p. 92): “Upon those rocks there are writings in the unknown ancient pen, such that I did not find anyone in the towns of Egypt who knew of anyone who understood them. There is a great amount of these writings, such that if what is written was transmitted to pages of books, they would take up ten thousand pages.” Al-Masʿūdī mentions similar things in his history (1/361) and Ibn Taghrībirdī in al-Nujūm al-Zāhira (1/41).

Judging from all of that, the Companions who entered Egypt certainly saw the Sphinx and the pictures on the pyramids. These in addition to the statues in ʿAin Shams, about which there is no doubt that they saw them after its conquest and their entering the city. Denying that they saw them is obstinacy. These, in addition to the statues in the pharaonic cities of Memphis and others. It is more likely than not that they saw these too, due to the great number of the Companions and the length of their stay in Egypt. And it is these about which al-Baghdādī says (p. 102): “As for the statues, the greatness of their number and the enormity of their size, it is a matter that is beyond description and computation. The accuracy of their shapes, the meticulousness of their aspects and the carving upon them of natural facets is in truth a matter for wonder.” Despite that, we have not seen them [the Companions] destroy any of them. So were the Muslims incapable of destroying those statues? This is absolutely false. That is because they were able to destroy the fortress of Babylon and the walls of Nahavand in Persia, and they drilled through [the walls of] many of the fortresses they besieged, which were great fortresses that had armed guards that shot arrows at the Muslims during their drilling and destruction of them. Couldn’t they at least disfigure the faces of the statues? If this saying [that the Companions were unable to destroy the statues] is not an insult to the Companions then I do not know what is. Is it conceivable that non-Muslims were capable of building while the Muslims incapable of mere demolition? This is impossible.

To summarize, it is not permissible to hang any picture (including photographic pictures) if this has the potential of leading to veneration and the expectation of blessings from it (especially the pictures of sheikhs and leaders). But if one is safe from that (as in the case of one hanging his own picture or that of his child) then there is no issue with it. Any pictures that are in a place unlikely to be venerated, as on pillows and rugs, then there is no distaste for that. The same is true of statues. And there is no issue with children’s toys and dolls, for such things are not venerated. And if statues accomplish a benefit recognized by the Sharīʿa, such as for teaching or training (such as those used in schools for illustration and clarification), then they go from being mubāḥ [not forbidden] to mustaḥabb [recommended], they may even be wājib [strongly recommended or compulsory] in certain cases if they are a means of understanding the sciences and advancing in them. And God knows what the most correct opinion is.

End of the translated article

Translator’s Conclusion

It appears from the above discussion that one can conclude that the issue of taṣwīr is one of context. If a figure is accorded veneration for supposed metaphysical powers, it is prohibited to have it and use it. If it is not, then there is no issue with it. This means that the issue of taṣwīr is quite irrelevant to the lives of most educated Muslims, who find the idea of venerating a picture or statue absurd.

The issue is very similar to that of music (which I discuss here):

  • Neither taṣwīr nor music are mentioned in the Quran.
  • Neither are clearly and unequivocally prohibited by a command of the Prophet .
  • There is no good logical reason for prohibiting either; both have good and wholesome uses that do not cause any difficulty to the conscience or repugnance to one’s sensibilities.
  • Both of them are associated with highly sinful activities; taṣwīr with the worship of idols, music with maʾāzif (wild parties involving wine-drinking and half-dressed women), so that a Traditionalist wishing to be safe from sin would have a strong incentive to stay away from both regardless of any expected benefits.
  • The majority of the world’s Muslims refuse to take either prohibition seriously.

The Road to Maturity: On Dealing with Life’s Unsolvable Problems

Schale mit Blumen by Marie Egner (1940)

Every person’s life seems to contain problems that have no solution. Such problems can last for years, even decades. Among such problems are:

  • Poverty: A person’s life may be denied many joys and contain many indignities brought about by poverty.
  • Having a disabled child: An otherwise happy and wealthy couple may be force to worry and spend much of their time and energy in the care of a disabled child, without any hope of things getting much easier.
  • Having to take care of an elderly parent: There are people who spend years as part-time nurses, having to take care of a parent that cannot take care of himself/herself. The person may not be able to afford professional care, so that despite their life’s various demands, this extra demand is placed on them, sometimes for many years or a decade.
  • Illness: There are people who suffer from an illness that prevents them from enjoying the foods they like or the activities they enjoy. Some illness are uncurable and will put a damper on a person’s life for the rest of their lives.
  • Family problems: A person may have nearly everything they want, but their life may be made extremely difficult due to abuse or neglect from a spouse, meanness from family members, or having a child that constantly gets into serious trouble.

There problems are unsolvable in the sense that there are generally no quick solutions to them. We desire to live in Paradise on earth, having a peaceful and easy life that is not marred by any serious issues. We wish to live in a light-hearted comedy rather than a tragedy.

But that desire for perfect peace will never come true in this life, because that is not the purpose of this life. Ibn Ata Allah al-Iskandari says:

So long as you are in this world, be not surprised at the existence of sorrows.

Ibn al-Qayyim says:

God, glory to Him, created His creation to worship Him, and that is their purpose, as He says: “I have not created jinn and humans except to worship Me” [Quran 51:56]. It is clear that the perfect servitude and worship that is required of humans cannot be achieved in the Home of Bliss [Paradise], but can only be achieved in the home of affliction and trials.

Ibn al-Jawzi says:

The worldly life has been created as a place of testing. The wise person should fully habituate himself to patience.

We want to escape this world with all of its little annoyances and worries and inconveniences so that we can enter a world of perfect peace. But this desire is mistaken and can never be attained in this world. Even if we unexpectedly acquire great wealth, leave behind all of our worries, move to a different country, buy an amazing house, and find a great spouse, the excitement of all of these will wear off in a few day, and we will feel as if we are back to square one. Problems will start to haunt us again out no nowhere. The perfect spouse may end up not being so perfect. We may engage in a seemingly profitable business enterprise that brings us great fear and worry, perhaps due to choosing the wrong business partner. If the wealth is enough to make us needless of any extra work or investment, we may dedicate ourselves to making art, or writing novels or poetry, only to experience discontent and grief as people ignore or criticize our works. Meanwhile, in our new social circle we may start to be judged for all kinds of things that we dislike to be judged for, and this may make us feel inferior.

While films and novels often tell us that we can live happily ever after once we solve our problems, get rich, or escape our past lives, reality will always prove this false. This world is a place of testing. There is no escaping God’s tests, and He knows better than anyone else exactly how to test you. Even if you are the ruler of the world, God can defeat all of your plans and place you in utter misery if He wishes. There is no escape from God. Regardless of where we run to, He will always be there first, ready with the next barrage of tests designed to build us into better and worthier people.

If you suffer from a problem of inconvenience and think “This is too stupid, I shouldn’t be having to deal with this type of nonsense!”, you have actually misunderstood the test. If something makes you feel discontented, impatient, angry or unthankful toward God, then that is exactly the type of test you should be going you through. A test that does not hit you right where it hurts is not a proper test. You have to best tested for all that you have, each test should reach deep into you and tempt you to anger and ungratefulness.

The Building of Character

Ibn al-Qayyim says:

When God tests you it is never to destroy you. When He removes something in your possession it is only in order to empty your hands for an even greater gift.

God does not take sadistic pleasure in seeing us suffer. The purpose of His tests is to show us our true natures, our weaknesses and our absolute dependence on His mercy, and these things prompt us to seek to improve ourselves. People who are never shown their faults and weaknesses fail to develop. If we are unaware that a problem exists, we have no incentive to seek a solution.

Mostafa Sadeq al-Rafi’i says:

When I looked into history I found a small number of individuals whose lives mirrored the life-cycle of a grain of wheat. They were torn from their roots, then crushed, then ground in mills, then kneaded with fists, then rolled out and baked in ovens at high temperatures… just so they could provide food for others.

The best people you meet are not people who have been spared life’s troubles. They are people who been crushed again and again by life’s troubles until they have reached a state of near-perfect acceptance and humility, so that they no longer reject God’s decrees nor do they desire to escape their lives. They know God is in charge, and that He can cure them from their distress any time He wants. They look to Him for help and seek refuge only in Him. The poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, who suffered for years from a painful illness and from loneliness and nostalgia, expresses this type of thinking in his famous 1962 poem Sabr Ayyub (The Patience of Job).

For You is praise, no matter how long the distress lasts,
And no matter how oppressive the pain becomes,
For You is praise, afflictions are bestowals,
And suffering is of Your bounty.
Did You not give me this darkness?
And did You not give me this dawn?
Does the ground then thank raindrops,
But get angry if the clouds do not find it?
For long months, this wound
Has been cutting my sides like a dagger.
The affliction does not calm at morning,
And nighttime does not bring death to wipe out the agony.
But if Job was to cry, he would cry,
“For You is Praise, for suffering is like drops of dew,
And wounds are presents from the Beloved,
The stacks of which I hug to my chest.
You presents are in my line of sight, they do not leave,
Your presents are accepted, bring them on!”
I hug my wounds and call out to visitors:
“Look here and be jealous,
For these are presents from my Beloved!”
And if the heat of my fever approaches fire,
I would imagine it a kiss from You fashioned from flame.
Beautiful is insomnia, as I watch over Your heaven
With my eyes, until the stars disappear
And until Your light touches the window of my home.
Beautiful is the night: The hooting of owls
And the sound of car horns from a distance
The sighs of patients, a mother retelling
Tales of her forefathers to her child.
The forests of a sleepless night; the clouds
As they veil the face of heaven
And uncover it from under the moon.
And if Job cried out, he would say:
“For You is praise, O One who hurls fate,
And O One Who, after that, decrees the cure!”

If you are tested, instead of thinking “This shouldn’t be happening to me!”, consider it an opportunity to practice patience and a call to improve yourself. We never grow if we constantly turn our backs on our problems. Growth happens when we accept that this is exactly what we should be going through, this is God’s decree for us. If God wants, He can remove our difficulty in an instant. If we feel impatient and discontented, this is a clear sign that we are not close enough to God, that we are rejecting Him. We are, in effect, telling Him “We dislike this thing that You are doing to us O God and reject Your decree for us, we know better than You what should be happening to us, and this is not it.” You will meet many religious people who are stuck in this way of thinking. Their life’s difficulties, failures and missed opportunities are present in their minds and they blame God for not providing them with a better lot.

That is the state of a spiritually stagnant person. As for the best of the believers, they walk with God through life. They know He is in charge. They know that life’s difficulties are reminders from God that they should not put their trust in this world and that they should not expect to achieve perfect peace in it. Perfect peace is only achievable in the afterlife. Abdullah, son of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, asked his father one day:

"O Father, when will we ever achieve rest?"

His father looked him in the eye and said:

"With the first step we take into Paradise."

Rather than feeling discontented with life’s unsolvable problems, accept them and tell yourself that this is the fate that has been decreed for you. If you wish for a better fate, if you wish God to raise your status and remove the various indignities you suffer in life, ask Him to raise your status. Only He can help you. Ibn al-Qayyim says:

Whoever among the workers wishes to know his status in the eye of the King, then let him look at what jobs He gives him and with what He busies him.

If you want to have a better lot in life, if you want your life to be more meaningful and to contain fewer problems, then ask yourself whether you deserve it, whether you deserve to be given special treatment over the millions of people who are equally suffering. In reality, you want God to treat you as if you are special. Do you deserve such treatment? If you constantly turn your back on Him, if you only do the minimum He asks of you, if you never take refuge in Him and do not consider Him in charge, then you are giving Him no reason to treat you specially. If you want a higher status in life, become the type of person who deserves a higher status in life. Do your best to stay close to Him. You should ask Him for these five things in every prayer you pray (during prostration) (I have written my favorite Arabic prayer words that I say for these purposes):

  • To forgive your sins. Allahumma innaka affuwwun tuhibbul afwa faafu anni (O God, you are the Most Forgiving, and You love forgiveness, so forgive me.)
  • To guide you and increase your knowledge and wisdom. Allahumma zidni ilman wahdini li aqraba min haza rushdan (O God, increase me in knowledge and guide me to a better state of maturity than what I currently possibly)
  • To support you: Allahummanasurni wa anta khairun nasireen (O God, support me, and You are the best of supporters.)
  • To bless your time and works: Allahumma baarik fi aamali wa awqati (O God, bless my works and my times/moments.)
  • To make things easy for you: Allahumma yasir li amree (O God, make the matters of my life easy for me.)

As Muslims, the best source of guidance we have is the Quran. Always remember the saying of the famous Pakistani poet and scholar Muhammad Iqbal:

Of the things that had a profound effect on my life is an advice I heard from my father: "My son, read the Quran as if it was sent down specifically to you."

Make the Quran your guide in life and treat as if it was sent down to you this very moment. The Quran is not meant to be a reference that we leave on the shelf. It is meant to be a guide that is present with us through life. When you suffer difficulty and discontent, always go back to the Quran and it will teach you a new lesson every time if you persevere in reading it.

Difficulties are part of the design of our universe. If we want to mature and to be raised in status, instead of rejecting God’s decrees, we must accept them, embrace them and seek refuge and support only in Him. Only He can make things easy for us, help us mature, make our lives more meaningful and raise our status. And rather than expecting to achieve perfect peace in this life, we should accept its nature (that there can be no perfect peace in it), and we should instead put our hopes for our final rest in the afterlife.

The life of this world will never live up to our expectations. We always think if only we get this or that we will be so happy! But as soon we get there, we start to feel like we are back to square one. Life’s problems continue to haunt us. And there is no escape. There are elderly people who, having always rejected God’s decrees, continue to express anger at life for throwing problems and undignities in their faces. Do not be like them. Accept the nature of this world. If you want your life to be more meaningful, if you want your difficulties to raise you rather than degrade you, ask God to raise your status, and do what is necessary to please Him and convince Him that you deserve a better lot in life.