While some Muslims were outraged by a magazine printing cartoon pictures of Muhammad, we have to step back and calmly ask, are pictures of Muhammad really forbidden in Islam? – the answer might surprise you.
Numerous passages in the Qur’an prohibit idolatry, and worshipping statues or pictures, but there is not even single verse in the Qur’an that explicitly or implicitly says not to have any pictures of Muhammad. This bears repeating: There is not a single verse in the Qur’an that prohibits making or having pictures of Muhammad or people or animals or trees. In fact, there are some verses in the Qur’an which mention images in a positive context and which therefore presuppose that some statues or images were approved by God, see the article Muhammad and Images.
However, the vast majority of Muslims are Sunni Muslims, who regard six authorized collections of hadiths as the highest written authority in Islam after the Qur’an. The hadiths are records, often very detailed, of what Muhammad taught and did. We give multiple quotations to show that these teachings are not confined to just one writer/collector, but are spread throughout the different hadith collections.
Where multiple trustworthy hadiths agree, Sunni Muslims will take this as binding. In other words, people today are kicked out of Islam, or even killed based on the hadiths.
Pictures of Muhammad are “not exactly” forbidden in the hadiths either. The hadiths do not single out Muhammad’s picture. Rather, in the hadith we find the prohibition of all pictures of people or animals, which would include pictures from a camera.
For example, Sahih Muslim vol.3 no.5268 (p.1160) says, “Ibn ‘Umar reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) having said: Those who paint pictures would be punished on the Day of Resurrection and it would be said to them: Breathe soul into what you have created.2519”
Notice that the prohibition was not just against idolators who made pictures, or even Muslims who made pictures for other reasons, but for anyone who made pictures.
Sahih Muslim vol.3 no.5271 (p.1161) gives a little more detail: “This hadith has been reported on the authority of Abu Mu’awiya though another chain of transmitters (and the words are): ‘Verily the most grievously tormented people amongst the denizens [inhabitants] of Hell on the Day of Resurrection would be the painters of pictures.2520…”
“Narrated ‘Aisha: Allah’s Apostle said, ‘The painter of these pictures will be punished on the Day of Resurrection, and it will be said to them, Make alive what you have created.’” Bukhari vol.9 book 93 no.646 p.487. no.647 p.487 is the same except it is narrated by Ibn ‘Umar.
No pictures of people or animals according to Bukhari vol.4 book 54 no.447-450 p.297-299.
Conclusion: It is clear that the hadiths prohibit pictures of animals or people, especially in homes. There is no focus on pictures of Muhammad per se. All pictures of people and animals are forbidden. It is a completely general prohibition.