What Did Muhammad Look Like?
Christianity has no scruples about presenting images of Jesus Christ and other revered figures within the religion.
In fact, Christianity was the driving force behind 2000 years of artistic innovation, with some of the finest paintings of all time showing Christ’s face. This is in stark contrast to Islam.
Barring a brief period immediately following Muhammad’s death, Islam has largely frowned upon the production of anything bearing Muhammad’s image. In recent years, attempts by the film and television industry to depict Muhammad, generally in a disrespectful manner, have caused much controversy.
This controversy has, in turn, made Islam’s ban on paintings and drawings of Muhammad one of the religion’s most famous (or infamous) teachings.
But why exactly does Islam forbid depictions of Muhammad? Moreover, if Muslims are not permitted to draw or paint Muhammad, how are they supposed to recognize their Prophet on the Day of Judgment? We’re going to be discussing these things and more in today’s article.
Why Does Islam Forbid Depictions of Muhammad?
Muslims hold steadfastly to the belief that Muhammad should not be depicted in art. However, many of them don’t fully understand why depictions of the Prophet were outlawed in the first place.
Contrary to what many Muslims and non-Muslims assume, there is nothing in the Quran which expressly forbids visual depictions of the Prophet Muhammad.
Some scholars have pointed to a number of passages which seem to suggest readers should avoid drawing and painting the Prophet, but there is nothing so concrete one could base doctrine upon it.
Most of the teachings relating to the ban can be found in the Hadith, a collection of sayings and actions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad.
A great many of the relevant Hadith seem to condemn drawing any living being, such as the following passage:
“Aisha said ‘The Messenger of Allah visited me after returning from a journey, and I had a shelf with a thin cloth curtain hanging over it and on which there were portraits.
When he saw it, the color of his face changed [because of anger] and he said, ‘O Aisha! The most grievous torment from Allah on the Day of Resurrection will be for those who imitate [Allah] in the act of His creation.
’’ Aisha said: ‘We tore it into pieces and made a cushion or two cushions out of that.’”
- Al-Bukhari and Muslim
This passage is noteworthy as it is the Prophet Muhammad himself who forbids paintings and drawings as opposed to Islamic authorities attempting to protect his image.
This Hadith places a blanket ban on physical depictions of any living creature and tells us that those who do not adhere to it are imposters and imitators of Allah.
It also warns that these artists will face “the most grievous torment from Allah” on the Day of Judgment, assuring us that Allah does not take the sin of divine imitation lightly. An additional Hadith tells us:
“Ibn Abbas said: ‘I heard the Messenger of Allah saying, ‘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 things.’”
- Al-Bukhari and Muslim
With these Hadith in mind, most Islamic artists focus on calligraphy and still-life drawings.
Virtually all avoid producing depictions of living creatures, be they the Messenger of Allah or otherwise.
So Where Do Descriptions of Muhammad Come From?
We are familiar with the appearance of Jesus – or, at least, what has come to be accepted as the appearance of Jesus – because of the many portraits and other works of art which depict him.
But if Islam forbids producing images of the Prophet Muhammad, how are Muslims supposed to recognize their leader on the Day of Judgment? Many descriptions of Muhammad were recorded in writing by those who had the honor of encountering him during his lifetime. The most reliable of these descriptions all agree on certain key aspects of the Prophet’s appearance, allowing us to consider them authentic. Several of these descriptions can be found in Ibn Sa’d’s Kitab al-Tabaqat. Additional descriptions of Muhammad can be found in Sahih al-Bukhari, collected by Muhammad al-Bukhari, as well as in Shamā’il al-Tirmidhi, by Al-Tirmidhi. We’ll be examining what these sources – along with other reliable texts- tell us about the appearance of the Prophet Muhammad in the following section.
The Appearance of the Prophet Muhammad
In our modern world, we have something of a tendency to associate height with power. Presidents, Prime Ministers, and so many other authority figures strive to be presented as taller than average. We have even heard rumors of some wearing lifts in their shoes in an attempt to appear in excess of six-foot! The Prophet Muhammad did not fall victim to such vanity. According to numerous descriptions from his close companions, Muhammad was of more or less average height. Likewise, the Prophet’s build was bulky, but not particularly muscular, nor was he excessively lean or fat. Speaking of Muhammad’s height and build, among other things, Shamā’il al-Tirmidhi tells us:
“Muhammad was middle-sized, did not have lank or crisp hair, was not fat, had a white circular face, wide black eyes, and long eye-lashes. When he walked, he walked as though he went down a declivity. He had the Seal of Prophecy between his shoulder blades.”
- Shamā’il al-Tirmidhi
There is more to this description of Muhammad, but let’s pause for a moment to discuss the final sentence in the above paragraph. Shamā’il al-Tirmidhi tells us that Muhammad had “the Seal of Prophecy between his shoulder blades”. This is something that is referenced in multiple descriptions of Muhammad, but what exactly is it? According to the most reliable sources, the Seal of Prophecy was a raised piece of skin between the shoulder blades of the Prophet and was comparable to a pigeon’s egg in size. On it were a number of stray hairs, while around it were a number of moles. Many of Muhammad’s earliest followers took this as a sign he had been marked by Allah to carry out a glorious work. Some even claimed that the name of Allah and/or the name of Muhammad himself were written in Arabic upon the Seal. There are no trustworthy reports to suggest this, however, and most contemporary Islamic scholars consider claims of miraculous writing on the Seal to be merely sensationalism from excited apostles.
After referencing the Seal of Prophecy, Shamā’il al-Tirmidhi goes on to tell us:
“His face shone like the moon. He was taller than middling stature but shorter than conspicuous tallness. He had thick, curly hair. The plaits of his hair were parted. His hair reached beyond the lobe of his ear. His complexion was azhar. Muhammad had a wide forehead, and fine, long, arched eyebrows which did not meet. Between his eyebrows there was a vein which distended when he was angry. The upper part of his nose was hooked; he was thick bearded, had smooth cheeks, a strong mouth, and his teeth were set apart. He had hair on his chest. His neck was like the neck of an ivory statue, with the purity of silver. Muhammad was proportionate, south, firm-gripped, even of belly and chest, broad-chested and broad-shouldered.
- Shamā’il al-Tirmidhi
The description of the Prophet Muhammad found in Shamā’il al-Tirmidhi is perhaps the most comprehensive one there is. It is also commendable fair and unbiased. As we discussed previously, this account of the Prophet’s appearance does not try to present him as taller or more powerful than he was. Interestingly, it also tells us that Muhammad’s nose was hooked. This is noteworthy as anti-semitism was widespread during the Prophet’s time, with a hooked nose often being considered a nefarious feature exclusive to the Jewish people. If Shamā’il al-Tirmidhi was designed to act as propaganda for the Prophet Muhammad, it would not have described him as possessing features which, at the time, were believed to be unfavorable and indicative of dishonesty. With this in mind, we can trust that Shamā’il al-Tirmidhi is speaking truthfully when it tells us about “azhar” complexion. Other first-hand descriptions of the Prophet Muhammad elaborate on his complexion, praising his good looks. Take, for example, the following account from Sahih al-Bukhari:
“The Prophet was of moderate height having broad shoulders and hair reaching his earlobes. Once I saw him in a red cloak and I had never seen anyone more handsome than him.”
- Sahih al-Bukhari
During Muhammad’s journey to Medina, he encountered a woman by the name of Umm Ma’bad. Like many who had the privilege of meeting Muhammad, Umm Ma’bad was extremely taken with the Prophet. She too praised his appearance, telling us:
“I saw a man, pure and clean, with a handsome face and a fine figure. He was not marred by a skinny body, nor was he overly small in the head and neck. He was graceful and elegant, with intensely black eyes and thick eyelashes. There was a huskiness in his voice, and his neck was long. His beard was thick, and his eyebrows were finely arched and joined together.”
- Umm Ma’bad
Umm Ma’bad also provided us with an in-depth description of Muhammad’s personality and other non-physical attributes. In the same text from which the above extract was taken, she tells us:
“When silent, he was grave and dignified, and when he spoke, glory rose up and overcame him. He was from afar the most beautiful of men and the most glorious, and close up he was the sweetest and the loveliest. He was sweet of speech and articulate, but not petty or trifling. His speech was a string of cascading pearls, measured so that none despaired of its length, and no eye challenged him because of brevity. In company he is like a branch between two other branches, but he is the most flourishing of the tree in appearance, and the loveliest in power. He has friends surrounding him, who listen to his words. If he commands, they obey implicitly, with eagerness and haste, without frown or complaint.”
- Umm Ma’bad
Umm Ma’bad’s vivid description of Muhammad’s personality is important as it comes immediately following a corroborated description of his appearance. We can reasonably believe, therefore, that her labeling of the Prophet as being “the sweetest and the loveliest”, as well as her tales about the beauty of his speech, are to be taken as accurate descriptions of his non-physical characteristics. While many descriptions of Muhammad focus either on his appearance or his personality, Umm Ma’bad’s description of the Prophet touches on both, even going so far as to note the personalities of those who surround him. Umm Ma’bad’s contributions to our modern understanding of Muhammad should not be overlooked as they complement other accepted accounts of the Prophet’s appearance and behavior to paint a (strictly metaphorical) portrait of the perfect religious leader.
Many descriptions of the Prophet Muhammad recall his beauty, often praising him as the most handsome of all men. However, we are also told that the Prophet was of more or less average height and build, which isn’t exactly what we would consider a component of “movie star good looks”. As such, these descriptions, when looked at as a whole, give us the image of a man who was attractive and alluring, but ultimately imperfect in his appearance. This is important as it reminds us that the appearance of a prophet is nowhere near as important as the message he preaches. As fun and as fascinating as it is to read and speculate about Muhammad’s appearance, we have far more to gain from focusing on the teachings of the Last Prophet than we do from dwelling on his fashion choices.