To many Muslims, any image of the prophet Muhammad is sacrilegious, but the ban has not always been absolute and there is a small but rich tradition of devotional Islamic art going back more than seven centuries that does depict God’s messenger. It began with exquisite miniatures from the 13th century, scholars say. Commissioned from Muslim artists by the rich and powerful of their day, they show almost every episode of Muhammad’s life as recounted in the Qur’an and other texts, from birth to death and ascension into heaven.
Intended as private aids to devotion and prayer, these detailed scenes were made for both Sunni and Shia worshippers, and surviving examples can be found in dozens of major museum and library collections.
They also laid the foundations for a popular, if minority, tradition of devotional and inspirational images that still exists today, from icons cherished in homes to a five-storey government-commissioned mural in the heart of Tehran and even to revolutionary street art in Cairo – although the prophet’s face is obscured in both those public drawings.