FAQs & Fatwas Hajj Hot Topics

Know Thy Self: Opinion on Hajj Selfies by Suhaib Webb

"Malcolm X at Prayer," Richard Saunders/Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

“Malcolm X at Prayer,” Richard Saunders/Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Question:

It seems every week there is a new internet conflict. Over the last few days, people criticized me for posting my Hajj selfies. What is your opinion about this?

Answer:

That is a sad question, and I find it strange that people have the time to look at other people’s pictures and criticize them. With that being said, I will address this issue from four perspectives:

  1. Are pictures forbidden?
  2. Principles for understanding texts.
  3. The importance of collective good.
  4. Intentions should be left to Allah alone.

Are Pictures Forbidden?

Some may censure others from taking pictures because they believe that taking pictures is forbidden, invoking the “consensus” of the scholars. While it’s an opinion held by some scholars, there is certainly no consensus that taking pictures is forbidden. Al-Azār and other religious bodies, as well as the bulk of scholars, consider pictures allowable, as long as the picture does not present something evil.

Misuse of a Famous Text

Folks may mention the prophetic tradition in which he ﷺ (peace be upon him) curses those who “mold idols.” That is understandable because the word for idol making and the word for photography are the same in Arabic (taswīr). However, their meanings are different. During the time of the Prophet, taswīr meant to mold idols. Today, it means photography. Sadly, this reflects a person’s ignorance of the principles for iftā (the craft of issuing fatwa), the rules for interpreting texts, and his/her knowledge of Arabic.

An Important Axiom and Its Application

One of the most important axioms that guide the craft of issuing a ruling is, “Concern is given to the meaning, not the name.” This axiom has four applications:

  1. Something declared harām (unlawful) in the Prophet’s lifetime stays forbidden, even if someone changes its name. For that reason, the Prophet ﷺ said, “Towards the end of time, a group from my community will seek to make alcohol permissible, calling it by a different name.” Thus, even though later generations changed the name, it is still forbidden because of its substance. The name is a non-factor!
  2. Something that was permissible during the time of the Prophet ﷺ then later generations gave it a name of something forbidden. That stays permissible, because concern is for the substance, not the name.
  3. Something unknown during the life of the Prophet ﷺ, if understood to be forbidden by the scholars, stays forbidden even if later generations named it after something permissible.
  4. Something that was not known during the time of the Prophet ﷺ that is permissible remains as such, even if later generations named it after something forbidden. An example of this would be qahwā (coffee) which was originally the name for an ancient intoxicant.

Photography falls under the fourth category because it did not exist during the time of the Prophet ﷺ. Using statements of the Prophet ﷺ as if they are referring to what is understood today as meaning taswīr is equivalent to putting meanings in the mouth of the Prophet ﷺ!

An Example That Illustrates this Error

In the twelfth chapter of the Qur’an, the word sayyārah is found. Today, the word siyyārah means a car. At the time of revelation, it meant travelers.

“And there came a company of travelers; then they sent their water drawer, and he let down his bucket. He said, “Good news! Here is a boy.” And they concealed him, [taking him] as merchandise, and Allah knew of what they did.” (Qur’an, 12:19

Based on the logic of those who take the word of the Prophet ﷺ used for idol making to imply its contemporary meaning of photography, the above verse would be interpreted as:

“And there came a “Lexus, BMW, Mercedes (any car)“; then they sent their water drawer..”

Shaykh Muhammad al-Shanqiti wrote “Photography did not exist during the era of the Prophet ﷺ or the great scholars of Islamic Jurisprudence. It became an issue afterwards. Thus, the sacred texts that the word taswīr appears do not imply what we know today as photography. That, because the word taswīr used during the Prophet’s time implied what it meant in that context: idols made of stone, clay, wood or drawn by hand. Thus, whoever explains the word used by the Prophet to mean photography has interpreted the sacred texts without their correct meanings, contexts and has spoken about Allah without knowledge.”

Another Axiom: A Conflicting Purposes Renders Analogy Problematic

One of the major sources of Islamic Law is qiyās. Qiyās was defined by al-Qādi al-Baydāwi as, “Connecting an act that has no ruling, to an act from the scared sources that has a ruling, because of a shared purpose.” What is important to us is the last part of his definition, “a shared purpose.” This means that if the traits are different, then the ruling from the sacred sources cannot be matched to the act that has no ruling. In the case of taswīr (idol making), we find that the reasoning for its forbiddance during the time of the Prophet ﷺ was “emulating (mudāha) creation,” and in other narratives, for explicit forms of worship. When we think of photography today, that is not its purpose. In fact, the general purpose of photography is to remember and recall things. Thus, this is an illogical analogy for which a ruling is not applied. 

The Name is Debatable

Shaykh ‘Abdūl Halīm Mahmūd stated that photography should not be called taswīr but “capturing an image,” because photography is “capturing light, not molding an image from clay or drawing one.”

Hajj Selfies

As for Hajj selfies, then there is nothing wrong because they are a form of remembrance of good: worshiping Allah alone, visiting scared places, love and fraternity, and acts of worship. 

An axiom states that “Anything that does not contradict the sacred law and helps a person remember God is commendable.”

Allah says, “And we certainly sent Moses with our signs, [saying], ‘bring your people from the darkness to the light and remind them of the days of God.’” (Qur’an 14:5)

A cursory glance at the reliable works of Qur’anic tafsīr (exegesis) shows that scholars from the earliest days consider this verse an encouragement to recall God’s grace and his blessing. That was the opinion of Ibn ‘Abbās, Sufyān Imām Mālik and others.

Do Not Judge People’s Intentions

In that vein, taking pictures of sacred moments is commendable as long as a person’s intention is correct. The job of the rest of the community is to assume the best and encourage good. While pictures are a debatable act, questioning a person’s intention, or having an evil assumption about a person doing good is highly repugnant.

Finally, these images are important tools for da`wah (calling to Islam) to be shared with neighbors, co-workers and friends. In an age where there are so many bad images of Islam everywhere, I find it astounding that folks would blame positive efforts that humanize our community and our acts of worship.

Allah knows best,
Suhaib Webb

About the author

Suhaib Webb

Suhaib Webb

Suhaib Webb is a contemporary American-Muslim educator, activist, and lecturer. His work bridges classical and contemporary Islamic thought, addressing issues of cultural, social and political relevance to Muslims in the West. After converting to Islam in 1992, Webb left his career in the music industry to pursue his passion in education. He earned a Bachelor’s in Education from the University of Central Oklahoma and received intensive private training in the Islamic Sciences under a renowned Muslim Scholar of Senegalese descent. Webb was hired as the Imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, where he gave khutbas (sermons), taught religious classes, and provided counselling to families and young people; he also served as an Imam and resident scholar in communities across the U.S.

From 2004-2010, Suhaib Webb studied at the world’s preeminent Islamic institution of learning, Al-Azhar University, in the College of Shari`ah. During this time, after several years of studying the Arabic Language and the Islamic legal tradition, he also served as the head of the English Translation Department at Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah.

Outside of his studies at Al-Azhar, Suhaib Webb completed the memorization of the Quran in the city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia. He has been granted numerous traditional teaching licenses (ijazat), adhering to centuries-old Islamic scholarly practice of ensuring the highest standards of scholarship. Webb was named one of the 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in 2010.

12 Comments

  • great article thanks for clarifying this issue,it’s something that never made sense to me but many people around me growing up followed the opinion that, for example having a photo of your family as a keepsake is haram, or even photos used for educational purposes. At the very least there should be no eyes. Can someone explain to me about why pictures, cuddly toys etc are allowed as long as there’s no eyes? (I had several blind teddy bears as a child, kinda scary!). also the thing about how you can’t pray if there are ant pictures (especially with eyes) in the room, in fact you shouldn’t have any pictures with animate objects, (even silhouettes) on display as they will scare away the angels. Is there any evidence for all this?

    • The evidence for not keeping pictures hung up on display or a dog in ones house are found in hadith.

      Abu Talha reported Allaah’s Prophet (sallAllaahu alayhi wa sallam) having said: Angels do not enter a house in which there is a dog or a picture. ( reported in Sahih Muslim, book # 024, hadith 5249)

      A’isha reported that Gabriel (peace be upon him) made a promise with Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) to come at a definite hour; that hour came but he did not visit him. And there was in his hand (in the hand of Allah’s Apostle) a staff. He threw it from his hand and said: Never has Allah or His messengers (angels) ever broken their promise. Then he cast a glance (and by chance) found a puppy under his cot and said: ‘A’isha, when did this Dog enter here? She said: BY Allah, I don’t know He then commanded and it was turned out. Then Gabriel came and Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) said to him: You promised me and I waited for you. but you did not come, whereupon he said: It was the Dog in your house which prevented me (to come), for we (angels) do not enter a house in which there is a Dog or a picture. (Sahih Muslim, Book #024, Hadith #5246)

      • It still doesn’t explain the eyes thing though. And I wonder what is the word translated as ‘picture’ – what kind of picture? any picture? people pictures? distracting pictures? painting/photo/tapestry/needlework/etc. all counts?

  • I appreciate the legal ruling HajjSelfies is not Haram, but just feel personally, if it’s a sacred thing which action you value highly, you’d be present in the moment and also aware that others would be seeking the same, so taking selfies seems just a little frivolous action to me. …maybe i’m just old fashioned, but I really wish when inshaaAllah go, this selfie fad will be “uncool”.

    • Assalamalaykum

      I feel the same that this action could be a bit frivolous, especially if an entire thick album is created instead of just a few pictures here and there during a stay where time is limited & precious.

      This selfie thing can actually be distracting to others which I recently experienced from my visit, more so when the crowds are huge & multiple people are lining up to take a selfie proving to be an obstacle & source of nuisance for others in the tawaf or sa’ee area. What I ve seen many times are those taking selfies are sometimes inconsiderate of others, either posing beside strangers praying, making dua which could be be a source of unwanted distraction if the person is snapping multiple photos in the same position.

  • Thanks for the article. May I know the Arabic word used during the prophet’s (PBUH) time for drawing pictures (on paper, stones, leaves)?

  • I will really be grateful. if. Ustaz shuaib can answer my question .You said Something that was not known during the time of the
    Prophet ﷺ that is permissible remains as such, even if
    later generations named it after something forbidden.
    An example of this would be qahwā (coffee) which
    was originally the name for an ancient intoxicant. I agree. with you that photography did not. exist. during the prophet’s era. that is the condition. the second being. that. this. thing should be. permissible now my question. is there a consensus among the ulama. on it permissibility. because you bought the example. of .coffee. it was not present. in the. Arabian. peninsula. during. the prophet era. but it was in other part it is equivalent. to the tea that the Arab drink and there is a consensus. on it. secondly you said
    we find that the reasoning for its forbiddance
    during the time of the Prophet ﷺ was “emulating ( mudāha)
    creation,” and in other narratives, for explicit forms of
    worship I don’t know about America but here. in Nigeria. people are committing. shrik by calling. on .these dead sheik. to help them there is an Hadith that. came to my mind where the prophet said. Taqwa is leaving what is permissible because of the fear of committing what has been made harm. Although. it’s permissibility. is .still debatable

  • Will our respected Imam consider the hindrance that such selfies cause to people in hajj? For example people taking selfies when there is crowding, leads to a build up of crowds and hazardous situations. Surely situations that lead to potential harm to oneself or others is not Islamically good?
    Furthermore what is the link between selfies at hajj and the nafs? Shaykh Hamza Yusuf recently has severely criticised the selfies as a sickness of the nafs.
    And what is the link between selfies and materialism?

    • what ever goes wrong during hajj by different people cannot be justified but it doesn’t mean that two wrong can make a single right. You cant say ” i think this is right or i dont see any thing wrong with it”.

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