According to the Holy Quran and other religious sources, a committed and undertaking art is one that steers man towards worship of the One God. If we go through written history, we shall find out that the arts of sculpting and painting have not been generally in the situation in which they are now, and it is for the same reason that this art has been reproved in Islam.
Now-a-days, considering the changes, developments and the different approaches of those involved in these arts, some religious scholars have given new rulings about the permissibility or lawfulness of sculpting in special circumstances. However, since there is no consensus in this regard, some scholars do not consider circumstantial changes to be a sufficient reason for lawfulness of sculpting. Hence, sculpting is neither fully restricted nor is it allowed to develop and expand in a widespread and overwhelming manner.
Before answering the above question, it is necessary to mention that the Quran suffices to providing general guidelines and standards. The explanation of those generalities has been entrusted to the Prophet (S) and other Infallibles (A.S.). For example, it can be understood through the Quran that salaat (prayer) is obligatory but nothing specifically has been mentioned in the Quran about the number of the units (rak’ats) of the prayers. Thus, the specific details concerning the prayers have to be found in or obtained from the prophetic traditions. Accordingly, emphasis on a response which is based exclusively on the Qur'an is not in accordance with the principles of religious study. That is why we shall now take up the discussion concerning the question with reliance on both the Quran and the guidelines of the Holy Prophet (S) and Infallibles (A.S.):
In this context, the different applications of the sculpture industry should be taken into consideration, and at the same time we must focus our attention on the position of Islam in regard to this issue. Finally, we draw a conclusion from what has been discussed and evaluated. In this connection, sculpting from a value-based perspective is divided into three general categories:
1. Sculpting for a negative purpose: That is to say the object of making statues is to promote a false and religiously offensive cause, one that is neither allowed by Islam nor by any other divine schools. Here are a few examples:
A) A sculptor makes a statue and introduces it to others as a deity, or as a partner of the One God calling on people to worship it. God, the Exalted, reprimands and reproaches people who because of ignorance are deceived into worshipping a false god or into running after demon manifestations believing these manifestations are of God: “Do you worship that which you (yourselves) carve?” Of course, it is possible that people like Samiri might make use of jugglery in making statues to deceive and mislead people who have distanced themselves from God due to sinning. Obviously, today the sculpture industry is not used for this purpose except among tribes in remote areas.
B) In the history of mankind, we come across people who benefited from various arts and industries including sculpture, magic, juggling etc. to demonstrate their power and consider themselves as equal to the One God. Even some of the Egyptian pharaohs are considered to be among them. They built pyramids and giant statues like Great Sphinx “Abu al-Hawl”. They also employed magicians and sorcerers and went too far to the extent that normal people like Pharaoh, in the time of Moses, claimed to be a deity. In other words, they were arguing that if God introduced man and other creatures as a sign of His power, they could also, like Him, carve giant, beautiful and marvelous statues. They inquired if there was any difference between them and God.
It seems that a number of the traditions which does not forbid sculpting and statuary refer to sculptors from this category. For example, traditions like “whoever makes a sculpture, God will, on the Day of Resurrection, tell him to blow spirit into it” and “whoever makes a sculpture, he goes into a war with God” are apparently addressed to people who considered themselves as rivals to God and endeavored, with these things, to overshadow God’s creations!
Fortunately, today mankind has reached a level of knowledge and precise understanding about the nature of creation that he does not consider the most advanced robots as anything equal to God let alone lifeless and motionless statues. Therefore, for the time the sculpture industry cannot be seen as an endeavor to confront God’s creation.
C) As well, another group of individuals can be imagined who have reached the conclusion that it is not possible to combat religiosity through the two foregoing methods but they can, by magnifying certain things and resorting to certain actions such as storytelling, sculpting etc, entertain people and make them tend to certain things in a bid to destroy all opportunities and make them desist from their relationship with God and engage in activities which even though may not be haraam but would also be of no avail to them. During the time of the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him and his family, when people generally had directed their attention to the Quran and its valuable concepts, some storytellers were telling people the tale of Rustam and Esfandyar. They intended to distract people’s mind from the Quran. God, the Exalted, reproved this action of theirs by sending down the following verse:
“But there are, among men, those who purchase idle tales, without knowledge (or meaning), to mislead (men) from the Path of Allah and throw ridicule (on the Path): for such there will be a Humiliating Penalty.”
D) Finally, sometimes a statue is made to serve as a symbol of a superstitious belief or of something which in reality does not exist.
Following the conquest of Makkah, the Holy Prophet (S) saw a statue of Ibrahim and Ismail (peace be upon them) in Ka’bah with their hands holding bowls named Azlām as mentioned in verse 3 of Sura al-Maedah. The people of the time of ignorance had a superstitious belief about them. However, after the Prophet (S) saw these statues, he became angry and said: “May God perish the designers of these statues. I swear that they also know that these two prophets never took such an action.”
It is pertinent to mention that the Prophet (S) before objecting the making of the sculptures and placing them in the House of God, directed his objections to the superstitious beliefs that the sculptors intend to promote and spread. A similar case can be seen today with sculptures which are made today and which aimed to prove an unproven historical event such as the holocaust. Obviously, the sacred religion of Islam will never approve of any arts that may be used for such purposes.
2. Sculpting for a positive purpose: In spite of the fact that in most cases there had been polytheistic objectives behind making statues, yet there are examples of statues made to serve a religious purpose. Here we will mention two examples:
A) If this art is permitted or even instructed by God and used as a means to combat polytheists. As some readers may know, during the time of Prophet Jesus, the sculpture industry enjoyed a boom with beautiful human statues made by sculptors of that time. The statues were so beautiful that they trapped the admiration of people. In order to prove the oneness of God and Him being the source and origin of all creatures, Prophet Jesus made some statues of birds and then, with God’s permission, he blew spirit in them. The bird statues turned into animate beings and started flying. This act of Prophet Jesus would send out an indirect message to the sculptors that if you are making sculptures I can also turn them into living beings but it is just a sign of my God’s power. I did not do it myself but it was God, the Almighty, Who made those statues alive.
We know that Jesus was not a sculptor but he did make statues with God’s permission. His act of making statue cannot be a license for making statues in a general manner except for when a prophet or an imam (divinely appointed leader) wants to repeat this miracle with God’s permission in which case, there is no problem in it. Hafiz, the great Iranian poet says:
فیض روح القدس ار باز مدد فرماید * دیگران هم بکنند آنچه مسیحا می کرد
Others can do by the grace of God what Christ (Messiah) would do.
B) As well, we can consider a kind of positive statuary whose aim is to respect religious elites and promote accepted divine goals.
In the first glance, perhaps we may come to the conclusion that there should not be any objection in statuary or sculptures with such objectives but unfortunately, if we go through the history, we find out that sculptures of this type, though made with a positive purpose in the beginning, but then people began to use it in a way such that it was not at all consistent with its primary positive objective. According to the analysis of one of the exegetes of the Holy Quran, “Excessive respect for the prophets and saints sometimes led some people to respect their statues. However, with the passage of time, these statues acquired an independent aspect and the respect also turned into worship.”
Such an analysis is derived from many narrations which have been passed on to us in this regard. It is for the same reason that many scholars do not allow sculpting even though there might be a positive purpose behind it.
3. Sculpting without a value-based perspective: Sometimes the arts are promoted without a value-based approach. In other words, the art is wanted for its own sake only as it can be presumed with other disciplines. For instance, sports can be used for different positive and negative purposes, and sometimes attention is focused on sports for the sake of sports.
Basically, since Islam is a value-based religion and promotes values, it does not endorse or approve of aimless behaviors, even though it may forbid it. Islam considers a faithful person’s life far more valuable than these aimless behaviors with which he may waste his life. Now pay a careful attention to the following two narrations:
First: A person asked Imam Sadiq (A.S.) about hunting for fun, the Imam replied him by saying that only he who went out hunting to earn his families livelihood was allowed to hunt, other people should not engage themselves in hunting because such useless activities will restrain the faithful from seeking divine reward.
Second: A man named Bukair sought the sixth Imam’s view about playing chess. The Imam (A.S.) replied: “A believer (Mumeen) has enough to do for this world and the hereafter so as not to go for futile activities!
If we look a bit carefully at these reports, we will come to the conclusion that the value of a believer’s life is much more than it should be spent with aimless conducts and activities even though there may not be any reason for their prohibition.
Obviously, the Holy Quran which describes believers as “those who remember Allah (always, and in prayers) standing, sitting” do not favor any actions which cause him to become oblivious of his Lord.
Having mentioned the Islamic perspective about statuary and sculpture in its various forms, we can now deal with the closing part of your question about why some Muslim scholars still frown up making sculptures. Why don’t they allow making statues and why are there few people engaging in statuary?
Those scholars who still insist on prohibition of sculpting and sculptures have their own arguments. Their arguments are based on the following introductions:
First introduction: There is no doubt that there are many reliable and authentic accounts on prohibition of making statues and painted images of animals.
Second introduction: Also, we are certain that one of the reasons of prohibition of making sculptures is to prevent Muslims from being drawn again to idolatry and polytheism. There are many traditions from the infallibles making reference to the same reason. Some of those traditions are the following:
1. A narrator asked Imam Sadiq (A.S.) about the rules regarding painting images of trees, the sun and the moon. Imam Sadiq (A.S.) answered that there was no objection, if the images were not those of animate beings.
2. Abu Basir says that he said to Imam Sadiq (A.S.): “We have carpets which we spread on the floor, and they have images on them, is there any problem?” Imam Sadiq (A.S.) answered that there was no objection in the carpet which is spread on the floor and which gets trampled by people but it is abominable to put up things with such images on walls and tabletops.
3. Muhammad bin Muslim says that he asked Imam Baqir (A.S.) if he could pray in a place with pictures in front of him. Imam Baqir (A.S.) said: “No, put a piece of cloth on the picture! If the picture is on your right or left side or behind you, or under your feet or above your head, there is no objection but if it is in the direction of Qibla, you must put a piece of cloth on it and offer prayers.
The foregoing traditions indicate that it is necessary to act in a way such that others should not be made to think that he is worshipping an image or respecting it. The main reason the traditions are forbidding sculpting is to eradicate the manifestations and expressions of idolatry.
Third introduction: Keeping in view that the main reason behind prohibition of making sculptures is to restrain people from returning to idolatry, we are certain that the said reason is the entire and perfect cause of prohibition. In fact, there might be some other reasons which may have caused prohibition of making sculptures of animate beings. For example, one reason might be that the prohibition is aimed to prevent people from engaging in useless or idle activities that might distract them from the right path or from remembering God, the Glorified. As was mentioned earlier, anything that diverts the attention from God to something else is not approved of by Islam.
Considering the three aforementioned introductions there is no likelihood of returning to idolatry which has been the main reason behind the prohibition of idolatry but it is very much possible that making sculptures might entail consequences that are not compatible with the ultimate goals and objectives of the religion. Moreover, this art is not so crucial to human life and if there is no such art in the Islamic society, the country will not be affected. In other words, the absence of such an art will not curb the progress and advancement of the country but if it is promoted extensively, it is likely that it may lead to some uncontrollable and unsupervised deviation in society. For this reason, some religious scholars are anxious about such matters. They exercise precaution saying that we must promote the Islamic culture and art through more reliable means rather than using an industry which was once extremely frowned upon by religious leaders.
In any case, we must note that today with reliance on religious sources and the new attitude towards today’s world, the subject of statuary and sculpting is once again being studied and scrutinized by scholars. For this reason, in a letter dated 10 – 8 1367 (31 Oct 1988) and which had been known as “brotherhood manifest” considered sculpting among the subjects that needed to be studied and discussed by experts. Some contemporary scholars having gone through religious sources have doubted the general prohibition of making sculptures but there are many other jurisprudents including the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei who are of the view that the arguments or proofs for prohibition of sculpting are general to the extent that it is not easy to allow sculpting so easily.
Considering the discrepancies existing in this regard among the religious scholars, we can now say that the reason why the limited sculpting industry is not restricted is because sculpting cannot be looked at as wine, alcoholic drinks and gambling which religious scholars entertain no doubt that they are forbidden. Therefore, there is no reason to prevent sculptors from making statutes which according to some jurists are absolutely and categorically forbidden.
It goes without saying that making sculptures even with a positive purpose would not be accepted by some religious scholars. Moreover, statuary is an art or industry whose absence in society will not leave a serious impact on it. Hence, widespread use of this industry is not in the interest of the Islamic society.
We hope you have got your questions answered with the above explanations. In case, you have any ambiguity in this regard, you can email us your question with precise details and we will send you an answer as soon as we can.
 - Safaat, 95, أ تعبدون ما تنحتون
 - Al-A’raf, 148; Taha, 88, Al-Baqara,93.
 - Al-Naze’at, 24, Zukhruf, 51.
 - Hurr Amili, Muhammad bin Al-Hasan, Wasail al-Shi’ah, vol.17, pg. 297, hadith 22574, Aalulbayt Institute, Qom, 1409 A.H.
 - Noori, Mirza Hasan, Mustadrak al-Wasail, vol.3, pg. 454, hadith 3976, Aalulbayt Institute, Qom, 1408 A.H.
 - Tabarsi, Fadhl bin al-Hasan, Majma’ul Bayan fi Tafsir al-Quran, vol.8, pg. 490, under verse 6 of Sura Luqman, Nasir Khosro Publications, Tehran, 1372 (1993), 3rd edition.
 - Ibn Manzoor, Lesan al-Arab, vol. 12, pg. 479.
 - Aal-e Imran, 49; al-Maedah, 110.
 - Makarem Shirazi, Naser, Tafsir Namunah, vol.19, p.367, Dar al-Kutub al-Islamiyah, Tehran, 1374 (1995).
 - Majlisi, Muhammad Baqir, Behar al-Anwar, vol.3, p. 248, Al-Wafa Institute, Beirut, 1404 A.H.
 - Nooori, Mirza Hussein, Mustadrak al-Wasail, vol.6, pg. 522-523, hadith 7441.
 - Majlisi, Muhammad Baqir, Behar al-Anwar, vol.76, 230, hadith 2.
 - wasail al-Shi’ah, vol.17, p. 296, hadith 22571.
 - Ibid, vol.17, p.296, hadith 22572
 -Ibid, vo.5, p. 170, hadith 6243.
 - In this regard refer to the website to find relevant reasons and fatwa.
 - Sahifa-e Imam, vol.21, p. 176 – 177.
 - Tabrizi, Jawad, Irshad al-Talib Ela Ta’liq Alaa al-Makasib, vol.1, pg. 123, Ismailiyan Institute, Qom, 3rd edition, 1416 A.H.