“What does Islam say about images?” It is a question that seeks to understand religion through unitary and static prescriptions.
Folio from the Majma’ al-tawarikh (Compendium of history) by Hafiz Abru (d.1430); recto: The Birth of Muhammad; verso: text, Wet nurse Halima and her husband, Harith, taking care of infant Muhammad, 1426. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery #F2005.5.
At its core, the question is about what is “Islamic.” Such a question is problematic because a community of believers decides what the religion means. Because human beings are involved, there will be differences. While there are boundaries for who a Muslim is, such as belief in monotheism, the prophethood of Muhammad, and observance of certain ritual and legal obligations, there is a lot more that Muslims believe that is not universally agreed upon, thus generating difference.
The confusion starts because Muhammad played two roles within his community—religious and spiritual authority and policy leader. Like earlier Abrahamic prophets, the combination of the two roles was expected and accepted.
As we move away from the time of Muhammad, he takes on different meanings for different Muslim communities and non-Muslim communities engage with Muhammad’s legacy, as well. We have memories of Muhammad that are preserved and represented in a variety of ways.