Gallery of reconstructed portraits

Created: 2004
Published: 2004

The reconstructed portrait of Muhammad


Important: Muslims who might feel offended by the idea of their prophet being depicted are kindly requested to ignore the image and read the statement further on.

As a businessman and the new spouse of a wealthy widow, Muhammad (*570–†632 ce, his full name was ‘Abu al-Qasim Muhammad ibn Abd Allah ibn Abd al-Muttalib ibn Hashim’) was held in high esteem by the population of his residence Mecca — a small town in a desert that was inhabited by Arab nomads. He arranged trade caravans and he was known as ‘al-Amin’ (= ‘The Trustworthy One’). His life changed dramatically when he, forty years of age, heard a supernatural voice telling him that, from that moment on, he would be the messenger of God. Muhammad took this task seriously and he proclaimed new religious rules, which he — according to his own saying — received from God. Eased by family ties, Muhammad soon gathered a small group of supporters. They believed in complete surrender (Islam) to the will of God, they exclusively accepted that one God, and they acknowledged Muhammad as God's last prophet. As his following grew, conflicts arose with the ruling class of Mecca. Muhammad was forced to make his exit (hijrah) to the town of Yathrib — from then on Madinat al-Nabi (= ‘City of the Prophet’) or simply Medina — there he developed from a spiritual leader into an army commander and statesman, he suppressed all opposition (occasionally by brute force), and he eventually succeeded in reconquering Mecca. By the time of his death, Muhammad already controlled most of the Arabian Peninsula, meanwhile struggling violently with both the Persian and the Eastern Roman Empire. His successors expanded the Islamic realm even further, until it extended from Spain, through North Africa, Southwest and Central Asia, to India. It would constitute the foundation of one of the most important world religions. Muhammad's proclamation (Quran) and his doings (sunnah) still determine everyday life of millions of Muslims. Palm and Hourani illustrate the role of Muhammad and his effect on the history of the Arabs after him.

How should we picture the appearance of Muhammad? The Quran doesn't say much about Muhammad personally, but many ahadith (= ‘traditions’; plural of hadith) contain details from his life. The hadith collections of al-Bukhari and al-Muslim from the ninth century ce are the most authoritative ones. In these Muhammad appears as a man of average height, with broad shoulders and half-long hair. He had a somewhat square face with large, reddish eyes. He wore a full, black beard, in which only few grey hairs could be found, without a moustache. At the time, the simplest clothing consisted of a sheet round the waist (izar) and a sheet wrapped round the upper body (rida), with sandals. But the combination of loose trousers (sirwal) and a shirt with sleeves (qamis) was also possible. In addition to that Muhammad often wore a red cloak with tight, long sleeves (jubbah), a black turban (imamah) of which the end hung loose, and leather boots (khuff). A cloak or sheet never reached below halfway the shins. On the little finger of his right hand Muhammad wore a silver signet ring, with the stone turned towards the palm of his hand. Finally, on his back, between his shoulders, he had a mole “the size of a pigeon's egg”.

Which style was generally accepted at the time of Muhammad? Well, Muhammad personally banned all images of humans or animals: “Those who make these images will be punished on the Day of Resurrection, and they will be told: ‘Give life to what you have made!’” (hadith narrated by Abd Allah ibn Umar; al-Bukhari, volume 7, book 72, no. 835). Despite this clear warning, the walls and ceilings of the Qusayr Amrah baths in present-day Jordan were decorated about 715 ce with images of humans and animals. The frescos have now been severely damaged, but their style can still be recognized. The images consist of coarse drawings, with round lines and subtle shades between light and dark to suggest volume. The main colours are beige, red, blue, and black. Occasionally, depth is attained with shadows and clumsy perspective in the scenery. The representations seem to be naive imitations of more realistic (perhaps Eastern Roman) examples. The depicted human bodies seem heavy and they are far less elegant than some of the representations of animals. The fact that Muhammad (or God) would have disapproved of these images, seemingly was no impediment to the client and painters of these frescos. Perhaps the non-religious function of the building had something to do with that. Nevertheless, Qusayr Amrah has remained an exception. From the first centuries of Islam no other examples of such images are known. Therefore, a contemporary portrait of Muhammad could only have been made by a non-Muslim.

The following details were included in the reconstructed portrait. Muhammad was depicted dressed in a jubbah, with an imamah, khuff, and with other external features that are mentioned in the ahadith of al-Bukhari and al-Muslim. To get an idea of what the clothes roughly looked like, the manuscript illuminations of al-Wasiti from the thirteenth century ce were consulted as well. These are some of the earliest known images of Arab dress and, in general, they correspond to the descriptions from the ahadith (though the sleeves are more loose and the cloaks are slightly longer). The camel or dromedary in the background is a copy of an image from Qusayr Amrah. It's symbolic of the original profession of Muhammad — transportation entrepreneur.

Do you have a suggestion or remark concerning this reconstruction? All comments are much appreciated. In july 2004 some Muslims have explained their sincere, religious objections to the idea of depicting their prophet. After a constructive discussion with them, I drew up the following statement:

Statement: The portrait of Muhammad wasn't made to offend or harm anyone. Its purpose is neither worship, nor insult. Those who believe that it's forbidden or inappropriate to depict Muhammad can remain loyal to their faith by disregarding the image altogether. The image isn't forced on anyone and there's no obligation to accept it as an authentic portrait. Others need not share the afore-mentioned beliefs and need not reject the image. They shouldn't be denied the opportunity to examine and to appreciate it. Finally, it must be stressed that, though based on historical sources, the image was produced from human imagination.


Alternatives for ‘Muhammad’: Mahoma / Moehammad / Mohammed / Mohamet / Mohammad.

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