This was a question that was recently asked on one of our discussion pages here at Emory, I was hoping for your insight:
Some Munafiquin would hold idols under their arms while making salat. The prophet forbade this. Would a tatoo be a similar reverence of something other than Allah? On a similar note, I’ve heard the prophet forbade having pictures in the masjid and pictures of himself made at all. Something to do with the arrogance of creation or something like that. Thus, many scholars say that you shouldn’t decorate yourself with pictures or pictured clothing as it weakens/invalidates salat.
The Prophet (pbuh) forbade holding idols under the arms while offering prayers because idols symbolized polytheism, which Islam came to abolish. The prayers were for Allah, while the hypocrites by holding idols under their arms during prayers revealed their hypocrisy. But a tattoo will not be a similar reverence of something other than Allah, if it does not depict something which is cloistered in divinity or is considered sacred by a people. For instance, The Last Supper (famous painting of Jesus Christ and His disciples) or the Fasting Buddha are great works of art, it is desirable that they remain in museums for people to see and appreciate as works of art. It is necessary to avoid adorning the walls of ones’ house or ones’ body with such sacred images, even though one does not intend to give reverence to them, because of the fact that the structure of Islam is built upon Tawheed (oneness of Allah). Slightest of shift in this basic belief brings the whole structure tumbling down to the ground. So this sensitive issue demands that any visual form which can create any kind of similarity between a Muslim and a Non-Muslim, even though the Muslim does not intend to do it but people might think otherwise, should be discarded. Thus, it is not the visual form itself but its nature that makes it forbidden. All other kinds of tattoos, excluding the above mentioned ones, can be used. In recent times the concept of images has changed drastically, as today images are used for other creative and constructive purposes as well.
However, an important thing which should be kept in mind is that tattooing ones body itself is not a desirable act. In fact all such practices, which distort the nature on which Allah has created human beings, are disliked by Islam, because Islam is the Deen-i-Fitrat which urges people to appreciate and preserve the nature on which Allah has created them. So even if one wants some part of ones body tattooed, it is recommended that instead of pricking and leaving a permanent impression one should use a temporary kind of tattoo which can be washed afterwards.
As for the particular narrative you have mentioned, it should also be understood in the light of above mentioned facts. The Prophet (pbuh) forbade having pictures in the mosque because it was an idolatrous practice that is to symbolize God in the form of an image or idol at the place of worship. The mosque is the place for worshipping Allah whose form and appearance is beyond anyone’s comprehension. Any depiction of Him would not have been His image but of some imaginary being. The Prophet (pbuh) also forbade any pictures of himself made at all because of the danger that his pictures might become sacred objects and hence create a similarity between Muslims and idolaters. These incidents have nothing to do with the arrogance of creation but simply to keep Islam from any signs of idolatry. So if one is wearing clothes with sacred pictures on them, then although it will not weaken/invalidate prayers, but it would be desirable to refrain from such clothes during prayers by the same analogy as drawn above in the case of tattoos.
I hope this explanation satisfies you. However, this is only my opinion on this particular issue and not the Shariah, as the Shariah is silent as far as the position of images, other than those which are worshipped or considered sacred, is concerned. I admit any chance of mistake in forming this opinion and open to other points of view if they are based on stronger reasons. Please get back if any part of this explanation is still unclear. May Allah guide us all towards the right path.
Note: This response is written by Mr. Amar Ellahi Lone