Is it permissible to take digital photographs of people without their permission? What is the ruling regarding keeping and circulating the images of pious people who have passed away? What about selfies in front of the Kaʿbah and in Masjid Nabawī in front of the grave of the Prophet ﷺ?
بسم الله الرحمن الرحیمAnswer
(1) Prohibition of images including digital images
The default position in relation to images of animate objects is prohibition irrespective of whether they are taken digitally or otherwise. The Prophet ﷺ said:
إن من أشد الناس عذابا يوم القيامة الذين يشبهون بخلق الله
“Indeed, from the people who will receive the severest punishment on the Day of Resurrection are those who imitate the creation of Allah” (Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, 2107)
إن أشد الناس عذابا عند الله يوم القيامة المصورون
“Indeed, the people who will receive the severest punishment from Allah on the Day of Resurrection will be the picture makers” (Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 5950).
إن البيت الذي فيه الصور لا تدخله الملائكة
“Indeed, the house in which there are images, the angels do not enter it” (Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 2105, 5181, 5961).
There are many other ḥadīths on this subject.
Images that are taken digitally are images linguistically, customarily and also from an Islamic perspective, similar to non-digital images. When images are taken digitally, they are described, labelled, used and treated as images similar to non-digital images. For example, some marketing firms use digital plasma screens for marketing their images whilst others simply print the digital images on paper and use billboards to display them. Viewers of the digital plasma screens would not think or say that the display is not featuring an image. Digital images possess permanence and they have an independent existence. They are transferable and can be stored in different ways. Technological advances such as 3D printing demonstrates the transferability and the various ways in which they are used as an image. It is clear that they have an independent existence and cannot be compared to a mirror reflection where there is no permanence or independent existence. Once a digital image is taken, it remains indefinitely unless it is deleted by some form of positive action. Furthermore, digital images resemble the original more accurately than non-digital images; one can argue that this adds to the prohibition. In short, there is no logical distinction between digital and non-digital images in so far as the Islamic ruling is concerned. Thus, the status of digital images is the same as non-digital images; both fall under the prohibition of taṣwīr (image-making).
Accordingly, unless there is a justifiable need, images of animate objects must be avoided altogether. This is the view of the majority of the jurists of the sub-continent including the current and former Muftis of Darul Uloom Deoband and Mazahirul Uloom Saharanpur as well as many Arab scholars such as Shaykh Muḥammad al-Amīn al-Shinqīṭī (d. 1393/1973) (Aḍwāʾ al-Bayān, 4: 298), Shaykh ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz ibn Bāz (d. 1420/1999), Shaykh Ḥusayn Āl al-Shaykh (b. 1384/1964-5) and Shaykh Nāṣir al-Fahd (b. 1389/1969) (al-Fīdyū al-Islāmī wa al-Fiḍʾāiyyāt al-Islāmiyyah). This is also the view of my teachers: muḥaddith al-ʿaṣr Shaykh Muḥammad Yūnus Jownpūrī (b. 1355/1936), Mufti Aḥmad Khānpūrī (b. 1365/1946), Mufti Shabbīr Aḥmad (b. 1376/1957), Mufti Muḥammad Ṭāhir Wādī (b. 1376/1957) and others.
It is necessary to avoid confusing the issue of need with what constitutes an image. There may be occasions when jurists decide there is a justifiable need to necessitate the use of images, digital or non-digital. Examples could include passports (Aḥsan al-Fatāwā, 8:438), security and criminal investigations in which case the use of digital and non-digital images is permitted based on necessity. This should not be confused with what constitutes an image and the default status of prohibition on all images of animate objects whether taken digitally or otherwise.
(2) Photographs without permission
Those scholars who permit images generally or digital images stipulate conditions and do not permit this in an unrestricted manner. For example, the photograph must not include anything unlawful such as immodest pictures. Similarly, it is not permissible to violate the privacy of people and take images or videos without their explicit or implicit permission. Unfortunately, it has become a trend to take images and videos of people in public and private settings without their permission and circulate them. Many times people are insensitive and circulate pictures of patients in hospitals and victims of accidents. This is a breach of trust and a clear violation of Islamic teachings regardless of the views pertaining to the permissibility of images. Thus, unless there is a compelling need, it is prohibited to take someone’s image without their permission, even according to those who permit digital images.
(3) Images of pious people
Retaining images of pious people who have passed away and circulating them is not permitted. Many people regard this as a means of reward and a source of blessing. This is reprehensible not least because it leads to Shirk (polytheism) and other actions that are contrary to Islamic teachings.
عن عائشة أم المؤمنين أن أم حبيبة وأم سلمة ذكرتا كنيسة رأينها بالحبشة فيها تصاوير ، فذكرتا للنبي صلى الله عليه وسلم فقال: إن أولئك إذا كان فيهم الرجل الصالح فمات بنوا على قبره مسجدا وصوروا فيه تلك الصور فأولئك شرار الخلق عند الله يوم القيامة
The mother of believers ʿĀʾishah narrates that Umm Ḥabībah and Umm Salamah mentioned a church they had seen in Ḥabashah (Ethiopia/Eritrea) and in it there were pictures. When they told the Prophet ﷺ, he said, “Indeed, those people are such that when a pious man among them dies, they build a place of worship over his grave and draw these pictures in it. Those people will be the worst creation before Allah on the Day of Resurrection” (Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 427, 3873).
It is mentioned in Aḥsan al-Fatāwā (8:439), “There is fear of kufr (disbelief) in regarding the images of pious people as blessed. The door of deviance and polytheism opens with such images.”
(4) Selfies in Ḥaramayn
Taking selfies in front of the Kaʿbah and in front of the blessed grave of the Prophet ﷺ is reprehensible and a disrespectful act. At these blessed places, a person should be extremely cautious and remain focused on the act of worship. Each moment should be valued and appreciated and a person’s actions should reflect utmost respect and reverence. Taking photographs is prohibited and taking selfies for the purposes of showing off adds to the severity of the sin. There is no benefit whatsoever in taking such photos in these blessed places and the houses of Allah. It is extremely regretful to see people showing off their worship by taking selfies or asking others to photograph them. Our pious predecessors would conceal their worship and always remain fearful of it not being accepted in the sight of Allah. Almighty Allah says:
ومن يعظم شعائر الله فإنها من تقوى القلوب
“And whoever honours the symbols of Allah, indeed, it is from the piety of the hearts” (Qurʾān, 22:32).
The writer was present in Masjid Nabawī in Ramaḍān 1436, when the Imam Shaykh Ḥusayn Āl al-Shaykh warned against this practice. He said: “The default position on taṣwīr (photography including digital) is taḥrīm (prohibition), except when there is a need, so how we can we take images in the Masjid of the Messenger ﷺ?”
In conclusion, as common as the use of images of animate objects has become, it is necessary to exercise caution and avoid its use, except where there is a justifiable need.
Allah knows best
6 Rajab 1438 / 4 April 2017
Approved by: Mufti Shabbir Ahmad Sahib and Mufti Muhammad Tahir Sahib
 The Oxford Dictionary defines permanence as ‘The state or quality of lasting or remaining unchanged indefinitely.’