The tattoo taboo

tattoo_bedouin woman Syria
Sya Taha

TATTOOS, at their most basic level, are a series of ink patterns under someone’s skin. Some people have them done at a parlour, some use needles and ink at home, and some get theirs by participating in a public ceremony. Like other forms of body modification, they play a larger role in society. Tattoos often mark one’s group affiliation, whether tribe, ethnic group or subculture. They are a powerful form of self-expression, allowing a bearer to permanently etch his or her identity, story or philosophy.

Until the mid-20th century, tattooing was widespread across the cultural and geographical area of the historical Fertile Crescent, which extends from Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq, Kuwait and parts of Syria, Turkey and Iran), runs through the Levant (today’s Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon) into today’s Northern Africa (Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Morocco, Algeria and Mali). Mostly done on women, these tattoos served various purposes: as a form of beautification, to indicate marriage status or tribe, to ward off evil, or to please pagan gods. Virtually all the communities in these regions continued with this cultural practice after the rapid spread of Islam in the 7th century.

tatoos womanThese traditional tattoos were usually in the forms of dots, lines and geometric shapes. Bedouin women usually had them on their face, while Kurdish men would get them on their feet and hands. Dyes such as henna, kohl, indigo, animal gall pigments or lampblack were mixed with milk and rubbed into the skin that was first pricked with a needle or thorns.

European colonisation and, later, the Islamic revival affected the prevalence of tattooing. In the early 1900s, Algerians tattooed their daughters and sons with symbols of their tribe to help make them unattractive, as well as to aid their identification if or when they were kidnapped by the French. Later, the Islamic revival of the late 20th century caused a sharp decline in these cultural tattooing practices, causing them virtually to die out. Today, most tattooed Muslim women are middle-aged or older.

The fiqh of tattoos
In Sunni jurisprudence, tattoos are considered haram because they are a form of body modification that is not for health purposes. The Qur’anic verse most often cited is 4:119, where such bodily modification is likened to an inspiration from Satan to “slit the ears of cattle” and “change the creation of Allah”. The hadith usually cited is about Allah cursing women who “make artificial spaces in their teeth for beauty”, remove eyebrow hair or tattoo themselves.1

tatoos toolLike nail polish, tattoos are thought to create a barrier between water and one’s skin, rendering one’s wudhu (ablution) or ghusl (purifying bath) invalid. Despite this prohibition, a tattooed Muslim may still perform acts of worship because tattoo removal is a lengthy, expensive and painful process.

However, in Shia jurisprudence, several contemporary ayatollah or religious leaders have passed fatwa (rulings) that deem tattoos of any kind permissible,2 on the basis that they do not prevent water from reaching the surface of the skin. Following the reasoning that everything is permissible unless proven otherwise, tattoos are considered a form of personal grooming akin to plucking eyebrows, and are acceptable as long as these are not profane or obscene, or harm the body.

Mutilation or decoration?
Amanda Quraishi, a 40-year-old American convert, thinks culture largely determines whether certain body alterations are socially accepted.

“Piercings and eyebrow shaping are often included with tattoos among the forbidden body modifications in scholarly writings, and yet most people don’t bat an eye at ear and nose piercings, or at nicely groomed facial hair at the mosque.”

For example, nose piercings among women are seen as something deviant or rebellious among Malay Muslims in Singapore, but these are perfectly ordinary in the Indian Muslim community. Meanwhile, ear piercings are almost universally regarded as acceptable for women (and more recently for men). Male circumcision is also universally accepted among Muslims, although there are two camps for female circumcision – each with their own health reasons.

Pakistani-American Angbeen Akhtar, 24, wonders about the seemingly arbitrary categorisation of tattoos as unnecessary body modification.

“I’ve heard many people make the argument that Muslims are not supposed to undergo body modification unless for health purposes but then I wonder, what about folks who get braces simply to have ‘pretty’ teeth?”

Fiqh arguments also do little to convince her. “I’ve also heard about people saying that your wudhu or ghusl is not complete with tattoos but I don’t understand how the mechanics of that works as the tattoo becomes part of your skin. Neither of those arguments make much sense to me.”

Amira, who asked that her family name not be used, is a 19-year-old Egyptian-American. She avoids tattoos because she agrees with mainstream jurisprudence that these “alter the appearance of your skin”. However, she does have an industrial ear piercing – two piercings at the top of the ear connected by a metal bar – that she considers to be a temporary alteration.

“Piercings are different, because the holes do close up if the jewellery is removed for a long period of time.”

For Amanda, tattoos are an ornamental decoration that do not change the nature of the human body.

“I don’t think that cosmetic or decorative changes are actually altering the creation. That’s like saying that making a garden is altering the natural landscape.”

As she spends much of her time working in and using technology for her activism, her tattoo reflects her philosophy about humanity and machinery. She has binary code tattooed down her back: a series of 0s and 1s that translates to the English word “human”.

“Binary code is the most basic form of digital code on which most modern technology is built. The most important thing is the human beings behind the monitors, of which I am definitely one. I never want to lose sight of the fact that the people we help are more important than the tools we use to help them.”

Bodily autonomy
To whom do our bodies belong? When we get news of someone’s passing, Muslims usually recite a du’a from the Qur’an: “Indeed we belong to Allah, and indeed to Him we will return” (2:156). But while we are alive, Amira believes that “our body is a gift from Allah, and that we should respect it”. However, this does not imply uniformity, as human diversity is a way for us to “know one another” (49:13).

“I do not believe we all have to dress the same and be squeezed into this little box that our society or community thinks is acceptable. I believe that expressing our diversity and personality, and using the blessings that God gave us, is the best way to respect and honour the gift he has given us.”

Amira continues, “People express respect for their body in different ways. Some cover it up, some decorate it with jewellery, some prefer body art, some do all of the above. There are so many ways to respect and liberate your body; people just prefer to use different tactics to achieve that goal.”

Likewise, Layla Latif, 24, an Egyptian-American, finds it important to recognise our different choices and identities.

“One may not agree with the art of tattooing, but part of bodily integrity is to respect people’s life choices and judge them from the content of their character.

Coming from an Afro-Arab background, Layla is planning to get tattoos of ancient Egyptian symbols as a way to explore her ancient heritage and to express her anger towards the Arabisation of her culture.

“It’s unfair that my African identity is stripped from me and I’m just labelled as an Arab. We have our own rich culture that we’re proud of and I want the world to be reminded of this by the symbols I plan to get on my body.”

Beyond stereotypes
None of these four women were willing to let us publish images of themselves, their tattoos, or their piercings – illustrating how taboo the topic remains among Muslims. In many of our urbanised societies today, tattoos have a bad reputation as they are often associated with unprofessionalism, gang activity or deviant lifestyles. Tattooed Muslims face discrimination at the mosque, yet converts with tattoos are used to promote Islam’s ability to bring wayward individuals towards the truth.

But these women think that the Muslim aversion to tattoos reveals a bigger problem in Muslim communities.

“Because tattooing isn’t a part of mainstream Islamic culture and tradition, it’s seen as something that doesn’t represent us,” adds Layla.

Amanda thinks it’s a general attitude towards difference. “Anything that doesn’t fit into nice, tidy, communally agreed-upon rules for physical appearance or behaviour, regardless of doctrinal basis, is generally treated with hostility.”

“When we see people stray from tradition, or step outside of the box, and do things that we normally would not approve of, we turn away from them, we do not want to be associated,” says Amira.

Tattoos can be a good starting point to work past any preconceived ideas we have about others. People who identify as Muslim should be treated as such, even though their appearance may initially cause anxiety.

“Tattoos may seem frightening to people at first,” Amira says. “However, we need to put aside stereotypes and stigmas so that we can learn as much as we can about this world and the people that live in it. I have a lot of respect for tattoos and people who have them; ask anyone the story behind their tattoo and you learn so much about them. There are so many amazing, interesting people, and we can learn so much from their experiences and stories.

“It gives you a stronger sense of the world we live in.”
1 Narrated by Ibn Masud, in Riyad as-Salihin, available here
2 Fatwa passed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ali Sistani, Hussein Fadlallah, and Fazel Lankarani

tattoos Kafir_USMC

Further discussion on Tattoos in Islam, please read:


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