Q. What is your stance when it comes to tattoos? I understand that most Imams advise against them and state that they are haram, however I still do not truly understand why. I personally feel that if they are small (because I understand some people have over-the-top tattoos) and private (as in no one but the person being tattooed would see them), then why not? It will obviously not affect the person religiously in any way, and by that I mean it will not cause the person to go astray and move away from being a regular Muslim who prays and so on. Also, when it has to do with pain (because that is another reason I got from people who said "no"), every person has their own opinion on what they feel is painful and what is not, because many Muslims say that anything that causes pain to the body and is unnecessary should be avoided. Therefore, what if a person does not feel pain when it has to do with needles, then what?

A. The way of dealing with new issues in any religion is often dictated by what is known as "aada" -- a term that may be translated as normative practice. For most, the idea of change does not occur, and so what may have been reprehensible at one time and may morph into something requiring a new look, is often completely missed. This is the case with tattoos. The Qur'an has nothing about it. There are hadith in the sahihayn that proscribe tattooing, but such hadith are open to myriad interpretations. The art of tattooing was widespread among many Middle Eastern tribes, so the hadith on tattoos do not come without problems. For example, we find that in the material on the subject, the tattooer used to be involved in filing teeth, etc.

We are only concerned with tattooing as it is contemporarily practiced, and what it sends as a message. Many tribes in the Middle East, especially in Morocco and Yemen, practice tattooing for tribal identification. This in and of itself has to do with culture, and cannot be said to have the same message as a tattoo that shows a naked woman on a man's forearm, for example. Our point is that in the Qur'an, God has made clear to us what is prohibited, and when it comes to issues that are not addressed, we have to use our reasoning. Even when our personal distaste screams out against certain social mores (as is the case with tattooing), we have to be careful and follow the Islamic approach. From an Islamic viewpoint, one has to take into consideration the connotation of any action that is not specifically forbidden. If proper behavior and ethics dictate that something NOT forbidden by the Qur'an ought to be avoided, then we stay away from such a thing. Does a tattoo fall into this category? That is a personal opinion that will vary from culture to culture, person to person, and even more, from generation to generation. Actions are by intention, and one must take into consideration that a tattoo is for all practical purposes an indelible imprint on a body that goes through stages. If one is convinced that there is nothing negative in intention or action, then there is no prohibition, unless one blindly follows the hadith without thinking. Of course, parental proscription, depending on the age of the would be procurer, does fall within that which a Muslim parent is permitted to prohibit.

Posted January 9, 2008