Are there Muslims with tattoos? - Dialogue with the Islamic World

The Lebanese with the stage name El Harb works in an area that has long been taboo. He is a tattoo artist and does black tribals, Arabic calligraphy and realistic portraits on the bodies of his customers in Beirut. Religious motifs are also in demand. But what even devout Muslim tattoo fans usually do not get stung, says El Harb, is the name of Allah. "Nobody is that pure."

A generation is growing up in Arab countries that questions the strict rules of society but remains true to their culture. Tattoos are an expression of this. For his "Arab Ink" project, photographer Bashar Alaeddin has been collecting stylish motifs since 2014, which he exhibits on Instagram and Facebook. His aim is to bring to light a subculture that was previously not public or was simply never noticed.

"The taboo is still there, it won't go away overnight," he says. But he notices that it is increasingly being disregarded. Half of those he photographs are women. Most have the tattoo on a part of the body where it cannot be seen. "But just the fact that they are getting something meaningful says a lot."

Are tattoos "haram"?

In Arab societies the prevailing view is that tattoos are "haram", forbidden in Islam. Because tattoos, so the majority opinion, changed the creation of God. Only temporary tattoos - with henna, for example - are therefore allowed. For Alaeddin it has nothing to do with religion when someone has an Arabic calligraphy tattoo. "But it has everything to do with Arab culture and a generation of young Arabs who want to express themselves."

Lebanon is the stronghold of the Arab tattoo scene. This is because the constant struggle between Christians, Sunnis, Shiites and Druze created free spaces in the country in which subcultures could develop better. "Chic tattoos are becoming increasingly popular," notes tattoo artist El Harb, whose stage name means "war" in Arabic. And because Instagram is setting new fashion trends, most of the people who visit it want their old and ugly tattoos covered with stylish, new designs. "Cover-ups are my main business."

Tattoos are becoming fashionable even among conservative Shiites in Lebanon. They have pictures of their religious idols stabbed under their skin, thus expressing their faith and at the same time provoking radical Sunnis, for whom tattoos are considered a sin. "It's okay for Shiites to get a tattoo," says El Harb. So they have the name or quotes of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, the Shiite venerated. Or the number 313, so many companions will accompany the Imam Mahdi according to the Shiite belief. Ali's holy sword, zulfiqar, is also a popular motif.

In the sights of the religious police

Sunni customers from the strict Gulf countries such as the Wahhabi Kingdom of Saudi Arabia also come to El Harb. In their homeland they have to cover their tattoos again, otherwise they risk being arrested by the religious police. The strict moral guards have not turned a blind eye to the Colombian professional soccer player Juan Pablo Pino. In 2011 he was arrested in a mall for his openly displayed tattoos. What made the outrage even greater: The player from Al Nasr Riyadh at the time wore an image of Jesus on his upper arm.

Tattoos have a long tradition in the region. With the Berbers, women had their faces tattooed for many generations. The cross on the inner wrist is a common symbol of identification among Christian Copts in Egypt. Scientists even found tattoos of animals and plants on an ancient Egyptian mummy from Deir el Medina near the Valley of the Kings. The body was a woman who lived more than 3,000 years ago.

According to tradition, people also had tattoos during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. However, the Prophet is said to have said that Allah curses a woman who tattoos or is tattooed.

From "green man" to religious fanatic

Conservative Sunnis and extremists refer to these hadiths. The leader of the terror network Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, once had so many tattoos that neighbors called him the “green man”. In prison, the criminal turned into a religious fanatic. He obtained a razor blade and gradually cut the tattoos out of his body.

In Baghdad, where a small tattoo scene has emerged in recent years, Ibrahim works with a partner. He is a Shiite, his partner is a Christian, and they fly in their paints, needles and tools from the USA. “God gave us a body with which we can do what we want,” says Ibrahim. Young Shiites also like to refer to their most important cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. According to him, there is no universal tattoo ban in Islam.

In Iraq, the war is currently providing the motifs for tattoos. "We do a lot of portraits," says Ibrahim. "Faces of killed soldiers who want to carry their relatives under their skin - often with names and dates of death." Black and gray tattoos are popular with men. Women often had their eyebrows tattooed and pictures of birds or butterflies. New customers usually start very small, with a motif that is popular around the world: "Mother" in Arabic or English.

Mey Dudin

© 2017