The use of images in the practice of religion is nearly as old as mankind itself. The people of ancient Mesopotamia used images to represent the various gods of their respective religions. To possess the image of a god, an idol, meant one had some sort of control over the god. Therefore, the second commandment the Hebrews received from Mt. Sinai: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”
In more recent centuries, iconoclasm, the removing or destruction of religious images, has seen a sort of cyclical resurgence in Christian traditions — most notable were the periods of iconoclasm during the eighth century and the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Iconoclasm in Christianity is often rooted in a strict adherence to the second commandment.
On the other hand, there are some Christian traditions in which the use of images or icons is a vital part of worship practices. These images are often seen as “windows to heaven,” and allow one to worship with the sense of sight.
Whether one is of a tradition that allows religious imagery or not, it is important to understand that such imagery can be misused, especially as our images of the divine look more and more like us, and less and less as history and reality would suggest.
Chris Thomas, First Baptist Church of Williams
Symbolism develops over generations of religious practice
There are divergent views on religious images because each faith is different, so the image or symbol represented is also different. Some images or symbols represent various aspects of religion like theology, history, etc. Crucified Jesus and Trimurti (three-faced image) represent Christian and Hindu theological aspects respectively. While the cross, menorah and Star of David are historical symbols. No imagery or symbolism represents any aspect of theology in Islam because Islamic theology is sensitive of its monotheism. No physical image or symbol can truly represent the spirit and faith of Islamic monotheism. Though most faiths do not interpret these images, pictures or statues as gods, but only symbols of God and his various powers. In Islamic teachings, faith in one God is a certain internal condition that reflects the way each believer thinks, sees, acts and reacts. Life, attitude, behavior — everything originated from faith in one God. A physical symbol will divert or affect that internal condition, which is required in Islamic faith.
In spite of this, a few symbols have emerged through the 1,500-year history of Islam that are now considered a representation of Islam. For instance, the crescent and star, which appeared sometime during the 500 years of Ottoman rule. The color green is thought by some to be a favorite color of Islam, either because the Qur’an describes the garments of those in the heavens as green or because green is pure and clean in nature.
Perhaps the most marked and abiding feature of Islamic symbolism is its dedication to the principle of symmetry. Symmetry is used in many cultures in varying degrees, and for various effects — but none place quite so much emphasis on the constraints of symmetry, or use it so consistently across the entire range of their artistic productions. This aesthetic principle likely derives from some deeply-held intuition in Islam on the underlying principles of existence.
Muhammad Haq, Anniston Islamic Center