My Muslim Culture Says Tattoos Are Haram—But Are They?

Depending on the branch of Islam you practice, it may or may not be permissible.

As an art lover, I’ve always doodled anywhere there’s an empty space, including my body. However, I’ve always limited myself to temporary, hand-painted doodles. Aside from my fear of needles and extremely low pain tolerance, the main reason I’m still tattoo-free is because of my religious beliefs. As a Muslim, I’ve been taught that getting is a tattoo would be a way of harming God’s creation. There’s a paragraph in the Quran that talks about the defacing of God’s creation as a sin, which is what is used to interpret the ruling against tattoos. If I were to get a tattoo, it’d mean that my prayers wouldn’t be accepted by Allah.

Rakin Niass, a life coach and Muqaddam (an Islamic religious official), says that the popular opinion amongst Muslim scholars is that tattoos are haram (impermissible) because they are changing the creation of Allah. However, he also says that this belief differs between Muslim sects. So, are tattoos haram?

While the Quran and Hadith remain universal guidance for all Muslims, specific rulings diverge amongst the two main sects of Shia and Sunni Islam. Some Shia scholars believe that getting tattoos is allowed, and even within Sunni schools of thought, Niass says that there are a few people who say that while getting tattoos is makruh (not completely banned) it is still generally disallowed by most scholars. “There is a minute view that argues that getting them done is makrul disliked. This is an opinion which is held by a small number of Maliki (a subsect of Sunni Islam) scholars but the vast majority of Sunni Muslims agree that it is haram,” he says.

are tattoos haram?

I grew up raised to believe that tattoos were a sin and that they were only associated with gang members and low-lives. As a child, I wasn’t allowed to think about getting one. It was only recently that I started hearing more conversations around the morality of tattoos within my religion. 

As global trends have made tattoos more popular, young Muslims have begun to question why permanent ink isn’t allowed. In some ways, this questioning of long-standing norms and beliefs comes from younger Muslims choosing to separate cultural taboos from religious teachings. Gender norms are a huge example of this. A woman’s place in the home has long been pushed onto us as Islamic teaching, but questioning that has led to an increase in female scholars and religious feminist movements.

Another reason for the growing popularity of tattoos in the Muslim community is an increase in globalization. Where tattoo parlors were almost non-existent in the Middle East, Huzz Ink‘s launch in Jordan in 2007 proved so popular that they recently opened a branch in Dubai. While there aren’t any available stats that prove the growing numbers of Muslims getting tattoos, Niass says that for many scholars these topics are becoming more important to discuss as so many young Muslims now want tattoos. 

“As tattoos are so permanent and face so much cultural backlash, it’s easier to accept that they are haram as opposed to many other activities that young Muslims choose to do while also believing them to be impermissible,” says Asha, a 21-year-old Muslim woman. In her opinion, young generations focus more on the humanitarian aspect of religion and their spiritual connection with God.

Alizeh, a 23-year-old Muslim with tattoos, says that while she didn’t feel the need to get approval from a religious leader, she did speak to her grandmother before getting inked. Being as close as they are, she said she wanted to get her approval for going through with the decision. Her grandmother, she says, said that tattoos were allowed in Shia Islam and gave her granddaughter her blessing. “I got both of my parents’ names in Urdu just below my wrist,” Alizeh shares. 

Many people, of all religions, choose to get tattoos that have personal significance. For Sajeer, a 25-year-old Muslim woman, that meant a spiritual connection as well. Her first tattoo says “Kun Faya Kun,” an Arabic phrase that translates to “be, and it is,” to which she has both a personal and religious connection. However, while Sajeer loves her tattoos, she admits that the religious and cultural taboos—which include the idea that tattoos make someone appear less presentable or respected—around them do make her feel insecure. “There were plenty of what-ifs, but eventually they became background noise,” she shares. 

These concerns are present in the minds of many who want to take the leap and get a tattoo—which is not a simple decision even without religion. That’s why Rida, the only female tattoo artist in Pakistan, says that religion is a topic that she stays far away from at work. “My customers often ask me if I think tattoos are halal (permissible), but it’s not up to me to tell them what is and what isn’t,” she says.

Rida isn’t the only person who prefers to keep an individualistic approach to religion, especially as people follow religious practices in such different ways. She does say, however, that she’s noticed an increase in clientele recently. “It’s been clients of all ages and genders as well, which is lovely,” she says. “I feel like it’s because more people are becoming accustomed to accepting that religious belief is what you perceive and feel is right, not because someone says it’s good or bad.”

While religious scholars in other parts of the world may have differing opinions, Egypt’s former Grand Mufti (a religious scholar who issues legal opinions interpreting Islamic law), Sheikh Ali Goma declared a fatwa in 2017 stating that temporary tattoos—the kind where the ink only penetrates the first layer of the skin and therefore fade faster—are okay for women.

“The [new tattoo technique that does not inflict pain or spill blood] is considered a tool for decoration and adornment, so it’s permissible for girls to have it done. However for boys, it’s like a boy putting on lipstick or nail polish; it’s imitating women and that is forbidden in Islam,” said Goma. As much as those wanting tattoos want to see Goma’s ruling as progressive, the homophobic and sexist connotations it has cannot be denied. However, with the growing popularity of tattoos, this statement from a religious leader has allowed many to take the leap they wanted, even if it’s problematic in other ways.

Several tattoo artists in Egypt say that the fatwa has only added to the growing popularity of tattoos amongst Muslim communities, as many saw the statement as permission to get one.  Tattoo artist Simo, of Simo Tattoo Studio in Cairo, says his clientele has increased by 50 percent since the fatwa, and Dalia Badr, a freelance tattoo artist in Cairo, says she’s now been getting orders from across the country.

As for me, I don’t know if I’ll ever be comfortable enough with breaking social constructs to get a tattoo, even if the culture is changing. Most people I know still shy away from getting tattoos, and those that do get them tend to hide them from their families. I haven’t found a religious ruling that I have felt comfortable enough about to take the leap. However, it feels good to be surrounded by people that focus on self-love and self-expression over societal validation within the Muslim community.