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Tattoos – Hindu, Jewish and Muslim Perspectives

Tattoos – A Hindu Perspective

Thank you to Chandru Acharya

Hindus have had several traditions of permanent as well as temporary tattooing that has been practiced for several thousand years. As a matter of fact, the earliest Hindu scriptures called Vedas have prescribed the use of a plant called Mendikha and Haldi (Turmeric) for the purposes of marking. Vedic Customs encouraged the representation of the Sun in an artistic manner representing the “light within”. Various other symbols have been used to depict Peace, Strength, Divinity, and Chastity, fertility, royalty and happiness in the form of tattoos.

With the passage of time Mehndi (temporary tattooing using Mendikha) has evolved into a popular art-form and is extensively applied during Hindu Weddings and Festivals like Diwali and Karva Chauth. Permanent tattooing has been widely practiced in the North-West part of India by the Tribal Community and is called “Godna.” Godna is considered to be a permanent ornament using the human body as the canvas.

Many Hindu men and women tattoo a religious symbol called “Om” on their hands or arms. Om represents the primordial sound of the universe and is the symbol of divine consciousness. The tattooing of OM is believed bring Good Karma into their lives and protect them from evil forces. Many Hindus also tattoo their bodies with pictures of Gods or Goddesses and other religious symbols. In the South of India the art form is called Pachaikuthikiridu.The tribal communities in North-Eastern parts of India traditionally use Tattoos to distinguish themselves from other tribes.


Tattoos – A Jewish Perspective

Thank you to Rabbi Dorit Edut

Jewish law is opposed to permanent tattoos, especially if voluntarily put on the body by a person, because it recalls both idolatry and pagan mourning practices. The main source is from Leviticus 19:28 ” You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead or incise marks on yourselves; I am the Lord.” The discussion in the Talmud is around whether or not these tattoos included the name of pagan gods or of the Deity. Later the legal codes brought up the argument that tattoos go against the principle that humans are created in the image of God and that our bodies are a gift from God to be treated with the utmost respect; furthermore, during the Holocaust, the Nazis forcibly tattooed Jews with numbers on their arms – and this, too, has only added to the distaste for tattoos among Jews today.  The only leniency is that it is permissible to have tattoos for medical procedures or other life-saving reasons. Impermanent tattoos, like those used by children, are permitted, but parents are encouraged to explain that this is only BECAUSE they are temporary and used for fun.  Also those with permanent tattoos are not excluded from participating in the synagogue nor are they to be buried in a separate section of the cemetery as often is assumed.


Tattoos – A Muslim Perspective

Thank you to Victor Begg

There are differences of opinion among Muslims on the topic of tattoos.

The majority of Muslims consider permanent tattoos against Prophetic tradition, based on a saying hadith of the Prophet Muhammad. One would need to study the background of this tradition in order to evaluate its relevance to tattooing today.

According to a prominent Shia Imam in Metro-Detroit, “if it doesn’t hurt the person causing physical damage to one’s body, then no problem’. Shia school of thought is thus more open towards tattoos.

The Islamic scholars and individuals who believe all permanent tattooing is disallowed base their arguments on:

·         Tattooing is considered “mutilating” the body, modifying God’s creation.

·         Causing unnecessary pain, and possibility of infection.

·         Covering the natural state of the skin, thus changing it.

Others question the extent to which such contentions can be taken. Is it “changing God’s creation” to pierce ears? Coloring hair? Applying braces on teeth? Wearing colored contacts? Get a tan or whiten teeth?

Most scholars understand that it is customary for women to wear jewelry (thus it’s acceptable for women to pierce the ears or nose). Elective procedures are fine when done for medical reason (braces, plastic surgery, etc.). And, as long as it’s not permanent, one may beautify the body (tanning, colored contacts, etc.) But changing the body permanently for a vanity is considered overstepping the religious principles.

Islam advises against excesses in beautifying oneself when it alters the physical features that God created him/her with – tattooing maybe considered as one of those excesses. The Holy Qur’an teaches — extreme alterations to humans or animals as an action inspired by Satan, who “…will command them (those who follow his ways) to change what God has created…” (An-Nisa’: 119).

A couple of other points to consider:

  • Non-permanent tattoos (i.e. henna stains, stick-on tattoos, etc.) are universally permitted by all scholars in Islam, provided they do not contain inappropriate images.
  • All actions prior to Islam are overlooked once a person has embraced Islam. Therefore, if one had a tattoo before becoming a Muslim, it is not necessary to have it removed.

Many of the Prophetic deliberations were clearly in response to practices of the time but have parallels even today. Prophet frowned upon the practice of the idolaters and the prostitutes tattooing their bodies at the time.

Islam is not a totally new religion — I find the following reading from the Judeo-Christian scripture interesting:

The Bible says, ‘Do not prostitute thy daughter, to cause her to be a whore; lest the land fall to whoredom, and the land become full of wickedness.’ Leviticus 19:29. And the preceding verse 19:28 states, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead, and do not mark your skin with tattoos. I am the Lord”.

As I understand, this passage in the Old Testament, including the surrounding text, it specifically deals with the pagan religious rituals and culture of the people living around the Israelites, forbidding idolatrous, pagan culture and sorcery distracting them away from pure monotheism.

Islam, by broadly arguing against tattoos, discourages tattooing not only one’s body but inflicting the same on others.

A well-known example is the identification system for inmates in Nazi Concentration camps – to identify registered prisoners in the Auschwitz. Chinese would employ facial tattoos as a punishment for certain crimes or to mark prisoners or slaves as early as the Zhou Dynasty. Roman soldiers were tattooed in order to make desertion difficult.

The Messenger of God therefore advised against tattooing practices.

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