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September 12th, 2012
12:06 PM ET

Ambassador's killing shines light on Muslim sensitivities around Prophet Mohammed

By Dan Gilgoff and Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editors

(CNN) – Violence over depictions of the Prophet Mohammed may mystify many non-Muslims, but it speaks to a central tenet of Islam: that the Prophet was a man, not God, and that portraying him threatens to lead to worshiping a human instead of Allah.

“It's all rooted in the notion of idol worship,” says Akbar Ahmed, who chairs the Islamic Studies department at American University. “In Islam, the notion of God versus any depiction of God or any sacred figure is very strong."

“The Prophet himself was aware that if people saw his face portrayed by people, they would soon start worshiping him,” Ahmed says. “So he himself spoke against such images, saying ‘I’m just a man.’”

The prohibition against such portrayals was on stark display Tuesday, as mobs in Egypt and Libya attacked U.S. compounds in response to a film that vilifies the Prophet Mohammed, who founded Islam in the 7th century. The attack on the U.S. personnel in Benghazi, Libya, was orchestrated by extremists who used the protests as a diversion, U.S. sources told CNN Wednesday.

The attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi killed J. Christopher Stevens, Washington's ambassador to Libya, as well as three other Americans at the compound.

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The film that’s believed to have inspired the violence depicts the Prophet Mohammed as a child molester, womanizer and ruthless killer, going a big step beyond violating the basic Muslim prohibition against depicting the Prophet, even in a favorable light.

There are questions about who is behind the movie. Initial reports identified a supposedly Israeli-American real-estate developer named Sam Bacile, but it's unclear if that person even exists. A member of the film's production staff told CNN that the producer's name was listed as Abenob Nakoula Basseley.

In Sunni mosques, the largest branch of the faith, there are no images of people of any kind. The spaces are often decorated with verses from the Quran.

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Mohamed Magid, an imam who leads the Islamic Society of North America, says the Muslim prohibition on depicting prophets extends to Jesus and Moses, who Islam treats as prophets.

“Pictures and images are prohibited from being worshiped,” Magid says.

There have been historical instances of Muslims depicting the Prophet, says Omid Safi, a religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina who has studied the issue.

"We have had visual depictions of the Prophet in the form of miniatures and pictures in the Iranian context, the Turkish context, the central Asian Context,” says Safi, author of the book "Memories of Mohammed." “The one significant context where depictions of the Prophet have not been image-related has been in the Arab context.”

“As you go farther east, away from the Arabian Peninsula, you find depictions of the prophet in art,” said Johari Abdul-Malik, the imam for Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia. He noted that images of the teachings of the prophet were sometimes used to bridge gaps in illiteracy.

But even depictions of the Prophet by Muslim artists has been a sensitive issue.

Akbar, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United Kingdom, says that Muslim artists in the 15th and 16th centuries would depict the Prophet but took pains to avoid drawing his face.

“It would be as if he was wearing a veil on his face, so the really orthodox could not object – that was the solution they found," Akbar says.

In a  Muslim film called “The Messenger,” which circulated throughout the Muslim world in the 1970s and 1980s, the Prophet is depicted only as a shadow.

Adbul-Malik said that in the Quran, there is “no statement from the prophet requesting his image not be recorded.” The passages relating to a ban on creating images of the prophets come from the hadith, recordings of the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed and his closest companions. The hadith is not viewed on the same plane as the Quran but as important to understanding the Quran.

Scholars of religion say Muslim opposition to portraying Mohammed wasn’t generally violated in earlier centuries because of a gulf between much of the Muslim world and the West.

In the age of globalization, non-Muslims and critics of Islam have felt free to depict Mohammed, including in offensive ways.

In 2006, a Danish cartoonist’s depiction of the Prophet wearing a bomb as a turban with a lit fuse provoked demonstrations across the world.

Akbar says that until relatively recently, depictions of Jesus tended to be reverential, but Christianity has had a decades-long head start in dealing with negative portrayals of Jesus in film and art.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Islam • Violence

soundoff (4,725 Responses)
  1. JFF

    The notion that Muslims are somehow justified in killing people because they *feel* offended is ludicrous. Why are we wasting time trying to help crazy people justify they're craziness?

    September 17, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • Toots

      It is like trying to pacify a child who constantly throws tempter tantrums. One cannot encourage bad behavior by giving in to people who must learn to grow up.

      September 17, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Toots

      No amount of indignation deserves death. If we cannot control our actions, why even bother call ourselves humans?

      September 17, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  2. PAUL

    What does it say about rest of world when a small minority is non-murderous?

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmigBOhYTns&w=640&h=360]

    September 17, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  3. Muslim

    @Lets Think 123!!!
    Declare your relegion. and I know you cant as you must be an etheist....a true christian can never exploit with wrong interpretations...

    You quoted: "Why do muslims keep lying about their religiion? Look, Quran 4:34 says: ...a man should not be asked why he beat his wife.
    Now, would a prophet really condone wife beating. When ur daughter is married to a muslim man, and she comes to u 1 day with bruises on her face, i'm sure u'll say its ok cause of quran 4:34 right?
    How about if u have a 6 yr old daugther and if muham_mad wanted to marry her and consummate the marriage too, would u give ur daughter to him? You do know the story of Aisha right? If not look on wikipedia.
    No amount of lies will convince educated people that muham_mad as not a prophet, but a pedophile and womanizer among other things."

    1. Lets see who is lying.
    This is the verse of the Holy Quran you were pointing at:

    Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband's] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.[4:34]

    I dont think any rational person who has some sense would get the meaning you got from the verse. Where is it written that a person should not be asked when he beats her wife?? The only allowance to beat her wife is when she has become arrogant so much that she can not be controlled and even at that instance first the matter should be talked out...if after talking sessions and consultation,she still remains arrogant then the man should seperate his bed with her (and I guarentee it can not go even more than that if the two really love each other,otherwise there is no reason to remain married) and if the problem persists,the man can 'strike' his wife (WHERE DOES THE WORD BEAT COMES FROM AND WHERE IS IT WRITTEN THAT THEY HAVE TO STRIKE IT HARD??????).

    Dear those who really have a mind, The above verses are revealed by GOD, these are not the words of Muhammad (Peace be upon him) as GOD has revealed Torah and Bible to HIS prophets. All the previous communications to the prophets (Peace be upon them all) are sacred for the muslims and no muslim is a muslim unless he believes all teh prophets and their books....
    Every book when revealed has come to testify the books before it, to give guidance to the people on whom it has been revealed and to announce of the next prophet....But the people of the book carried on tampering their books and messages,even killed the messengers,ridiculed them and you may all know what the people of Israel did or thought of Prophet Jesus (Peace be upon him).
    Muhammad (Peace be upon him) is the last of the Prophethood and the Quran is the seal on the GOD's word to humanity. GOD has completed HIS favour upon us and completed the guidance necessory to be triumph here and the hereafter.

    Verily, Hereafter is the real life for which we must strive in the way GOD has wanted us to...no matter what anyone may argue,what anyone's mind walks through...its a bitter truth that every one has to die....now if you satisfy yourself by lying to it that there is no life after death and we dont have to be accountable to the Creator then suit your self..Indeed the life after this life is forever and the bounties or the torments there are forever....i fear GOD's wrath and i call you to fear GOD's wrath....I love GOD and his prophets and I dont abuse them just to satisfy my evil desires.....i dont befriend with satan,nor in public,nor in private....I ask GOD for everything good and I ask HIM to save me from every evil.....
    I am a MUSLIM!!!
    If anyone has anything, any ambiguity, any problem with islam, any question, any thing...ask me at " ask_islam1@yahoo.com"
    Every curious,knowledge based or even stupig allegations like the people here are posting will be addressed logically and with authenticity with the grace of GOD Almighty.!!!

    September 17, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • Willnotsubmit

      Thanks for your grand offer, but no thanks. I do not know who lies better or more, islm or the democrats.

      September 17, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • esplanader

      I can't tell if this is real or if it is a plant to promote the (correct) image that Islam is a dangerous religion which directly promotes violence. (Sure the quote does say to hit the woman hard, but it sure don't say you can't just hit her as hard as your blood thristy little heart desires.)

      September 17, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • sandy

      Islam is great religion, but you are a true muslim when you follow it rightly.
      Have you seen any demonstrations in DUBAI UAE which is a muslim country, here the muslims are very modern and the message is people live here very peacefully with other religions and tolerance.
      99.999999% knows the movie was bad and was not correct but killing and violence is not the answer.
      Peace is the answer.
      GOD bless us all human beings to one day be together and give up our difference and live in peace and harmony.
      All humans have same blood.

      September 18, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  4. Ben Moushon

    Reblogged this on Thinking & Driving and commented:
    Understanding the position of idolatry related to the portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed, brings new meaning to how and what we worship. If Christian's only took their religious symbols as seriously as Muslims.

    September 17, 2012 at 7:23 am |
  5. PAUL

    This Is The Reason Why Muslims, Christians and Jews Should Get Along!

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xw_zVjLhzcU&w=640&h=360]

    September 17, 2012 at 7:12 am |
  6. fritzb

    Religions based on fear imply a weak faith and even weaker, fearful followers. And of course we fear what we hate and vice versa. I'm guessing the Almighty is fed up to here with *all* forms of organized religion.

    September 17, 2012 at 5:38 am |
    • PAUL

      So people who were groomed to fear God must hate him or other unacceptable people as well? What doe this say about religion?

      September 17, 2012 at 7:42 am |
  7. rick Baker

    Cnn should show the video over and over so the world can see how ridiculous all the reaction to it is and how muslims are overeacting to what is actually drivel!

    September 17, 2012 at 3:41 am |
  8. BenPohiel

    To live at peace, drop your religion ! We do not need that to pray God !

    September 17, 2012 at 2:21 am |
  9. Jake

    This isn't about images of Mohammed. This is about Muslims insistence that they dictate the rules. No matter what the laws in your country, no matter the freedoms where you live, Muslims demand that their rules are respected above all others. They will not be disrespected, they have to be cojoled and accommodated. They want control. This isn't about religion, it's about power. Muslims use their religion to control their people and they cannot accept that others won't bend as well.

    September 17, 2012 at 12:27 am |
    • zubairpk

      Holocaust

      September 17, 2012 at 2:00 am |
    • TJ

      Bingo!!! right on jake

      September 17, 2012 at 5:41 am |
  10. jihan kabir

    I urge to every single of my western freinds please force your government to bring back your soldiers from our lands. We do not seek your help nor we ever requested one. Please leave us alone and it is very generous of you to help us solve our problems without being asked , but please please please try to understand WE DONT NEED YOUR HELP! What harm have we done to you? Did we ever threw a feather pointing at you?! Once a freak called Osama or or may be your own W.Bush blew up your Twin towers and killed 3000 innocent souls, in return you guys went to a worthless war and killed more then 300000 innocents and counting before finding osama alive in a warm house in pakistan ( took nearly a decade) ! Is it not enough revenge ?! Just think for a momemt how many muslims u killed through out the world and how many christians we muslim killed ?! We have all got our differences but please try to respect each others. We dont insult jesus(peace be upon him) , you dont insult mohammed (peace be upon him) , we dont solve your problems, you dont solve our problems, we dont try educate you , you dont try to educate us, we wish to be with our goats and sands, you stay with your earthly pleasures finally we respect you but please dont take advantage of our respect.

    Thank you very much for reading and may you prosper in your life and have all the happiness in the world.

    September 16, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
    • real777real

      really?? what a generous offer from you? so you are telling me when troops went to free libya from there dectator they did that bec they just decided? or because there wasn't a single group in the whole islamic world that could do anything?
      your response is typical to those that don;t understand or read history, islam has contirbuted nothing to our world except destruction and misery! go rread your books and validate the stories u have seen in the movie instead of living in ignorance!

      September 17, 2012 at 1:35 am |
    • Percival Constantine

      @real777real

      "islam has contirbuted nothing to our world except destruction and misery!"

      I suggest you do some research on the history of math and science and look up all the significant contributions (and in some cases, initial development) that came as a direct result of Muslims.

      September 17, 2012 at 2:12 am |
    • jihan kabir

      real777real

      I can write a thousands of facts to answer your questions what your media dont show you. You believe what they want you to believe. as i promised i wont educate you as you did to me just now ( thats the problem) , you are grown enough to distinguish between right and wrong but why you choose to reject the fact So am I ?! Thanks for calling me an ignorant and to suggest me to read my own holy book to check the facts !! Have a good day.

      September 17, 2012 at 3:45 am |
    • Willnotsubmit

      Your History seems a bit lacking. When islm backed Hitler, that was a bit concerning. When islm joined with the communist terrorists in the 1970's and hijacked planes and murdered at Olympic games, that got our attention as well.
      You can drop the "we are innocent and peaceful" routine. We are not buying it.
      Now, don't you have a few more UN leaders to bribe and/or threaten?

      September 17, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Toots

      Most of the innovations muslims claim they came up with already existed....from paper, to glass, to surgical instruments, to use of lenses, etc.

      September 17, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • I wonder

      Percival Constantine,

      "... the significant contributions (and in some cases, initial development) that came as a direct result of Muslims."

      Yes, the Arab world (not necessarily all Muslims) did continue scientific studies while the Catholic Church forbade it. Then the religious leaders of Islam stepped in a put the kibosh on science too. Religion ruins stuff.

      September 17, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Eddie Shelton

      Leave you alone? Were there n because "Peace Loving Muslims"(that`s an oxymoron) yelled allah akber as they flew aircraft onto the twin towers.Were it not for that.....we wouldn`t be there!

      September 17, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  11. 13_monster

    The tennets of freespech is respect, once violated it's no longer free speech, it's your hatred speech against us. Something that american should learn.

    September 16, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
    • Willnotsubmit

      And Islm "speech" is respectful? When? Your post is simple BS.

      September 17, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Toots

      Free speech is not always respectful. KKK still holds rallies. People however do have the option not to listen to idiots.

      September 17, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  12. Randy

    It is such a misguided justification for not portraying the prophet Mohammad! why in the world then that his name is given to just about every muslim?? Mohammad is the most popular name is Islamic countries! He is idolized worse than anyone could think of. They even kill, murder, and humiliate others in his name. Isn't this the most bizzare idolatry?? Mohammed picked his so called religion from a Christian monk that tutored him and then added some dash of Judaism (hence the aversion to eating pirk), and then made up a few of his own (such as marrying four wives, one was a mere 9 year old child)! It is terrible how moslems dictate that their women are wrapped up (from head to toe) in black chador, because wonen are supposed to be subjucated by men and are there to serve men and bear children! They have an innate hatred to non-moslems, and this is preached in their mosques. Don't you notice that after Friday prayers, they go out as a mob and start strikingat yhe rest of the world? They are obviously incited to hate during their Friday prayers! It is by no mere accident that they behave as they do! Islam is built on hatred and violence! After all, Mohammed used the sword to force people to convert into islam and to submit to this so-called religion. In my book, it is no better than a made-up cult!

    September 16, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
    • niknak

      The sword has been used by all religions to force people to go along with the myth.
      They are all cults. Some just hang around longer then others.

      September 16, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
    • TJ

      good point NikNak (no pun intended)

      September 17, 2012 at 5:46 am |
    • Muslim

      Oh you poor fellow!! Weak general knowledge...atleast base your conclusions on evidence or stay mute!

      September 17, 2012 at 7:45 am |
  13. meghager

    Because they know he's a pedophile and want to continue on with his use of a 9 year old child.

    September 16, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
    • Alex

      I really don't care, and no one should; once people start dying because of Muslims' temper tantrums, their concerns lose all validation and they just look like irate, irrational monkeys killing for no good reason. In other words, I really could care less what offends and motivates murderers. And neither should you, CNN.

      September 16, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • TJ

      50% of the world is sub-100 IQ. ~16% is under 85 IQ. The lower the IQ, the easier it is to manipulate and get fired up with weird ideas. Add to that lack of education of world history, anthropology, evolution, geography, etc., and it's understandable that these people will believe any stupid stuff they're told.

      It's nice that they're so passionate about their "beliefs" that they stone people, behead them, etc. Can we just leave them to their lunacy?

      September 17, 2012 at 5:52 am |
  14. Rik

    All of the violence that has erupted over the film and, earlier, over the cartoon, only go to prove that the Islamics idolize Mohammed and will do anything to protect his image in the world. It's ironic since Mohammed instructed them to not idolize him.

    September 16, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
  15. Realist

    No human form should be presented, only Allah can do this, Iran had this famous miniature paintings, all banned now, in many muslim countries one can not bring in or buy a doll.
    No paintings , or pieces of art.
    The video only express what is known of Mohamed, he did not know his parents, he married children, non muslims should be killed.
    While veil muslim women were chanting at the USA Embassy ; Death to worshippers of the Cross' Who are the ones that disrepect? Muslims that burn Churches,Christianas are killed or forbidden to worship , death to converts.

    September 16, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  16. Catherine

    So, the scholars selected decide to discuss the Muslim prohibition on depictions of Mohammed, but chose not to try to explain that insulting him punished by death.

    September 16, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  17. Chuck

    Good 'ol CNN. Still towing the administration's line that the current upheaval in the middle east is due to that youtube film.

    September 16, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Manda

      Maybe it has something to do with those protest signs referencing the film? Just another guess...

      September 16, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  18. Manda

    "Why Muslims chafe at depictions of Mohammed...."

    Because they, like all fundamentalists, have a completely irrational concept of the universe? Just a guess...

    September 16, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  19. Jeff

    I don't understand. If the reason for the practice of no pictures of Mohammed is that it might lead to worship of a man, then how could a negative picture (that would have the exact opposite effect) fall under the practice. Doesn't make any sense so I have to believe that the anger is more based on the more emotional case of "you hurt my feelings" or "You might cause my religion to be less popular, taking away my power, so I can not permit it".

    September 16, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  20. A nation of sheep

    Enough of this BS. If the left doesn't wake up to the real threat and danger of radical Islam, we're in existential danger. The way Obama has coddled the Muslim world has only emboldened the radicals. But Obama is so smart, he surely knows what he's doing. Damn, can you imagine Obama in charge at other key moments in history? I think Obama is a reincarnated failed Roman emperor from the 4th century. The barbarians are at the gates.

    September 16, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.