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Anger and violence over anti-Islam incidents
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. David

    Ok, I get that the Muslims shouldn't have rioted. On the other hand, you can't yell "fire" in a crowded theater, right? So some idiot makes a movie that gets sovereign American soil in at least two countries attacked, and results in the death of at least 4 Americans including and ambassador. How is that any different? Will he be held accountable for an egregious misuse of the 1st amendment???

    September 12, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • Jimbo

      It is different. People in the theatre feel that they are in immediate threat and danger, these mulsims are just angry. Is it the fault of the people in the US that the muslims across the sea are rabid animals?

      September 12, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • JF

      whats next, they murder another group of our people becasue we didn't follow the Koran. It's time they get to live their dream and join Allah

      September 12, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  2. Joe Smoe

    Once again we see how News Media such as CNN are simply a business. They are reporting on the hurtful acts of a movie rather than how the killing of an American Ambassador affects America and the Ambassador's family simply because if they don't, the Muslims won't allow them to report in their land anymore. CNN isn't some organization dedicated to truth but merely an organization trying to line it's own pockets with money.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  3. sdfsf

    This film was made by a Jew, an "Israeli-American".
    Ofcourse it was!

    September 12, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  4. Wilder Napalm

    Koran burning tonight at my house BYOB, Korans will be furnished free of charge. There will also be an art contest portraying Muhammad eating a BLT. Winner gets a side of bacon.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • Eric Hill

      I always wondered where all those who can no longer post on Fox News went.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  5. DC

    You know, if people would just keep their opinions to themselves on both religion and politics, more than half the planets issues would go away.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  6. Major

    If Mohammed was "just a man", then that means he is subject to ridicule. Muslims should applaud anything that treats him in a non-reverential way and only oppose depictions that treat him as untouchable and sacred, based on Mohammed's own words.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  7. Damien1103

    Who cares about their sensitivity. People all over the world are at the end of their rope with Muslims and their so called "sensitivity".

    September 12, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  8. Humanity

    This is what happens if people take scriptures in religious teachings literally including Christians. The world will never see peace when the whole humanity still has her ego!!!!!! If love and compassion rule then we will see light at the end of the tunnel. This kind of news is very expected.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  9. Chuckhashman

    Criticism is the only way to the truth!! No one who ever lived on this Earth is perfect!! Islamic people have no right to be mad-all it does is depict them as barbarians and idiots! The Islamic people must beware of Satan and his crew of goons who are out to destroy all mankind!! This is the truth and their intent is to push mankind away from GOD and have them fight among themselves over religion and differences!yaaaaaaa

    September 12, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  10. niti

    CNN chooses the word sensitive, are you kidding me CNN?? There is no sensitivity here, we are dealing with a demonic hatred toward freedom and free world, I am not surprised by CNN trying to play down insanity and evil...very bad CNN! But if it concerns Christians, then CNN is gonna come and attack them for being biased or who knows what

    September 12, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  11. Joe Losiak

    Sensitive is the wrong word. Your memories forget so much, like the medical team that came to Afghanistan to help. Evil in their hearts comes out often. You guys are out of it.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  12. Chuckhashman

    Criticism is the only way to the truth!! No one who ever lived on this Earth is perfect!! Islamic people have no right to be mad-all it does is depict them as barbarians and idiots! The Islamic people must beware of Satan and his crew of goons who are out to destroy all mankind!! This is the truth and their intent is to push mankind away from GOD and have them fight among themselves over religion and differences!

    September 12, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  13. dd

    I think Muslims are still living in the 7th century. They are about 1300 years behind human civilization. An alien life form might even consider them dumb animals. Muslims clearly kill people indiscriminately with more fervor than a crocodile. So Muslims are below crocs on the evolutionary ladder.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  14. Alice

    It happened on 9/11. Do we really believe this was because of a film?

    September 12, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  15. jimbob

    "...depicts the Prophet Mohammed as a child molester, womanizer and ruthless killer..."

    But he was all those things!

    September 12, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  16. Truth Hurts, Doesn't it?

    All you guys who are offended by this (genuine) article from CNN, i highly recommend you to go and watch FoxNews. They will broadcast what you want to see (Lots n Lots of Romney)

    September 12, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • Eric

      What Truth? That Muslims are murderers? Nobody is doubting the "truth" of the article that muslims are sensitive about depictions of their so-called prophet. What people are upset about is the sensless slaughter of innocent people.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  17. Amr Azim

    Why is it so hard for the people of the West to realize that it is common courtesy to be respectful of All Prophets? You do not see a Muslim making a YouTube movie about Jesus or Moses?

    September 12, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • Bee

      Go ahead and make a movie about Jesus or Moses. It has been done many times. In an open society, you do not kill people because they tell the truth or their version of the truth. It's called freedom of speech.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Eric Hill

      It's called hypocrisy. But shhhhh. Don't let anyone else know.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Sir

      I personally watched your fine youg Muslims roast 3000 people alive.

      Just remember, it dosen't matter who started it, all that matters is who is left standing at the end.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Eric

      Why is it so hard for Muslims to understand that it is unconscionable and damnable to kill innocent people because someone else depicted their prophet? And why is it so hard for Muslims to respect freedom of speech? And why is it so hard for Muslims to understand that they are not the only religion in the world, And why is .....

      September 12, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • cedest

      It isn't a traditional standard, though, that when common courtesy is violated that we...oh...I don't know...threaten to kill the person who violated it...and then...well...actually try to kill them. That seems a bit of a significant difference in the approach being taken here...

      As an example:
      Did you know you can find a Jesus butt-plug? I'm serious – it actually exists as a product. I'm not particularly religious (although I have faith) and I was speechless. It's reprehensible, waaay beyond disrespect, and so on. And you don't find anyone burning down and threatening to kill the employees of the company...and then...well...actually carrying through on that threat.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • David

      Your request for respect is appreciated, but not persuasive. We may be 'asked' to show respect, but that is merely a politely couched DEMAND to conform with your ideas of respect – whether or not we feel you and your religion are even worthy of that respect. The consequences for failure to conform are pretty evident.

      For a religion that follows the same god that carved into stone the commandment "Thou shalt not kill", your fellow believers sure do a lot of it.

      But hmmm... If you are killing, not because your god was insulted, not because your religion was insulted, but because a MAN was insulted, doesn't that mean you have elevated this MAN to be above your religion and god?

      September 12, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  18. tgregory

    "The Prophet himself was aware that if people saw his face portrayed by people, they would soon start worshiping him."

    Wait. So they're NOT worshipping him by making him so important that they will kill others for simply showing a picture of him?

    Kinda sounds like worship to me.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • Mkat2

      'Logic' is an alien concept in the Middle East!

      September 12, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  19. Bill henderson

    I don't give a rat's behind why muslims are sensitive hoe Mohammed is portrayed. Jesus is mocked daily and you don't see Christians attacking embassies and such. Muslims need to get over themselves.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  20. Armed Liberal

    I say: Get over it, muslims, your so-called religion is why thousands of Americans died and why your radicals keep killing in the name of. Consider American culture the thorn in your foot that will never be removed. Get over it, you anti gay, anti Christian, anti Jew, backwards people. We will never yield!

    September 12, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • Shakira

      Yea I mean America isn't anti-gay, or anti-black, or anti-immigrant right. How many innocent Muslims have died due to American bombs?

      September 12, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • LOL

      Shakira, Obviously not enough... lmao

      September 12, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
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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.