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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. Zero Gods

    Sigh.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  2. Speck Nitty

    So, the argument is that in order to have him not be overly praised they decided to not draw him. How does this affect the rest of us? folks mocking the prophet are in no danger of this. Also, by making him the only human that nobody should ever draw, they have essentially jumped the shark init? he is now by definition, super human as there are different rules surrounding his name, image, message etc... much like a god oddly enough. I guess the truth is I do not buy this as an explaination for the current outrage. It just sounds more pallatable.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  3. Billy

    Just one more example of the undeveloped mind. The Arabic cultures have existed far longer than the Anglo-Saxon cultures, yet one visit to any of their countries and you would think you had gone back in time 100 years. You can not help those that do not understand/

    September 13, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  4. Kim

    Geez already! So they don't like it. Why can't they just be normal about it?! Why ALWAYS all the drama ...and chaos?! It's a freakin' movie. E-N-T-E-R-T-A-I-N-M-E-N-T. Lighten up.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  5. sweebach

    Hitler was a Christian.

    If you say "no, he did not act like one", then concede that extremist "Muslims" do not act like Muslims.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • lionhart

      Excellent point!!!

      September 13, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Paul

      That would be great, except one guy, a kind of hippy socialist, said "turn the other cheek." You know, groove and love and all that, agape. The other said, "kill the unbeliever where you find them. Smite them on their necks. Do not befriend the Christian nor the Jew." And a host of other love-blossoms to humanity. Willing to admit there's a difference (says a socialist atheist)?

      September 13, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • sweebach

      I am curious about your points. . . . can you point to verses in the Quran? Also, are you saying that there are no words of peace in the Quran?

      Yes, I rather like Jesus . . . I only wish Christians were as interested in his teachings as much as his death.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Derrek

      Adolf Hitler was raised by a Christian Catholic father and a devout Catholic mother; he ceased to participate in the sacraments after childhood. Prior to World War II Hitler had promoted "positive Christianity", a movement which purged Christianity of its Jewish elements and instilled it with Nazi philosophy. So as you can see, these extremist are using a page from their hero who successfully merged religion and Nazi philosophy to indoctrinate millions into the Nazi philosophy. I see no difference between the Nazis and these Islamic extremist. It worked for Hitler and they believe it should work for them.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • pippin

      If these Muslims are extemist then why don't 'regular, everyday and peaceful' Muslims condemn these actions?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • sweebach

      . . . go to YouTube and search for "Muslims condemn terrorism" . . . you'll see that the voices of peace are not so widely publicized as those who make violence . . .

      September 13, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • rogerr

      Difference between Hitler and the muslim faith in this case is that Hitler did not believe it was God's plan to eugenically cleanse the German people. In the case of the Muslim faith, one of the tennents is Jihad, Holy War (God's will) to forcably convert people to their religion. Hence Islam=Violence

      September 13, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Speck Nitty

      The problem is that extremists within islam have power. Christian extremists have been largely marginalized by the moderates and "pastors" preaching intolerance are frowned upon. I realize this occurs in islam as well, but the loudest, most intimidating and clearest voice is that of the extremists. The moderate population is not capable, confident, or organized enough to outdo them yet. Or they are complacent like moderates tend to be... as moderates. It similar to the gangsterism that cripples poor communities... most are not criminals but the criminals draw all the attention that the community gets.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  6. Joe from CT, not Lieberman

    Their decrying of images is rather ironic considering the 10 foot high posters they tend to carry with various religious and political leaders. Reminds me of the "Cult of Personality" most noted in the old Soviet Union and in the Maoist era of China. You still see evidence of this in North Korea and Iran. Also, during the Iraq occupation it was not unknown to see the Sadrists carrying posters of Muqtada al-Sadr and his late father Sadeq al-Sadr.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  7. XFactor

    Islam is a religion of violence. It gives carte blanche to zealots to do ANYTHING to "non believers". Stick that in your hookah and smoke it.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • lionhart

      Christianity is also a religion with a violent past.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      The doctrine of "Cognite Intrare" was pushed by Saint Augustine – who was most assuredly not a muslim.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Paul

      Wondering why anything that happened a millennium ago has relevance to the here and now. Believe what you will – but allow others to believe what they will, without fear of harm, 'kay?

      September 13, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • pippin

      Lionheart, you're right! Christinaity DOES have a violent past as most religeons do. But we're talking hundreds of years ago. Surely leassons have been learned ovet time. We are supposed to live in a civilized society now. please tell your fellow worshipers to come into the 20th century so we can all live in peace.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  8. Ahmed

    It is easy to curse/lie/slander and run away. This incites hatred. The purpose of this mockery is not to openly discuss differences in beliefs, but to curse and mock. These non-Muslims can't tolerate the truth of Islam, so they resolve to such filthy actions. Muslims are not allowed to make fun of other relgions. May be this is why a large number of people convert to Islam every year from every country in the world. The good news out of all of this is that Muslims love their Prophet of God, and this love will only increase because of such hatred in the media.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Yousif Heyden

      Amen. All of this prooves one thing for sure that non-Muslims don't have the concept of love. They don't love anything or anybody in their lives as much as Muslims love their religion (although they might not follow it, which is why they are getting beat up). So. injustice, hate, lies and mockery towards an innocent and beloeved Prophet of God, will only result in such reactions. Muslims shoudn't react violently, but answer to these acts of devil-worshippers by following the Sunnah.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • t

      Roght. Sure muslims aren' allowed to poke fun of other religions. But they are allowed to send people packing bombs in the name of their false god to blow them away.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • Paul

      Tell you what. Believe what you will. And allow others to do the same, 'kay, "sticks and stones" and all that?

      September 13, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • kiwisepp

      Looking at the way Islam treats women, I will never let my daughter have anything to do with Islam.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Dyler Turden

      Muslims aren't allowd to make fun of other religions. But they ARE allowed to kill their followers. Got it.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • pippin

      Yousif Heyden: I'm still trying to work out what part of your faith of love allows you to sanction fellow Muslims to blow yourselves up killing innocent people just because they don't folow the same beliefs?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  9. Rick McDaniel

    Precisely why he should NOT be revered. He was just a man.......a man who convinced others that he had special qualities that he did NOT have.

    ALL religions were invented by humans......not because they were called by God, but because they wanted to control others! ALL religion is nothing but a control device to control the behavior of others.

    What is needed now, is sensibility........something that Islam lacks!

    September 13, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Speck Nitty

      "ALL religions were invented by humans......not because they were called by God, but because they wanted to control others!" – Money was created for that same reason.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  10. J.G,

    Laurie in Spokane, You just said it right. If you feel secured in your beliefs, then no matter how much you are attacked, you don't sway. Getting upset every now and then – which will happen often in this age of free expressions, shows your understandings and beliefs in your religion are not strong.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  11. Muhammad Johnson

    So how long will it be before the Islamic population of the United States demands a change in our laws banning any negative reference to their prophet or religion. Do we give up our free speech rights to placate one particular religion ? I do believe we are on a slippery slope if we do. At one time people came here , assimilated and went about their lives. Not so much anymore. We are fast becoming a nation of hypenated Americans.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  12. Glenn

    Bring home our fellow Americans keep them safe and let us rebuild our economy make this country stronger , rich in feedom, hope and faith. Let the middle east handle their own problems. We should be less dependent on their oil and let us start using all the resources we have. I know we have it its just this big oil company and some politicians who is after the money flowing in replacement o the blood of the innocent civilians, for the sake of who ever is getting rich and greedy.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  13. Rick

    Hey Muslims! You have been lied to all your life........

    September 13, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  14. Peg - AZ

    The article says, "The movie was made by Sam Bacile, an Israeli-American real-estate developer, according to the Wall Street Journal." but when I listened to the news yesterday, it seems as if everyone was saying his guy does not exist – if someone created a fake Israeli to incite Muslim violence – doesn't that seem like someone is trying to start a religious war? To intensify tensions on purpose – this is serious – really serious – I sure hope they catch this group or individual who did this – sounds like they are out to get both Jews and Muslims

    September 13, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • Rick

      You dont see whats going on? This is AQ work...They are trying to start a war. IEDs are next

      September 13, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  15. Steve Schoner

    Read the Koran, as I have, from page one to the very bitter end. If doing so you will see why the acts of violence are apparent on TV and the widespread media. Islam needs to mature, live the faith, and endure ridicule as most other faiths have. The Middle Ages are over, yet can be revived, there are better days ahead if we chose the right path.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  16. lionhart

    The Muslim faith is one of the oldest in history. People have been studying and worshiping it for centuries just like people have been worshiping Christianity for centuries. All of a sudden the Muslim faith is bad and they are trying to take over the world!!! That's crazy talk!!! What we do you is there is someone in the USA that put out a film trashing the Muslim faith. What do you expect would happen?

    September 13, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • lionhart

      I meant to say is "what we do know"

      September 13, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Paul

      I'm afraid it's not "all of a sudden." Please explain how one tolerates something that declares "befriend neither the Christian nor the Jew..."; that makes the penalty for changing one's mind – something that is considered a fundamental right in western democracies – to be death. Death, for changing one's mind. And dozens of others. Please explain why we should have anything other than repugnance for such a creed.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Rick

      The problem is that is all they have been studying for 1000s of years..They need edudcation

      September 13, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • pippin

      Sam: WE didn't kill 50 million Indians (where did you get that info?) in the name of Christinaity. War's were declared because county's were being attacked and Millions of people were being killed by a terrible dictator. You see, unlike Islamic countries we don't stand back and turn a blind eye when we see atrocities going on in the world. We didn't do it when we saw millions of muslims suffering and being slaughtered in the former Balcons and Serbia.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • rogerr

      What did we expect would happen?...lets think...well maybe not kill innocent people...that's a start.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  17. Sid

    Muslims don't have to worry. After watching Muhammed in Simon Bicel's film no right minded human will worship him as a human let alone God

    September 13, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  18. rogerr

    The Muslim people (currently living in the Middle East) are the most ignorant people alive. Their governments cannot keep the peace amongst their own population because they are so weak. And they are so entrenched in a false religion that they are willing to murder innocent people because of some misplaced sense of social justice. They should be ostrasized, cut off from all aid and left to rot as the rest of the world continues to progress. It is the cancer of the human race.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • AndrewC

      Well, it seems you've proven that ignorance is not exclusive to any one religion, ethnicity or national origin.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Salc

      Your comment is ignorant and racist. You sound like the Romans trying to exterminate the Christians, Or the Christians going after the Muslims in the Middle ages, or the Nazis after the Jews., etc etc

      September 13, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • rogerr

      haha, I'm Muslim living in America...hance why I placed the geolocation on the statement. the Muslims in the Mid East believe ina false sense of the Muslim religion. Eat me AndrewC

      September 13, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • rogerr

      To Salc, I may sound upset with the Middle Eastern Muslim population, but you know what sets me apart from them? I'm not killing innocent people. So I guess that gives me the moral high ground to call them backwards. F U

      September 13, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  19. Don

    God is love. Acts of violence and persecution have nothing to do with God but are acts of the natural man that has not been enlightened spiritually. "Love your enemies, Bless them that curse you, do good unto them that hate you, and pray for those that despitefully use you, and persecute you". If everyone followed the teachings of Christ, the world would be a much better place.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  20. dave

    world – Muslims = peace

    September 13, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      @Dave
      Just ask the IRA how it is to live in a muslim-free country devoid of violence.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Paul

      @Doc: ...and the award for the most ridiculous attempt at an analogy goes to.....

      September 13, 2012 at 11:48 am |
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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.