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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. Evolved One

    Fine and dandy for Muslims to decry images of Mohammed within the context of their belief system but why worry about what non-believers do? Seriously, this is a religious following that has an all or nothing approach and in modern times, will clash with those of us who could not give a fig for any antiquated, inflexible belief system.

    Please, Muslims, stop worrying about us infidels and perhaps start dealing with the uneducated, misogynistic, radical elements within your own society.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • Yousif Heyden

      You can insult whomever you want in the privacy of your homes. Why do you have to publicize hate speech?

      September 13, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • Annirich

      and to think that the Dems had the Muslims praying 2 days before their convention and then took the words God and Jerusalem out of their platform. And all the Democrat Lefties booing when they were inserted back in. Obama set that up. He had those words taken out because that is his beliefs. The man is a Muslim. there is NO doubt about that.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • JPX

      Annirich writes, "and to think that the Dems had the Muslims praying 2 days before their convention and then took the words God and Jerusalem out of their platform. And all the Democrat Lefties booing when they were inserted back in. Obama set that up. He had those words taken out because that is his beliefs. The man is a Muslim. there is NO doubt about that."

      (slapping forehead) Annirich, you are so soul-suckingly stupid. It saddens me that there are so many dopes who hold your ignorant, uneducated opinions. Did you graduate from high school?

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

      In what world was what the poster said considered "hate speech"? He's absolutely right that there needs to be a reign in of the uneducated and radical element of Islam. I'm sure he would say that against any group that resorts to violence to get it's point across.

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

      True

      September 13, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Charles

      Yousif Heyden Just to be clear we need to keep our opinions to ourselves, but these ignorant animals can kill and destroy us publicly burn our flag, burn our president in effigy and yell death to America. You feel this is ok and we shouldn't say anything. I would like to say stop the crack.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • Evolved One

      Yousif......the core issue here is the depiction of Mohammed......I do not condone "insulting" anyone's core beliefs but when core belief systems become political they become fair game for commentary. People have a right to challenge someone else's belief systems. Islam does not dictate to the entire world how those dwelling on it should behave or be.

      The key concern with believers is that the "image" of Mohammed would become one symbolizng the "god".....well, by protesting depictions of Mohammed are not some Muslims already engaging in a form of Mohammed worship?

      September 13, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  2. Yousif Heyden

    Alhamdulillah, we as a family sat down together and sent 100 durood (blessings) on RasoolAllah (peace and blessings be upon him). Every Muslim family should do the same and adopt a sunnah in their lives. This is the only way shaytan and shaytan-worshippers will stop their filthy actions.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • Evolved One

      Fine, then I will invoke the spirit of my womanly will and ask of others living on this planet to stop trying to subjugate me to the will of a patriarchal god head whose existence I do not believe in and whose pull on so many I will question.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  3. Joe

    It doesn't MATTER why they don't like it. Their distaste for it doesn't justify the threats, destruction and death. Maybe CNN should start writing articles like, "why threatening and killing people is wrong, even when you're really mad"...... couldn't offend Muslims, though, right?

    September 13, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  4. bored already

    Allah molests border collies.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  5. Shine222

    So CNN admits the West, the internet, free speech, and Islam are not compatible. No kidding. What is the Islamic community doing on the Western/free speech internet anyway? They obviously need to stay off it if they don't want their sensibilities disturbed.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  6. tamtag

    Romney should not apologize. He was right, Obama needs to be tougher on the Middle East! The people who are offended by the film need to use their words, not violence, to stand up for their beliefs. The United States does not need to condemn statements or things people do that speak negative on Islam out of fear that some people think they have the right to damage property or murder people over it. Give your opinion over the stupid film, but hold others acountable for acting out in terrible ways. I have never reacted crazy over offending statements other people in America have said about my religion.

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

      Very well written. Couldn't agree more. If you don't like don't look

      September 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Evolved One

      I would bet the farm that the vast majority of the protesters have never even SEEN the film in question and are instead, like many angry folks are wont to do, just following the rabid, ill-informed pack. I am not condoning this film in any way and yes, I have seen clips of it. If you wanna protest something then protest the film's shoddy production values.

      How do some of us perceive fundamentalist religious types (or radical political types)? We see them as angry little school yard bullies but man, as soon as we call them on their nonsense they are the first ones to run home crying to "mommy".....yeah, some can dish it out but they sure can't take it.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  7. PMC

    The only real answer to this mess is to seperate Church and State. Not ever gonna happen!

    September 13, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  8. Bryansco

    Those who commit violent and deadly actions such as this because their feelings were hurt are worthless human beings. Actually, they are less than that in my opinion! Grow the F' up! People who act like this look childish by throwing a violent fit!

    September 13, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  9. Rob

    As long as there is religion, there will be this sort of lunacy. As long as there are people that are too afraid to think for themselves, they will blindly follow the brainwashing that religion pursues.

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

      I practice religon and think for myself just fine. Stop the Athiest crap. God bless the entire world.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  10. Annirich

    What hogwash. That film had NOTHING whatsoever to do with this killing. This was murder. Plain and simple. Obama and Hillary have perpetuated the Muslim Brotherhood into power. Israel will be toast. If anyone in this country re-elects this Enemy-in-Chief you will be perpetuating the death of our country.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  11. Dan

    The irony is that by getting angry and killing people when a depiction of Muhammad is made, they ARE worshiping him.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • TDHawkes

      Absolutely.

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

      Exactly.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Jonhy Cash

      How about picking about about Islam and read about Mohammad before you jump to nonsense conclusions

      September 13, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  12. Bob

    It would be nice if non-Muslims sttod as one and told these Muslims, in one voice, that freedom of speech will not be curtailed by anyone.

    Look at the fear they have created even in the West. For instance even the most outspoken comics dare not tell even a joke.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  13. Cinman

    Not much of a difference from when Christians fought each other over issues like idol worship for a few centuries. Or Christians wiping out sects that were felt to be out-of-sync with church teaching and philosophy. It was wrong then as it is wrong now regardless of the religion. Religion is often another manifestation of the humans need to rule and control and includes or sanctions the rational of violence to protect the rule/control. At times this protective religious doctrine has been a mask for our human failings of greed, prejudicial views, etc. I often feel bad for God that we use him for our own selfish ends.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  14. justplainkaren101

    This article is the biggest pile of horse crap. If they want their followers to see him as a man, not God, then they should plaster his face everywhere. We see other human beings all day every day, and believe me, I'm never tempted to see any one of them as God.

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

      I otalyagree with you. At te end of the day t is all just a steaming pie of crap and a way fo them tocontinue to abuse woman and kill for any reason.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  15. Woody Brown

    Yeah, well, how 'bout a little consistency with that 'idol worship' reasoning...I mean, they pepper their cities with posters of who ever their Grand Pooba is at any give time...all those wonder photos of Ayatollah's, Kings and Saddam.

    So find me a reason that actually holds-up.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  16. kevin in va

    Seems to me that they are already worshipping him as a god. What more proof do you need than they are spilling blood in his name. Christianity has been doing that for 2000 years.
    Organized religion is the root of ALL evil in this world (that would really PO my mother) but it does not make it any less true.

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

      If you think organized religion is the root of all evil in the world, you're hilariously mistaken. You think we have child slave labor because of religion, or money? You think we let people die of treatable diseases in Africa because of religion, or because it would cost us too much money to do something about it? You think pimps traffic underage girls because of religion, or to make money? If you think religion is the source of all evil, you're pretty ignorant of the world. Much evil does come out of religion, but it sure isn't the only, or even main cause.

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

      Actually, human nature is the root of all evil in humanity, not religion itself. Christianity doesn't teach fellow man to kill his fellow man. If you can point to one instance where Jesus preached violence, I'm all ears.

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

      Atheist stupidity yeah

      September 13, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  17. Bronky

    I love the picture of the guy holding a rock and piece of wood to protect himself. Good luck @sshole. Marines are on their way and they won't be throwing rocks when they get there.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Jonhy Cash

      you are more arrogant than that guy. The mariens have been beaten everywhere they go so shut up

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

      Yeah Catain Islam to the rescue!!

      September 13, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  18. danny

    This is your headline? What makes Muslims uspet? Are you kidding? This is good journalism? I dont care why they are upset. All I want to know is when you are going to write a reall article about the real world, and stick up for the country that helped make you rich. Go ahead and keep laying down to them CNN.

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

      correct; the MSM has done nothing but LIE as usual. And Obama? He's playing the fence game. Doesn't have time to meet with our ONLY real middle eastern ally but he has time to go play Rock Star in Vegas! What a complete traitorous enemy this guy is. Romney had it right yesterday. Obama will destroy us yet and the MSM is culpable.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  19. glades2

    As mentioned earlier, it's interesting to note that only two weeks ago the US was tested by Hurricane Isaac, and now by those who are the descendents of Ishmael, and as some also know, Abraham was the father to both Isaac and his brother of Ishmael, Ishmael considered the father of Arabian culture and the forefather of Muhammed...

    Ishmael, Ishmael – why do you persecute Me...

    September 13, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  20. Mohammed

    I don't always drink beer, but when I do, I shoot people and blow up sh_it!! Stay crazy my friends...

    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.