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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. vmitchell

    Yes, let's look for a way to again blame this on the US or Americans, trivialize another violent attack in the name of Islam, demonize those who are horrified yet again by Islamic terror, and try as they must to 'understand' why all their hate and violence is due to the evil that is America, bravo CNN, bravo

    September 12, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Isiah 40:22

      CNN is not the problem son, the problem is a failure to communicate with Muslims....

      we need to slam Muhammad and islam till they like it.. 🙂 🙂 🙂

      September 12, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Elvira Gulch

      Isiah
      "we need to slam Muhammad and islam till they like it."

      You do that. Then we'll do you next... and your little god too...(**cackle**) 😈

      September 12, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Eric

      LOL Elvira!

      September 12, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  2. Eric

    Just a BS excuse. Plain and simple. This is not idol worship, nor is it worthy of acting like an ignorant animal in response. A growing number in the West see the ME as full of terrorists bent on killing non-Muslims. Killing teachers, construction workers, and other "evil-doers" feeds this stereotype. If muslims don't agree with that stereotype, which is what they all keep saying on tv today, then stand up and do something about these people that have hijacked your religion. Extremism can't survive and thrive without a great amount of support. Let's not forget Cairo either. I don't think I have seen any condemnation by Morsi of the attack on the embassy there. Not as extreme, but still condoning the action.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Isiah 40:22

      slam Islam and Muhammad 24/7
      till they like it... 🙂 🙂 🙂

      September 12, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Eric

      To clarify, I'm not slamming Islam. Nor would I ever. I'm slamming the people that let extremism become the face of their culture and religion by standing on the sidelines.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • KAN85

      Totally agree. Cheap excuse.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  3. Rob

    The notion of idol worship being at the root of yet another tragic Muslim overreaction isn't compelling in the least. These people are rooted in the world of a thousand years ago, and nothing is going to change that. In my mind there is no other modern religion that has such a dangerous and violent faction.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Isiah 40:22

      The Muslim religion can be easily destroyed by that wisdom from above ... I dare say that it shall be defeated by such...
      Jesus Christ is the wisdom from above ... he is sat down at the right hand of God ... laughing at his enemies who are in derison ... 🙂 🙂 🙂 Christiasn should be rejoicing too... 🙂 LOL I said should be! 🙂

      September 12, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  4. Juneyt

    ****The movie was made by Sam Bacile, an Israeli-American real-estate developer, according to the Wall Street Journal****

    WHAT A SURPRISE!! Interesting timing to provoke people on both sides of the Ocean when Netanyahu is trying to influence US to attack on Iran, and trying to influence the US Public!!!

    September 12, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Isiah 40:22

      if they want to get the timing right they'll need some referees 🙂 🙂
      I support Sam and I wish I could help him...in his endeavors....

      freedom of speech is what we need to enforce here in THIS COUNTRY !!!!
      I respect no religion I hate fundamentaist Christianity almost as much as Islam and their false prophet Muhammed ... 🙂 🙂

      I love the wisdom from above which is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be intreated ,full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and with out hypocisy ....fundamentalist Christians would do so well to learn this.... 🙂

      September 12, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  5. bkuhn

    Islam is an offense to humanity.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Isiah 40:22

      ROFLOL Humanity is an offence to Islam 🙂 🙂 🙂

      September 12, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  6. Thomas

    Central tenet of Islam.....How about this for a "Central Tenet of the civilized world": Don't blow up innocent people.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  7. fatal42

    Mohammed was a pedophile, a filthy slimmy pedophile!!!

    September 12, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • .

      The Christian God was a rapist, so what's your point?

      September 12, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • LetsThink123

      THe point is that child marriage (see child brides in Yemen and other places being married to wealthy older men who are 50+) and abuse of women (beating ur wife under Sharia law which comes from the quran, see quran sura 4:34 -> a man must not be asked why he beat his wife) are STILL being practiced today in these middle eastern countries. This is because muham_mad did the same and these people r still living in the dark ages following him. There is no comparison in this regard to modern day christianity, and im not even christian.

      September 17, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  8. Dude

    Well, just like American have values they don't like others to question, so does everyone else in the world. And, we are part of this world and we don't like insulting our prophet. If you have a beef with some of us, then deal with it at that level.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  9. roadkilled

    Does anyone remember the buzz over "The Last Temptation of Christ"? At least the fundamentalists didn't kill over it, that I'm aware of.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  10. Pendy

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

    Add to that, an illiterate who needed a steno in the cave with him to take down his "revelations". A true arab red-neck Billy Bob.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • Isiah 40:22

      🙂 🙂 🙂

      September 12, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  11. Thomas

    Muslim extremeist: Stop blowing the legs off of children, and then we can talk about this. If you want people to quit poking fun at the prophet, all you have to do is stop the violence, and the world will be much more eager to listen.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  12. James

    But lets all notice that the propaganda ministry at CNN wants to blame the ones who insult Islam and not the ones who perform the acts of murder.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • Dude

      CNN just reporting facts. You calim Muslim teach their kids to hate the west. Look around for the past 30 years, your media, schools, post secondary school, and social media promoted hate against muslims and Islam.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • Isiah 40:22

      @dude .. you can't blame that on us... America did no evenknow of islam until the murder of RFK by sirhan sirhan ..
      the olympic hostage taking and murder of Israeli athlethes in Bonn... we knew nothing of Islam untill the Iranian takeover of our embassy in Teheran, and 444 day's before their release ... we knew nothing of Islam until we saw those little Palestiania children in mock up suicide vests on 9/11 in the aftermath of that day...traing their children to hate ... othrs who are differentadn we see those fruits continue to this day ....

      and it will take the wisdom of Jesus Christ to disarm Islam...

      September 12, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • .

      Isiah 40:22 thanks for showing the world how uneducated Americans really are.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  13. roadkilled

    Does anyone remember the buzz over "The Last Temptation of Christ"? At least the fundamentalists didn't kill over it, that I'm awareof.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  14. Jack 3

    These commentors seem to think that Muslims ahve the right to kill because christians did so a thousand years ago. i don't care when a christian killed it doesn't give anyone the right to kill. What a lame excuse for the evil actions of murderers

    September 12, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  15. NukeTim

    My now deceased brother converted to Islam. After that, he was totally disrespectful of our Catholic religion. He did not observe traditional holidays.

    The funny thing was that he EXPECTED us to respect his new religion.

    He was crazy, and I told him just that. DON'T DISH OUT ANYTHING THAT YOU CAN'T TAKE....

    Unfortunately he went to his grave not understanding that....

    Far too many Muslims think that it is THEIR way or the highway; these folks have no flexibility whatsoever.

    PS: there are no virgins in Hell....

    September 12, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  16. Norman

    Why are they sensitive? You really want to know? THEY ARE F..KING IMMATURE!!

    September 12, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Isiah 40:22

      and they will remain that way throughout their entire islamic life and pass that germ onto the next generation of Islamics...
      lets admit it ... suicide bominbing is fun if you are inclined to believe that lie.... 🙂 🙂 🙂

      September 12, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  17. Jeffrey

    Why would the 'religion of peace' kill someone simply because they were American?

    September 12, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      Any religion that claims to be a 'religion of peace' probably isn't since most religions have very violent tenets.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Isiah 40:22

      Christianity is completely nonviolent ...

      any Christain who says and demonstrates differently shall be executed when he finds himself on the left side in the Judgment..and described as a goat 🙂
      it's not funny sorry 😦

      September 12, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  18. Patrick

    Why Muslims are sensitive about honor killings, stonings, beheadings, child marriage, genital mutilation, acid attacks ...such a lovely group they are

    September 12, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  19. DJohnson

    You can take the Muslim out of the 8th century, but you can take the 8th century out of the Muslim.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • Dude

      You are retarted.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • TX Red

      Retarted: removing something from a tart, then putting it back in. Does that make it more delicious?

      September 12, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Isiah 40:22

      🙂 🙂 🙂
      well at least there is something funny to come out of all this...
      Islam is a tradgedy upon the Human Race

      September 12, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  20. Tgallant

    "Muslims celebrating 9/11 the traditional way...killing Americans." – AOS

    September 12, 2012 at 3:25 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.