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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. none

    Good luck to you Truth – in the Barazakh.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  2. Doc Vestibule

    ASCII stupid question, get a stupid ANSI...

    September 13, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  3. Paro

    This is very strange. You would think that most important charcteristic to judge humans would be their character, education, behavior, hard worker, honesty, humility etc. But it seems to be Islam is saying it is who or what you worship?

    That seems to be the cause of problem. Islam and Muslims are first and foremost judging people by who they worship.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  4. A Frayed Knot

    @none,

    Mohammad married Ayesha when she was SIX and consummated (s3x) when she was NINE. He was in his 50s. Barf!

    September 13, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  5. Alex

    So the entirety of the Muslim religion could be put in jeopardy if the Prophet Mohamed is depicted visually because Muslims may start to worship a man? Maybe it's just me but I think the Muslim religion will be just fine if some pictures and video depictions of the Prophet are created. At least here in the United States laws are not bound to religious doctrine. If someone wants to depict the Prophet in picture or film, they can. Anyone who is sensible and educated should understand and respect that, just like we all should respect each others individual beliefs, be them religious in nature or not.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  6. Steve

    I get the Muslims were offended. One person offended them, so they commit murder on someone who did not offend them and burn our embassies? They have lost any legitimacy to claim Islam is a peaceful religion in my view. They will reap what they have sewn.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • toosie

      Has any of you watched the "movie"? I did and I can't belive that these people are so upset because one person made a stupid movie and it is stupid and is the cause of all this trouble. You know how people say all the time "one person can change the world" well folks you have it right here. I feel the US should take all of our people out of the Middle East and let them fight their own battles. I am so sick of hearing that we have given help to these countries and we get slapped in the face all the time. Let them fight their own battles with each other and see how long they last.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Chat Pata

      Given the fact that the demonstrators did not launch the rocket attack, and given the fact that we armed Al-Qaeida against Gaddafi, comes the fact that we got him killed to attack Libya and take control of their oil, just like British got Christian priests killed in Africa before raiding their land for tusks and timber.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  7. rim

    The movie after review is Ugly as a behavior, but the shame that everything they said we found in your Quran, so you should do anything to stop this massacre. Not the movie!

    September 13, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  8. People need to think

    This is about more than just a video,start dropping bombs on them and this might not just be limited to the middle east.You people need to think about the world your kids who you claim to love is going to grow up in. Will it be guns and gated communities because they are scared to walk out the door.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  9. temp

    Wow! They kill people, and Americans are supposed to be worried obout how these loons are offended by movies and cartoons. What is America thinking?

    September 13, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • Chat Pata

      You need to know what we do to get the other guy angry enough to hurt us. However the Israeli and oil lobbies will never let you know the real facts.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  10. pat

    Photocopy it and staple it to all the telephone poles.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  11. M. Meric

    I just watched the Dan Giloff video. He completely left out the place Islam got the prohibition against depicting the The Prophet in a graven image: JUDAISM! They got it from the Jews. But G-d forbid CNN mentions that there is a religion which preceeded Islam and that does not kill and maim over it. The REAL question, CNN, the question the video did not ask or answer is: Why does Islam allow this kind of violence over this and, if it's only some within Islam that saction it, where are the others who should be standing up against it?

    September 13, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  12. Stating the obvious

    I DONT GET IT >when arabs attack us, we are not allowed to think that the problem is the whole arab world,instead its a so-called "isolated,fringe group of terrorists and it has 'nothing' to do with islam"..which we play along with and dont go after random arabs .But when a random american makes some random film ,the arabs go and kill our people,random americans and chant "death to America ",The WHOLE America ,not just the ones they are accusing.

    Hmmmm this gets me thinking ...maybe the problem actually is Islam in general......

    September 13, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • Stating the obvious

      And even if they arent killing our people,they are still chanting death to america and burning the stars and stripes .Imagine if the american would be chanting "death to arabs " and burning their flag! HaHa the reaction on the arabs part would be comically and drastically different from our Non-reaction .

      September 13, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  13. .

    SCREW IGNORANT AZZ'S LIKE YOU
    SCREW YOUR STUPIDITY
    SCREW YOUR RE-POSTS
    SCREW YOUR DUMB POSTS

    GROW UP!

    September 13, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  14. Sceptic

    In that case why are the muslims reacting violently to other people. They don't even have the excuse of saying blasphemy.
    In Pakistan, insulting the prophet gets you death for blasphemy. How is that? This is not even researched properly.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  15. Dan

    Who cares! I learned everything about Islam I needed to know on 9/11/2001 and it goes on and on !

    September 13, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      @Dan
      Then you're OK if middle-easterners learn everything they need to know about America and Christianity from unmanned drones killing civilians?

      September 13, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • .

      I learned everything about Christianity I needed to know when they killed over 2/3 of the Native Americans, lied and invaded Iraq killing over a hundred thousands innocent civilians! Don't even get me started on all the pedophiles in your religion!

      September 13, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • Luke

      You guys make all the analogies you want but at the end of the day NO ONE CARES ANYMORE in the U.S. Do you get that? Pointing out other atrocities is not going to make us pause and reconsider, that day has passed. People have had enough in the U.S. and there is no longer a middle ground or gray area when it comes to where we stand on the Middle East.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  16. Fred

    C-rapola Chris!!!...now I've started worshipping your comment.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  17. C'mon

    "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."...so, violence and murder are not an affront to Allah, but any depiction or portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed is? C'mon, really? Why are people so quick to accept ridiculous notions rather than common sense. Senseless acts of religious violence, regardless of the religion, are the product of fanatics and extremists who can claim no legitimate connection to any "God". Though I am not an expert on different notions of "God" around the world, common sense dictates that any such deity would not endorse an act of violence perpetuated in its name. It's senseless murder with justifications no more valid than any other act of murder in human history. Stop making these things out to be about religious intolerance when they are really about human intolerance.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  18. muffin72

    How about they decry blowing people up instead of pictures of mohamutt

    September 13, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  19. Nicole Chardenet

    I get that depictions of the prophet are offensive. But damn, people, what's up with all the violence?!?! Why is violence the answer to everything in the Middle East? Someone draw a cartoon you don't like? Violence! Don't like a beauty contest in Africa? Violence! Somebody burnt a few pages of a holy book? Violence! Did your daughter backtalk you? Violence! Don't like a movie that looks like it was made by a semi-literate eighth grader? VIOLENCE, MORE VIOLENCE! Funny how we don't have these problems nearly as much with Muslims in Western countries, because they know they can't get away with this s**t*. The men also do a much better job of controlling themselves around scantily-clad women, I've noticed, when they have to fear jail time or fines for the s**t they get away with in their own countries.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • jwood

      Well said, well said, WELL SAID! I agree totally.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  20. GonzoG

    IMHO, the Almighty can take care of His own slights and insults by mere mortals–He does not need puny humans to fight His battles.

    We have enough problems on Planet Earth to solve without attempting to do damage control for Heaven.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:27 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.