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. m123

    These apologists never cease to make me laugh
    You ever hear of freedom of speech?
    You are a coward for not supporting it

    September 12, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  2. Bob the Cat

    A MURDEROUS RAGE is not "sensitivity".

    September 12, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Larry Clinton

      Very well-stated Bob.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  3. NoLimey

    Obama and the Democrats have been inflaming Muslims by constantly boasting about killing Osama Bin Laden. It was mentioned TWENTY ONE times at the Democrat convention. The demonstraters in Egypt were shouting "We are all Osamas, Obama"!

    September 12, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • MrsFizzy

      And... you think a Republican president would not have mentioned it???

      September 12, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • sybaris

      By your logic we are supposed to do what the Muslims want and not speak about it.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  4. MrsFizzy

    Nice try... you can't explain this behavior away as "sensitivity".

    September 12, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  5. AvdBerg

    The Ambassador’s killing was a culmination of the rising and increasing tensions between civilizations in a divided world. For a better understanding of the history of Islam and the Middle East we invite you to read the articles ‘World History and Developments in the Middle East’ and ‘Clash of Civilizations’, listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    All of the other pages and articles listed on our website explain how and by whom this whole world has been deceived as confirmed in Revelation 12:9.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Bob the Cat

      hoo-boy, nuts much?

      September 12, 2012 at 3:47 pm |

      This poster is a TROLL on this blog, they are only here to sell their lies and book to support their cult. Click the report abuse link to get rid of this TROLL!

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

    Could you imagine what would happen in the west if Christians acted violently to every display or mention of Jesus that was not 100% respectful? There was a Jesus in a bottle filled with urine submitted as an object of art, which was pathetic, but I don't recall any violence. Standup comics would be murdered just for good-natured teasing.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  7. FoolKiller

    “The movie was made by Sam Bacile, an Israeli-American real-estate developer”. So why didn’t the Muslims attack Israeli embassies too? Oh, that’s right… because they are homicidal, not suicidal.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  8. Just Some Guy

    In the West, we have jokes, cartoons, sketch comedy, about Jesus. Some is meant to be respectful...a lot isn't. But practicing, believing Christians seem to generally understand that some are not going to worship Jesus they way they do. I've seen depictions of Jesus (many negative) all over the internet, on Family Guy, in off-color jokes, everywhere.

    Why do only Muslims get so offended that they issue death warrants when this happens? Why do Christians, for the most part, seem to shrug it off?...or, at the worst, write a nasty letter to the editor? If Muslims want to be considered a faith based in peace then they need to stop getting so offended so easily? Some obscure movie that less than 100 people in American even knew existed caused this level of killing and violence in Libya and Egypt? Why didn't they simply denounce it as the hateful drivel it is? They go from zero to fatwa pretty fast.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • NoLimey

      I think Obama and the Democrats have been inflaming Muslims by constantly boasting about killing Osama Bin Laden. It was mentioned TWENTY ONE times at the Democrat convention. The demonstraters in Egypt were shouting "We are all Osamas, Obama"!

      September 12, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  9. Bobandi

    someone should create a comic book about mohammad licking nuttsacks.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  10. Bob the Cat

    Those muslim counter protests were a relief to see... oh, what... oh, whatever...

    September 12, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  11. ScottCA

    Isn't religion beautiful never a limit in excuses to kill other people and yet still somehow feel you are being morally correct.

    Time to drive this parasite out of the world. Religion can no longer be tolerated.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Dudus57

      Amen... oh wait. BUT YES!!!! I Agree 100%. It's an excuse, and this INCLUDES all you Americans out there thinking the scientific world sees you as different form the Muslims. You are no different, you just happen to live in a place where doing this wouldn't be tolerated, thank goodness or you's be out hunting my head right now with pitch folks and torches.

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

      Your religion bashing is so boring.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  12. Saby

    It's clear that whether they like it or not it has turned into an idolatry. If he is just a man then why make such a big deal about a joke about him? Why murder people? He is obviously worshipped by Muslims. Was he not a sinner like any other man?

    September 12, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • ScottCA

      They actually believe he was the perfect man, the one all people should strive to emulate.

      But all religons are the same. They are all based in lies with no evidence to support them. Ignorance is dangerous.

      Faith requires one to believe in something even in the absence of evidence and in the presence of evidence to the contrary. This suppression of the minds ability to logically reason leads to belief in untruths that send ripples of distortion into every area of examination and study. This in turn leads to political and social decisions based in misinformation. The end result is the suffering of people.

      Examples are 9/11 hijackings, The holding back of stem cell research that could save countless human lives, Aids being spread due to religious opposition to the use of condoms, Christians legally fighting this year to teach over 1 million young girls in America that they must always be obedient to men, the eroding of child protection laws in America by Christians, for so called faith based healing alternatives that place children's health and safety at risk, burning of witches, the crusades, The Nazi belief that the Aryans were gods chosen to rule the world, etc… But who cares about evidence in the real world when we have our imaginations and delusions about gods with no evidence of them existing.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Acdsasf

      Hey Scott, how about giving the author of your post credit?

      September 12, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Larry Clinton

      Nice broad brush stroke Scott CA. Just as ignorant as the fanatical Muslims who blame ALL Americans for the actions of some.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  13. Dan

    I believe Islam is a "cult", and its followers have been brain washed by the Prophet Mohammed teachings. He was a false teacher and a liar. The Koran is a bunch of lies who deceive people to kill in the name of ALLAH. Islam is not a peaceful religion ! I think we have seen that when they burn and bomb church's all over the world especially in Muslim Countries, but remember to them that's "okay", but when someone talks about their precious false Prophet Mohammand then they want to go to war. The best things Muslims can do is forsake Islam and find a new path. Murder, and demeaning women is not a peaceful religion. I think it best if we remove every Muslim in America, and send them back to their country of origin because you know they are ALL planning to bodily harm to Americans.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • FoolKiller

      Islam is a peaceful religion and if you disagree, they will cut off your head. Hm.....

      September 12, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Dudus57

      Then Christianity is cult, so is Islam, Taoism, Buddhism, etc...

      Why are Americans so stupid to not see they are the same as the people they hate (Muslims, eternal battle for souls (Note: there is a score board and you are all losing, science will be the only winner)) just in a different way of life. I think is the religions were switch in location and time frame, we'd be a Muslim nation condemning the attacks on you loving savior by the heathens.

      All you religious people are nuts, down right mentally insane. For those religious in actions and scientific in thought, I applaud you. Being religious for the values and not beliefs is acceptable.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • Pat

      Your logic is extremely flawed. But hey, after you die here on earth, you have so much to look forward to. Good luck.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  14. citizenmn

    Moslems, your prophet was a pedophile; get over it.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  15. tim

    Jesus was/is greater than mohammed could ever be

    September 12, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • sybaris

      Sorry, your Jesus man was just an Essene priest with a savior complex.

      The David Koresh of his day.

      Atypical megalomaniac.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • niknak

      Could you dad beat up their dad too?

      September 12, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  16. Marcus

    What a stupid reason to kill and die for. He is a prophet, not a god. Who cares anyways. Until Muslims can learn to live with other people's opinions and views, they will never progress. It is sad that people who are living in the cradle of civilization are still living in mud huts. The fact that they put religion over human life and the way they react should someone not feel the same as they do is crazy.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • sybaris

      "Until Muslims can learn to live with other people's opinions and views, they will never progress."

      Like U.S. christians and their behavior towards gays

      September 12, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • niknak

      Their is never a stupid reason to kill and die for when you believe in a fairy tale and need to protect it at all costs.
      It is cute when a child believes in santa claus, but creepy when an adult does.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  17. DSP2

    So, if muslims do not allow images of their prophets and god, then why did supposedly Christian Barack Obama have the crucifixs covered up at Georgetown University when he spoke there? Could mister Obama really deep in his heart be a muslim?

    September 12, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Marcus

      Seperation of church and state

      September 12, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  18. CaesarXIII

    What isn't everyone sensitive about these days? You can't walk across the street and breath without offending someone somewhere. Think people in this world need to have a surgical procedure to remove the serious stick from the rear and try to relax and enjoy life.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Darw1n

      Maybe you just need to brush your teeth? JK man

      September 12, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  19. Maria

    Prophet Mohammed is like Mickey Mouse, made up fairy tale

    September 12, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      Like most religions, of course...

      September 12, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • Saby

      So if you don't agree with something it is a fairy tale? So all the history books are wrong?

      September 12, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • FoolKiller

      Hey now... don't dis THE MOUSE. You talk about fatwa… just wait until you see Disney fatwa!

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

      Umm, no...he was a real person...not a prophet and not worth killing and stampeding innocent people over a lame youtube clip, but not a fairy tale.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  20. Watcher

    It does not matter why muslims are upset. Who cares? they are violent people who are irrational and full of hate. Hey, is that muham-mud over there in the parkway. Oh, no it is a piece of ....

    September 12, 2012 at 3:41 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.