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. Azmond

    Muslims are just teabaggers with guns .

    September 17, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
    • niknak

      No, they are just the dark skinned version of a teabagger, as all the teabaggers have guns too.

      September 17, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      ideologically and behaviorally they are probably closer to OWS

      September 18, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  2. Joe Peterson

    Understanding things like free speech are important as well. Imagine if Islam took over the western world and this was occurring
    in your neighborhood?

    September 17, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  3. dee

    You smile and burn an American Flag-KNOW without a doubt-I DON'T LIKE YOU AT ALL! If I had my way, you could just eat sand and drink your oil!

    September 17, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  4. TodayTomorrow

    Mo was a brilliant man. He did not want to be idolized so he told people not to use his image. In the end the protectors of this image have idolized him 1000% more through their protection of this request – to the point where any depiction or crisicism of Mo is blasphemy. If Mo was just a prophet and Islam does not allow depictions of prophets, why are there no protests by Muslims over many of the Jesus or Moses films made in the past 100 years. It is because they idolize Mo above all else.

    September 17, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Mo actually was the brains of the three but everyone loves Curly more.

      September 18, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  5. redd

    @Patriot – Actually we can bring the troops home without their oil. USA has oil reserves, plus we can start drilling in our land.

    September 17, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  6. redd

    I just have 4 words to say to Muslims: Fitna and Satanic Verses. 🙂

    September 17, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  7. Mohammy

    Jesus is a prophet in Islam too and is mention many more times by name than Mohammy. Why aren't their open riots all over the ME when Jesus is maligned, or portrayed wrongly? They got their panties in a bunch over a stupid film. What about the controversial art that Jesus has been portrayed in? Cruicifixes in Pee, Jesus sculptures made out of poo.. Any Embassies raided? Nope. Ambassadors s0domized? Nope... These animals are just looking for a Muslim reason to riot and destroy things.

    September 17, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  8. redd

    I think we need to teach them a lesson, not with violence, but with smarts. Let's stop sending them money, weapons, and stop purchasing their oil. Let's send our troops home. Let's shut down their mosques in this country and don't let another muslim in this country. Let's see what happens then.

    September 17, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • Patriot

      We can't get our troops home without their oil !!
      Energy independance IS homeland security!!

      September 17, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • sudhaker.chintawar

      Only 100% blocade of trade with Islamic countries will solve the problem.

      September 17, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
    • Al Rabi

      I proudly bear witness that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammed is his greatest prophet and messenger. I just became Muslim I am sooooooooooooooooooo happy. If anyone belives in hatered I advise them to come to Islam, the true religion of peace and love. If you want to have a polite debate you may email me thearab1@hotmail.com:) Regards ...

      September 18, 2012 at 2:27 am |
  9. rochdoc

    Wrong shoes.
    The outrage does not have anything to do with Prophet's image, but has to do with the completely disrespectful way he was portrayed which was never called for. It is very true that Muslims will never desecrate Jesus (though they will treat Christian and Jew as non-human). Said that, the modern world should stop tolerating this tantrum of the islamists. In India the Hindu fanatics showed them the other side of the coin. Violence is not the answer for violence, but people need to start to have fear of something. Islam needs to modernize itself so people can tolerate them and muslims can tolerate "Free speech and criticism – words that cannot hurt you".

    September 17, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  10. Kent

    What happens if I portray him in my mind? Should I kill myself? Get started, Muzzies.

    September 17, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  11. Anon

    Hey mustards, you're all fu*ked up in the head.

    September 17, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  12. JamesisalwaysCorrect

    We are the most powerful nation? Why don't we just send in a little precise bomb onto these mobs. It'd be a rather good way to get rid of a few thousand extremist and possible future terrorist?

    September 17, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Patrick Portland

      Love it...start loading those drones with nuclear war heads...they breed like roaches, so good luck in eradicating all of them...but certainly a good tart.

      September 17, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  13. Paul Lott

    Pretty stupid if you ask me. If he did not want to have his face portrayed because he feared people would worship him, it seems he is too late. They are killing people for a harmless video, a book and a cartoon. Stick and stone Islam... Stick and stones. Learn that first. Taking lives over this crap is AMAZING.

    September 17, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  14. Mike

    CNN, are you justifying the killings? Sounds like you are. The Communist News Network.

    September 17, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • redd

      @Mike – Totally agree. Why is CNN defending these idiots in the streets? Is it because they are trying to defend this administration and their failed policies to that region? I think so!

      September 17, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • Patrick Portland

      CNN will defend ANYTHING that is not white, christian, male, or straight. They will also do anything to cover for the apolozer in chief occupying space in the White House. CNN – journalism at its worst.

      September 17, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  15. RichardSRussell

    Blasphemy is a victimless crime.

    September 17, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  16. Aristotle 120

    Wow! Thank goodness you explained it to me! OK, I guess I now can understand that is OK for Muslims to murder innocent people.

    September 17, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  17. 5875hrs

    The Origional Quran had a sketch of Moehamed. But the Imams thought that drawing of their prophet mating with a donkey was too harsh. SO, aginst the will of Allah, they took it out. And they made up a law to never again let people draw a picture at threat of death.

    September 17, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • esplanader

      I am Christian. It is not blasphemy for me to depict any historical person. If the Mohammadans are really peaceful and accepting of others then they should have no problem with me showing Mohammad as I do not worship him or the (false) war god he promoted.

      But that's the rub; Mohammadans do not recognize my right to exist unless I am their slave.

      (Which brings us to the other issue of how the West infringed on their "sacred" ways by forcing an end to the world wide slave trade.)

      September 17, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  18. David

    Ok I understand that showing images of Mohamed is blasphemy to Muslims. So then from the actions taken by some Muslims it would be safe to assume that blasphemy is worse than murder to some Muslims. Perhaps they need a reality check.

    September 17, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  19. Willnotsubmit

    Funny that this "strict" command against idols does not in the least detract from islm worshiping a rock.

    September 17, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • esplanader

      If find the whole rock thing interesting too. I've never read or seen an Islamic explanation about why they all have to march around a bunch (I thought there were more than one) of rock idols in Mecca.

      Can anyone point out a "learned" source which explains this important holdover to idolotry which the Mohammadans hold so dear.

      September 17, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  20. love

    stop hateing on islam...it the relgion on peace.....read the quran then u well know the truth.

    its funny how they are the target of every thing on the media...like come on leave them alone they dont need this

    September 17, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Toots

      I've read the quran, and as a muslim quran has many contradictory verses. Some speak of love and some speak of violence. We need to learn to ignore ignorant people. Not force the world to come around to our point of view.

      September 17, 2012 at 1:08 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.