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. /David

    Islam is a unique religion in that it's doctrine includes "jihad", holy war against anyone who would disagree with Islamic doctrine.

    September 18, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
  2. Earl

    May i present to you a link from Maestro Erano Evangelista of http://www.thename.ph

    Read the root cause of the present religious conflicts happening in the world today and how this religious conflicts can be ended once and for all.

    May you read this link: http://www.thename.ph/thename/revelations/division&cause-en.htm

    Thank you

    September 18, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
    • Tony

      To end religious conflicts once and for all, you need to end religion.

      September 18, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
  3. Tie Mie Shu

    People in America act like they don't get offended. People can't stand personal insults in this country, let alone praising Hitler, mocking the holocaust, using U.S. flag to wipe your behind, calling our heroes baby killers and insulting them, posing nude in public and a ton of other stuff. So let us be ashamed of ourselves for being hypocrites and let us apologize to the Muslims. I can't even write a comment without offending the CNN discussion policies. I've had countless posts deleted by CNN just because they have the right to do it. And who says physical abuse is worse then verbal abuse? Who made that rule up? Was that a revelation from the Spaghetti-Monster? Or was that man made?

    September 18, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  4. james

    You are right. The light says "Thugs" with thin skin–

    September 18, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  5. brooklymommyofthree

    You do know that Christian Arabs and Arab Jews call God "Allah" right? Just like in Spanish God is Dios. Allah is the ARABIC word for God... A Syrian Jew will say "alhumdu'allah" (thank God) just the same as a Christian Arab and a Muslim Arab. Allah is not s different God – for there is only one. Every language has their own word for God.

    September 18, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  6. rational

    Ive long believed that the theology of both Islam and Christianity have been corrupted by the insertion of cultural and tribal elements that have nothing to do with the faith as articulated by Jesus Christ and the Prophet Mohammed. As noted in the article, many of the strictures in Islam come from the Hadith (second hand recordings of his supposed sayings) and many of these Hadiths were added or re-interpreted by local Arab and Muslim leaders to conform to their own set of local and tribal traditions. Example – The Prophet respected and treated his wife with reverence, whereas in many Arab/Muslim countries that still have a tribal/village culture, women are treated no better than cattle, and can be sold or given away to satisfy a debt, or killed to satisfy a tribal or family concept of honor. Nowhere in the Quran does it say that women may be treated as such.

    In Western Christianity man is made in the image of God,and the church has allowed the artistic images of God and Jesus Christ to become iconic, leading to the belief among many western christians that God is a a kindly old white man with a long flowing white beard and Jesus is his blond haired, blue eyed son. This is as close to idolatry as it gets.

    September 18, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  7. Amy

    The rioters and church of westville (whatever the freaky church that protests at funerals is named) should get together.

    September 18, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  8. john

    English (Yusuf Ali): (Recite)
    6:108 Revile not ye those whom they call upon besides Allah, lest they out of spite revile Allah in their ignorance. Thus have We made alluring to each people its own doings. In the end will they return to their Lord, and We shall then tell them the truth of all that they did.
    6:108 Allah'tan baska yalvarip-yakardiklarina (taptiklarina) sövmeyin; sonra onlar da haddi asarak bilmeksizin Allah'a söverler. Iste böyle, biz her ümmete yaptiklarini süslü (çekici) gösterdik, sonra onlarin son varislari Rablerinedir. O, yapmakta olduklarini onlara haber verecektir.

    6:108 N'injuriez pas ceux qu'ils invoquent, en dehors d'Allah, car par agressivité, ils injurieraient Allah, dans leur ignorance. De même, Nous avons enjolivé (aux yeux) de chaque communauté sa propre action. Ensuite, c'est vers leur Seigneur que sera leur retour; et Il les informera de ce qu'ils oeuvraient.

    6:108 Und schmähet nicht die, welche sie statt Allah anrufen, sonst würden sie aus Groll Allah schmähen ohne Wissen. Also ließen Wir jedem Volke sein Tun als wohlgefällig erscheinen. Dann aber ist zu ihrem Herrn ihre Heimkehr; und Er wird ihnen verkünden, was sie getan.

    6:108 No insultéis a los que ellos invocan en lugar de invocar a Alá, no sea que, por hostilidad, insulten a Alá sin conocimiento. Así, hemos engalanado las obras de cada comunidad. Luego, volverán a su Señor y ya les informará Él de lo que hacían.

    HOLY QURAN 6:108

    September 18, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  9. Wade

    If Muhammad was just a man then why are people following him and are willing to die for him? Its pretty clear the Qur'an makes Muhammad the Muslim messiah. Muslims believe you have to follow Muhammad to get to heaven not just Allah.

    September 18, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  10. ryoko

    both sides are at wrong, each has fked up ideas about how the world run... I aint defend either side, but yea, it ugly.

    September 18, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  11. john

    And if there comes to you from Satan an evil suggestion, then seek refuge in Allah . Indeed, He is the Hearing, the Knowing.
    QURA 41:36

    September 18, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  12. john

    And if there comes to you from Satan an evil suggestion, then seek refuge in Allah . Indeed, He is the Hearing, the Knowing.

    September 18, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  13. Ramzy

    What kind of nonsense is this? Are people trying to say that this is the reason behind their rage? Because they are worried that people will worship Mohammed? Islam preaches violence. The civilized world is trying too hard to be "politically correct". When people act crazy and violent lets tell them and stop them. We shouldn't care why they are acting like lunatics. By the way, that film was not very inaccurate.

    September 18, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  14. ChuckZilla

    ... and the response of coward muslims is to kill unarmed Americans. Well played coward muslims, wll played.

    September 18, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  15. john

    Can anyone make a movie against jews and hollocaust and get away with that? that a selective freedom of speach according to west standard.

    September 18, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • brooklymommyofthree

      i agree completely, John. It seems that some can insult and dehumanize one religion (Islam) but if anyone says anything remotely mean to them about their own religion – they claim discrimination. Years ago there was an artist that made the virgin mary out of cow dung. There were quite a lot of protests .. and then the show went on tour – people just accepted this foul and disgusting "artistic statement". And then there are actors like Mel Gibson. He made a movie that showed his view of what happened to Jesus (based on BIBLICAL accounts) and it was boycotted and due to some drunken statements he has been pretty much kicked out of hollywood ...

      September 18, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  16. sandy

    GOD Bless all Human.
    When are we going to be caring for each other and love and respect.
    Every where we are fighting in the name of religion.
    I want to highlight few words from some great humans.
    JESUS: Find me a person who has not sinned and i shall allow him to prosecute the lady who has adulturated.
    Gandhi: An eye for an eye will turn the world blind.
    Mahavir: Every soul has the lords spirit but it is the karma which does not let him see the power of devine. if we do positive karmas we will attain the devine power of god.
    Madela: My soul is not free and is slave until i decide to attain knowledge.

    When i die would regret that in my lifetime i was slave to this world and could not do
    * Change the world free of sinners who call themselves saviour of religions
    * Change the way we live two life, where one we call ourselves clean and family person and in darkness do all the sin.
    * Break the barrier of boundaries of land where travel is ristricted.
    * Still in 21st century live a life in which there is race, cast creed and religion.
    * World is set to have extreme poverty and extreme rich gap as the biggest.
    * The Earths resources burned unconditional

    September 18, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  17. Brooklyn

    no one crys freedom of press when the world is asking for princess kates nude pics to be removed bcuz shes a royal or is that u feel sorry for her being nude ona boat in public. but when the world is asking for a video thats disrespects the Prophet of a religion that has over 1 billion followers the idiots cry for freedom of speech. kinda hypocritcal dont u think.

    September 18, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • wraparound

      What do you mean no one? I think that is the point....it is free speech.

      September 18, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  18. Cyril

    The protesters do not have any jobs and are essentially being manipulated by their clerics and Ayatollahs. If Christians went on rampage anytime Jesus was disparaged then there would be little of this world left. I believe it is all politics of the Middle east in one form or the other. The Muslim clerics do not go out rioting and killing people themselves. They hide behind fine speeches and inciting words and send out hapless and jobless followers to cause mayhem. If there was any misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the religion or any one connected with it, I would have thought it would be more sensible to tell people the real truth as you know it. The Muslims just reinforce their feeling of an inferiority complex and nothing more. And I think it is wrong for them to feel so inferior. Who knows what mayhem this opinion of mine would cause if aired in the US or on TV, but I think it is true. Muslims should teach people and not kill them

    September 18, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  19. ladipupo

    muslim are not tolerant, once they learn how to tolerate fellow human being the world will be at peace. they are a bunch of violent set, preach by their so called mohammed.

    September 18, 2012 at 5:38 am |
    • salman

      second largest population in the world.......

      September 18, 2012 at 5:53 am |
    • nadeem

      oh annd holocoust is too sacred!

      September 18, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • Al Rabi

      After more than 1,400 sinc the beginning of Islam there are still large communities of Christians, Jews, Hindus, Budhists, Zorostrians and other religious groups in the Arab and Muslim world. If the claims that Muslims are not tolerant or Islam does not teach tolerance then more than 1,400 years should have been enough to rid the Arab and Muslim world of these groups. Does it make sense? Do you get it? This makes sense to those who have healthy minds and it does not to those with filthy minds. To which group do you belong? Salaam:)

      September 19, 2012 at 1:42 am |
  20. Religion of Piece

    Rioting to Muslims is like sports is to the rest of the world..... Team Libya put on one hell of a Riot and the rest want to show that they can keep up......

    September 18, 2012 at 12:22 am |
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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.