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. Kat

    The Taliban is a ticking time bomb. They are just looking for a reason to fight. They miss the attention they were receiving. If they aren't dying for their cause (to receive their 40 virgins after they die, or whatever) then their life, to them, is meaningless. Ignorance kills.

    September 19, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  2. Steve Lyons

    I've never come across any news article where a Mexican named "Jesus" has become a suicide bomber, but I sure see a lot of middle eastern Mohammad's doing that. So the nightly news should be a game show called "Are you smarter than a Mexican"

    September 19, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • Richard J.

      Mexico doesn't need suicide bombers. But more to the point of your statement, Jesus is a very common name in the Middle East countries and you will probably find several suicide bombers with the name Jesus.

      September 19, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  3. Steve Lyons

    Sacred or not.

    There is no justification for their violence.

    Islam must be marginalized and abolished.

    September 19, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • the voice of reason

      There is NO religion that has killed as many people over the last 2K years as christianity has. It's not even close.

      September 19, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  4. Abo Abdullah

    Unfortunately, I am really really really shocked from all the comments about this issue. All comments say that Muslims are idiots and fundamentalists.. ect. These comments also say that " All religions' members are smarts, peaceful and open minded except Islam's members)). hhh
    Where are the skills of dialogue with others?
    As a muslim, I am strongly disagree of killing innocents as Quran ((Speech of Allah) says. But you must be fair of others' opinions.
    For Example, In Europe Countries, Some journals have banned the photos of William's wife. On the other hand, you are presenting our Prophet Mohammed in a bad way. where is the fairness you are talking about?
    This stupid film shows how western countries are discriminative against Islam, Prophet Mohammed and muslims at all.
    Just use your brains and read about Islam and Prophet Mohammad. I am sure 100%, you will see lots of misconceptions about Islam religion and Prophet Mohammad.
    Best regards to all respected people and governments only...

    September 19, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • Steve Lyons

      It is really challenging to misinterpret 9/11/2001, the subway bombings, the beheadings and the hate coming in the form if Islam.

      I'm fairly tolerant, but interpreting violence for something other than violence is a bit extreme.

      September 19, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • Mel

      There have been rude and ignorant descriptions and pictures made of Jesus for centuries and, as a Christian, I find it offensive, disgusting and infuriating, but because I live in a country where freedom of speech and expression is allowed and celebrated, I have to do what Jesus commanded me to do – turn the other cheek. He was tortured and killed because of who he was and what he stood for yet he willing went to the cross. Why should I not be able to look the other way when my belief system is made fun of? If Muslims are people of tolerance and love, as you would like us believe, then why can you not do the same?

      September 19, 2012 at 12:09 pm |

      I understand what you are saying, and with 1.6 billion muslims in the world a few million extremist are defining your religion. I would question then why not the uproar over depictions or Jesus or Moses as they too are considered prophets in the quaran and should not be depicted?

      September 19, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Wendy

      Not all westerners are like that. We are not our governments. We do not support the wars going on. We have no say in who our government wages war upon any more that you have. I appreciate all people, all faiths and people who don't believe in religion. No one really wants war and people dying over religion. It's a useless endeavor. People will believe what they want to believe in and that's really the way it should be. But trust me, not all of us Americans are hate Muslims. It's just propaganda for the governments to use against all of us. Why everyone can't be more tolerant is what I don't understand. Life should be about caring for and loving people period. Our differences should be celebrated, not disrespected. Love and peace to EVERYONE!

      September 21, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  5. lCarroll

    .Every religion has it's own dark history of violence and war, as well as, intolerance.
    The main issues to me are: the attacks on Americans are not a direct result of an idiotic film ; Many of the people in the middle east do not understand the concept of freedom of speech nor do they understand the idea that, even though we may not like or agree with someone or someones beliefs in our democracy we will defend your right to free speech. And finally, I think most countries involved in the "Arab spring", thought years of injustices would disappear with the removal of the tyrants in charge...wrong democracy is hard work and we can't do that for you.

    September 19, 2012 at 2:49 am |
  6. Groo22

    I can understand why Islam would prohibit images of prophets or deities. Much of the arab world were idolators back when Mohammed showed up. In fact if I'm not mistaken the Kabbah at Mecca was a pagan place before Mohammed, even though many regard it as having been built by Adam. Christians don't make a big deal about images in their places of worship, but people have to understand they don't pray to a cross or to an image of the crucifixion, it's an image put there so people won't ever forget what happened and nothing else. The only thing in Christianity I can think of that goes against that is the idea of praying to Saints to speak to God on your behalf or to help you, Protestants don't do that that I know of. Then there's Mormonism, but that's a whole different ball game to most Christian sects.

    September 19, 2012 at 2:16 am |
  7. T-Roy

    Christianity had an enlightment about 500 years ago. It is about time Islam had one too.

    Delusions are fine if they are kept in check, but Islam has some doctrine that needs to be marginalized if it wants to survive in the age of the Internet. It is easy to go online and read about all religions and find out how delusional they are. 30 years ago, this would have been difficult. You might require 100 of books to read and travel all over the world to get the information. Today you can surf the internet in a matter of days and read more than enough to understand how crazy some religions are.

    Islam is a religion of ignorance and low self esteem/self confidence. How shallow and weak the religion must be for them to react so strongly to criticism. This is not the reaction to a strong force of faith, confidence and self worth, this is the reaction of idiots.

    It reminds me of the opening scene in season 3 of Boardwalk Empire. There is a group of cars stopped on the road fixing a flat. The head gangster gets easily offended when a stranger mocks him for not knowing what 3 in 1 oil is. This results in the gangster going crazy and beating the man to death for making him feel stupid. This is what the entire Muslim world looks like each night when she see the Muslim fundies going crazy and getting made because someone did something with the image of their profit Mohammad. They are so upset so easily, it can only be ignorance and insecurity of this ignorance that fuels their hatred of criticism

    September 19, 2012 at 2:08 am |
  8. RealityCheck

    If I own a gun, the chances of me doing something idiotic with it are low, but still exponentially higher than someone who doesn't own a gun at all. We've addressed this problem with gun control legislation.

    The same statement applies to religion; so is it just me, or is it time for some serious legislative "religion control"?

    September 18, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
    • Robert Welch

      While I think the film was poorly made and poorly acted, there is no excuse for what these rioters are doing. It is inconceivable for a Christian to riot over what someone says or does, many films have been anti-Christian, yet we consider the source and simply don't watch the film. In some cases, some may protest it, but NOT violently or in a manner that causes the death of innocent people. Moslems have to accept that some of us see their religion as a joke and since we have freedom of speech, expression, and religion, we can voice that opinion. Stop making excuses for behavior that has NO excuse.

      September 18, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
    • Steve Lyons

      I cannot recall a single instance of violence related to some idiot putting a plastic Jesus in a gar of urine and calling it "Art".

      But woe be unto someone poking fun at Mohammad.

      Maybe the Mexicans should start naming their kids Mohammad instead of Jesus and really make fun of Islam.

      September 19, 2012 at 9:18 am |
  9. RealityCheck

    Religious societies have always molded the interpretations of their scriptures based on the realities of their day to day lives, and as a global society we are in need of serious reform. In the cyber age, the religious world needs to steer away from outward expansion– evangelism, conversion, and particularly theocracy etc - and move inward to a more private or familial based appreciation of the spiritual. Spread your faith to your children, fine, but let's stop blanketing the world with your metaphysical theories.

    The Muslim world needs to get over visual portrayals of Mohammed. There was a time when an unflattering depiction of Christ could lead to similar violence, but that was centuries ago. Any reaction based on the subjective interpretation of an ancient text should be kept to oneself, or spoken about around the dinner table. Enough will religious projection on a massive level, it is destroying our world.

    September 18, 2012 at 10:46 pm |
  10. Margaret

    Why Muslims 'chafe"? You are not helping them with their PR because the real headline (if we're being honest) would be "Why do muslims murder?.

    September 18, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
    • 1question

      I thought the exact same thing when I read the headline. Calling it "chafing" is putting some serious spin on the situation.

      September 18, 2012 at 11:03 pm |
  11. Just call me Lucifer

    Why do muslims chafe at pictures of mohammed?

    Because they're idiots. Duh.

    September 18, 2012 at 10:31 pm |
  12. jake maverick

    Maybe all the Christians should rise up and start burning flags over this and throwing stones at Univ.that teach evolution or. gee when was the last time Buddhists started killing, burning flags and destroying things.. hhmm when.. gee anyone know of that last Buddhist riots? The only violent religion in TODAYs world is the prehistoric muslim religion. WAKE uP 21 century world and get a clue.. its time we put that belief system to rest.

    September 18, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
    • Anonymous

      Do some research before making a comment. The knowledge of Americans about the rest of the world is so less, it's not even funny and this comment is a perfect example. Go and read about the mass killings the Buddhists did in Mayanmar in July and August of this year. American people's world knowledge and about anything outside of America is based on twisted news that they see on their TVs.

      September 19, 2012 at 1:36 am |
    • s^3

      read the story. It's the muslim who started the riot in Mynamar. They have been raping and kipnapping Burmese woman over the decades and buddhists finally got fad up with it. Unless you are reading the bias cnn pro-muslim news you can see that most of the riots and villages burning commited by the muslim mobs.

      September 19, 2012 at 4:42 am |
    • the voice of reason

      Umm....Oklahoma City?

      September 19, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  13. jake maverick

    Maybe all the Christians should rise up and start burning flags over this and throwing stones at Univ.that teach evolution or. gee when was the last time something derogatory was published about Buddha and Buddhists started killing, burning flags and destroying things.. hhmm when.. gee anyone know of that last Buddhist riots? The only violent religion in TODAYs world is the prehistoric muslim religion. WAKE uP 21 century world and get a clue.. its time we put that belief system to rest.

    September 18, 2012 at 10:29 pm |
  14. prodip bhat

    Partially correct.... but then people do take scriptures seriously and usually the portion that has little to "think" scores higher. The content on peace and love is quite heavy on the brain. Be it Christian , Muslim or Hindu , I find almost everyone equally intolerant. The degree of violence differs primarily because of numbers. Its easy for a vast majority to accept ,"Mine is the only true religion, yours is a crap" , its harder for human mind to be cognizant of the fact that as humans we are all equal and religion is just a way of life. To get that level of understanding one needs wisdom, patience, scientific bent of mind and an inner thirst for seeking knowledge.... No wonder why hate, revenge and intolerance is always at a upper hand

    September 18, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
  15. prodip bhat

    Quran explicitly mentions that those who defy Allah should be punished. At the same time Quran also advocates the message of peace and love. But in practice Islam has always advocated the former in heart and soul. It could be that Mohammad himself spread Islam by the power of sword, even though was a great personality, else it is so hard to explain the Muslim way of thinking. And this is not NEW. This has been happening for last 1400 years ever since its inception

    September 18, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
    • loumaz22

      Ever dug in to and made some research on the statement "Islam spread by the power of the sword"
      Just saying first check where you came up with this statement or whoever before you did
      second, check the main subject of your claim, which is Islam, and what best explains the teachings of Islam. Yessss, you got it, the Quraan.
      Third, look for any verse out of the total 6236 verses that states your claim, look hard, look harderrrrrrrrrrr
      Fourth, nope nothing about spreading Islam with a sword, oh wait a minute there's something about spreading Islam with the power of the "word"
      Fifth, uhhh ooops "sword" & "word", could it be that your sources f***ed up and delivered this innocent (haha) mistake. Believe it or not its up to you, you guys continue to have your brains jammed with crap since a hell long time, why would it change now. Idiot hypocrites. But i have to admit, some of us are messing it up for us too, but to read some of the comments here generalizing all muslims as terrorists. Well that sums it up, case closed.
      Note, i codemn in the strongest possible means the use of violence in response to any provocation (be it silly or not), but guys, cut us some slack, we have the right to express our anger (peacefully) just like you have the right of freedom of speech

      September 19, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  16. Ted

    What 95% of Americans think of Islaam is... Nothing! We don't think about it or care about it at all, we could really care less and have no interest in it.

    September 18, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
  17. Ted

    Islaam is like the spoiled brat child of religions. It is having another tantrum right now...

    September 18, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
  18. Confused

    Wait, if Mohammed is just a man (albeit a respected one), I still don't understand why Muslims get so incensed when people insult him. If Mohammed himself was so focused on not wanting others to give him undue praise and worship, why do Muslims themselves get so bent out of shape when some idiot makes fun of him?

    Does anyone else see the irony? If Mohammed is the great and wonderful prophet, wouldn't he be above the childish insults of those who mock him? Do lions concern themselves with flies, or eagles worry about gnats? Doesn't displaying the need to protest so violently and almost indiscriminantly against those tho mock Mohammed simultaneously suggest that Mohammed can be harmed by such mockery? If so, what does that say about Mohammed? I almost feel like Muslims could honor Mohammed much more by not allowing their faith to be distracted by the hateful actions of a few idiots. Actions by such idiots that would otherwise remain completely irrelevant only become relevant because Muslims give those idiots a voice.

    Am I missing something here?

    September 18, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
    • A Muslim


      September 18, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
  19. The Apostle Peter

    It's a fact that Mohamed was quite fond of other men. Quite fond indeed!

    September 18, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
  20. yneeemee

    The wicked mock that which they know is really true... no person of ANY faith should mock the faith or beliefs of another... and YES free speech has its limits.....

    September 18, 2012 at 7:25 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.