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. mazharul

    we love our prophet (pbuh) and we can die for him.

    September 24, 2012 at 6:14 am |
  2. Shan

    After ALLAH
    Muhammad PBUH is the greatest man of all Universes,
    No one was better of him.
    No one will be better of him.
    Note: Whenever any stupid need popularity he want to criticize this honorable personality. So this stupid man also doing for popularity.

    September 24, 2012 at 6:04 am |
  3. Rizwan Husnain

    I just want to know why the people of librel states like America and Britan are not talking and filming about the Holo Cast...
    When they spoke about the freedom of Expression for every one.....
    As we Muslim respect the every living and dying religon than in return we also expect the same from others and if any one found guilty in this. He/She shall be treated according to the LAW of Islam. As US army dealt with the prisoners of guantanamo bay. Agitation currently in the muslim countries is not the best way to do so as the best way is to shutt off the American consulates forcefull in every muslim country and throgh the Ambesider out, also they need to disconnect all other means of political communication. It is our destiny that we Pakistani and other muslim countries have the Illegitimate Child of American's as our leaders.......

    September 24, 2012 at 5:41 am |
  4. papiii

    all americans are sperm of dog....

    September 24, 2012 at 5:30 am |
  5. sadiyah

    Firstly, Prophet Muhammed (pbuh), is a man whose character is beyond any description, His kindness, his modesty, every trait and character of him is such that no current or future persons in this world could ever resemble him, or even trying to create a character resembling him is impossible, thus it is impossible to create a movie of any sort with him in it, because his such a great human that once walked this earth and He was a mercy to this world, and also referring to other non Muslim believers, if you want to get your facts correct please visit authentic books with authentic translations if it is not in your home language, and what you see you should not believe, what you hear you should not believe, proper evidence from past Islamic literature will give you the correct insight of the religion. PS, do not google or refer to internet references because majority of the time it is incorrect or misunderstood. thank you!

    September 24, 2012 at 5:20 am |
    • Sultana

      "My choice of Muhammad ((May Allaah bless him and grant him peace) ) to lead the list of the world’s most influential persons may surprise some readers and may be questioned by others, but He was the only man in history who was supremely successful on both the religious and secular level.

      — Michael H. Hart
      (The 100: A Ranking Of The Most Influential Person In History,
      New York: Hart Publishing Company, Inc., 1978, p. 33)"

      September 24, 2012 at 5:39 am |
    • Rizwan Husnain

      Dear Sadia: you have done a gr8 job by posting such comments....... but we the muslims need to play with such beasts politically as our leaders are not doing well................

      September 24, 2012 at 5:51 am |
    • kaleemmohmand

      v.nice sadiyah.....kaleem ullah mohmand

      September 24, 2012 at 6:37 am |
  6. RS

    The protests (not the violent ones) are being done to raise our voice against the image the media is portraying of Muslims. It is because the media propaganda that today, I am reading the nastiest comments being made on Muslims. It is videos like these that form perceptions.
    While I condemn the killing of the innocent, I question everyone if they have ever analyzed the action America took in response to 9/11 and killed 1000s of Muslims for YEARS! Is that not violent? Is that not called innocent killing? How conveniently media portrays that as "war against terror", ironically all Muslims believe the terror is created by the American government itself, just to give this world a reason to attack Muslims all over the world.
    It is hard to raise voice when the media projects everything in the manner that has already been predefined.
    If you read through the comments, all you see is hatred people have in their hearts for Muslims and disrespect that you show is hurtful. Ask a common Muslim man next door what his religion is about than to limit your thoughts based on what media is projecting.
    No one except the Muslims can understand the situation they are in.
    On behalf of Muslims, I assure you that we do not endorse the violence, we do not believe in violence and we strongly condemn innocent killings. This is what our religion teaches us, and this is what our Prophet (Peace be upon Him) taught us.
    In the end, we can only raise our voice, and communicate this in whatever platform we get.
    If Americans (not all) do not mind being disrespectful and insulting to other religions and call it “freedom of speech” than please do not label Muslims protests and raised concerns as “irrelevant, cavemen customs, etc” consider it also a “freedom to raise our concern”.

    September 24, 2012 at 4:54 am |
  7. Sobia


    Is it necessary to give response of every stupid,ridiculous talks of them????.. they all are totally lost in the world,in the darkness, they think that this is permanent life for them.... they cant understand what is spiritual relaxation bcoz there is alot of dirt in their mind in their heart in their whole life.....

    September 24, 2012 at 4:54 am |
  8. amani abuzaid

    Muhammad (peace) is the best man of the world will never give birth mothers like all of harm to our gracious will punish him tougher punishment that did not have later will be sooner regret when it comes the Day of Judgment will regret the most remorse because he will intercede for those who loved and defended him without seeing him and workall his Sunan.....

    September 24, 2012 at 4:08 am |
  9. jawad

    the above article is with the supportive materials of depicting the image of Prophet. i think good diversion from the real issue which is depicting the prophet with false character and bad deads, which is objectionalable to the musliums in particular.

    September 24, 2012 at 3:51 am |
  10. sufian


    September 24, 2012 at 3:35 am |
  11. anis

    all prophets& messengers one after the other gave ONE BIG MESSAGE–THERE IS ONLY ONE GOD-all else is HIS creation .. THERE R THOSE WHO BELIEVE OR THOSE WHO DON'T. THATS THE CRUX OF ALL HOLY BOOKS .
    ONLY thing GOD won't forgive is to share HIS ONENESS with selfmade gods 7 GODESSES .aLL PROPHETS brought same message.MOHAMMAD (PEACE B UPON HIM)just repeated same message, He did'nt let his sketch made was from the fear that hero worship might not hinder people in GOD's worship

    We get the true picture from his sayings -his life events- his habits --ijoin them -correlate & u grasp a clear picture
    we donot bow down our brows before any diety nor ask for worldly fulfillment of wishes -BUT FROM ALLAH . this what NOAH ,ABRAHAM MOSES JESUS .all did. pl read QURAN & search for yourself its there in all languages

    September 24, 2012 at 3:27 am |
  12. Sparky

    Hard to believe that if placed my 3 year old's video taped words like bubba, mamma, dadda, alla, on YouTube she could start WW3

    September 23, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
  13. ArK

    There's too much many (most?) of us don't know about Islam - other than dramatic news which extreme radicals generate. It's hard to imagine "our" Christianity without the long history of figure portrayal - the immediate recognition of most Jesus' "portraits" (ridiculous, eh?), etc. And such easily becomes nearly "idol" worship. I didn't know Muslims try hard to avoid that.

    September 23, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
  14. BigGuyWithANuke

    Obviosuly,Mohammed was a lizard-man.

    Cold,vile,scaley.Yup,he was a lizard-man

    September 23, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
  15. nobull4u

    I had a dream the other night in which I saw Mohammed. I can now see why Muslims do not want him to be seen. He was

    September 23, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Your comment is simply stupid. Did you bother to read the article? Mohammad is our prophet and we have lived in peace with all the people around the world. next time before you post such vitriol take a good look at the mirror and see what a moron you are, bigot!

      September 23, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • SATAN


      Lived in peace with all the people?!?!?!?!?!? LMAO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You muzzies are vile,satonic killers.Shame on you

      September 23, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • enna

      you are nobull4u ugleeee!!!!

      September 24, 2012 at 6:07 am |
    • Rizwan Jalal

      My brother, you may insult Muhammed (P.B.U.H), you may burn Quran but you will not find any muslim insulting Jesus (Peace Be Upon Him) and you will never find any muslim burning Bible. We are told not to make any difference between Prophets. We all are children Of Prophet Adam (P.B.U.H). and one more thing "Quran" is an upgraded form of "Bible". if you dont believe God(ALLAH) has always told his prophets only to give message they are not guards on us.

      September 24, 2012 at 6:43 am |
  16. mario rosado

    USA army has to take revenge, killing some Muslims

    September 23, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  17. mccgeno

    who cares?

    September 23, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  18. issac

    Islam has always been ridiculed. Our Prophets have always been ridiculed. Yes this is very sad but is burning flags, killing people & throwing stones the right way to respond? When our wonderful Prophet (peace be upon him) was in Taif and he was stoned and had the option to crush those people, did he retaliate with such mindless anger and violence we are seeing today on the streets of Muslim cities? Let's react differently by highlighting the beautiful characteristics of our Prophet. Let's show people why we love Muhammad SAW more than anything in the world. our prophet did not teach us to react in the way that some muslims did. he did not tell us to kill, but he told us to tell about him. this is the reaction that must of us are taking. I invite everyone to read about the prophet of islam. Our problem is not with Americans at all or with thier emmbassys. our problem is with these people who made the moive.

    September 23, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Brother issac peace be with you as you have well stated we always want to live in peace

      September 23, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Poor little herbie.

      September 23, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • Lorraine

      issac, the problem is in religion, they are all idolatry, pagan, and not of the holy One YHWH the creator of all life. It is also, of these misleading governments against YHWH as well. with in difference, lying to the masses, greed, hate, oppression, imposed poverty, etc. etc. against the law of righteousness of YHWH. YHWH bless us all.

      September 24, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  19. Lorraine

    You so called white people, no such thing, nor a black person, but you kill me with your short term memories when it comes to right or wrong, this happens everyday in America, stereotyping, hating others because of their cultures, and ways, and looks, please stop playing innocent, with all of the injustice, war, and hate, America has caused over the centuries to others. And tom, tom, you piper, you are the only loop here, most have a conscious, not to mention morals, and brains. YHWH Bless to all.

    September 23, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • James

      increase your medication...

      September 23, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • Papa Doppa

      IA little more thorazine would help you, Lorraine!

      September 23, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
  20. Maria

    The God of peace does not demand murder.
    the enemy of God, the devil, does.

    September 23, 2012 at 11:56 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.