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. Bill

    I wonder how a picture is less offensive than blowing people up?

    September 12, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • Bill

      more, i meant...

      September 12, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  2. Boston

    well....we call it "freedom of speech" and they're free to react the way they think is appropriate to our insults.

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

      Lovely. Freedom of Carnage.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Ben

      That would be fine if their reaction was speech but its with bombs and murder...

      September 12, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • Boston

      we can call it whatever. Bottom line is that we need to have more respect to other religions.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • Majortrouble

      Ever heard the words "Sticks and Stones"?

      September 12, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  3. Bill

    Okay, thanks for the explanation, but they should still have the strength of character to get over it. It's 2012, there's an internet, and not everyone believes what they do. They should join the world instead of trying to blow it up.

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

      "They should join the world instead of trying to blow it up."

      I guess American's missed this point since they blew up Iraq for no reason and killed over a hundred thousands innocent lives. Americans are so brainwashed they look the other way on the atrocities they have done in the world.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  4. jolu

    Are they serious? A movie by a radical? An insult? To whom? Four lives taken either by radicals or not it does not make it right. Wether Islam is bad or not isn't there any rational thinking among any of them? NO excuse it makes Islam look bad, like when priest molest kids, it is bad no matter what! Islamist with a clear thinking head, religion is not off hands, it will be ridiculed, bashed and laughed at. You can't kill the world or the world will find you quit acting like you have been blessed cause your not!

    September 12, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  5. Canadian Guy

    It is so weird how these people looses their tension for a comedy. If you believe in something deep, no one can destroy that. This tells me that your feeling towards your profit (did I spell right?) is not genuine.

    Believe in yourself, help your neighbour, your family... and your country – before believe in some kind of myths...

    Honestly, at this point, most non-islam believers do not want anything to do with Islam – More you live your life in a denial and stupidity, you will always going to loose respect and dignity from others.

    Start to live your LIFE and respect others.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • Majortrouble

      The word is "LOSE"

      September 12, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  6. barbara

    They aren't sensitive, they are FANATICAL!!

    September 12, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  7. marie

    Did the U.S. Government make the film? A bad film- what an absurd excuse for murder.

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

      Unfortunately this is exactly what they have been taught to do. Religious minorities in predominantly Muslim Countries have had a hard time of it. The film in questions portryas Islam as hostile nad evil and you know what? The rioters are proving the people who put out the movie as being right, because they are destroying and killing over what they perceive as an insult!!!

      September 12, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  8. zenDAI

    Who the hell cares if the Muslims are sensitive when someone says something about their Prophet!!! We don't go blowing up embassies and missions because they don't know or want to know our God!! When the talk badly about Christianity... These radical muslims will do one thing, they well go to whatever hell exists for them in their belief system... and ah .. the only virgins there will be you animals, and there are bigger, badder animals that will make sure you do not remain virgins for long!!! Karma animals, Karma !!!

    September 12, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  9. barbara

    I'm really sick and tired about hearing how "sensitive" Muslims are about their religion. It does not and will never justify cold blooded murder. And if that's what their God demands, then they really need to examin their religion a little closer.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Boston

      I deeply doubt they care about what're sick and tired of and what you think. The world does not revolve around us. Plain and simple.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Majortrouble

      Boston, The world doesn't revolve around them either.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  10. CK

    Sensitive... what a nice benign word. Why would Dan and Eric describe a group of murderous, suicidal lunatics with such a calm, almost kind word. Perhaps they have an agenda with this article that is not necessarily to get the truth. I guess this is an opinion piece, and not news huh? I disagree with your opinion guys. Hopefully others do also.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  11. Boston

    As I said earlier. We do what we think is our right by insulting their prophet, then label it "free speech". They do what they think is right by killing us. Maybe, we should have a little more respect to others and stop thinking that the world revolves around us. No wonder they hate us. We insult them, their religion, their prophet, steal their oil, kill their women, execute their children, then expect them to act more civilized?

    September 12, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  12. Matt

    Yup ~ still looks like the religion of peace to me. Tons of fire, death, anger ~ Totally peaceful. Here;s where a self hating liberal chimes in with "there are jewish terrorists too, and christian terrorists...and athiest terrorists....." Yeah, No shat sherlock. But this whole Islam fraud is nothing but hate and evil. I've never heard of an Islamic aid association nor have i seen a muslim outreach to survivors of a disaster. Islam = Evil. guilty as charged. They are still at way with us ~ stop making excuses for them and apologizing.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Boston

      I dont think they care if they we think their religion is peaceful or not. We're far past that point and they're not the only to blame.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  13. Ken

    You have to be defensive if you waste your life on the Quran idol. You have to be defensive for forcing people by death to bow to your Quran idol. You have to be defensive if you do not have the blessings of a true God.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  14. NorCalMojo

    Nice try, but killing people for insulting him is far more idolatrous than drawing a picture.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  15. Joe

    So, Muslims are worried over idol worship. But apparently not concerned over murder? Seems like they have their priorities off base.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  16. Mikey

    So what you are saying is if they have a good enough reason it's ok to do anything they want. Tired of seeing good people trashed after helping the people who kill them.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  17. Wallaceboy

    I recently saw the film of Obama's visit to Egypt and his remarks re "Islam, a religion of peace and tolerance". So Barry, how is this Arab Spring thing going for you?

    September 12, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  18. PR

    Why do we put up with this behavior against our fellow countrymen. I say carpet bomb the whole city and tell them if they do it again we will nuke them. End of problem!

    September 12, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  19. Centrist42

    Muslims are only sensitive to their sensitivities, never to the sensitivities of others. Hatred of others in their media and school books is rampant. As long as they thrive on hate and lies, we can beat them on any day.

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

      "Muslims are only sensitive to their sensitivities"...Really??? How many times have you heard of the Bible being Judged then burnt? How many movies insulting to Jesus were made by them? Zerooooo...

      September 12, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • kamanakapu

      Religion is mankind's oldest organized criminal activity first begun in india hundreds of millions of years ago. Almost all of the religious dogma, stories and quotations in the hebrew religious books came directly or indirectly from the hindu scriptures. The jews, however, refuse to admit it but the indians can easily prove it.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  20. Tom

    Four years of appeasement achieved nothing. With an election looming, anyone want to bet O will suddenly opt for "change", grow some cojones, and predator the heck out of a mud hut somewhere?

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

      You do know that Obama has authorized and initiated more targeted strikes then Bush EVER did right? Not saying his approach was perfect, but to call it appeasment would be a bit of a stretch (unless you think they REALLY like being hit with missiles).

      September 12, 2012 at 4:01 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.