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. infidelfersure

    Belief in fairy tales, ie: Religion, is a mental illness. The teaching of it to children is child abuse. Just look at what you get from it, these insane, murderous, cavemen acting like spoiled rotten brats.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  2. Pete

    They ought to be sensitive on all other human beings who aren't just like them as far as beliefs go, because unlike most of what they believe, other human beings are real things in the universe.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  3. parkmore

    CNN brain wash and people are ignorant.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  4. Chris B.

    And the CNN excuse machine is in high-gear. Justify or explain away radical actions taken by Muslims yet vilify Christians.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  5. rblock7

    Ignorance and intolerance are alive and well in our world.........How special

    September 12, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  6. nancybrad

    Islam is evil! stop placating the muslims

    September 12, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  7. OregonTom

    As an artist I reserve the right to say or draw any damn thing I want. No power on Earth or in the universe will stop me from expressing myself. Guess what I am drawing right now...

    September 12, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • Tom is Cool

      Right on, Tom. I'm a 4th generation native Oregonian living in the Netherlands. You make me proud of my home state!

      September 12, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  8. Kile

    Mohamed was a pedophile. Bring it on you cave dwellers. I'm ready.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  9. Andrew

    Well this attack just helped provide more evidence supporting his belief that Islam is a hateful religion cause only people full of hate could kill people over such a subject.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • Kile

      Islam is a brainwashed cult of death. That's all there is to it.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  10. DrEvil

    If Muslims believe that Muhammad was just a man than why do they get so bent out of shape whenever anything is said about him or whenever he is depicted? Their actions contradict their words. If they truly thought that Muhammad was just a man then they wouldn't riot and murder everytime they imagine someone thought something bad about him

    September 12, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • cor

      Wow, I was about to write the same exact thing. Well said.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • Groo22

      I can only speculate, but Muslims believe that ALL people, with the exception of martyrs, will go to Hell when they die. Everyone goes, but eventually all those that believe in God will get out. What gets them out? The people in Hell ask the prophets for help, and in turn each prophet says something to the effect of, 'I'm not worthy to ask God to release, go ask that next prophet, maybe he can ask for you' and so on, all the prophets up to Jesus are asked, and Jesus finally sends them to Mohammed, who asks God to have mercy, and God lets a bunch of people go from Hell. Mohammed does this over and over again – pleading for mercy and getting people released from their punishment until one day he stops. God asks him why he isn't asking to release more people, and Mohammed is supposed to say something like, 'I've asked you to release everyone that can be released. The only ones left are the ones the Koran keeps there.' So yeah, you can kind of see why their Koran is so Holy to them and why Mohammed is so important. Islam doesn't say only Muslims get to heaven, it also says Christians and Jews and anyone who believes in God can go, provided that's what God wills. It also is said that God changes his mind and amends whatever he wants whenever he wants, so it's possible if he wanted to that nobody would be in Hell in the end.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  11. steve

    "the Prophet was a man, not God, and that portraying him threatens to lead to worshiping a human instead of Allah."

    So mocking him is OK then.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  12. Reasonably

    Our cult is better than your cult. Just ask us. But please don't depict images of our cult's icons or we'll kill you.

    Isn't religion fun?

    September 12, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • steve

      Only Muslims kill over being "offended."

      September 12, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • Reasonably

      Tell that to the jews in the holocaust or the muslims in the crusades or anyone stupid enough to question the pope during the inquisition.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Sean

      Did someone forget the crusades?

      September 12, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  13. bfpiercelk

    I get the sensitivity. What I don't get are the violent outbursts and protests.

    MUSLIMS can't depict the prophet, I as a NON muslim CAN. That's how liberty works geniuses.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • Reasonably

      As a genius yourself you probably realize that hard-line Muslims think that non-believers are the unwashed and thus not worthy of liberties.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • Kile

      Because muslims are morons.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • Shakira

      No bigots like you Kile are morons.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Derek

      They believe that non-believers should all be killed if they won't convert.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  14. PaulBel

    I don't care about religious beliefs, worship whatever you want. To me, all religions are equally empty. But this once again proves the point that religions in general and radical Islam in particular have been, and always will be, one of the greatest detriments to human-kind. Killing in the name of God is as old as humanity; fortunately some civilizations have outgrown this method of objecting to differences. These people are wrapped up in middle-ages mentality made worse with the co-opting of their "religion" by a radical extremist element. I truly see no difference between them and the barbarians from which they came. We cannot coexist, cannot negotiate, and cannot trust them. The only path I can see is to isolate and contain them.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • Daniel B.

      ... And your point is?

      September 12, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  15. Reason Abel

    If they're mad about how we depicted Mohammed, they should see what we do to Jesus and other religious figures.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • LilySue

      And THAT is exactly what the root of the problem is – lack of tolerance and respect for religion in general, or for relligious tenets other than one's own.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  16. griz5106

    I once seen a painting of the prophet muhammed having se.x with a pig

    September 12, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  17. Leonard

    Wasn't Passion of the Christ considered offensive to Jews due to its use of a passage from the Gospel of Matthew? And didn't the Last Temptation of Christ with Willem Dafoe an Dogma by Kevin Smith raise a significant ruckus?

    September 12, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • steve

      No violence at all.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • Kile

      And exactly how many people were killed as a result of those movies?

      September 12, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • liz

      "significant ruckus" is a little different from murder.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • cor

      If I recall correctly, embassy's weren't burned down and people weren't blown up with rocket launchers.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • mike electrician

      Yes to both. Every religion has a basis of one man off by them self where they get the rules for us to follow (Moses up on Mt. Sinai, Mohammad in a cave, Buddha off meditating, Jesus rising and showing himself only to those who followed him, instead of to the masses) If you break the "man" you threaten the religion and in essence say to them "boy haven't I been a fool".

      September 12, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  18. khan Alam Afridi

    @Dr greg... Its something personal to ask help from any body, Allah or someone else...its another kind of debate and freedom of religion, forget about it... I m first a human and i have love for humanity than a Muslim... Fanatics or extremist have no concern with any religion they r more like mentally ill people and fanaticism should not be linked to only one religion... such kind of people u can see in Burma ( monks of Burma), The National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), a rebel group operating in Tripura, North-East India, has been described as engaging in terrorist violence motivated by their Christian beliefs,National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), which explicitly calls for a "Nagalim for Christ", and there r many many more examples of terrorist groups from almost all religions.. My brother i m talking about universal brotherhood and its only possible if we sit with each other and try to know the problems specially religious differences which create problems and such incidents and jointly we address the causes which lead to such injuries. This kind of saying is unjustified " GO AND TALK TO UR FANATICS BY YOURSELF" . I m sure these fanatics have some problems from other religions but if we come together and talk to them may be we can handle them well..

    September 12, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • Islam4fools

      But Islam is causing more violence than any other religion. All the example you give are in one country or the other.

      Islam on the other hand causes violence in every single country it exists. For what? To obey Islamic prophet Mohammad who married a 9 year old??

      September 12, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • khan Alam Afridi

      @Islam4fools.... I can give u hundreds of examples around the world for terrorism caused by other religions but it doesn't mean that that particular religion preach terrorism its just bcz of the lack of education abt that religion and that's y the people became victims of the cruelty... If American attacks Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya etc Muslim countries i did understand that its bcz of some political and economical gains which the govt and some factors in govt want to achieve i can not blame a common american who doesn't know anything about these games bcz he want to live like simple ordinary man.. Look if u give a new BMW to a person who cant drive and he crash it against the wall it doesn't mean that its BMW fault... such is the case with religion... And for the girls of Nine is concerned it was her choice she was not forced to marry and y r u not look to the early days of Europe, america and still in Thailand and many countries non Muslim countries such marriage is practicing. Why u people not looking to the fact that the Prophet Muhammad was also Married to a widow of 40 years with whom he spend his entire youth. Its becz the He want to crash many wrong customs in His era rooted in Arabs. The rest U can consult to a religious Islamic Scholars if u want the right answer which can satisfied u bcz i cant convince u as i have lack of knowledge... My desire is just get into discussion on religious harmony.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  19. Kenny

    This was poorly researched. The Muslim ban on images goes back to the ancient Arabs. In the ancient Arab cultures drawing a picture of a god or speaking that gods name gave you power over that god.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  20. Bob

    I don't care what Muslims think anymore. They have little to no moral ground to stand on. They desecrate churches and murder noon-muslims on a daily basis.

    Islam truly deserves to be verbally attacked.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      These people are nuts. What's happening in Syria doesn't bother them, yet a movie does. How brain dead can you be?

      September 12, 2012 at 4:29 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.