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. John

    Once again the religion of peace turns to killing. It truly is a peaceful religion.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • Ralph

      Islam: accept the religion of peace or they'll kill you.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • nick


      September 12, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Eric Hill

      Actually, Christianity if a religion of peace, started by a pacifist, and has been the cause of more torture and killing than any other religion in history. Shalom.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • guest1

      Yea, cause that will solve everything.... only not really.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  2. Chad

    so.. killing the ambassador is ok then?

    September 12, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • Margaret Swain

      Cnn would love to be able to justify murder of these good people and turn it around to be the faults of the conservative right. Apparently Mooslims cannot be held accountable for any bad thing that comes out of them, it's always our fault for provoking them. As a liberal even I am sick of this lame crap they spew.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  3. pk

    Shakira, of course you are very peaceful: start with 9/11 and finish (for today) with Livia's attack and killing 9/12/2012

    September 12, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  4. faboge

    if we eliminated religion 80% of the world conflicts would be eliminated as well!

    September 12, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • techie

      yeah no...Oil, minerals, land in general, stupidity, etc will still exist. Atheist don't believe in God but when they achieved power in the soviet union they massacred the Ukranians. Hitler could have cared less about God, he just wanted blonde/blue-eyed. There will always be a reason. Remove religion and they will come up with a new one.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • MDAT

      Stop with the stereotypes.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
  5. skog

    CNN already apologizing . CNN is dirt.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  6. Jeff Williams

    """Had all this evil really been coming from Islam or Allah , you would have seen Muslims behind www1 and www2"""

    You DO know that Muslims supported Nazi Germany during WWII, don't you?

    September 12, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • William Demuth

      They ALSO supported the Allies.

      As two faced as the Italians are, and that ain't easy!

      September 12, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  7. Kevin

    If somebody feels it is so paramountly important to make sure that Mohammed isn't worshipped (and only God is) that they have to kill other people over it, then THAT IS WORSHIPPING Mohammed. It elevates him above every other man.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  8. Realist

    Perhaps we should all just worship Justin Bieber instead, ending all these crazy religious wars.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  9. Pepou27

    Just don't make fun or insult someone else's religion. Is this too MUCH to understand for all the morons who spit on Islam, on Jews, on Christians, on gays, married, unmarried, divorced, etc ....
    Mind your own business.
    PS. I am not religious

    September 12, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      We'll be happy to leave the religious m0r0ns alone if they'd leave us alone... In Gold We Trust...

      September 12, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • William Demuth


      Make fun of whatever you like.

      It is called FREEDOM.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • Jimbo

      Religion deserves to get made fun of and ridiculed, who are you to say we can't do that? Islam is the low hanging fruit in that category, way too easy to make fun of. Look at these monkeys, what a bunch of stinky animals.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • Eric Hill

      I see so much love on this page, it just makes me wanna join hands with y'all and sing Kumbaya.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  10. MikeB

    There is no rational reason to punish others for the acts of a few that happened to have something in common.
    These kinds of acts are what happens when groups push a 'Collective' norm or ideology upon all.
    Which is why the idea of "Shared Sacrific and Share Success" are so dangerous. Deminishing individuality and personal accountability puts everyone into bondage.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  11. Pastor Henrickson's Miney Timey Tine Town

    More garbage from the CNN Belief Blog. Apologist literature coming out less than a day after an American public servant was murdered by 10th century fundamentalists.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  12. diam

    Wake up, America – stop helping these animals. Let's stop giving them money and assistance because they will never change. Let's get out of that region, stop purchasing oil, and let's see what happens to them. Take a look at Europe, especially the Netherlands & France. We can't let them come to this country and try to take away our freedoms. Stop the immigration of Muslim people into this country!

    September 12, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Wow for a minute I though you were talking about Roman Catholics.

      I'll make a deal, NO religious people can immigrate into the US.

      Seems reasonable to me.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • Kevin

      A belief in something that a Fiction movie is made about that would drive you to kill or be violent in anyway..... this means your are NUT CASE. Your religion has nothing to do with it, it's your brainwashing that has gone on since birth is the problem. These people know nothing but violence and death...you an never convince any REAL American otherwise. I feel sorry for the VERY few of them who have actually seen the insanity in their own culture but are powerless to change it. Maybe America is not perfect but, we certainly are far better of a people than these NUT Cases. We cannot stand by and wait for them to kill us...we have to defend ourselves and do what is good for us.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • nick

      They need to get over it and leave the USA no one likes them and no one wants them.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  13. Kile

    There is no "radical islam". It is all just islam. It is all radical.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Eric Hill

      And with that logic, there is no radical Christianity; there is only the KKK? Your reductionist logic here reveals a rather ignorant understanding of religion in general, no?

      September 12, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • guest1

      Every religion has radicals that are a part of it many end up giving it a bad name. In many cases, similar to what we have seen recently, these people essentially end up hijacking the name of a religion and using it as an excuse to do what they like. I am in no way defending the atrocities these radicals commit and as a true Muslim it is very frustrating that these groups continue to draw attention to themselves, thereby making everyone else believe that these acts are what the religion is actually about.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  14. Phil

    From early childhood they have been brought up with a warped sense of reality. It is not wonder that in these matters some will lack the ability to reason.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Eric Hill

      All of them? How many Muslims do you know?

      September 12, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  15. Allah WHO?

    Good Muslim Bad Muslims they are all scavengers. Get rid of this rouge species of this planet. They don't have respect for other religion why should we go F*&K your self Muslims.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Eric Hill

      I'm going to guess that response is coming from a place of Christian love?

      September 12, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Ron

      Because we're better (as much as the world doesn't want to admit). The US has many many many faults... but we're leaps and bounds better than the middle east in terms of culture and general intelligence.

      It's just not something the rest of the world wants to admit because you get the good with the bad. The muslim religion is fine...the people (like in any religion) pervert it for their own goals.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Eric Hill

      Ron, I like it here; don't get me wrong. But when I see the kind of vitriolic hate, ignorant prejudice, and empty jingoistic rhetoric coming from U.S. citizens, I'm not surprised that we're hated by so many. The difference between us and a lot of other countries is that we export our fascism and live comfortably on the returns here at home.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  16. AGeek

    Your right to believe what you want ends at my right to express myself as I wish. If you're offended by what I do, perhaps you needed to be offended or were looking to be offended. Get over yourself. If it bothers you, then don't do it, but don't go ape#$(t if *I* do it.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • well...

      Think about what is precious to you, say the person you love the most.. now think about a scenario when someone on the road says the most hurtful, disgusting, outrageous things about the person you love.. would you or would you not be offended? as is the human nature.. But according to your logic, you should not be, since the person was simply "expressing themselves" and if it offends you, you "need to be offended".

      Idiot is what you are.. judge, definitely not!

      September 12, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  17. Trent

    Sensitive is when someone says something that upsets you and you get all moody about it. Crazy is when someone says something that upsets you and you pick up a gun and go out and kill people about it.

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

      and that about sums it up

      September 12, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  18. rblock7

    Religious intolerance, stupidty and ignorance are alive and well ..............How special

    September 12, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  19. Atheisticallyyours

    If only EVERY MIDDLE EASTERN mosque could get "visited" by a PREDATOR DRONE, while these pedophilic-"prophet" worshippers were engaged in their "head between their legs" act of submission, then maybe they would RETHINK THEIR PATHETIC RELIGION!

    September 12, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • Eric Hill

      Would you extend this to every synagogue, church, and temple as well, Mr. Stalin?

      September 12, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  20. ispeakforislam

    As a muslim, there is still no justification for violence. What went down in Libya is absolutely disgusting. Everyone from that mob should be jailed for life.

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

      Salam alkium, as a fellow Muslim I agree completely.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • jetdoctn

      Jailed my ass, they need to be doused in gasoline and set on fire.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • jjj

      Then how come people are being killed in multiple Muslim countries for violating some blasphemy laws, because it's in the Quran, Sunna

      September 12, 2012 at 4:39 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.