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. Seyedibar

    why Muslims are sensitive about their "prophet": because it unmasks their insecurities over wasting their lives worshiping a murderous, lecherous warlord who talked to a god that doesn't exist.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • AmericanMuslim

      Muslims Believe in ONE GOD, the same GOD of the Christians and the Jewish believers. If you don't believe in God in general then so be it.

      Lastly anytime someone writes like you it usually means you haven't begun to even educate yourself before you speak so I'll leave the remaining comments of yours unanswered.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • David Ellis

      Even if it is supposed to be, at the end, the same creator of the universe, the aspects being worshipped are completely inconsistent between the Old Testament, New Testament and Quran.
      Calling them the same is just polite PR speak.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  2. Gordon

    This is just further evidence that religion is a harmful idea and the sooner that people stop worshipping something, when there is absolutely no evidence that it even exists, the better we will all be.

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

      If you take away religion, Man will kill for some other reason. Just read the facts about Murders in the US and you'll soon realize that hundreds of thousands die and religion has nothing to do with it.

      sadly as much as we want to change the world there will always be people out to take advantage of the ignorance out there. and the people like us who just are busying with our lives will always be over shadowed by them

      September 12, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  3. The Bible is a book of badly written fairy tales

    Because they're brainwashed into thinking this way. There's no other reason.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • Shakil Ahmed

      Looks like you are iliterate.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  4. AJ

    Islam is evil.... It is a backward and violent religion. Whether a person is middle eastern, white, black, mexican should not make a difference anymore. Whatever religion you are; or even if you do not believe in god.....We must all unite to rid this world of this filth of a religion

    September 12, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  5. Mark

    All reasoning, explanations, and rationale aside, it is still no justification for such violent responses.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  6. David Ellis

    Regardless of what was said in a movie, or any other provocation du jour, the answer should never be mayhem, violence and murder.

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

    Boo hoo, so they're offended by having their pedophile prophet depicted in drawings. Cry me a frigging river.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  8. Gonfis

    Sensitive????? What kind of prophet needs followers to kill, maim, intimidate and terrorize those that don't believe. I agree with their prophet, he was just a man, an evil one which has spawned his own ignorance and vileness into many who act just like him. The scourge of the world is islam.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  9. Joe

    Sensitivity is one thing. Rabid violence is another. Those people need to get a grip. Even the most rabid "Jesus Freaks" in the western world don't go resorting to this sort of violence over some silly movie. Sure they moan and groan about something they don't like being said about Jesus but RPG's???? I don't think so. The "producer" of the movie is apparently a Jew who used Jewish money to fund this "Epic Film" and he is quoted someplace as saying that ISLAM is a CANCER. So lets see here: the movie and the quote are based on 1000's of years of hatred then Muslims reply with MURDER and prove the assertion that Islam (at least some Islamists) really are a cancer!!! No wonder the insanity goes on and on and on over there. The US needs to become energy independent of the Middle East and pull out of the region. Leave them there to flail away at themselves to their hearts content.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  10. Joy

    who cares? These people will not take over the world!

    September 12, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  11. eyesalve

    According to the scriptures it's blasphemy to suggest that M is God's messenger! - "Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

    September 12, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  12. Alan

    They have that in their beliefs – that is OK. But it also does not speak of acts of violence when it occurs. The real issue here is that the Leaders do not condemn most of the religion's beliefs or act in any way against the extremist. It is all mostly political with the backing of Twisted Religion's Beliefs taken to extremism.

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


      September 12, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  13. ricardo1968

    The number one reason for the sensitivity of Muslims is that in truth, they lack faith. If they really think that some crackpot film from California is a threat to Islam, it is because they think that their beliefs might be worthy of abandonment. True believers would not feel a need to even to respond to such nonsense.

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

      Ricardo – I agree with the Idea of your post. And some one else also posted that These people are now Worshiping Muhammad and not God and there for are becoming non believers themselves.

      This is the difference between an American Muslim and some Muslims around the world. we took the time to READ and LEARN our religion and we are far ahead of the others because of this.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  14. Fred

    This is complete BS. They treat any portrayal of Mohammed as blasphemy, not the worshipping of a false god. They are raising Mohammed to the level of a god by their over-reaction and completely invalidating any claim of false worship. Another BS excuse to help us "understand" why radical muslims are killing us. Wake up people. They don't like us. They do not like our culture and want us to die.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  15. AmericanMuslim

    To all those writting THEY to talk about us MUSLIMS. We aren't THEY we are the same as you. American MUSLIMS are offended but not any more offended than when Packer Fans poke fun at us Bear fans when we lose. The offense is short lived because we know the difference between someone ATTACKING us and someone saying what they want to say.

    Regardless of the Film and all parts of that film being completely false it nor any drawing of the Prophet non of that deserves the Violence that followed.

    the Quran says that we should and must treat all Prophets the same I am offended the same when Jesus is portrayed in a disrespectful manner. But I , nor will any other American Muslim, ever stoop to Violence or even Protest against it. Why? once again It's insensitive but harms no one. But the Violence that follows is much more OFFENSIVE to me.

    Lastly I'll leave you with this:

    O ye that reject Faith!

    2 I worship not that which ye worship,

    3 Nor will ye worship that which I worship.

    4 And I will not worship that which ye have been wont to worship,

    5 Nor will ye worship that which I worship.

    6 To you be your Way, and to me mine.

    The Quran itself basically saying: To Each his own

    September 12, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  16. lroy

    To me that's like people who don't believe Jesus was God (he was), and we're simply worshiping and praying to a mere mortal man (we are, but Jesus was true God as well).

    September 12, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  17. Helen Gilbert

    Frankly, my dears, I don't give a damn. I'm tired of "respecting" everyone else's feelings and culture. No one respects mine! I'll be nice to Muslims and respect their feelings when they begin to return the favor. Bunch of ignorant whiners!

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

      Helen, I dont' know you but I respect you. And I and I bet no other Muslim in your city has ever Disrespected you. American Muslims are no different than any other Americans. So for you to make the ignorant and arrogant comment that you dont respect and wont respect Muslims until they respect you? is just lame.

      I cant speak for every Muslim but judging back the fact that the Quran confirms what came before it in the Gospel, Torah, and Bible no real Muslim would disrespect you for your faith. Even if you are of no Faith or you believe in Aaron Rogers as God himself, that's between you and yours and not for anyone to Judge.

      Don't judge ALL of us and even if you do, I still won't judge you as I am not ignorant.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  18. Joe

    Regardless of "sensitivities around Prophet Mohammed" there is no justification for the violent acts of those in Egypt and Libya (or any other Islamic state). These immature thugs need to learn that there is a better way to communicate. Violence is never the answer, particularly, the type of blind violence directed at innocent people. I am terribly offended by anyone that would destroy the U.S. flag and replace it with a standard focused on one religion (whether Islam or any other). The U.S. flag stands for the freedom of all religions.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  19. Louise

    We react when someone takes issue with Jesus or any of the religious figures that we acknowledge..............we just don't kill people over it and burn things and demolish parts of the city that we live in over the issues............

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

      Sometimes they do. The Miami face-eater attack for instance, began when one man insulted the other's religion. Then there was the christian that shot up the Shiekh temple. Religion and common sense do not mix in any capacity.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  20. chris

    Muslims are Barbarians. Let's control their oil and allow them to live in the Stone Age, killing each other en masse over such trivial baubles.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:35 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.