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. Ralph

    I wonder how CNN would react to someone in the US using being offended as a defense to murder. It would probably make Anderson Cooper's ridiculist...unless that person was a Muslim; in that case, it would be ok.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:39 pm |

    So they are sort of like Bammers?

    September 12, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  3. Dale

    They are tribal brainwashed fanatics is the reason why, Mohammed is the only thing they know. Cannot trust Muslims they have been brainwashed to react a certain way.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:39 pm |

    Jesus Christ engages in sodomy nightly with Mohammad while Buddha licks up the Santorum.

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

      Thanks for that visual....

      September 12, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  5. fn0rdz

    If they were so worried about worshipping a "man", why capitalize prophet?

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

      troll warning

      September 12, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  6. WillH85

    Seems to me a simpler and more accurate explanation is that Islam is evil. When's the last time that Islam did something truly good for the world? At it's best, it doesn't hurt people, and this is it at it's worst, and this kind of thing is pretty common. I'll never understand why people stick up for it the way they do, and then go and attack other religions for far less serious things.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  7. m123

    For over a thousand years Islamic artists painted pictures of Mohammed.
    Now it is acceptable grounds for murder?

    September 12, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  8. Reality

    STOP THE PRESSES:–>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>


    From the studies of Armstrong, Rushdie, Hirsi Ali, Richardson and Bayhaqi––

    The Five Steps To Deprogram 1400 Years of Islamic Myths:

    (Analogous steps are available at your request for deprogramming the myths of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Paganism..)

    ( –The Steps take less than two minutes to finish- simply amazing, two minutes to bring peace and rationality to over one billion lost souls- Priceless!!!)

    Are you ready?

    Using "The 77 Branches of Islamic "faith" a collection compiled by Imam Bayhaqi as a starting point. In it, he explains the essential virtues that reflect true "faith" (iman) through related Qur’anic verses and Prophetic sayings." i.e. a nice summary of the Koran and Islamic beliefs.

    The First Five of the 77 Branches:

    "1. Belief in Allah"

    aka as God, Yahweh, Zeus, Jehovah, Mother Nature, etc. should be added to your self-cleansing neurons.

    "2. To believe that everything other than Allah was non-existent. Thereafter, Allah Most High created these things and subsequently they came into existence."

    Evolution and the Big Bang or the "Gi-b G-nab" (when the universe starts to recycle) are more plausible and the "akas" for Allah should be included if you continue to be a "crea-tionist".

    "3. To believe in the existence of angels."

    A major item for neuron cleansing. Angels/de-vils are the mythical creations of ancient civilizations, e.g. Hitt-ites, to explain/define natural events, contacts with their gods, big birds, sudden winds, protectors during the dark nights, etc. No "pretty/ug-ly wingy thingies" ever visited or talked to Mohammed, Jesus, Mary or Joseph or Joe Smith. Today we would classify angels as f–airies and "tin–ker be-lls". Modern de-vils are classified as the de-mons of the de-mented.

    "4. To believe that all the heavenly books that were sent to the different prophets are true. However, apart from the Quran, all other books are not valid anymore."

    Another major item to delete. There are no books written in the spirit state of Heaven (if there is one) just as there are no angels to write/publish/distribute them. The Koran, OT, NT etc. are simply books written by humans for humans.

    Prophets were invented by ancient scribes typically to keep the un-educated masses in line. Today we call them for-tune tellers.

    Prophecies are also invali-dated by the natural/God/Allah gifts of Free Will and Future.

    "5. To believe that all the prophets are true. However, we are commanded to follow the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) alone."

    Mohammed spent thirty days "fasting" (the Ramadan legend) in a hot cave before his first contact with Allah aka God etc. via a "pretty wingy thingy". Common sense demands a neuron deletion of #5. #5 is also the major source of Islamic vi-olence i.e. turning Mohammed's "fast, hunger-driven" hallu-cinations into horrible reality for unbelievers.

    Walk these Five Steps and we guarantee a complete recovery from your Islamic ways!!!!

    Unfortunately, there are not many Muslim commentators/readers on this blog so the "two-minute" cure is not getting to those who need it. If you have a Muslim friend, send him a copy and help save the world.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  9. timinfla

    islaaaam is a cancer. It is a religion of violence and hate. Sympathizers simply do not get this- never will.

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

      All religions are. Are Christians any different? Remember the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition?
      Religions also do teach peace and how to love and live with your fellow man. But the other side when you use your religion to justify what ever mean you can come up with. That's when religion becomes deadly.

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

      bla bla bla what does that have to do with the fact that islaaam is a cancer, this is 2012, F the crusades

      September 12, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  10. Cosmo

    Are you kidding me? I'm sorry, but if you are willing to kill another man, because another person drew/pictured or portrayed this MAN in a way that you don't like, you have inherently deified that person!!! You have said that just saying something bad a bout a person is worthy of death. That's deification folks, so in essence they ARE worshiping him.

    This should be obvious to anyone with half a brain. And I'm not some right wing anti-Muslim bigot. I work with and are friends with many Muslims here in the states, and they are all nice decent people. But the radicals are guilty of EXACTLY what they are trying to stop.

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

      Well said Cosmo ... 100% agree!
      Also, this kind of violent reaction is going to encourage more and more non-Muslims to make pictures, cartoons and movies about Muhammad in a negative connotation, just what Muslims are trying to prevent

      September 12, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  11. Brad

    Here's what I don't understand: making his image off-limits, makes it sacred, and therefore something that is revered, in other words, worshiped. Doesn't that run counter to the original intent of the rule that you can't portray him?

    September 12, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • Grand Ole Party of Christian Taliban

      Look at the christians for example...ignorant sheep are easily told what to do....muslims are no different

      September 12, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  12. Grand Ole Party of Christian Taliban

    "The entire cast and crew are extremely upset and feel taken advantage of by the producer. We are 100% not behind this film and were grossly misled about its intent and purpose," the statement says. "We are shocked by the drastic re-writes of the script and lies that were told to all involved. We are deeply saddened by the tragedies that have occurred."
    They knew what the movie was about..they were saying the lines.....translation...they have no backbone.

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

    There are two sides: Those in the Benghazi and Cairo attacks and xenophobes such as Terry Jones and the guy who is provoked the Egyptians and Libyans. Both are a******s who directly/indirectly contributed to the death of Ambassador Stevens.

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

      What instigated the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon?

      And what drives today's 24/7 mosque/imam-planned acts of terror and horror?

      The koran, Mohammed's book of death for all infidels and Muslim domination of the world by any means.

      Muslims must clean up this book removing said passages admitting that they are based on the Gabriel myth and therefore obviously the hallucinations and/or lies of Mohammed.

      Then we can talk about the safety and location of mosques and what is taught therein. Until then, no Muslim can be trusted anytime or anywhere..................................

      September 12, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • Jeaux Bleaus


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

      Provoked? provoked them to murder? You are a clown.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  14. Bruce Carter

    They are sensitive because they are insecure in their faith. That is because even Mohammed knew that Jesus Christ was THE prophet. He was just a prophet – according to himself. False prophet, false Babylonian moon god, false religion – yeah, I would be insecure in it, too! Time to abandon the lies of satan and come to Christ!

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

      Oh I get it. My god is the real god yours is fake. Don't you get it! They're all fake. FOOL

      September 12, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Kazi

      Please read about Islam and see the beautiful message in it. If you search about Islam in the internet you may get many anti-islamic websites that will lead you further away from Islam. Rather, know Islam from its source. Go to a mosque, ask an Imam or ask a knowledgable muslim (not any muslim).

      Just like, if you want to known about medicine you ask a doctor and not a farmer.
      Once you know about the true message of Islam from the right sources, your view point will change, even if you hold anti-islamic view.
      Yes, the actions of many ignorant muslims do not represent Islam. Islam is against unjustified violence and Islam is for justice.
      Know that we are all being tested in this world, and Allah(God) is watching your every actions and ill-intentions.
      You and I and all of us should seek the truth for the pleasure of God.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  15. MCBrrimm

    simple response. Who cares???? You cannot kill and riot becuase your invisible man was insulted. Islam is the only remaining religion on the face of the earth where a simple picture, video, or even a tweet can cause hundreds of thousands to turn violent in an instant.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  16. Michael Wilson

    Theologically, I've never understood this. It makes sense to discourage imagery where it could lead to worship of the man, not the God. But this total ban on depictions of the Prophet seems to elevate him beyond a man. In other words, making him this big exception feels as if it's a de facto form of worship! It goes beyond "we can't depict him lest he be worshiped" and reaches "we can't depict him because he's too holy." Secular depictions of the Prophet seem perfectly in line with viewing him as a man, not God. Are there any knowledgeable Muslims who can explain this to me?

    September 12, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • ricardo1968

      I would like to know the answer as well. This non-depiction rule seems to have exalted him beyond what was intended.

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

    Yes like the last paragragh stated.. Christianity has had a decades-long head start in dealing with negative portrayals

    Now its time to make muslims imune to insults.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  18. nottolate

    “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.’”

    Unbelievable! Then the muslims are actually deifying and worshiping this Muhammad despite his call for them not to by their displays of sensitivity. What's worse, they blaspheme their own (false) god in the process by deifying another. Could you be any more messed up?

    Clearly, if the quote is accurate, then they disobey their own prophet whom they claim to adore.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  19. cartoonist

    I am going to make 10,000 cartoons of mohamad in various states of undress surrounded by naked ladies. I will distribute these on flyers to every mosque

    September 12, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  20. Foresee

    Let them all die, the sooner the better!
    Then God will judge them, not their moon god, allah, of ancient egypt!
    Worse than sewer rats.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:38 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.