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. Jon

    CNN.. nobody gives a hoot of thier stupit religion and thier beliefs.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  2. nottolate

    "Ambassador's killing shines light on Muslim sensitivities around Prophet Mohammed"

    There is no real sensitivity at all. These idiots are really misinterpreting their own doctrine. And not just a few of em either. Its all of them.

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

      Really ALL Libyans, everyone of them?

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


      "Really ALL Libyans, everyone of them?"

      You betcha! Read the Iman's description of your doctrine concerning images of your so-called prophet. Y'all got it wrong. What a bunch of idiots. Y'all don't even know your own religion.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • Shakira

      That Imam is wrong and is telling his followers wrong, however they could read and find out he is wrong like I have for myself. Not every one of them is going to follow him lock step either.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • nottolate


      "That Imam is wrong and is telling his followers wrong, however they could read and find out he is wrong like I have for myself. Not every one of them is going to follow him lock step either."

      Your clueless and don't even know your own religion. How is he wrong when he's quoting your prophet whom you claim to revere? Is your prophet wrong too then? You've been taught wrong for so long that you no longer even recognize the truth when it's staring you in the face.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • nottolate


      Go read my post on page 23 to see where all of you have went wrong concerning this.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  3. William Demuth

    A message to the Libyans

    Because of this your Muslim brothers in Syria can rot in their prison cells under Allawite boots.

    Couldn't even pretend to be civilized could you?

    September 12, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  4. Nate

    Oh, okay. Muslims are sensitive about their prophet. It all makes sense now. I guess we should repress freedom of speech then, since they aren't able to restrain themselves from violence.

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


      Repress what? Is Libya already a democratic country?

      September 12, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  5. ObammySucks

    Because they are disgusting sociopaths.

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

    I doubt that it is individuals, but rather imams, and those seeking power that whip the faithfull into frenzy. The absolutism of some of these groups - salafists in particular - is troublesome because there is no middle ground. Christianity went through it's phase of idolotry issues in the whole icononclast split with Orthodoxy and also the protestant reformation/puritanism. Islam just seem to be way behind the times when it cannot take to criticism without going rabid. And even if you disagree with the portrayal of your prophet, that's still not an excuse for violence. And I know that there have been times of great tolerance under various regimes, but one cannot forget the Islam was founded in violence - Mohhamad led his group in the violent overtunning of the existing Pagan order of Mecca and Medina and the early years of Islam were full of violence including the Sunni/Shia split - so I'm not sure where muslims get the idea that it is a religion of peace. Maybe peace as an ideal, but not in practice.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  7. Dan

    Are you kidding me CNN? Yeah OK so it's offensive...if being offended gives one the right to kill, meme, and destroy then I doubt any of us would be here today. The SIMPLE FACT IS that Islam has either been hi-jacked by radicals or the religion itself has no tolerance. There is NOTHING that justifies these acts. How about an article focused on the senseless brutality that seems inherent to most of Islam and the lack of any “real” effort to stop it by the religious clerics that drive the religion.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  8. commonsense

    Isn't the fervor of Islam regarding the portrait of Mohammad still a form of worshiping of Mohammad? If they didn't worship the man then they wouldn't care about having his portrait displayed. Don't they want people to know who was the founder of Islam?

    September 12, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  9. paulm5545

    They are "sensitive" about Mohammed, because "..portraying him threatens to lead to worshiping a human instead of Allah. Ohhh, well why didn't you say so? That completely explains and justifies condemning people to death and then carrying out the execution. It all makes so much sense now. Not.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  10. Chris

    If a religion justifies murder because of petty insults and perceived insults and simply portraying their god or prophet in a way that they do not like, that religion needs to be wiped out from the face of the earth. There is no excuse to defend Islam and the atrocities committed by Islam. You are either supportive of mass murder or you aren't, there is no in between here. Islam is an evil religion, period and it's actions have proved this time and time again.

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

      Islam does not justify those actions, the morons who did this are uneducated people who are now murderers.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  11. Tryingtounderstand

    Here is what Christians preach. Is there a difference other than that we use drones?
    You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,
    Exodus 20:5

    September 12, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • paulm5545

      Yes, there is a difference. We are not using drones because they have painted Jesus (or whatever name you give him) in a bad light or mocked him.

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

      Exodus, the old testament, Christianity follows the new testament

      September 12, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  12. lroy

    I think there should be pictures of Mohammad (or what we think he looked like) because there were no cameras back then and it would be nice to know what he actually looked like. Also depicting Mohammad (even for non-Muslims), kind of gives the rest of us yokos a chance to know what his life was like since none of us were around yet. Mormons do this with Joseph Smith and Brigham Young all the time (I think). No different.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Sure, and he will have blond hair and blue eyes, just like Jeebus does.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  13. Rang3

    There will be a Holy War between them and USA within next 10 years. It has already started – 09/11/01. It will only get worse. I will be out of USA soon! I feel bad for Amaericans. I don't think they know what they are facing.... depression, violence, oh my...

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

      I wouldn't worry. Muslims are notoriously lousy shots.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  14. Faris

    Sick people with thier sick beliefs.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  15. Jon

    To hell with these Muslim crybabies.

    If your religious book says that you can't draw a picture of Mohammed, then don't do it. But me.... I don't give a $#!% about the prophet or your book. I can do whatever I like. I'm not bound by your rules, your book, your god, your beliefs... Blow it out your halal @$$.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  16. vasechek

    "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."
    from what i gather, that particular film did little to worship that particular human. quite the opposite, actually. sounds like from this perspective muslims owe the filmmaker their thanks and an apology...

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

    because they are religious nut cases, just as those christian fundamentalists
    eradicate religions, peace upon earth

    September 12, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  18. Luis Wu

    Mohammed was a pig. He abused little boys.

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

      See, and EVERYBODY thinks it's only Catholic priests who do these things. EVERY religion has pedophiles lurking in the ranks. It's a part of human nature we have to overcome, forgive, and heal.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  19. diam

    I would encourage everyone to take a look at a film by Dutch filmmaker and politician named "Fitna". Check it out on YouTube. It's unbelievable. Hopefully, all of us American will wake up and realize they are coming to our country to take it over!

    September 12, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  20. irock

    I seen the trailer to the show that has all those turds_in_the_sandbox upset. Pretty funny, Depict`s moohamid as a stupid pork eating ba_stard horndog who gives in to sin at the drop of a roupy.

    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.