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. Kuljit

    Both America as well as the Muslim Arab world suck! America for continuing its one sided utterly pro-Israel foreign policy that in turn creates many more muslim terrorists, and the Muslims; well just for being adherents of a religion that preaches hate against anyone who's a non-muslim be it Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs or Jews...In persian all non-muslims are referred to as 'kaafirs' or literally translated 'non-believers' and as per their Koran its the moral responsibility of every Muslim to either convert believers to believers (i.e. Muslims) or just wipe them out...latter is e.g. what they did to Sikhs and Hindus in India about 300 years ago where mass conversions to Islam were forced upon and the ones who refused to convert were brutally massacred...history stands as a testimony to this fact not something that has been made up!! Westerners have only recently seen the nasty side of Islam whereas in the East many cultures and religions experienced this centuries ago....so much for calling Islam a religion of 'peace'!! If you see around the world geographically, the only parts of the world in turmoil are the ones where the members of this religion of 'peace' are at the helm of affairs...well that speaks volumes by itself doesn't it!?...

    September 12, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • Duakraider

      Very true my friend. Even a liberal like me is waking up to this cancer.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • kawaiipyon

      Look everybody -.-

      for example , im a muslim , IF i killed YOU ? Islam is going to be bad ? and all muslims will kill you too ?

      If you killed me , and lets say ur a christian , im going to hate other christians ? NO.

      infact , we are not against christians or any other religion , because we have a saying tht goes like this
      ' If ur against any religion then ur against all religions , and if ur against a phropet then ur against all of the prophets '

      Why waste time hate , and think islam is horrible wen its not ? when you dont even know anything about it ?

      I wont waste my time thinking indians are terrorists for example , and hate them cus a guy from india went to america and killed an american .. would u do that ? would u like it if someone is against ur religion ? ur beliefs ? ofcours not !

      Im really trying to show everybody thats against the prophet Mohammad and or islam simply , doesnt know anything about islam , IF the prophet Mohammad was really a bad person , we wouldnt have listend to him ? or believed in him ?

      September 14, 2012 at 8:28 am |
  2. A Woman

    Please google Professor Jill Lepore's book and UTube lecture on King Phillips War, which took place in New England in 1675. There was a massacre due to Christian religion and the beliefs of the Native American Indians. Not until humans realize all religions are a myth, war will continue, however the end result will probably be the destruction of the human race.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  3. Al

    Why don't they attack the film studio or better said the film maker instead of people who are there to promote peace between nations. Sadly I agree with Bob. I think America should just cut off ties with these third world countries and let them all kill each other.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  4. Concerned in Cleveland

    Islam does not abide freedom. Islam in particluar does not abide the freedom of Women. Submit to Islam and all of us lose our freedom, and women become voiceless slaves. Christianity grew up and matured. Why won't Islam? Can muslims become more than the enemy of liberty and the enslavers of women?

    September 12, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Christianity matured?

      The holocaust was mature?

      Get a grip dude!

      September 12, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • reader

      Islam gave women respect. When I look at American Society, I see women are used as commodity. They expose themselves to entartain guys. Islam is the ONLY solution to get out of such scoiety.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • Human

      Islam gave women their rights. Any good muslim would treat women a lot better than how the west does. Unfortunately you only see what you want to see. You only see men who try to enslave women just so you can point them out. These men are everywhere, in every society. I don't think you need examples on how some westerners treat women.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • Atlan

      No – They are evil. Their religion is evil and will bring on the destruction of the world. Look at Persia(Iran) They are so full of themselves and their power that they would work toward the destruction of planet earth. Last I checked there are no habital planets within thousands of light years. So again they show contempt and stupidity. Now we have to start counting the radiation levels outside our homes. Thanks a lot Iran(Persia) – I saw Lebanon go from a christian country to a muslim hateful country in just a few decades. They are evil – Egypt's leader is evil(Brotherhood trash), The guy is freeing terrorists and dissing the USA and killing christians and the few jews living in fear in Egypt all these years. Nigeria has evil acts of mascres all the time , Somalia, Afganistan, India, Israel and France. Anywhere there are (laughable – Piece ful muslims)
      These people are worse than our enemies. They mean us harm in every way possible. They arrogantly claim to speak for g-d. Yet the tsnamis and earthquakes speak otherwise despite in your face proof they are full of rubbish they cling to their hostile religious beliefs – The h-ll with them!

      September 12, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • kawaiipyon

      Am with ' reader ' and ' human ' ..

      You propably dont know why women for example wear ' hijab ' or anything like that , same goes for the men ,
      Men and women ARE equal in islam ,

      For example , we arent allowed to drink beer ,, why do you think ? do you really think beer is good ? from what i hear , i bet it tastes bad as hell , beer makes us go crazy o-o , it wastes our time , i know a person that was drunk and killed his friends sibilings , so now that explains everything v-v

      Islam only wants to benifit you , and No , women are NOT treated like slaves at all , i dont think my mom is treated like a slave o-o we live normally , go shopping , eat , sleep , study , go to work , like any other human being , okay ? o-o

      'Chiristianity matured and grew up' grew up on wat ? entertaining men ? what do u mean by ' grew up and matured ' ?
      You mean something like ' how to have *** ' ? o-o

      Then your really ignorant wen it comes to religions x'D hah~ sorry~~

      September 14, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  5. Carol

    Not really interested in why Muslims are sensitive – don't try to make me feel one iota of sympathy for the murdering Muslims.

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

      If you dont care about why they are sensetive , then we care about why u are sensitive ?
      If you dont care then your not forced to care , live your life normally , healthily [;

      But remember than no one would care about ur religion either ^ ^

      September 14, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • kawaiipyon

      If you dont care about why they are sensetive , then we care about why u are sensitive ?
      If you dont care then your not forced to care , live your life normally , healthily [;

      But remember that no one would care about ur religion either afterwards , since thats what you want ^ ^

      September 14, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  6. phillylady66

    CNN: who's side are you on? I'm beginning to suspect CNN has been taken over by Islamic forces! Report the news, but stop sympathizing with the enemies of America!

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

      CNN......also is known as COMMUNIST NEWS NETWORK.....!!!!

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

      The film that’s believed to have inspired the violence depicts the Prophet Mohammed as a child molester, womanizer and ruthless killer,

      That's because it is exactly what Mohammed was.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • Kinpen

      Enemy is ones ego and nothing else. Moment you think others enemy you are no better off and fall into traps of ones ego.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  7. Duakraider

    This is fodder for the right wings nu t jobs. It makes it harder and harder to defend these sewer rats.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  8. Alert Citizen

    Why they can't be? It is a part of basic tolerance not to offend someone, when anyone I mean anyone tries to cross the line, either the line crosser or someone else pays the price!

    September 12, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  9. Mick

    If your religion says you can't draw Mohammed, then don't. It's your requirement, not mine – I don't have a religion and I'll draw whoever I want. Do Catholics kill you for eating meat on Fridays during Lent?

    September 12, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Alert Citizen

      You can surely do whatever you want, but then you cannot put money on how the person getting offended going to react! You may be too young to understand this, I hope you don't learn it the hard way!

      September 12, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • steve

      thats exactly right, Mick.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • well...

      Correct thinking and a good reply @Alert.. I wish people would think a little bit before spewing crazy rhetoric

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

      Alert Citizen, do you mean to say you're not outraged by this type of behavior? That if I draw a religious figure I deserve to have some goofball attack me?

      September 12, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • well...

      outraged, yes.. surprised, no.. expected, to a certain extent, yes..

      thats the crux of the argument, mick

      September 12, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  10. ZeusYourSonHasReturned

    Moha_mmad and alla__H can su k my stick down there. Moh ammad eat motehre afsukcakasckasck

    September 12, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  11. Daniel

    Kill them all and let god sort them out. Burn their books and eradicate their religion.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Jesus was a hunchback

      That's what Hitler said.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • well...

      But don't even think about laying a finger on yours.. isn't it? F'ing hypocrite!!!

      September 12, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  12. Robert

    Muslims are sensitive on "the Prophet" because they're in a demonic cult and they are only responding in accordance with their teaching. Moreover, their teaching is in accordance with the spirit of their religion, which includes deceit, disinformation, terror and murder. And the biggest lie is that Islam is a religion of peace. Islam's definition of peace is the condition that will exist only after Islam has conquored the world and killed all non-Muslims. What more do you need to know? The only way to rid the world of Nazis was to hang all the leaders and then de-Nazisify Germany. And the only way to de-Muslimize the world and get rig of Islamic jihad is to recognize their leaders for what they are, hang them and then de-Muslimize the entire Muslim world... either that or use the neutron bomb to depopulate Muslim countries and the round up what's left over for labor camps where they will never get out alive. It's either that or our grand children will all have the foot of Islam on their necks and your great grandchildren will be chanting "Allah is Great" and firing their rifels into the air.

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

      You talk about ridding Germany of the Nazis, then you talk about rounding up Muslims and throwing them into death camps. You are the very thing you vilify.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • Real American

      Robert you are teaching your children to kill the muslims so they don't have to suffer from them in the future. What a smart solution? you might not know that when you teach your children to kill, then you are only creating a society full of killers and criminals. You better teach them something else. Teach them to love others as Jesus and Monhamad did.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  13. Triathloncoach

    Yes, and when Rodney King was beaten a bunch of stores were robbed because his supporters were so upset by his treatment. Many people salivate over a perceived opportunity to commit violence.

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

      Agreed...why would you attack US embassies on foreign soil over a movie made in the US? Let's face it, these people just love to fight and kill.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  14. ReasonableXX

    This violence based on idiotic, irrationality highlights the fundamental problem with all religions, not just Islam.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  15. Jimbo

    I got beat with a belt by my father and then he put cigarettes out on my arm because I didn't take the trash out....he must just be "sensative" to these types of things. CNN, you are a joke.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  16. JohnRJohnson

    There is nothing in the Qur'an about not depicting the image of the Prophet. There has been a TRADITION of not creating the likeness of the Prophet so that people can't make money on it. In Christianity, quite the opposite is true. Visit the Vatican and you can purchase all sort of crucifixes and images of Christ. Again, there is no edict in the New Testament which prohibits creating an image of Jesus OR Mary. Many of the problems in Islam today are the result of confusing traditions and actual scriptural rules of the road. The wearing of the niqab is one of the other TRADITIONS which has become equivalent to Quranic law. So, these people are getting angry about something which isn't even a genuine aspect of their own religious belief.

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

      You really dont have to wear a niqab -.- but its better -.-" uh kno why ?

      for example theres a really pretty girl with long shiney hair 😮 without a niqab or a ' hijab ' which looks like a scarf which u cover ur hair with v-v walking down the street alone v,v and then a bunch of guys were there too ~ Dont you think shes going to get them do bad things to her ? c': well i do ~ so thts the point of the ' hijab ' and all 😮
      No one else other than urself is going to touch tht hair , or smthing even worse v-v'

      -,- lots of kids get f*** and stalked by pedos -,- cus the pedos in this world are growing each day ...

      ^-^ islam just wants you to avoid danger , which is ' peace '
      but if I for example KILL somebody o-o its NOT islams fault ^ ^ its MINE , am i wrong with tht ? I dont think so ^ ^
      So yea ur going to hate ME but not islam o-o ... bhut wat if u saw another muslim ? ... and after a couple of days he changed his religion , hes not going to kill somebody ? that IS up to him -.- but u dont judge HIM by his RELIGION.

      September 14, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  17. Shakil Ahmed

    Shakira- Majority of the people in Latin America are Catholics( if you know what that means) and they are idol worshippers.. So its same with muslims who uses their god's name

    September 12, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  18. Paul R.

    You cannot offend a religion, you can only offend people. To claim otherwise is just an excuse. Religious figures are owed no special respect by non-adherents. And it is ridiculous to force someone to respect a prophet, god or deity that they do not believe in at the point of a gun.

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

      Thats true ..
      But some ppl in this world THINK that muslims hate anyone whos against their religion and thts not true .. if my friend was against my religion i wont hate her ~ what about your friend ? Muslims fight , indeed , they do ! o-o But they only fight who fights them , in a modern way .

      September 14, 2012 at 8:50 am |
  19. emdub

    religion suxdix

    September 12, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  20. Al

    I D I O T S like this give muslims a bad name. But let's think about it, the 9/11/01 terrorist were muslims, these claim to be muslims, there must be some truth to the saying that there is only one good muslim and that one is not sucking up any good air.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:42 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.