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. TRH

    I'd find the failing of logic to be laughable if the hate and violence and loss of life wasn't so tragic.
    If the prohibition on depictions of M are anti-idol worshiping fears then one would think NEGATIVE depections would be just fine...those area certainly not likely to lead to any form of worship...In fact quite the contrary.

    It's like they're using their rule against idol-worship depections as an excuse to strike out against people who slander their god-figure. Which in itself IS a form of idol worship.

    Their actions are actually an indication of idol worship more than the negative depections.

    The funniest would be if their religion was right and they burned in hell or whatever it is they do because they did what they were claiming to prevent....worshipping an idol...

    September 12, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  2. Isabel

    What a crock. Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the son of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, suffered mocking, spitting, death without a proper trial, crucification, having every single person he did a miracle for turn their back on Him, even his closest friends turned their back on Him. This was his ultimate example of surrendering to God in obediance. And Mohammed did what again??? Jesus did this out of Love for HIs Father and to be the perfect one and only sacrifice for the sins (the turning our backs on God) of ALL mankind in the past, present and future. This is the immensity of God's love: that He loved us even as sinners. God shows us a kind of mercy that is difficult to live up to. And Mohammed does what? The slightest little thing sets his followers off into a tirade of violence and tyranny. Why aren't they home taking care of their families? Why aren't they making their homes nice, education better, tackling their environmental problems. No they rather argue and blame and fight and destroy. Thank you Mohammed for giving your people such an evil path to follow. I am totally fed up with this crock of "b.s."

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

      ISABEL THANKYOU....! Of the 1.4 billion Muslims 800 million are illiterate (6 out of 10 Muslims cannot read). In Christendom, adult literacy rate stands at 78 percent. ONE OF THE BIGGEST PROBLEMS is within that factual statement....lack of education breeds stupidity. Most of these angry MUSLIMS are just lost, unemployed, uneducated, wasting away with lack of direction and purpose! They need to really pray to someone...not ALLAH...just someone or something for their salvation! I am a CATHOLIC and yes I do not like alot of things about my religion but it is what is it....in the long end....I have to answer to GOD only....no one else...point blank!

      September 12, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
      • Isabel

        Amen to that! But they sure are stirring up a lot of trouble, these poor hungry ignorant people; and what about the Jews and Christians they want to annihilate that live in those countries. I pray constantly for their safety.

        October 6, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • the truth

      Isabel way to tell it like it is , killing another human ,not to mention a human who had nothing to do with what has worked these people into a militia of murdering fools, because of some one took a poke right or wrong at there religious beliefs? get over it muslim world if we as christian people killed a muslim every time jesus was made fun of or ridiculed it would be unspeakable the number of attacks that would happen on muslim people , it dosnt take a scholar to see who the primitive culture are, and its about time that the peaceful muslims we always hear about took a stand against there no so peaceful brothers and sisters , I get so tired of the christian people always having to bend there beliefs to suit other religions , i guess the days of just getting along with each other is long over what a sad time we live in to raise our kids!

      September 13, 2012 at 10:38 am |
      • Isabel

        to the truth....Well God says we should focus on the good and the beautiful and when it comes to kids - they are just naturally happy and curious and care free... that's their gift to us and we should take it in full. What I taught my sons and my grandchildren is this: STAY OUT OF TROUBLE! Follow your dream and you will learn everything you need to know when you follow your dream. Work is 80% of your life, so make it something you are happy with. Love your partner and friends. Be kind to your parents (or your granny will chase you) but mostly just hug those little people a lot for no reason at all. TALK to them about God - they're little hearts already are in communication with God - and when they hear their parents and grandparents TALK about God in a real way, they listen and grow in the Lord. Don't worry. God is in control and loves His believers. Just keep moving on. God Bless You Abundantly!

        September 15, 2012 at 3:19 am |
      • Isabel

        It would seem so, but God is always in control. As a grandmother, I can tell you that kids are different today. My grandchildren accepted Jesus Christ as their savior while they were in grammar school. Mom and Dad are good, but it was the friends they have that introduced them to Jesus and showed them the light and they saw and accepted the Light. So don't let the world get you down and allow you to think that for one minute that God is not only in control, but this is not a problem for God or his people, and we are his people. All we have to do is pray peace and be peaceful. Do all the things God shows us how to do in the bible, because Jesus has conquered death and we have eternal life in heaven.

        October 6, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  3. joe

    No one likes their beliefs ridiculed but some of us handle it like adults and some don't.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  4. lroy

    While they thought intentions were good, it doesn't sound like it put Mohammad or Muslims in general in a positive light. If it was all glory to Mohammad and Allah (well you know what I mean) then maybe three people would be alive today.

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

    Hi I think this picture of Muhammad is a good one.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  6. Bob

    We will never respect Islam the way they want us to. They need to lighten up or Islam needs to be banned from civilized countries.

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

      Agree wholeheartedly.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  7. zandhcats

    All religion is rooted in the notion of idol worship, not only Islam.

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

      Jesus isn't an idol.

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

      Why do people worship him in church? I'm not christian but went to bible studies when I was a kid and went to church with friends.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  8. Larry Clinton

    Lunatics. Period.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  9. therealbartonfunk

    One on the major problem for Muslims in the US and the world is the reaction to things they are offensive. Of course, every Muslim is not the same. But, generally it appears that this kind of violence on display is typical. People probably feel that this kind of violence is not compatible with living in a democratic society. This and other actions like the Taliban took makes people fear Muslims. Although I do think that discrimination is wrong, it is on the shoulders of Muslims to be able to move into the modern world. You have to be able to accept criticism and be more tolerant of being offended.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  10. RICH


    September 12, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  11. FRANK


    September 12, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  12. Darwin

    retarded jew that made the film. Religions are the cause of many of the worlds problems.

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

      Perhaps that Jew gave the Muslims too much credit and assumed that they were civilized enough not to kill someone over a silly cartoon.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  13. Chris

    I don't care if Muslims are "sensitive", I will kill them if I am forced to defend myself from a muslim attack. There is no more attempting to "understand" someone or a group like Islam when they have crossed the line by committing murder over and over again. They can take their thin skin and sensitivity and shove it where the sun doesn't shine. I don't care if you as a left winger or a muslim if your feelings are hurt. You come at me in one of your hate attacks, and I wouldn't hesitate to kill you.

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

      Chris-Be a Christian and do not stoop to their level and respond to their violence with more violence or revenge. That just brings on more hate and there's too much of that already. BE A MAN, defend yourself, but don't instigate it. Peace.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  14. OregonTom

    Any culture or nation that does not value the freedom of expression has fortified their right to exist.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  15. Triathloncoach

    Gee Al, never heard that one. 🙂

    September 12, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  16. Leo

    CNN runs a story about the sensitivities of Muslims just after they KILL??? SHAME on CNN – your network sleeps with the terrorists. Shame on you – shame on you – I am sick and tired of the liberal press defending these pigs.

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

      This is called sensationalism, not journalism.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  17. Jesus was a hunchback

    There are some good picture of Mohammed on Wikipedia! LMAO

    September 12, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  18. JayJ7

    They are so sensitive, because they are stupid, brutal, ignorant, and intolerant.

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

    This article has higher placement then the article about the ambassador's death? Did Ambassador Stevens produce the movie? Please CNN, report the news, don't defend the murderers of the ambassador.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  20. Nate

    With the rampant and misguided moral relativism of today, people often try to equate the modern Christian with the modern Muslim, saying we are the same. However, if Christians reacted with the same violence every time our religion is perceived to be insulted, well, the world would already be in ruins.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • Larry Clinton


      September 12, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • William Demuth


      You have heard of WW2, where Christians who were allied with the Vatican gassed about 11 million "non conformists" who were deemed undesirable?

      Not only the Camel Jockeys kill. In fact they aren't even any good at it.

      Mostly blow themselves up!

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

      Of course, it does seem like some Christian in the US today would act very much like these Muslims in Libya if they were able to grab more power. If the Christian Right made up 90% of the population and they ran the government certainly – no doubt in my mind – they would force people to dress a certain way, force prayers, limit science, force biblical education, and yes, commit horrible violence against those that anger them. That said, in no way should anyone condone or accept or explain away this horrible violence. No matter who or what it's not acceptable.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:51 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.