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. Joe

    Let's just leave these folks alone and concern ourselves with the USA only. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya and anywhere else they practice the religion – who cares.....let em eat cake.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  2. gstlab3

    JESUS RULES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    ALAH DROOLS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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

      Then can you answer why Islam is the fastest growing religion in the WEST and the world? if you don't know, google it stupid! and not your jesus religion? You are an idiot uneducated racist

      September 12, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  3. allen pierce

    The explanation for the violence and killing in Lybia offered in this article("portraying the Prophet threatens to lead to worshiping a human instead of Allah")seems like quite a stretch.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  4. Sick&TiredPatriot

    Just because someone created an image of Mohammed does not give anyone the right to attack another human being, period. No person with half a brain or heart would do that. These people keep committing heinous acts of violence under the guise of religion, and it makes me sick. These atrocities are disgusting and no remorse should be shown.

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

      I agree, however you can't go around saying all Muslims are like that. Many on this board are.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • Sick&TiredPatriot

      Shakira, I never said that all muslims are like that. All I said are "these people" which I meant the people who commit heinous acts of violence under the guise of religion. I apologize it my wording was not perfect – I didn't mean to offend.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  5. Roger

    If I call the pope a criminal who assisted in child molestation I don't get a mob of Catholics descending on my house. Being respectful of others is important. Ignoring trolls is also important.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  6. nmdave

    Were they chanting "We are all Osama!!" in defiance to "Osama is dead and GM is alive"?? OMG did Obama start this uprising??

    September 12, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  7. Andy

    who cares what the muslims are sensitive about...

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


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

    Islam is a political /control system wrapped in religious cloth- Wake up muslums you are being duped by some really scarrey people= mullahs

    September 12, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • todd in DC

      And this is different from Catholicism, how?

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

      They fart a lot when they bend over to pray. That's why it's great that women don't have to be anywhere near them. I remember going to mosque with my Grandfather and the men all farted up a storm. I told my mother and she giggled!

      September 12, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  9. gstlab3

    I can tell you why they are "so" sensitive about their version of God.

    It's because they are a primitive backward culture that has not advanced with the rest of the modern world.

    I say if they threaten us this Damned much and all the progress the modern world has created I say we should by Darwinian rights wipe them out.

    No more Mr. Nice Guy.,"

    Do as your told by the new world order., or be destroyed.

    That should be the United States answer to these religious Zellots and Tyrnats.

    They can't stand the idea of a Christian nation and western ideal taking over the whole Earth.

    To bad for anyone who opposes that idea.,
    It's allready happened.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • todd in DC

      Christianity is really no better. Don't believe me? Ask why Uganda is killing gay people.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • Moh

      You will remember this post everyday in Hell when you are roasted in fire everyday!

      September 12, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  10. Greg693

    Where is the muslim sensitivity to other religions? Until they show that sensitivity, I will consider islam to be nothing but a blight on the world. Where are the voices of the millions of peaceful muslims? Where is the demonstration that islam is a religion of peace? Why is it that anywhere in the world where you have a large population of muslims, there is trouble and violence and terrorism?

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

      Let us not talk about Mohammed for the truth of the man might get out and they can's have that. And a shared respect for other Religions will go along way to getting them the respect they want and demand.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • Educator

      Why? Maybe crack open a history text sometime and educate yourself, and you won't need to ask such stupid questions.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  11. Cheeseburger

    Who cares? Violent, oppressive religion.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  12. evil_atheist

    I think at this point, we've confirmed that multiculturalism doesn't work – why are we still pretending this is a viable option?

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

    Sick article trying to 'explain' why muslims kill...

    September 12, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • wahoo999x


      September 12, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  14. Jacob

    Is CNN sleeping with Muslim terrorists? The FBI needs to investigate this network and possibly the CIA too.

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

      Investigate them for what, exercising Freedom of Speech.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  15. Justin

    Religion has only caused more and more conflict. Religion is used to justify everything and anything. This is not just a muslim thing, this is a problem with all religions. They all justify violence.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • Larry Clinton

      Ignorant generalization.

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

      Your's is another idiot response. You are a fool and an idiot if you really think this way.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  16. nope

    Mohammed had to have been a sensitive guy to bag that 7 year old bride.

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

      She waasn't 7, if you are going to insult him get it right at least tosser.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • moga

      he was a sensitive pediphile

      September 12, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • nope

      9 makes it better. they're hotter when they're 9.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  17. khan Alam Afridi

    @Bayousara... i respect ur views about religion specially Islam... Who told you that Islam educate cruelty towards women... I think u had not read anything about Islam... Go read an authentic book on the women right in Islam. For me as Muslim My paradise is under the feet of my Mother and I didnt even think about speaking rudely in front of her and for me my wife is my queen with whom i wanna share my sorrow, my happiness, my love, even water in my glass. For me my sisters r my childhood frnds and they r my hands, my eyes, my ears, my tough, they r people when they r sad i became sad when i look smile on thr face a smile appear on my face. For me my daughter is my princess for which i wanna create a palace where she play with happiness, joy and life full of peace. And all of these principles and rights i learned from the teaching of Islam.. These r the principles and rights u ill find in authentic book of Islam. The real problem with the world is that they criticize Islam but they r afraid to read authentically about it.... I mean for all i wrote not to hurt ur feelings against Islam or religions but to beg u don't criticize any thing any religion until u read it.

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

      I appreciate how deeply you feel about your religion, but you are going to be fighting a losing battle when your brethren in the middle east kill any person that happens to originate from a country in common with someone they want to kill that they can't get their hands on.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Patti

      To khan Alam Afridi: your post was very touching. It is a shame that people of all religions and non-religious peoples cannot live in peace. Your words are a great tribute to your religion and how you feel and treat the women in your family. May you and your family be blessed.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • Kramer

      Please read the New Testament of the Bible and receive the TRUE message of God. You must realize you are following a false prophet. Your faith is wrong. Allah and Muhammad are wrong.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • AKT

      you are compasionate towards your mother, sisters, relitives, etc. How about the Mothers, sisters and relitives of non-Muslems? True religion is shown in action, not by reading it in a book!

      September 12, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  18. Seriously though

    Who has two thumbs and wishes he was born in a time on the earth where humans stoppped believing in fairy tales? *points to himself with both thumbs* THIS GUY!!!!!

    September 12, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  19. jeff harris

    Cnn - you freaking leftist, yellow-journalism cowards – stop making excuses for murder and condoning it because of your politics. obama is directly responsible for this and for removing khadaffi from libya and replacing him with muslim extremists who hate America. This would never have happened if that leftist wealth distributor and America hater – obama – had not propped up these haters of America.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • Gray888

      haha you're actually serious..

      September 12, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Chris B.


      September 12, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • William Demuth


      You are clueless. Truly clueless.

      I suspect you couldn't find Libya on a map.

      This intra party is SOOO childish.

      Please park the rhetoric and realize this is escalating towards WW3 and is directly a byproduct of poicies that have spanned both parties and several generations!

      September 12, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  20. Rebecca

    Doesn't the reaction mean they're worshiping him anyway? "...portraying him threatens to lead to worshiping a human instead of Allah." Threatens to lead to? You took that whole slippery slope thing and ran with it, didn't you? Moving on, for a FILM to incite that amount of violence, you're worshiping the subject, end of story. You may not worship the IMAGE of a human, but he's being worshiped regardless.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • Wilder Napalm

      Well put Rebecca.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • CJ

      Amen!! Very well said.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:55 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.