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. steve

    cool article. now write an article explaining to muslims why we will be blowing up their countries. you know, just so they'll understand OUR viewpoint.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  2. ZappityZap

    Reminds me of a joke I read sometime back...

    A Swiss and a French guy are having a chat and the Frnch guy goes "How come you Swiss guys fight for money and we French only fight for honor". The Swiss guy goes "Well you fight for what you don't have".

    This pretty much sums up Muslim's reaction to their prophet. I guess the book on their prophet really hit close to home.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  3. douglas

    I think the reason why is seriously besides the point. Who cares at this point why. The point is that there exists some religious zealots who are willing to kill people who don't believe in what they believe in. That's pretty messed up, and I'm glad I live in the United States were, besides a few exceptions by nutcases, we aren't killed for our religion, or making fun of religion.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      "besides a few exceptions by nutcases" A FEW? The republican party is nothing but nutcases. Pro-life but against gun laws and healthcare. etc etc...

      September 12, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  4. DanH

    There's nothing wrong with getting upset and agree if something offends you. That does not justify resorting to violence.

    It IS possible to be angry and not have the need to kill someone over it.

    Perhaps you should explain this to the extremists,

    September 12, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  5. Eddie

    Can someone tell me why is it that CNN would post an article like this about Islam and would not do an article like this about Christianity? How does CNN see Christianity? Do they see it differently from Islam, in that when Christianity is riduculed and Christians are persecuted, they see that as justified? Can anyone tell me?

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

      It's about money. They have christian advertisers and followers, so they pander to get paid and get ratings/webhits.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      Christians are ripped ALL THE TIME. We can have a conversation about Christianity and not have someone destroy the country. Muslims on the other hand.........

      September 12, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  6. Cordell

    I bet these guys hate South Park.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  7. sue

    It seems to me that for people to kill over perceived indignaties to their prophet, they are raising him higher than God. I don't see them kill people over saying something about God – just their prophet.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  8. Bill

    Religion that kills for the sake of religion is a CULT!!!

    September 12, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • Patrick in Wisconsin

      Well that's more/less all religions then...

      September 12, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  9. Jon

    Wasn't it just Yesterday that CNN ran an Opinion piece about why "American Muslims (as if there was such a thing) were fearful on a daily basis?

    Well, there is good reason to be afraid. Continue to stay silent when your "brothers and sisters" do things like this. Continue to hold on to antiquated beliefs that have no place in the modern world. Continue to push this notion that "religious freedom" allows you to get away with everything under the sun. Continue to believe these things and you will be punished, ostracized, and laughed at.

    When you come here you conform to OUR way of life. Not the other way around. You live by OUR rules; you do not get to make your own. If you can't manage that, then you are free to get on the next thing smoking, back to the hellhole from whence you came.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • Patrick in Wisconsin

      What mythical theocratic part of the country do you come from?

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

      lol 'merica

      September 12, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  10. Geeeez

    Religion is about hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. Just read your bible, it's a fiction and focuses on hate, killing, destruction and who boinked who.

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

    Religion is about hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. Just read your bible, it's a fiction and focuses on hate, killing, destruction and who boinked who.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  12. wheels

    poop smear > Quaran

    September 12, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  13. Maty

    Or, perhaps, they could revere life itself, and not some virtual psychic overlord.

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

    Lol hypocritical Muslims. Pretty sure killing others because of the prophet is pretty much the same as worshipping him.

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

      The muslims feel helpless. The huge global culture is barrelling down on them and they are trying to grasp onto anything. The image of the prophet isn't really important to them per se it is the concept that the big bad world is trying to take their culture apart. Going to guns is there way of pushing back. It simply is a lack of maturity on the part of the Muslims. They are trying to unwind something that can not be unwound.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  15. trimbo

    radical muslims kill an american ambassador in libya and the first thing CNN does is post a headline article about "Muslim Sensitivites" in an attempt to somehow justify what happened. Why dont you call it what it is instead? Absolutely radical, absolutely violent muslims attacking a man who had nothing to do with the depiction and it shouldnt had mattered even if he did. Even if he had been the sole creator of the video about muhamm it would not, should not matter.

    In the meantime the US is apologetic which is a continual theme throughout this presidency and has spread to every department of government that deals with foreign countries.

    U.S. Embassy Condemns Religious Incitement
    September 11, 2012

    The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others

    sourced from http://egypt.usembassy.gov/pr091112.html

    September 12, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  16. Cheeseburger

    The politically correct "sensitive" thing again. Yuck! The Muslims don't understand freedom of speech and they never will. They are all "if you don't do as I say, I keel you!" (Achmed, the dead terrorist.) Surprised they haven't taken Jeff Dunham out for his insensitivity, no?

    September 12, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  17. allah nothin?

    IF, a big IF, there are "good Muslims," they have all stood by idly watching, silent, heads covered, see no, hear no evil. Their silence is a vote for terror, there is no "abstaining" on issues of national security. If they want war, all out war, then they are PROPHETS OF DOOM, the enemy of all free and decent people. It was a tough choice for Truman, it's a tougher choice now. We could have stolen their wretched oil long ago, but we were honorable, respected their sovereignty. No more. Honor means NOTHING in the middle east, they respect only their religion and violence, they have no clue what our military could do. As they say in show business, "give em what they want." Let us introduce them to Allah personally, he can take it from there. MARTYR OR MURDER, MARTYR OR MURDER.... no difference whatsoever. You wanna be sand and dust to make a point? MELT THE MIDDLE EAST, recycle the glass.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  18. Emre

    Shakil Ahmed,
    Yes Islam does allow for multiple wifes, but under certain conditions. You must have the approval of your other wife to marry another wife. I find this to be more acceptable, then "the hit and run" that happens in America, when there is a high chance to not even know who your father is.

    When I emphasized the Danger of a Single story, I was referring to seeing one part of the whole picture. Allah (swt) when means God in english, is known as "Al-Rahman", the most forgiving, Muslims believe that we are not perfect and we make mistakes, thus God has given us the Ability to ask for forgiveness. Great example would be the prayer that is performed 5 times a day, in other worlds bowing down and asking for forgiveness.

    Your comment shows how ignorant you are trying to ignore the reality behind the words. When refer to fastest growing, I speak in a large scale thus stating "1.2 billion people".

    September 12, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  19. higgs boson

    this is the sort of thing that occurs when you lack a brain...muslim mental midgets

    September 12, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  20. Chuckhashman

    The islamic people must understand that Jesus and Moses came before Mohammad. Those 2 carried the word of GOD With them for ALL OF HUMANITY!!! Each performed miracles!! The Muslim people will never enter GODS kingdom if they don't except the teachings of Jesus and Moses!! Waging war and violence will never enter Gods kingdom!! Both Jesus and Moses were in Egypt--i can't understand why they don't embrace the common ground that Gods messengers brought with them??

    September 12, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • higgs boson

      let us not forget that your boy, jc, was the primary preacher of hell and eternal damnation...some diety !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!...and THAT is who you worship...and even worse, love

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

      and before Jesus, there were a thousand other gods. Or did you think yours was special?

      September 12, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      MORE PURE B.S.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:57 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.