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. Major

    So portrayals of Mohammed, even offensive ones, are a really good thing that will help Islam to close the gap and catch up with Christianity in terms of tolerance and understanding of others' free speech? Sounds like what the article is saying to me.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  2. jon

    I, for one, am sick and tired of ALL religions, including mine. What a nutty bunch!

    September 12, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  3. tjp44

    who cares...screew the Koran and all their idiotic Sharia laws....they can go to hell....bring it on if I offended you!

    September 12, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • Shakira

      Real tough guy aren't ya, hiding behind a keyboard typing that..oohhhh scary

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

      Don't laugh Shakira, If one of those fools in the middle east reads it. ................

      September 12, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  4. LibertyPlease

    This rational is senseless. It's fine to have your own beliefs, but when you do not respect the rights of people who disagree, you are crossing a line. In this case, that line was crossed violently.

    Killing people because someone from their country has a disrespectful view of your relibion is completely irrational.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  5. Bob Jones

    CNN is growing sicker and sicker by the day. I agree. FBI and CIA needs to investigate CNN ASAP. This is not journalism, folks.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • tjp44

      yes, being politically correct is more important to CNN than accurate journalism

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

      Investigate them for what? We do have free speech in this country.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  6. jonp

    Regardless of why Muslims are angry, it's unacceptable for people behave this way because movies and cartoons. Absolutely ridiculous.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  7. Too Much

    Don't bother trying to justify the hate. Thats all it is plain and simple....hatred.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  8. nottolate

    Hey Geniuses,

    Yes, I'm talking to all you muslims. The prohibition against images of your so-called prophet is not because he is so great and is to be revered as you suppose. The prohibition is so you yourself don't bow down and worship the image and thereby make an idol of it. And because you do not even know your own religion you have done just that with your displays of sensitivity. What is worse than Islam? Answer: Muslims who don't even know there own religion and that would be the overwhelming majority of you.

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

    Give me a break moron. Who cares? They are obviously a religion not worth taking seriously. I don't care what the Koran says. It has been perverted. Let's concentrate on why sane people are so sensitive about being slaughtered.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  10. CGS

    CNN, stop making excuses for these low lives.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  11. rock woman

    Thank you for a cogent explanation. I'm sure you realized before you wrote that it will be accepted only be those with open minds.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Bob Jones

      How long have you been mentally incapacitated?

      September 12, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • Ed

      Who told you your mind was open? You? Like most liberals you declare yourself intelligent and that's the end of it. Products of the new education system where everybody is special, and you bought it, I think your mind is closed. Does that make it so?

      September 12, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • tjp44

      rock Head

      September 12, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  12. lewis chin

    So this Israeli-American business man comes out with a film depicting Islam and the prophet Mohammed based on his warped view of Islam, an act by its very nature is both hurtful and violent, and then everyone wants to know why Muslims are upset. It seems to me that Mr. Bacile made this provocative film just to pick a fight and get a reaction. And to that end he has succeeded. Sadly, however, Mr. Bacile now has blood on his hands. Surely he knew how Muslims would react and in that case he is an accomplice to the murders of the 4 Americans in Lybia. I don't condone what happened to the 4 Americans, but I can understand how certain religious groups react when you insult their beliefs. I would hazard a guess that a majority of Americans have not had a conversation with a Muslim to really understand their belief system. I have, but I am not claiming to be an expert on Islam. I have however been able to form an opinion based on my conversations with Muslims that their religion, and they as a people, are not the boogey-men that they are made out to be. Frankly, Mr. Bacile has done more to set back relations between Christians and Muslims than that nut job in Florida who wanted to burn the Quran. Given what he did, it's no wonder that the Muslims hate the Jews. This is all so sad, so terribly unnecessary and I for one am ashamed of Mr. Bacile for what he has done and how he has cast American's in an image that is totally false. I have known great Americans. Mr. Bacile you are not an American in my eyes. Shame on you. Now it's Israel's turn to cast their shame on this man as well. Shame on you Mr. Bacile, shame on you.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Bob Jones

      I see you too are sleeping with terrorists. I hope they grab your IP asap.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • Too Much

      Mr. Bacile's opinions are his....whether you agree or not. It doesn't warrant taking another person's life. You're twisted for implying that the blood is on HIS hands...he didn't kill. Freedom of expression!!!!

      September 12, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • tjp44

      your as f-upped as they are....murder is not justified by a movie.........traitor

      September 12, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  13. well...

    if you know that someone would react badly to a thing, logical step would be to NOT do such things.. It is like the signs at gas station to not light matches.. sometimes nothing happens.. sometimes it lights up the entire place.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • Dan J

      The lack of a forceful verbal and policy response (pull all embassy personnel and cut off all funding immediately) is embarrasing.

      In addition, quite tip toeing around the muslim holy book and the prophet. Americans have free speech. The administration should vocally defend the right of someone to make a video making fun of Islam. We may not agree with the video, but we won't let people attack us based on their disagreement with some idiot video maker.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • Robin Taylor

      Every man, woman and child!

      September 12, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Thomas

      Free speech is a two way street. Sticks and stones.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • Laurence

      So, you don't believe in free speech? Do you agree then that people should be killed for what they say?

      September 12, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • well...

      American freedom of speech is limited to America.. if you put somethign on internet and expect your local law to be followed else where, I don't know what kind of idiot you are..

      September 12, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  14. Delusion FTL

    I normally let things fall where they do but I have to say something. The assertion that Muslims who are committing these acts primarily do so because of idol sensitivity is absolutely incorrect. I don't care what degrees or how much "cred" the person has who says such has. It just simply is not the case. I could go into great and boring detail, but lets just bring up one of the 5 pillars which is the trip to mecca to see the rock. IDOL IDOL IDOL IDOL. It cannot be any more clear. Idol worship is all over Islam. It was a cornerstone from its beginnings with the Pagan Arabs and their Rock Gods.
    The Muslims that are sensitive to Muhammad being mocked or "Blasphemed" do so because they have been taught that ANY negative action regarding Islam and Muhammad is strictly and expressly prohibited. It is contrary to Allah, and Allah MUST be defended. The way Allah is typically defended in the Qur'an is with violence. We don't have to have a movie depicting Muhammad for them to become violent. All they would have to do is mock and insult him and/or Allah.

    Now to be clear, I'm not saying anything about whether all Muslim's are good or bad. Certainly there are both, and if they want to worship *some* idols, that's certainly their religious freedom. I'm just trying to clear up some of the typical misinformation garbage I see.

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

      Muslims don't worship the Kabba, get your facts straight.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • Stew

      and the fact that they name half their children Mohammed...

      September 12, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • tjp44

      we are not concerned with stupid muslim facts or folklore.....we are concerned with Americans losing their lives to these idiots

      September 12, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Abeerah

      Just wanted to correct you a little here. Indeed one of the 5 pillars of Islam is Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca). The rock you speak of, the Kabba, is the first ever Muslim house of worship established by Prophet Abraham. The reason Muslims travel to Mecca to see this is not to "worship the rock" but rather to see where the beginnings of Islam took root. The pilgrimage also involves seeing other history sights and paying homage to Prophet Abraham's struggles to establish Islam. Mecca was also the birth city of the Prophet Muhammad.

      If you read the biography of the Prophet Muhammad, you will know that he was born amongst idol-worshiping pagan Arabs who did barbaric things such as burn baby girls alive. Prophet Muhammad was born amongst these people in order to change their ways through Islam. His teachings were of peace and tolerance. The way Muslims react with violence is ironically UNISLAMIC.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • AmericaVoice

      Abeerah – Finally someone who understands.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  15. Alex

    the toilet paper at our house has images of mohammed as well as jesus on it...just to be fair

    September 12, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • AmericaVoice

      Alex – It should have your face.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  16. wheels

    poop smear > Quran

    September 12, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • AmericaVoice

      The Bible has many simialar verses. I would say about 70 – 75% similar. So are you saying the bible is poop to? Know what you speak before saying anything. Educate your self first.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  17. becool

    What the film said about mohamed is damn right! My studies about this person and his religion proved it. Especially the scene of splitting the old woman into thru binding her with the two camels! Geez! This is a true story recorded in the authentic Mohammed history and lot more!!!

    September 12, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Wind Stealer

      Really? You mean that I have been a Muslim for 37 years, studied Islamic history for 10 of those, was involved with research for 5 additional years and I never came across any account of Muhammad ripping a woman in two parts! YOU FOUND IT!!!!!!

      September 12, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  18. Jay G

    Who cares if they're sensitive about it? They're a bunch of insane brainwashed radicals. Put them down like you do a rabid dog.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • becool

      Good idea! But how?

      September 12, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • Andy

      Have a look at urself first.

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

      Good Call Jay....

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

      time to nuke these guys back to Allah. they wouldn't do this if George bush were in the Whitehouse. Obama will do nothing but apologize as in the past. Like a wild dog, tehy can smell his fear.

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

      Jay – The only one that are brainwashed are us in the United States. Stop listening to Fox Crap News and open your eyes.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      George Bush had 8 years to do. Why didn't he do it? Stop the warmongering talk and deal with reality. 1) Others may use nukes against us. 2) The damage nukes will do will hurt us as well. As long as they kill themselves let them do it. Once the oil runs out, trust me the middle east will vanish and no one ill give a damn.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  19. rjp34652

    Thank you, CNN for that statement of Islamic theology. I feel so much better now about watching Muslim mobs murdering anyone who doesn't agree with their stunted point of view.

    CNN stands by and says what a wonderful religion Islam is.....and fears what ......if they don't?

    Islam stands in opposition to everything western culture has worked for. The rights of women and gays do not exist within its tenants. The Qur'an calls for the death of gay folk too. Is that right?

    but that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

    September 12, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      "The Qur'an calls for the death of gay folk too. " Same as the Bible, and that stuff about graven images is in the Bible too. Get it straight: most Muslims are good people, same as most Christians. Sam Bacile doesn't speak for all Americans, and the radicals don't speak for all Muslims. Me? I'm an atheist and I think both religions are a waste of time, but it's about time for the radicals on both sides to be brought down hard. We need to shoot people in the face when they picket soldiers' funerals, and Islam needs to do the same thing.

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

      Quran does not call for murder of gays. Quran and what Muslims do are not the same. That is why we have such a major problem.
      It is mass ignorance. Quran emphasizes the "Torah", and Torah gives us 10 Commandments. It has always been ignorance that destroys humanity. Peace

      September 12, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • greasepen

      Are these crazy people any different than the Catholic/Protestant idiots overseas? For RADICAL believers, religion is no different than it was during the crusades. My way or you die. Don't blame Muslims, Christians, etc. It's the people who can't believe that THEIR prophet/god/easter bunny is BETTER/STRONGER/MORE REAL than the rest. Just pray. Just love. Just forgive. Aren't those the tenets (supposedly) of every religion?

      September 12, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • AmericaVoice

      Bible Clown© – Don't agree with Atheist. But, you do make sence here.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  20. Jacob

    No matter how many murders and atrocities are committed by Muslims in the name of Islam, CNN is always there to defend them and "understand"' them.
    Do you think white Christian males would be given this type of treatment by CNN?
    CNN, go F yourselves, you are terrorist sympathizes are traitors to the USA.

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

      Jacob – That is not true. They are reporting the way it is. If you don't like it why are you here? You are brainwashed with that FOX CRAP you listen to all day.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:14 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.