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. jorge

    We need a third world war, lets settle this by fight another religiouswar whoever's win then will follow whoever god or profet, this makes me sick, killing for an unvisible reason.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  2. chriss

    That's because they are a bunch of ignorant's. Lets remember, their calendar is 600 years behind that of the west. They have very small, undeveloped brains so logic is lacking. It shows in the way they live, the way they treat their mothers/wives/daughters, and what their crap countries are like.

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

      Your post just shows what small brain you have.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • ME II

      "Lets remember, their calendar is 600 years behind that of the west."
      LOL. that's just silly.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  3. jimmymax

    I hope all those sand monkeys didn't have burritos for dinner!

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

    The Prophet Mohammed will just have to get over it.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  5. nflfootball


    September 12, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  6. KEVIN

    U-freeking-believable. Just yesterday I was flamingly criticizing the muslim reigion on this and other cnn comment pages. I woke up this morning and found out this happened. I know what the US in going to do in response to these attacks and it is not going to be convential. I'll get into the details later.

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

      A war between Western culture and Islam would suck us dry for generations. Our kids and grandkids will still be fighting this war years from now.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  7. Capt D

    No, unlike the left's whiney little philosophy, there is only one way to deal with this. Anyone who is easily offended, needs to be, often, and loudly. Those who strike back with flag burning and killing,... oh just anybody who happens to be around,... need to die themselves. When you fight an enemy, the only way to win, is to kill them,... all of them.

    As for "hate speech",... any and all speech can be fueled by hate. Big deal. Hate is part of the human experience. Deal with it.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  8. GetOffYourHighHorse

    So Mohammed's face on toilet paper would be a bad thing?

    September 12, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • ogre12

      no that is a good thing and I would buy it even at twice the cost of other brands..how about a brand name though? Im not a marketing person so not sure how to market the product.

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

      Depends on who you ask 🙂

      September 12, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • Maybe

      Toilet paper? Mo So Soft?

      Then follow up with a drain unclogger - Mo Flo.

      And then a shower scrub - Mo Glo.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:32 am |
  9. cog in the wheel

    I understand and sympathize with the Muslim belief that it is wrong to portray the Prophet Mohammed. That in NO WAY excuses murder. I'm certain that the majority of Muslims do not approve of what happened in Libya. Unfortunately the radical few are tainted the rest of Islam.

    Strict Catholics believe any form of birth control is a sin. Judaism teaches that eating pork is wrong. Jehovah's Witnesses believe the Bible prohibits blood transfusions. A much longer list can be compiled–but my point is that nearly every religion has some tenet or belief that makes little sense to the rest of humankind. No government, and no religion, should IMPOSE a belief system on everyone else. Each person is free to live their live following their own beliefs. If, after death, there is an accounting with God, then THAT is when a person will be judged on how they lived their life.

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

      We never cease to be amazed by the contradictions of islam. Kill each other, but get a proper funeral, etc

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

      Islam kills, not birth control and eating pork, although I think catholic and jewish teachings are crazy too. But Islam is the absolute worst

      September 13, 2012 at 12:23 am |
  10. sdfsf

    This upcoming US election is for Israel not US. Look at both your politicians, falling over each other trying to express who kisses more Israeli behind. ha ha ha ...poor American populace.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Address please, so we can send a drone?

      Run mud man, run!

      September 12, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  11. tankette

    Islam is a HATEFUL religion..period. These people find nothing wrong with killing Jews and Christians and running them out of their country while at the same time DEMADING respect for their religion. Giving me an excuse about their poor "sensitivities" as a reason they lash out and kill simply because someone "said something" or 'depicted something"....get out of here.. Then there will be those who say, 'don't use such a broad brush when talking about Muslims". Well guess what? Where the hell are those so-called moderate Muslims standing on a soapbox and denouncing these people in a CLEAR, LOUD voice saying these people are "not part of Islam"? Listen....listen closely...there are none...just the breeze...

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

      Do forget the gays and those pesky adulterous women, what a religion

      September 12, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  12. Joe

    Baloney. It's just an excuse for them to riot. Muhammad can suck my jock.

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

    "Sensitive"?!!!! Try fanatically insane!

    September 12, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  14. Rediranch

    The Muslim religion is too shaky to stand up to criticism or scritiny, that is why they attack when someone questions, disagrees, or denies the Muslim religion.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  15. Logical Larry

    In no way am I against Islam or muslims in general.
    But if i want to say F*** Mohammed and put his picture on my boxer shorts then i will.
    America is a free country and that's my right.

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

      I am personally waiting for mohammed toilet paper, so i can do to him what he's done to the world

      September 12, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  16. blaqb0x

    This is where we respect people's religious views, right?

    September 12, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  17. Doug

    You know what is infinitely more important in the United States of America than a Muslim's sensitivity or offense to depictions of the Prophet? A person's right to do it if he or she so chooses. Our right of free speech trumps this "sensitivity" a million times over. It's one of the rights countless numbers of Americans have died defending. I couldn't care less as to the reasons why they don't like because free speech wins out, whether it's stupid or offensive to someone else or not.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • well...

      you have the right to light a match at a gas station, since the sign put up is not enforceable law.. chances are, nothing would happen.. chances are, you will get the place to go up ..

      A sane man would not do it, just in case! A guy like you can quote your rights and light it up..

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

      I would trot out the tired apples and oranges cliche, but you probably wouldn't get it.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Brandon

      I am American and it is true that freedom of speech should be protected but that is for others in the United States. Remember we are not the only country in the world and offending other countries people isn't protected by the first amendment and we can't sue another country's people. If that were the case we could say what ever we wanted to say to other countries and expect them to live with our laws here in the US. American Muslims did not do this, Egyptian citizens did.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Doug

      Of course my right to say or draw or make a film of something that offends someone in another country is protected. What you wrote makes no sense.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  18. Steve

    This would all make perfect sense, about a thousand years ago.

    September 12, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  19. Richard

    I can understand that the Prophet did not want his followers to depict him. But why is that applicable to me or to anyone else who is not of the Muslim faith? Certainly, we infidels would never worship either the Prophet or his image. Why are they sensitive? Because they want eveyone else to bow to their peculiar beliefs and practices. Anyway, if in fact Islam is the one true religion, all of us infidels will go to hell. In that case why would Muslims care about what we do?

    September 12, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • ogre12

      well asked questions which I think we both know the answers too.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  20. Devon

    Who give a damn about Islamic senistivity...muhammed was an evil pig and a pedophile that taught the murder of those that leave islam....muslims better smarten up or their day is coming and that will not be pretty....

    September 12, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • well...

      to you, all religions other than yours fall in the same bin.. hypocrite

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

      Devon, I know it's easy to jump on the hate/I am ignorant bandwagon but if you consider yourself an intelligent and cultured person, I would advise you to conduct your own research on the prophet Muhammad and his teachings. I guarantee that you will not be disappointed.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Dallas

      I whole-heartedly agree. I am sick and tired of the US bowing to everyone else! These muslim need to get over themselves.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:45 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.