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. gdubb75

    Seriously, CNN??!! Americans are attacked and killed abroad out of pure hate due to a film, and you try to explain why Muslims are so sensitive about Muhammad?! Shame on you, CNN!

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

      I fully agree. CNN keeps pandering to the islamic extremists. They call it being sensitive and tolerant. Muslims call it weak and spineless and so do I.

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

      Agree, CNN's bias is clear from looking at this and previous "belief blogs"

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

      I AGREE

      September 13, 2012 at 3:15 am |
  2. Jim

    Rufus...your name should be dufus with that comment!!

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

      missed the sarcasm, huh?

      September 12, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • MC

      No, half-wit, he got the sarcasm. It's just that you are an imbecile.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  3. PaulC

    Please rest assured that I will definitely not worship Mohammed and I think he is was a very flawed man.
    Also, be assured that I do not think he spoke to or for God but was undoubtedly a delusional man among delusional people.

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


      September 13, 2012 at 3:16 am |
  4. Pat

    They're afraid that depictions of their prophet risk his being worshiped instead of God? I suppose that murdering those who would draw him IS far more mindful of his mundane status, maybe...

    September 12, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • shell24

      Who cares why their afraid. I could care less what happens to any of them anymore. Should have left Gaddafi in place to keep these animals under control.

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

    Obama could sit down with these guys and have a beer - make it a teaching moment.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • PaulC

      Why do you right wingnuts feel obligated to bash Pres. Obama at every opportunity? It does speak of a flaw in your thought

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

      Or he could drop a cruise missile on them, as he has done hundreds of times, or send in the SEALS to blow their brains out, like he did with Osama.

      What a sad little half-wit you are.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  6. Jim

    Most of these religious nut bags don't know any different. It is very sad that these people can not think on there own. Maybe one day they will actully get an education and learn about the real world.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • rufus

      maybe one day you'll learn how to spell "their."

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

      And maybe some day you'll learn that sentences start with capital letters.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  7. charles darwin

    "Ambassador's killing shines light on Muslim sensitivities around Prophet Mohammed" should read
    "Ambassador's killing shines light on Muslim insanity concerning Prophet Mohammed"

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

      Tens of millions of Muslims live here in the U.S. without incident. Your racist rant provides nothing to the discussion.

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

      LOL exactly

      September 13, 2012 at 3:18 am |
  8. wolfpackbob

    So there are no images allowed because you do not want to be tempted to worship "only a man", quoting his own words, "I am just a man". Therefore Muslims are instructed to believe he was "just a man". Yet Muslims kill because you do not approve of proper veneration given to his image, an image of "just a man"? And non-Muslims are accused of being unable to understand? Understand what? That some Muslims take him at his word that "he is just a man". Or that other Muslims do not? Seems to me that the misunderstanding is between Muslims themselves. And it is a deadly misunderstanding. I only understand that here in America, even when taxpayer dollars are used for "artistic" displays of a crucifix in a bucket of urine, we do not kill people. I wonder if Muslims can understand that.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  9. Jimbo

    I gave the Koran a "Dirty Sanchez" last night.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • Persian Prince

      Good. give it another tonight.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  10. Keith L

    That may be the reason that is told outside of the mosque, but once out the door it just becomes another way of justifying the violance and hate that muslums harbor.

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

    "The Last Temptation of Christ" was produced in 1988. There were violent protests about that too (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Temptation_of_Christ_(film) ), but mostly non-violent. I think respect is for people's faith is very important, but the fear of Muslim violence will NOT stop the production of offensive material. Such production is not linked to the US or any other country, but what the protesters are offended by mostly is freedom. And that is a non-negotiable, even if it means an occasional offensive work of "art".

    September 12, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  12. John

    Islam is evil, pure and simple.

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

      You're a moron. Pure and simple.

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

      I keep wondering when the world will wake up and see that.

      September 13, 2012 at 3:20 am |
  13. wabob62

    I'am no fan of islam to much hate and violence but when you insult Mohamid you are looking for trouble, they don't like christians but most hold Jesua in high respect. One creep causes 3 deaths keep your hate to yourself and don't give them an excuse to attack.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  14. David Saroff

    I respect all faiths. However, what I have observed in numerous discussion with Muslims, is a gross expression of hypocrisy. If images of any of the phrophets (Jesus, Moses, Abraham, Mohammed) are not allowed, then why does commentary regarding Mohammed ignite violent reaction but not a sound is heard when the other phophets are openly discussed. Also, it is only Mohammed's name that illicits an immediate reaction, "Praise be he" – as if his name should not have even been mentioned. The behavior is exactly like idol worship which Muslims claim to be against. To quote Shakespeare – "Me thinks, he doth protest to much. "

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

      You make a good point!

      September 12, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  15. sdfsf

    If Netanyahu said "we are using America for our Eretz Israel" on Fox News, still you imbecile Americans would get yourselves killed for Israel.
    Amazing !!

    September 12, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  16. Bill

    They are violent because they are sensitive? Say that again? Let's assume you are not making excuses but just explaining. We don't need explanations of senseless violence and especially murder. What they did is wrong on its face.

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

    Obviously the author of the book, hit the nail on the head !

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

    Who F-n Cares?!

    Join the modern world and accept freedom of speach of MURDER people unrelated to some 2-bit movie and stay in the 3rd world.

    Years ago, a crusifix was suspended in urine and no one worried that Catholics would murder people or kill Americans.

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

      freedom of speech when only addressed to Muslims but you are a racist if you say anything about blacks you anti-Semitic if you say anything about Jews or anti feminist if you say anything about women or you hater if you say anything about gays and lesbians but when you say stuff about our prophet its Freedom of Speech which freedom of speech we talking about just tell me

      September 12, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  19. trimbo

    US equals tuck tail and run... typical that this stuff happens under obama. russian subs going through the gulf of mexico, Iran getting ready to put Israel down, our diplomats being killed. World leaders do not respect or fear anything our president does... zero respect

    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

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

      Get help, you sad little half-wit.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  20. Michael

    This is absolutely EVIL....to kill and murder in defense of a man-made religion. Islam is far from being a "peaceful religion" - Religion is a bane to humanity.

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

      It is also evil to incite violence by hurting other people faith and beliefs. If a person does not respect me , he should not expect to treated respectfully.But ,I condemn the killing of the American ambasador, since he had nothing to do with this.How shameful it is that the followers of David, Jesus and Muhammed are playing at the hands of evil .

      September 12, 2012 at 5:08 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.