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. ZoeyJ

    There is NO excuse for this killing – People say G- D- all the time and you do not see Jews or Christians out killing, rioting, etc.
    Islam has shown the world what their true values and believes. SAD !!!

    September 12, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • january2454

      You're right, Zoey.


      Christians in the U.S. have been forced to have their tax dollars confiscated to pay for the creation of such "art" as a crucifix of Jesus dipped in urine.


      September 12, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • martin

      "sensitve" is a code word for insane

      September 12, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  2. Persian Prince

    So Islam is supposed to be tolerant of other peoples beliefs, unless it goes against what Islam says. So even though there is nothing in my religion that prevents me from depicting the "prophet" mohamad, because Islam says I can't, I can't. well, I am going to draw mohamad right now! -> (:-!). Now wait for the riots!

    September 12, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  3. alientech

    So if this so called prophet is just a man, why are they getting so pi ss e d off about portraying him? Seems that they are worshiping Mohammad more then they admit.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  4. Broken Liberal Democrat

    I am done. I have stopped caring. I can no longer be sensitive. There is no winning. Let's just get the hell out and protect our own skies and borders. Seriously. They win. The picture of this good man – bloodied and bashed – it's enough.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      They win? Like he ll

      September 12, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • martin

      I'm an Atheist...I hope Israel nukes Iran and all the other Sharia states...

      September 12, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • Jack 3

      weakness will just invite them to our borders.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  5. Matt

    Regardless of terrible actions some Islamic fundamentalist have taken. Have you ever see Moslems to insult Christinity or Jesus. It is time we respect all religions and found out what is fundamental problems.

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

      all irrational theisms deserve our highest ridicule

      September 12, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  6. martin

    Islam, Christianity, Judaism, all cancers on the human brain

    September 12, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  7. gdubb75

    While you're at it, CNN, just tell everyone to never speak ill of Islam. Don't you understand why they're sensitive about their prophet, after all?

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

      they are not "sensitive', they are insane theists

      September 12, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  8. Mark

    The Hell with their sensitivities. I'm sensitive about having to watch people jump out of the Twin Towers and seeing people heads chopped off on television. And by the way, this was not because of any trailer on the internet. This was an attack that was planned for quite a while. It was done for one reason and one reason only. To kill the Infidel.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Jack 3

      good post!

      September 12, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  9. Carl, Secaucus, NJ

    If you're willing to kill over an image, what does that make you? An idol-worshipper. But I guess fanatics don't do irony.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  10. ron3707

    Religious fanatics are a danger here and around the world because they have their own agenda, power and control.
    It is unthinkable to imagine a life in the US with the religious restrictions the conservative right wing would impose
    first on women, and then on minorities. That is why we have to vote for Obama, our only choice.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  11. THX1953

    One would hope that they never get Netflix, and stream South park.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  12. Christopher

    There is no such thing as a "prophet". I noticed that CNN actually called this pedophile murderer Mohammed a "prophet". He wasn't a prophet, he was just an evil man like so many others are.
    Does CNN work for Muslims?

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

      Yes, they also work for Communist, socialist and crooks, all under the thumb of the whitehouse.If this doesn't wake up America we have no chance of recovery.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • martin

      Prophets? all "prophets" just pre-science scammers

      September 12, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  13. Vince

    Would Jesus mock the Prophet Mohammed?

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

      Vince, you're a terrorist sympathizer? If so, may you have the same fate that these terrorists will soon have.
      Using the name of Jesus to make a swipe at Christianity and in defense of what the terrorists did? I mean, what if it was your family member who was murdered? Sure you can forgive, and that would be noble, but you're defending terrorism here and that makes you an accomplice.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  14. Lukos58


    @Reasonably: "Tell that to the jews in the holocaust or the muslims in the crusades or anyone stupid enough to question the pope during the inquisition." - Well, the jews were killed by Nazi and nationalists, 70 YEARS AGO, who SOMETIMES used religion as a front for their bloodthirsty ways. The Crusades were what, over 600 YEARS AGO? And the Inquisition? 500 YEARS AGO! Can Muslims not drag their sorry behinds into at least the 20th Century, let alone the 21st? Besides, Big Mo was just a man, right? So, as a man, he is subject to the same ridicule as the rest of us.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  15. Jack 3

    If the muslims are allowed to stay in the US you will see a civil war 10 to 20 years from now in the US. they will want to impose their ways and many won't stand for it and many liberals will be fighting on the muslim side out of fear.

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

      The liberals generally vote against letting religion into government. Just saying...

      September 12, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • Jack 3

      They sure seem to take the side of the muslims on these sites

      September 12, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • Ryan

      The hell we will. The Muslim world is even more backwards and conservative fundementalist than the Christians. Also, this won't be the cause of civil war in this country.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  16. Keri

    The end of the article is the most important... "but Christianity has had a decades-long head start in dealing with negative portrayals of Jesus in film and art." It has desensitized us to it and that's OK. Even if you are a devout Christian you shouldn't get violent if someone draws an unflattering picture of Christ... So the way we combat this is to desensitize them instead of coddling them. I say to all the artists, cartoonists, photographers and film makers out there... GO FOR IT. There should be unflattering and flattering depictions of Mohammed on the internet everyday... millions of them.. all over the world... What are they going to do? Destroy us all with their sticks and stones or get over it?!?

    September 12, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  17. greystoke shaw

    mohommad was a pedophile,and advocated such,he also treats women like they are property and an embarassment needing to be hidden,due to their lack of ANY self control or responsobility.these idiots...ie:ISLAM are no better than pigs,actually that is a diservice to pigs....yhey are a disgrace to humanity and civilization. they are animals

    September 12, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  18. Dr.Mohammad

    I'm a Muslim and I'm a physician in the US, what happened in Libya is totally disgusting and inhuman. i see from the comments big hate to Islam and Muslims. This is bad actually to judge people according to their religion and according to actions of some mobs who have the same religions. Muslims are citizens in the US and a lot of them are physicians treating US people and helping them getting better and a happier life. Why don't you judge Muslims by these "good " examples which represents the the majority of Muslims. Why do you just udge Muslims by looking to the extreme uncounted mobs in very stupid way.
    Anyway, we as Muslims will not say bad about anybody all of us are humans . And in every religion and in every ethnicity there is an extreme minority that do shames which don't represent the whole religion or ethnicity. and remember that everyone thinks that the religion which he/she was reared on is the right one and others are brainwashed and fakes.

    So Would you please wake up and just think?

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

      Today I drove a friend to the hospital where he has a job as a secruity guard and that yesterday on September 11, 2011 a Muslim doctor shook his finger at him and said to him that he should't be wearing that button the read something like "Septerber 112,2001: Never forget" That he should[needs] to be neutral on the job. Does that mean that a person should be neutral on the subject of murder and worse yet mas murder while on a job ?. Then the doctor also said that "Not all people living in this country are Americans, some are Muslims." Does that mean that people who are Muslims and have American citizenship arn't really true Americas?. The Muslims doctor sure seems to imply this by that ih said. Can't a person in this country be both an American and a Muslim at the same time ?. From what that doctor said it sure seems to be that he believes a person can't

      September 12, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • Keri

      Dr. Mohammad,
      I do respect you and your right to your religion. But I'm tired of hearing people who practice like you telling us that the people committing these atrocities are just "uncounted mobs". They are not, they unfortunately represent a HUGE portion of the muslim population and unless and until people like you ACTIVELY stand against the people of your faith who are committing this atrocities against innocents, preaching hate and the subjugation of women and continuing to sanction barbaric practices such as honor killings... no we will not "think" differently about you. It is not OUR responsibility to make the effort to separate you from them... it is YOUR responsibility to separate yourself and condemn them.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Jack 3

      These aliens come to us and start showing their true colors in due course of time. When politically correct and culturally diverse
      societies agree to "the reasonable" Muslim demands for their
      "religious rights," they also get the other components under the
      table. Here's what happens as muslims rise in numbers –
      long as the Muslim population remains around 1% of any given country they will
      be regarded as a peace-loving minority and not as a threat to anyone. In fact,
      they may be featured in articles and films, stereotyped for their colorful
      States – Muslim 1.0%
      – Muslim 1.5%
      – Muslim 1.9%
      – Muslim 1%-2%
      – Muslim 1.5%
      – Muslim 1.8%
      2% and 3% they begin to proselytize from other ethnic minorities and
      disaffected groups with major recruiting from the jails and among street gangs:
      – Muslim 2%
      – Muslim 3.7%
      Kingdom – Muslim 2. 7%
      – Muslim 4%
      – Muslim 4.6%
      5% on they exercise an inordinate influence in proportion to their percentage
      of the population.
      will push for the introduction of halaal (clean by Islamic standards) food,
      thereby securing food preparation jobs for Muslims. They will increase pressure
      on supermarket chains to feature it on their shelves – along with threats for
      failure to comply. (United States).
      – Muslim 8%
      – Muslim 5%
      – Muslim 5%
      – Muslim 4.3%
      Netherlands – Muslim 5.5%
      & Tobago – Muslim 5.8%
      this point, they will work to get the ruling government to allow them to rule
      themselves under Sharia, the Islamic Law. The ultimate goal of Islam is not to
      convert the world but to establish Sharia law over the entire world.
      Muslims reach 10% of the population, they will increase lawlessness as a means
      of complaint about their conditions (Paris – car-burnings). Any non-Muslim
      action that offends Islam will result in uprisings and threats (Amsterdam –
      Mohammed cartoons).
      – Muslim 10%
      – Muslim 13.4%
      – Muslim 16%
      – Muslim 10%
      – Muslim 10-15%
      reaching 20% expect hair-trigger rioting, jihad militia formations, sporadic
      killings and church and synagogue burning:
      – Muslim 32.8%
      40% you will find widespread massacres, chronic terror attacks and ongoing
      militia warfare:
      – Muslim 40%
      – Muslim 53.1%
      – Muslim 59.7%
      60% you may expect unfettered persecution of non-believers and other religions,
      sporadic ethnic cleansing (genocide), use of Sharia Law as a weapon and Jizya,
      the tax placed on infidels:
      Albania – Muslim 70%
      Malaysia – Muslim 60.4%
      Qatar – Muslim 77.5%
      Sudan – Muslim 70%
      After 80% expect State run ethnic cleansing and
      Bangladesh – Muslim 83%
      Egypt – Muslim 90%
      Gaza – Muslim 98.7%
      Indonesia – Muslim 86.1%
      Iran – Muslim 98%
      Iraq – Muslim 97%
      Jordan – Muslim 92%
      Morocco – Muslim 98.7%
      Pakistan – Muslim 97%
      Palestine – Muslim 99%
      Syria – Muslim 90%
      Tajikistan – Muslim 90%
      Turkey – Muslim 99.8%
      United Arab Emirates – Muslim 96%
      100% will usher in the peace of
      "Dar-es-Salaam" – the Isla mic House of Peace – there's supposed to
      be peace because everybody is a Muslim:
      Afghanistan – Muslim 100%
      Saudi Arabia – Muslim 100%
      Somalia – Muslim 100%
      Yemen – Muslim 99.9%
      Of course, that's not the case. To satisfy their
      blood lust, Muslims then start killing each other for a variety of reasons.
      Here are the words of an eminent Arab scholar
      about Islam "Before I was nine I had learned the basic canon of Arab life.
      It was me against my brother; me and my brother against our father; my family
      against my cousins and the clan; the clan against the tribe; and the tribe
      against the world. And all of us against the infidel.”
      It is good to remember that in many, many
      countries, such as France, the Muslim populations are centered around ghettos
      based on their ethnicity. Muslims do not integrate into the community at large.
      Therefore, they remain as a mortal threat to every society they live in

      September 12, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • martin

      the moderates in the religions are the compost pile from which extreemists blossom

      September 12, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Jack 3

      this is a post from a muslim lady that responded to and article two weks ago on a muslim woman that wanted a divorce from her muslim husband in England. Her husband and blood relatives like her brother and father wanted her killed. this lady isn't a radical...she's just a muslim that belives like a muslim. here it is;• Arisha Nasir
      This is great shame, why did her father not kill her when he had the chance? This I do not understand. Americans wonder why their culture is decaying with divorce and adultery, but in my home country this is not accepted, by punishment of death. However she is still alive, I fear even my countries ways are weakening under the influence of the westerns and evidenced by her continuing to live and breadth on this earth.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Jack 3

      maybe you should wake up and put yourself in our shoes and quit feeling sorry for yourself

      September 12, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • Lukos58

      I understand your points, and they are good, valid arguements. What is the most frustrating to Westerners is a perceived lack of more than just verbal condemnation from "good" Muslims when these things happen. Where are the marches in the streets FOR the U.S. or AGAINST these brother Muslim animals? Where are the newspaper articles in Muslim papers condemning these people and calling for all "good" Muslims to turn them in for their proper punishment? Where is something beyond false sad faces and words from our "good" Muslim brothers? Let me see "good" Muslims take up slogans and arms and track these defilers of their religion down and bring them to punishment instead of standing on the sidelines. I'm an atheist and even though I don't believe any religion, I still believe religion and the majority of their followers can be a huge force for good, but ALL religious people need to wake up and start cleaning their own houses of these animals in all of your societies and places of worship. Only when people of faith start acting on their supposed PEACEFUL words will anyone start to believe those words.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • Jack 3

      Isn't Al Zahwari a surgeon?

      September 12, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • martin

      Dr., you obviously haven't read the whole Koran just like Christians don't read their absurd "holy" books

      September 12, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  19. Abd.

    Good for them! Don't be like the kafirs who worship pictures and idols

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

    Sensitivity is not and never will be justification for murder, the door swings both ways, Muslims and leftists have to understand us as well and we are not going to ever accept MURDER because some muslims have thin skin.
    You are a disgusting discrace, anti American and TERRORIST sympathizers CNN.
    Shame on you CNN.

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

      I generally like CNN, on this report they sound like a Islamic propaganda machine that is blind and deaf to Islamic evil around the planet

      September 12, 2012 at 5:17 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.