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. Bobandy

    we need to nuke these weirdos. all they do is kill and sit around with their face on the floor.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  2. ogre12

    f* mohammed.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  3. jonat

    This was a pre-planned attack timed for 9/11 the film was just a ruse. There are texts and tweets from the brother of the blind sheik being held in USA advising tell cell members to go to the Embassy. They had rocket launchers and AK-47's they were not 'protestors'

    September 12, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  4. Redpatch

    They're not "sensitive", they're fanatical, and I highly doubt they can be reasoned with on this issue.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  5. no nothing

    Religion breeds narrow minds....... WORD

    September 12, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • cleareye1

      Imagine how destructive we could choose to be if we had empty leaders like bin Laden or Hitler.
      The Muslim world that celebrated 9/11 by dancing in the streets should be thankful that our religions are not as hateful as theirs. When they gather in Mecca for their Hajj and circle around the Kaaba they might remember that for the grace of the peaceful American hearts they, and their sacred city remain part of the planet. Bin Laden would not be so generous if had the power that America has.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  6. Tom Jenkins

    As I see it, it must be ok to kill people everytime they become sensitive to something. I'm sure the prophet wouldn't have wanted his followers to go out and kill people who didn't share their views. What if we as AMERICANS went out and did the same thing for calling us infidels, I'm sensitive to that!!! Sensitive to seeing the AMERICAN Flag being burn't!!!! I don't go out shooting people!

    September 12, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  7. David

    Americans are killed and you throw out a piece of crap article about tolerance for Mohammad's image!!!!! Idiotic!!

    September 12, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  8. Jane

    Got to love CNN. Dont condemn the murderers, condemn the guy who was voicing his opinion as protected by the First Amendment! No wonder this world is so screwed up. Do you think I really care why Muslims are "so sensitive?" I DONT CARE!!!!! Anyone who says the Muslim faith is a PEACEFUL religion is fooling themselves. Try reading the Koran for once and then get back to me about how they are taught to be peaceful. The Bible had it right thousands of years ago stating Ishmael would be a "wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him,
    and he will live in hostility toward[b] all his brothers.”

    September 12, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  9. roger

    It does not appear we are going to be successful at persuading these people to "like" us. (See: most Iraqi's liberated from Saddam; most Afghans liberated from Taliban; most Libyans liberated from Quadafi etc etc) Perhaps the policy ought to promote respect instead. To that end, exhibit and practice as much tolerance as the other guys do. The next intruder over an embassy wall should die.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  10. PaulC

    Convoluted thinking at it's best. A poor excuse is better than no excuse at all.
    I would not intervene at all if the people sacked and burned the libyan embassy.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  11. Billy Bob

    And this is why we can't have nice things....

    September 12, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  12. Stilgar

    No other religion that I am aware of advocates violence and murder in any way shape or form. Regardless of the fear of worship of a man versus allah there is no justification for the acts that have been committed now or in the past. Nor is it acceptable to justify these acts through by claiming that others do not understand your beliefs

    September 12, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  13. cleareye1

    Why worship his words then? God blew it on this one. Lots of people go around speaking on the behalf of God and get away with it. Why doesn't he strike them down. Anyways, why can't he just speak up for herself? Too shy?

    September 12, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  14. urbnnmd

    Not worshiping an image? Christianity, Islam and Judaism worship a book sent from a god. Justify killing in the name of words. To quote one of their writers, "You strain a gnat, and swallow a camel."

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

      Hey what is your point. The article is about Islam's problems today and it's rage boys. And you want to talk Christianity and Judaism. Fool!

      September 12, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  15. beevee

    What I don't understand is if prophet mohammed is a human why can't he have human features like a face, nose, eyes, ears and a body with hands and legs? Surely someone of his followers had seen him and described him how he looked. What is wrong with portraying him?

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

      There is nothing wrong in portraying brother. Prophet Muhammad PBUHs journey and his struggle was against idolism, and gathering humanity to come towards one God. A picture is also included in the in the category in idols. Which would be inappropriate.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  16. Ryan Cameron

    Its incredibly frustrating that these societies continuously teach religious nonsense to their children, and end up "face down, butt up" in worship of imaginary beings and doctrines of hatred and intolerance, based on ignorant, barbaric 7th century mindsets. Mankind has a long way to go.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • cleareye1

      In the middle east for sure. Not much different than most of Africa.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  17. steve

    We should have had military troops guarding the embassy with guns. Haven't we learned since our embassy in Iran was invaded in 79? Isn't Lybia also considered a place of political unrest since Ghadafi was removed? Wow, sign me up to go work abroad at one of our US Embassy's. Great job Washington.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  18. rumsteah

    Why don't we just get this over with and give the Muslim's the war they want? We can wipe them out and the world will be a better (safer) place.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Sabrina Desiree J

      I agree with you 100%. Allah 'said' that if Mecca and Medina were ever destroyed it would mean that he (allah) would be dead. Time to nuke those two 'holy' cities out of existence and thus kill allah. Problem solved. Then we'd just have a bunch of god-less idiots running around booing... hmmm... now WHERE did that just happen??? D N C

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

      there are 1.57 billion Muslim's, thats a lot of killing, plus we dont live in the darkages as they do. but if your ready im with you.

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

      right there with you. They are asking for a war they can not win and may be its time they got what they keep asking for.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
  19. joe

    who gives a crap why they are sensitive. Have not any one seen the 2000 movie "Rules of Engagement"?

    September 12, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  20. Mike

    Today I drove a friend to the hospital where he has a job as a security guard and that yesterday on September 11, 2011 a Muslim doctor shook his finger at him and said to him that he shouldn't be wearing that button the read something like "September 11,2001: 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 5:09 pm |
    • yuri pelham

      Political correctness will lead to our undoing. Islam means "submit". And that's what we do more and more. Bye bye freedom.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:15 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.