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. jeff harris

    Obama is directly responsible for this. Obama replaced khadaffi – with muslim extremists who hauled kaddaffi out of a drainage ditch and beat him to death while the obama administration looked on with little complain as if khadaffi deserved it. NOW – these same muslim extremists that obama put in power – see no problem with dragging the American ambassador out of his embassy and beating him to death along with the rest of the staff. The people obama installed in libya hate America worse than they did kadaffi and even more than that wealth distributing clown in the presidency. It didn't help that obama had them put a bullet in the brain of bin laden and then dump him overboard in the middle of the ocean.

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

      What are you smoking?

      September 12, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  2. cc

    OK, so you're of the opinion that visualizing Mohammed in a disgusting film will lead to people worshiping that image? Crazy, simply crazy. I can understand Muslims being angry when other Muslims create an image of Mohammed, benign or not. That could lead to the banned worship. But when a non-Muslim does it who's going to worship that image, the non-Muslim? I don't think so. These riots might have been about how Mohammed was portrayed, but it makes no sense to say they were due to anger of the fact that he was portrayed. Only a religious bigot could believe that.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  3. Jale O Baba

    Worship and live as you will within the law and without offending others may be a more sensible way of life?

    September 12, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  4. ZRowzdower

    Excuses, excuses, excuses. CNN, you are trying SO HARD to justify muslim hatred, violence and now murder. Why? You would never extend such a thing had a Christian group done this - never! Either you have some twisted self-USA hatred and this sort of atrocity satisfies that, or you are AFRAID of muslims and therefore would do anything to placate them. Which is it? Please explain. No more excuses or BS about tolerance and understanding. Just be honest for once!

    September 12, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  5. jp

    f you, and f your prophet!!!

    September 12, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  6. phillylady66

    E-GADZ! Fox News DOES have a body shot of our ambassador being dragged by Muslim rabble. That is just crass and insensitive. I have to backtrack and say at least CNN has so far had to grace to avoid showing this picture. It offends ME far more than any Muslim has a right to be offended over a stupid movie, cartoon or picture. Ambassador Stevens deserved better than this! What is this country coming to? Truly sad day for Americans. I hope we wake up and stop trying to cuddle up to people who will NEVER like us no matter what we do. Defend your own, I say, and let our enemies watch their backs.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  7. East Coast

    Well, their Mohammad r.ap.ed a little girl, so I don't care if he's made out of pigskin...he's a monster and anyone who worships him supports child molestation.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  8. Geeeez

    Sensitive murderers, suicide bombers and acid dousers . . . Such tough men who riot when their feelings are hurt and their fantasies challenged.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  9. Janie

    These are violent people hiding behind religion, the U.S. should not tolerate this, NO MORE FOREIGN AID!!

    September 12, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  10. Edwin

    Thank you for not mentioning that crazy so called anti-muslim "minister" in gainesville. It only encourages him. It seems that every religion has it's crazy zealots that don't speak for anybody but the few. My local internet news source was all over him, quoting him right and left. He must be really happy. He's as ignorant as they come. I believe even his own family has disavowed him.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  11. Steve

    Surely, the world's most enormous irony must be that Islamic extremists' response to portrayals of Islam as a hateful, violent religion is almost always: .... hateful violence!

    September 12, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Tim


      September 12, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  12. lol

    I like cookies.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  13. JF

    Check out the site :"The religion of Peace", you will understand where this comes from.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  14. Shine222

    Well they had better stay off the internet because I am afraid they will be upset daily for the rest of their lives.

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

    More lies and manipulation hoping some gullible reader will believe islam is peaceful. This article claims that sharia is "the divine law revealed centuries ago in the Quran that governs all aspects of life". As an ex-muslim, I can assure you this is only HALF THE TRUTH!

    Here is what the 'Umdat as-Salik wa 'Uddat an-Nasik (Reliance of the Traveller), THE classical manual on sharia law/islamic jurisprudence says about Jihad:

    o9.0 JIHAD
    (O: Jihad means to war against non-Muslims, and is etymologically derived from the word mujahada signifying warfare to establish the religion. And it is the lesser jihad. As for the greater jihad, it is spiritual warfare against the lower self (nafs), which is why the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said as he was returning from jihad.
    "We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad."
    The scriptural basis for jihad, prior to scholarly consensus (def: b7) is such Koranic verses as:
    (1) "Fighting is prescribed for you" (Koran 2:216);
    (2) "Slay them wherever you find them" (Koran 4:89);
    (3) "Fight the idolators utterly" (Koran 9:36);
    and such hadiths as the one related by Bukhari and Muslim that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said:
    "I have been commanded to fight people until they testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and perform the prayer, and pay zakat [TAX].

    o9.1 Jihad is a communal obligation
    o9.3 Jihad is also obligatory for everyone

    o9.8 The caliph makes war upon Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians (N: provided he has first invited them to enter Islam in faith and practice, and if they will not, then invited them to enter the social order of Islam by paying the non-Muslim poll tax [...] in accordance with the word of Allah Most High, "Fight those who do not believe in Allah and the Last Day and who forbid not what Allah and His messenger have forbidden-who do not practice the religion of truth, being of those who have been given the Book-until they pay the poll tax out of hand and are humbled" (Koran 9.29).

    September 12, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Xmuz

      You are no correct. Jihad means "struggle". As for the Hadits, it is a txt. written around the 11th or 12th century on the authority of no one. In fact the authors no name father approved the txt.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
  16. Will


    September 12, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  17. james

    "Belief" blog is journalism or church? You're ridiculously defending religious fetishism and attendant violence. This makes no sense.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • It just doesn't matter

      Reporting isn't Supporting.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  18. spinoza149

    If Islam is the religion of peace, and pro-active murder in the Koran is considered immoral, why do so many throughout the Islamic world instinctively turn to murder when their sensibilities are offended?

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

      Islam is just a little bit theoretically "religion of peace" but practically it is extremely violent.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  19. Ed

    Why are they sensitive about mohammed?

    It's just an excuse to be violent.

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

      Are you sensitive about your parents? If someone uses very bad words about your mother how would you react? To Muslims prophet Muhammad is dearer than parents.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • Ben

      I wouldn't kill anyone reader, and I suggest you stop making excuses for murderers

      September 12, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • Ed

      Dearest Reader,

      Yes, if you say offensive things about my mother, I'd be upset. But I wouldn't gather a few hundred of my friends, family and neighbors and riot your house and try to kill you or those close to you and say it was your fault for the killings because you offended me. That's reality bro.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • david

      This is a setup. It happens on Sept 11... Does that sound random.

      What we need to do is send all of the surveillance video to the Libyan government. Insist that they persecute for murder and then put a large reward out for information leading to the arrest of these people shown in the footage. Lots of wanted posters with the reward in big letters would also help.

      There will always be an excuse for violence. What we need to do is make sure there are consequences too.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • Gmck

      If you insulted my parents I would be angry, and maybe insult you back, but I wouldn't slaughter innocent people thousands of miles away, who don't even know you

      September 12, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  20. gdubb75

    Can we stop the political correctness already and say it out loud what we all know already that those people over there just hate us and always have and probably always will.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:12 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.