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. Shine222

    They must have been born yesterday. The internet is full of stuff that I am sure would offend them. They need to stay off the internet if they don't want to be offended 24/7/365.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:20 pm |

    Islam is a religeon of faith.God has created all humanbeings and excepts them to be thankfull, greatfull,and show absolute
    obedence to him for all the good thing he has given man .if he behave well the rewards in this life and hearafter are
    great.god is most mercifull and kind. but if man does not belive in god and behaves indefferently to couse pain on earth
    then god will punnish man with exteam punishment. i.e Hell.
    every muslim belives in the above and if he does not then he is not a muslim..peroid
    muslims allover the world are peace loving , they pray, they fast , they give charity and mind their business. however as in
    anyother community there are black sheep in muslims and good muslims in general have no controll over them and very little they can do. they totolly disagree and condem their activities like any other sensible people on earth.now a small groop of muslims react or act violently when they are provoced , insulted and put to test.
    The point is why does any one do some thing knowing well that the muslims in general get insulted by such acts and a few go berserk.
    who is to be blamed ?? This happens peridically and why no one blames the inetiator and condem such iresponsible
    behavior?? as a result innocent lives are lost and much damage is done and the real culprit goes scot free.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • Shine222

      Why are there over 100 Islamic terrorist groups and in this latest incident involving over 100 people they don't belong to an Islamic terrorist organization? Well I was not born yesterday. Do you think it is because these poor people are just following Mohammad's example? Remember when Mohammad killed people who would not convert to Islam? I don't want to be a Muslim. I don't like violence. I love all people. I know in America you can belong to any religion you want to, but I think Islam is a bad, violent idea. This is just my personal opinion/beliefs/religon. No one has to agree with me.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • Mainstream

      Why don't the "good" muslims speak up and condemn this kind of thing. Even in your comments you didn't condemn it. When will your indignation against extremist factions within your religion of peace become stronger than your fear of retaliation by the same? It is time for non-extremist muslims to stand up with a united front. Don't you think?

      September 12, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • Tom Tyler

      ARE YOU CRAZY!!!!

      September 12, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • Doug

      Look, I think it's wrong for someone to purposely go about offending someone else. That said, the film in question was made in the United States, where said person is guaranteed the right of freedom of speech, and killing someone because they are offended by what that person said is wrong on so many levels it's not even worth comparing it to the original act of making the offensive movie. Is it smart or the right thing to do to make such a movie? No, but in this country that doesn't matter. What has been done in answer to this "offense" is immoral and illegal in every country on Earth with laws, including Libya and Egypt.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • TomGI

      There are so many misspellings and grammatical errors in this comment I believe English is your 4th or 5th language? Maybe you should find a blog that communicates in Muslim?

      September 12, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  3. RRF

    How do muslims claim to be a peaceful religion when they kill people, who didn't even know the people that made this movie. It is acts like this that make many distrust those of this faith. Civalized people don't do stupid acts like this.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Mainstream

      That's beside the point. No person, muslim or otherwise, has any right to murder because of a disrespectful movie someone made. Period. These people are insane and need to be dealt with according to the strictest laws.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
  4. Happily agnostic

    Really, what do you expect? You have a culture a 300 years or more behind the times and brainwashed by an oppressive organised religion. Anyone who does violence in the name of the religion they worship for whatever reason, shows they have no place in civilized society. It's amazing to me that we live in a world of super technology like smart phones, send probes to Mars to take pictures, yet we still have people in this world living in the dark ages. For those who think this is a Muslim bashing opportunity, just remember not too long ago in human history, Christianity had it's terrible bloody moments too.

    Face it folks, it's time to grow up and leave this nonsense behind. The world as we know it can not survive for too much longer having these type of fanatics perpetrate terrorism on the rest of the civilized world. We will never have world peace and true global prosperity, with humans using religion to justify their evil deeds with a scary mindset.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Mainstream

      What a nauseating place to insert your pride in your agnosticism. Your absence of faith is beside the point. No person, muslim or otherwise, has any right to murder because of a disrespectful movie someone made. Period. These people are insane and need to be dealt with.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  5. captaintodd

    Oh, I see. Somebody made a video about their "prophet", so naturally they had to kill some people to help them get over their hurt feelings. Gee, I guess we should all forget about that silly First Amendment stuff – we wouldn't want to offend someone who would then be forced to go on a killing spree. After all, Islam is the religion of PEACE. Right. Thanks, CNN, for clearing that up.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Nika


      September 13, 2012 at 3:08 am |
  6. Weatherthestorm

    Hey, CNN, Americans are sensitive to criminal gangs attacking and destroying their embassies and killing their ambassadors, who promote religious liberty and freedom of speech (quite unlike the host countries) and had nothing to do with any insensitive films and cartoons. We're also tired of supporting countries where much of the populace celebrates the 9/11 massacre.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Nika

      No joke.

      September 13, 2012 at 3:09 am |
  7. Rednip

    Those who kill over images are the ones who are worshiping that idol, those that make the figure rarely believe in it. Why do so many Muslims apparently believe that an image takes on special significance? Or a book so revered that it cannot be burned without bloodshed atonement, even if by accident. Who is worshiping what idol?

    September 12, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  8. Jim Sanders

    Muslims have intentionally burned hundreds of American and Israeli Flags and called for their destruction but do they go ahead and burn Mosques and cause violence? No. This movie is just an excuse for these Muslim extremists to do more violence and hide behind mohammad. Give me a break. Time for the Muslims to grow up and stop the Terror. If not, don't cry when America retaliates for your terror.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  9. Bill

    This is what happens when you have a religion followed by the world's largest group of illiterates, who cannot read their prophet's word themselves, so depend on a select few to tell them what he said. Sort of like the Catholic church had, until recent centuries, and part of the reason why they still do their services in Latin.

    Keep 'em ignorant, and keep 'em in line.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Mass has been said in the colloquial since Vatican II in the 1960's.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • Gmck

      I haven't seen a catholic mass performed in latin in more than 40 years. where you been?

      September 12, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
  10. lou50

    They are ignorant and that says it all. the basic reason the under educate their people and drive the women basically into servitude.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  11. Kannan

    Oops! Even this article could offend a fanatic Muslim!

    September 12, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  12. Ben

    With all due respect, Muslims can suck it. This is the 21st century and we can depict who and what we dam well please

    September 12, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • lou50

      good one keep the faith!

      September 12, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Nika

      Well said

      September 13, 2012 at 3:11 am |
  13. riabm60

    There has to be more to the story than just the movie.
    Ansar Al-Sharia group are Sunni Muslim militants ( an of-shoot of Al Qaeda ) mostly based in Yemen.
    I have a feeling that the drone attacks in Yemen have something to do with it......

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

      I have a feeling it has something to do with it being 09/11.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • Tom Tyler

      Yes, story is now out. It's retaliation by Al Qaeda.

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

      the movie was just released on YouTube yesterday. Too much preparation went into this attack for it to be that spontaeous. The date was the reason, 9-11. Not the movie

      September 12, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
  14. Mopery

    This is just more evidence that religions which originated through the worship of the tyrant god of the desert, especially Islam, are antiquated relics from the dark ages of middle eastern barbarism. There is nothing to be learned from any source that claims to have all the answers, yet refuses to allow open investigation or skepticism of those answers. Ignorance breeds violence, and nothing in this world breeds more ignorance than religion.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  15. Skipper

    Along with the article you had yesterday by the lady saying she did not understand why muslims in the USA were afraid this is just another example of the hatred they have. Their religion does not condone killing...what a crock. Send them all back to where sharia law is practiced so they can be happy. I have had it with all muslims.

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

    "...that the Prophet was a man, not God, and that portraying him threatens to lead to worshiping a human instead of Allah."

    I am just not smart enough to have a clue what any of this article's opening statements are saying. Sounds like a bunch of baloney to me. But I guess I'm just an infidel. One thing I do know is all these "militants" will have their pictures analyzed by NSA and CIA and as soon as they are located they will have a missile or a JDAM dropped on their car. Compliments of the people of the USA and the co-workers of Chris Stevens and his associates. Hilary looked really ticked off this morning and she will make sure we get a few dozen heads on the embassy fence for these murders.

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

    Too bad! Not everyone is a Muslim and is obligated to follow their customs. Get over it. Oh, and guess what I'm offended by? Killing! Religion is for idiots who can't think for themselves.

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

    Wow. Wow. Wow.

    How incredibly stupid you all are.

    Let me get this straight,you believe that the attack on the US embassy in LIBYA was caused by sectarian violence due to a stupid youtube film that has been out since july with only 55000 views?

    How dumb are all of you? This is obviously the result of anti american gadafi loyalists or some other group. I mean people try to use your stupid brains and think.....AN ATTACK ON THE US EMBASSY IN LIBYA A DAY AFTER 9/11 WAS NOT DUE TO A YOUTUBE FILM.......

    As for the film, its clearly stupid hate speech......and all of the comments here are hate speech...and the attack on the US embassy was based on hate....so it goes to show that hate and ignorance is not isolated to one group or religion. Most of you are on the same level as the terrorists.......but what else would i expect from stupid uneducated americans who probably cant tell the difference between libya and a labia....you are all weak minded fools that believe everything the CIA news network tells you,......

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

      You should go easy on the "stupid" and "dumb" references. Your ego is out of control and it makes you sound stupid and dumb.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  19. JonathanL

    Somebody should tell them murder is a crime, suggest a course in anger management.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  20. Robert

    Islam and muslims just make me puke

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

      while i condemn the violence in Libya and Egypt , actions of a few people do not speak of the vast majority . i am sure if you did a little research on muhammad and islam you will change your mind . here is a link –


      September 12, 2012 at 6:05 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.