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. David

    Those who believe absurdities will commit atrocities.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  2. Chaotician

    We made God, we can certainly get rid of him! Especially this Jewish creature called the one God, Jehovah, Father, what have you; he is a jealous, evil, mean, vindictive God who gives his sycophants permission to murder and destroy every living creature in the cities his chosen covet, has sanctioned untold murder and destruction in his name, his priests have condemned the world to centuries of ignorance, and even the once enlightened Muslims have become victims of reactionary fundamentalists and they have become at least as insane as the Jews and Christians. So much death over whose priests are the real dudes that speak to God, the real way to beg God for goodies, and of course the proper way to bring God"s wrath on ones enemies! Just plain sick and evil!

    September 12, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • nottolate

      You're even more ignorant than these muslims. I wouldn't even know where to start with you.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  3. Getmo

    I find it insensitive that someone would make a movie that is so inflammatory that it cost four lives. Is this the same idiot that burned the Quran a while back. He calls himself a man of God; I think not. Christians that are faithful bring other souls to Christ, not mock them. If we allow religious zealots to preach this nonsense and cause riots in our streets? What would Americans do? Even better, What would Jesus do? We need to get a grip on how we treat our fellow man.
    In the name of Jesus!!!

    September 12, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • TonyB

      The man who made the movie is Jewish, not Christian, so it doesn't make sense to apply Christian values to him. He has a hatred of Muslims and made this movie to show it.

      I've seen a few hate-filled posts here against Christians and God in general. One of the more popular references to God has become "the Spaghetti Monster", implying that God is simply made-up. The difference between our culture and the Middle East is we just shake our head and hope that poor individual finds peace. Those in the Middle East riot and kill.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Allen

      Actually this was written by an Israeli. You must not have read the piece. But that aside, anyone has the right to question these issues. The author of this film was pointing out the history of the man that has been ignored. I don't see anything wrong with that. The same thing was done with Jesus in films. I don't remember any Christians storming the embassies and killing citizens over it.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • Steve L

      Well, being that Islam is so sensitive, they will kill and destroy if their religion is mocked, it seems like a great way to fire things up just for that purpose. Bin Laden would be proud of these great people. Kill, commit suicide, bomb, maim in the name of Allah. Let's face it, they have a death wish for everyone, including themselves. Life to them is just to get over as fast as you can. Living is their problem.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  4. IslandAtheist

    Religion makes people irrational.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  5. David

    I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours

    September 12, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  6. James

    It doesn't help when our commander -in -chief is a coward and goes around the world apologizing for America. The ultimate irony is how liberals stand up for these diaper heads. If the Muslims ever gained political power in this country the liberals would be the first to be executed. There is a damn good reason they don't have gays in Iran - they hang them in public.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  7. Walter

    Any attempt to justify those actions is pointless....There is no justification.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  8. Hindu

    @Kannan -

    words are cheap! we will see how you will react if someone calls your mom and sister a wh0re in your face. better not to disturb other unnecessarily - go looking for trouble - while there is already so much trouble in work without asking for it.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  9. dm21865

    Today on CNN, we're going to try to psycho-analyze a rabid animal in hopes of determining what's wrong with the people the animal has bitten.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  10. EDitorJP

    A caller on the radio asked a good question today:

    If Obama is So Concerned with Feelings in the Muslim World, Why is He Bragging So Much About Killing Osama?

    September 12, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  11. EKIA

    So an Israeli accused Muslims of being violent, barbaric extremists, and the Muslims proved it. Strong work Muslims, you represent your religion well.

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

    I think you should try to explain this to the Muslims. Their reactions are always so overblown and overly dramatic and completely out of proportion. A logical response would have been to just upload their own little movie to YouTube. Talk about making a mountain out of a mole hill. Geez! Get a hobby or something.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • True, but...

      It is important to remember that Muslims are like Christians in a lot of ways. In fact Mohammed preached that Christians and Jews should be respected, even though they are not on the righteous path (as far as Islam is concerned). As in Christianity, there are all walks of life in Islam, from reasonable, logical people, to crazed ideologues. Sadly, most of what we see in the news are the crazed idiots. I have traveled extensively in the middle east and I can tell you from personal experience that most Muslims just want to live in peace with their families, in their towns and cities, and be able to provide for their friends and relatives. Most Muslims don't really care if you're Christian or Jewish, in fact, if you go to many countries, you'll find percentages of the populations are not Muslim and are not hassled or bullied. In this particular protest, it was an attack disguised as a protest about a movie. The rioters showed up with rocket launchers and AK-47 assault rifles, and stormed the embassy. I have Muslim friends here in the US that are just as appalled as anyone else by this. You must remember that these people have bee suppressed with an iron hand in many of these countries. They have seen their friends and relatives jailed for nonsensical charges. They have watched as people have simply disappeared. And they have been told that many of their problems are due to the US and other western countries. Right or wrong, they want to fight back. It will take significant cultural changes to help them understand. This war of ideals has been going on for almost 2000 years. it's not about to end any time soon.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  13. adnan

    People need to know that most muslims do not support this kind of behavior. The depictions are disrespectful, but that is why i believe the world needs to work towards a world wide agreement that should say that we need to respect other religions and not place disrespectful things in newspapers, videos, movies, etc. about other people's religions. Then if somebody does they would receive a penalty or some sort of punishment.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • cigarlover6

      here is a breakdown of your folks adnan. Can you refute it?
      The religion of 'pi*s' at it again. MothaFoca, there is no doubt that the muslim "umma" has the following strategy to conquer the world, their population is divided in following categories:
      – 5 % terror squad (suicide bombin, et.al.) to keep others in fear of Islam
      – 10% violent jehadists to cause trouble in lands where they are not majority (well even where there is majority with sizeable minorities)
      – 10 % fundamentalist clergy/educated people to direct and brainwash idiots of the religion to execute jihadist work.
      – 50% population are apologists and white washing types who do PR work to make islam look good. They create liaison offices, propaganda, laundering, media control, etc. These folks may be rejoicing at the fact that Islam is taking over all over the world by hook or crook.
      – 20% probably are too scared to do or say anything for fear of persecution by the top 25%
      – 5% are probably worried about the direction of Islam and they are peace loving but can't do anything due to serious minority status withing the religious umma.

      So we have to worry a lot. I see this monster in India already with the muslims not only causing terror but taking over print/tv/movie media. Not to say they are complete voting block anywhere in the world.

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

      "People need to know that most muslims do not support this kind of behavior."

      Thats either a lie, or all the rest of the muslims are cowards. We have never seen ONE MARCH OF THOUSANDS OF MUSLIMS protesting against OBL or against muslim violence like this.

      "The depictions are disrespectful, but that is why i believe the world needs to work towards a world wide agreement that should say that we need to respect other religions"

      You can start by IMPRISONING the imams of thousands of mosques worldwide who EVERY WEEK in their mosques and on TV call for the killing of Christians and Jews..

      September 12, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • yoda0000

      Sorry adnan, but we must have freedom of speech and expression, which means even attacks on islam and the prophet have to be tolerated.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • JL

      No thanks! Religion SHOULD NOT be above criticism. Islam needs to harden up, big time.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  14. annabelle

    perhaps one day you will do an article on how offensive it is to Christians to have their God blasphemed every hour by co-workers and on TV.
    I can tell you however, that Christians will not be killing those who do so.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • EDitorJP

      I am a Jew, Annabelle and i agree with you. The American media depiction or Christians (and of religious Jews) is a disgrace.

      And we can start with Christiana Amanpour, who never misses a chance to bash Christians and Jews.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  15. Jim

    Muslims have done a poor job of proving this stereotype wrong, now more people will watch the film and agree with its finding. Muslims are their own worst enemy

    September 12, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • EKIA

      They've done a great job of proving the stereotype correct.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:30 pm |

    If all muslums would kill themselves at the same moment then there would be no problem.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • cigarlover6

      There may be a shortage of virgins!

      September 12, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • EDitorJP

      We can clone Helen Thomas for them.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  17. Brad76

    They're already worshiping Mohammad if they're going to such extreme lengths to punish people for depicting him.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • nottolate

      Yep, and they are doing so having been told not to by their own so-called prophet. They are ignorant of their own religion.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  18. Jeff W

    CNN...Not many Americans Give a Damn about the feelings of the Muslims over a damn film. They Killed our People, and you care to worry more about how they feel about Allah!

    September 12, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  19. possum

    Bacile should be sued for every penny he has and then some. While the right to free speech is fine, one must bear the responsibility for exercising that right and Bacile had to know the outrage such a film would create. If one jerks a dog's tail and is bitten, is it the fault of the dog or the jerk? His actions were irresponsible and he needs to pay the damages.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • Jon

      Your analogy only makes sense if Muslims, like Dogs, are not intelligent, sentient creatures that can be held responsible for their own actions. If you're willing to concede that this subset of Islam are equivalent to dogs, then go ahead with your comparison.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  20. Loren

    The irony of this is that by their behavior they are engaging the the idolatry that the Prophet supposedly was trying to deter. My problem with Islam is the same I have with any religion where the central figure says he spoke to God and is relaying God's wishes. While in the past, it may be seen as a mark of faith to be able to talk to God, the only conclusion that can be made now is that the person is crazy. Islam is built on a foundation of sand, in more ways than one.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:27 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.