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. Robert

    This is just an excuse. Mormons believe Joseph Smith was a prophet and they don't have any problem remembering he was just a man and worshiping God only.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  2. Jataka

    Muslims need to sac up or shut up. Deal with the fact that there are other people and other religions in the world. That is what makes earth so great, its rich diversity. Muslims are so immature they cannot handle criticism or do any type of logical or critical thinking. They live they're entire lives out of a book without an ounce of self-contemplation. I feel sorry for them. It must be hard to live so angry and narrow minded all the time. No wonder in their countries they only live to their 40's. So much anger and hatred for everything kills you early. They should take a look outside their locked doors once in awhile or maybe try meditation instead of reciting the same sentence over and over again for an entire lifetime...that' just sad and pathetic.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  3. Quid Malmborg in Plano TX

    Why are they so "sensitive" about their so-called "prophet?" It's because all religious fanatics are a bunch of ignorant monkeys who don't know any better. Truth-out.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  4. Sunnyvale

    It is absolutely ridiculous that these animals can blackmail and threaten to rest of the clear thinking world with their foolish hatred and violence. Will such idiotic behavior only stop when the last of these morons is killed?

    September 12, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  5. Anders Behring Breivik (King of the Island)

    Just as I told you....all mussies and their supporters must be eliminated.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      ice cold

      September 12, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  6. DMicheals

    Obama is over his head and it shows. He's clueless. His economic policies are a disaster, 46 million on food stamps, $5 trillion added to our deficit in 4 years, 27 million unemployed. What a complete failure of a president. Complete failure. If America reelects this idiot it deserves to sink and America will sink under 4 more years of Obama. We'll be looking at $22 Trillion deficit instead of the $10 trillion we had when this man child was elected.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      It will take time for the changes he has planned to be fulfilled but he has made great strides already

      September 12, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Zeus Christ

      you have no idea what the future holds my child. Come see me and I will lay my hands upon your head and fix you!

      September 12, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • RW

      What the hell does that have to do with the article?

      September 12, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • Allen

      Bill Deacon thankfull in about 60 days we will be able to stop Obama's plans. His plans pretty much bite.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  7. Josh

    Religion of peace, yeah right.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  8. Bill

    So let me get this right: its wrong to make a depiction of Mohammed because that might tempt people to worship him and he's just a man not a god. However, if you do make a depiction of him, we will become will feel justified in killing you.... What was that bit about not wanting him to be worshiped again?

    September 12, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Edy

      They are confused desert-brain-fried idiots.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  9. Common Sense

    Thats all true about being bad to insult prophets, but you dont see Christians rioting and storming embassies over insulting depictions of Jesus.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  10. profart

    Unfortunately, being over-zealous about restricting depictions of Muhammad leads to teh same problem- the focus becomes on the human, not on Allah.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  11. James

    Oh how nice. Now I understand why muslims are blood thirsty lunatics. Does this make it okay? Perhaps now you can explain to me why Hitler hated Jews and how his beliefs should be respected.

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

      Ironic use of Hitler to make your point. Muslims hate Jews too.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  12. Getmo

    Why are you angry? You need to search your heart and find God who will give you the peace you need. Obvisously, hate and anger has you blind to what is truth. I will pray for you and hope that insome way God will touch you life and show you the way, truth and the light.
    Peace be unto James only when you surrender your life to the one and only true God. Jesus is the light

    September 12, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • pat carr

      Surrender your life to the one and only god, The Great Cosmic Spatula. In his large scoop, you will find peace. Do not follow false prophets like "jesus"

      September 12, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  13. Hindu

    It is better to seek strength in focused practice of one's own faith than wasting time and energy in demeaning others' faith. Doing so only exposes your own weak faith. That's all.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • profart

      So does wasting time and energy killing people because they insulted you or your faith.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • Edy

      Profart – I was going to say the same thing. They are murdererous cowards, i.e., serial killers, who hide behind their Allah. My God said I could not kill for any reason. I respect God.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  14. Pan3

    I respect the Muslim people and what THEY believe. But how are we to protect them and the world from and of free speech?
    With the way communication is growing faster, I predict this issue will explode and people with depictions of Mohammed in both negative and positive will only grow. There must be tolerance for us to get along.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  15. Ron

    Im sensitive about being catholic but the administration and the liberal news media could care less. I dont care if they are sensitive. Tough nuggies, their religion sucks. so what?

    September 12, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  16. Vad

    We asked for this. Egypt, Libya, Syria and Tunsia. They are not better off with our help. Many conservative poilticans predicted that when we helped the radical muslims over throw these governments that they would turn on us the first chance they get. Now the Liberal darlings that are the Muslim Brotherhood are threatening our access to the Suez Canal. That is in addition to killing Americans and storming embassies. All we did in these countries was trade tyrants that tolerated us for tyrants that openly hate us.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Ron

      They will always turn on us they hate us. The only way to keep them from hating us is to kill them all. Wow is that the solution? ubet.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • profart

      Except it isn't the governments turning on us, but small radical factions- which appear to be connected to al-Quaeda. Likely an attempt to influence our election process.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • Vad

      Mr. Profart, let me start by saying I like the name, professional yet flatulence, best of both worlds. Second, I am not so sure the Government in those Countries don't turn a blind eye or support these groups. For that matter, who is the Government in those countries? The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt isn't going to go out of their way to hunt down those responsible for the embasy attack. They may produce a scape goat and say they did. Third, if they want to influence our elections then tell me in what way? Is their goal to push us toward Romney or Obama?

      September 12, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
  17. Dick

    Why are Muslims sensitive about this? For the same reason Penn State was sensitive about Jerry Sandusky. They are afraid if people really know what kind of a monster he was, it would ruin whatever reputation they have left in the world.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • Edy

      The only reputation I see from these monsters are that they hate. That's what they've taught me about their religion. Thanks, but no thanks. That religion is evil. It teaches humans to kills innocent people for no other reason than a difference of opinion..over a movie...over a comment....over a face without a veil...they want to fight for the sake of fighting, the people killed wanted peace. That's what that religion taught me today.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  18. AvdBerg

    The Ambassador’s killing was a culmination of the rising tensions and deepening problems between civilizations in a divided world. For a better understanding of the history of Islam and the Middle East we invite you to read the articles ‘World History and Developments in the Middle East’ and ‘Clash of Civilizations’, listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    All of the other pages and articles listed on our website explain how and by whom this whole world has been deceived as confirmed in Revelation 12:9.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  19. gera

    Where are all the Muslims around the world condemning the deaths of these four individuals? Not all Muslims are evil,however, Satan hides in the Quran, the Quran is a satanic book,that's why there are only some Muslims doing evil. Satan is very slick. "religion of peace"

    September 12, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • ED

      I found that to be quiet insightful

      September 12, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • Ting

      Satan only exists in the minds of the delusioned.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      The question still stands; Where is the condemnation from Islam?

      September 12, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • profart

      Apparently, you are very limited in your news outlets. Muslims are condemning these attacks all over.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  20. Stand Firm USA

    This article demonstrates perfectly the position (bias) of CNN and how out of touch CNN is with mainstream America. Note that this article has a bigger space on the homepage than the article about the death of our ambassador.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • otum barkley

      Amen. CNN's bleeding hearts seem to find themselves in the same position of the average ignorant and violent muslim man – with their collective asses offered up. Their motive is clearly different and even more disgusting.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:38 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.