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. Dude

    I hope that you run similar articles about why Americans are sensitive about being blown up or beheaded, articles on the importance of free speech and the importance of freedom of religion, or articles on just how marginalized fundamentalists are from the mainstream of American thought, or how each act of terrorism cements Islam's reputation as a violent, warlike, religion?

    September 12, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • SK

      Dude, should all catholics and the catholic religion be condemned because of some child molesting preists? NOOoo so why then condemn the whole Muslim religion over acts perpretrated by some Muslim fanatics?

      September 12, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  2. MiddleClassMan

    America has a number of Muslims who make important contributions. Rush Limbaugh, for example is a Muslim: Notice he doesn't have commercials, he takes Prophet breaks. No wonder he supports Romney; I think there is a close relationship between Mormonism and Muslimism.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  3. Caleb

    Islam is not a hate-filled, murderous religion. And they'll pove it by burning down your buildings and murdering your people!

    September 12, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • MagicPanties

      Not much different from the crusades or the inquisition.
      Unfortunately the middle east has yet to emerge for the middle ages.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • ME II

      Kind of like the Mosque in Joplin, Mo.?

      September 12, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Who burned the mosque in Joplin? You imply it was someone intolerant of Muslims but to my knowledge no arrest has been made.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • ME II

      @Bill Deacon,
      Good point. I was assuming it was someone who wasn't Muslim that burned down a Mosque.
      My mistake.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  4. SK

    Freedom of speech allows us to have differing opinions, but there is a respectful way and a disrespectful way when dealing with others religious beliefs. Everyone should be respectful of one anouthers beliefs whether you agree with them or not. The disrespect in this case caused an overreaction and sadly the deaths of several people.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • ME II

      Should and must are two different things.

      People should respect others, but they must not be forced to.

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

      You are wrong. No speech caused the actions of yesterday. The actions were freely chosen by people who see violence as a way to settle disagreement. No blame is due those who disagree with Islam.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  5. Saturdays

    Muslims need to understand that they can't control the actions of individuals who have their own agendas. Why should a government get involved with ONE person who decided to make a movie that did NOT involve the government.

    Yes, the movie was distasteful to Muslims, I being a Muslim find it disgusting, but it is NOT my right or duty to kill innocent people and cause riots just because I am angry at that ONE person.

    Muslims need to get some class, don't bring religious laws into free nations that are separated church and state. Shariah laws and ruling can ONLY exist in a country that practices them and has a court to rule upon them to the fullest extent – meaning in the current world and governmental make up, NO COUNTRIES should practice Shariah.

    Even more important, the more radically stupid things we do when someone offends Islam, the more radically stupid things other people do to drive us out. Stupidity only fuels stupidity. Violence only fuels more violence. It's time to take a step back and relax, people make fun of Christians and Jews ALL the time. There is always someone mocking someone somewhere. Grow some skin and shake it off.

    Muslims should be thinking of a solution. There are many rich Muslims out their who can spearhead movies that show Islam in a good light, to counter the movies such as the one by Sam Bacille. Resorting to protests and violence will get nothing done.

    Again, this is coming from a Muslim, who practices Islam and is involved at a moderate level in his Islamic community. I know enough to say that I hope Muslims stop acting foolishly and start to think before they collectively make the rest of us look like morons. I am angry, but I am not going to take it out on anyone.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • ED

      As Quoted by you Shariah laws and ruling SHOULD NOT EXIST PERIOD go die under a rock

      Next you will say honor Killings are the way to go

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

      Right, no countries in their current state should ever practice Shariah Law.

      If a country has the court system and correct leadership, I see no problem with Shariah Law, it just takes the backing and system to be able to do it justly.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • Poppa Chris

      As a practicing Christian, I find your view as a practicing Muslim to be very refreshing. I just wish with all my heart that the Muslim masses you are speaking to listen to your very sound advice.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • Susette

      "Islam in a good light" ? Quintessential oxymoron!

      September 13, 2012 at 12:15 am |
  6. cigarlover6

    People comment on this if you agree:

    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 5:42 pm |
  7. josh

    You know this government is saying " It's not the people of these country's but a small faction of people, a small group who attack us. Well why aren't the " People " stopping them ? The K.K.K. is small group , they aren't ruling the South! People put a stop to that. This country is big on wanting to set up democracies in the middle east , i don't think these cultures even understand what that means , what that is. I don't want to be insulting, but they have had their set ways for hundreds of years. In any case, I just don't think the United States is liked very much, over there if not maybe even globally.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • RAWR

      The KKK was formed after the civil war and reached its peak by the 1920's with almost a million members. It took almost 70 years for it to lose its momentum. So think first before you toot that horn.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
  8. Ted Ward

    Since when does being "sensitive" justify any of the abuse, vitriol, oppression, and violence that Islam doles out to the world on a daily basis? This is a fitting behavior of a psychotic not a civilized person.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  9. TrishaDishawareagle

    I will NEVER treat Islam , it's pedo prophet mohammed, or it's feelings demands and crazy rantings with ANY respect..you can deal with it, pound sand, or drop dead. We do not change to suit YOU

    September 12, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • ED


      September 12, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • RAWR

      I agree! The same also goes for Christianity too.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  10. vernonfueston

    And this explanation is one good reason for Muslims to be angry with MUSLIMS who portray or denigrate the prophet. I heard one Muslim spokesperson ask what we would do if somebody insulted Jesus. We would not be storming an embassy or killing an ambassador. Especially if the US government had nothing to do with the film. Ignorance, ignorance, and fanaticism.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  11. sf

    and so the Blood of Allah is on the hands of the Muslim Extremist, as they destroy his greatest works. Allah rewards them with nothing as they deserve. Meanwhile, those they kill enter into the Paradise of the creator. Radical Islam will never set that Paradise.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  12. Mark David

    Leave it to CNN to defend muslim violence! As we remember 9/11, CNN is trying to explain why we anger the radicals. Bleeding heart liberalism at its best, let's all hug shall we?

    September 12, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • RAWR

      9/11 happened 11 years ago. How long do you want us to hold this cross up?

      September 12, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  13. bd

    So violence is the preferable alternative? The whole arguement that Muslim's are in some way justified is as absurd as their treatment of women.

    Most religions have some sort of law or edict that makes some form of hereticism or sacrilege punishable by death just as most religions have some aspect of them that promotes or enshrines the concept of patriarchal rule. The difference is that the vast majority of the civilized world learned to look past the strict teachings of their religion and act in a fashion that is right and just on a secular basis and that the teachings of their relgion could still be regarded highly but in that context.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  14. John

    It seems Muslims have made an idol out of the non-depiction of Mohammed. Obeying the letter of the law, but far missing the mark on the spirit of the law.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  15. TrishaDishawareagle

    F the pedo mohammed
    F Islam
    F obama

    September 12, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • George

      F YOU

      September 12, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  16. observer1776

    CNN remains purposely oblivious to the evils of Islam..
    Islam IS the Beast..
    Violence and slaughter are standard acts for these so-called believers.
    Their goal is conquest of the world through the Jihad of the Sword,
    and deception of their intended victims through Jihad of the Tongue and Pen.
    CNN is acting as an Islamic Jihad Fifth Column.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • joe

      sounds alot like what Christianity will do to its non believers

      September 12, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  17. Tom

    I think we have a new strategy for the war on extremists. We can pull all our troops back & just make movies about how bad Islam is! & let them riot until they burn themselves out of country.

    This is what happens when you brain wash people with a belief from the time their 4-years-old. You can convince them to do anything! Religions are just tools of control that’s why they were created 1000’s of years ago. But were they lack is they can’t physically provide like a country can. So you will find with countries & governments that can provide better for the people, the less influence a religion will have over them.

    The best weapon against ignorance is education. But shooting stupid people might make you feel better!

    September 12, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  18. DMicheals

    Allah my butt crack. Christans don't blow people up when Jesus is made fun of. These Muslims are on crack. Screw Allah.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • joe

      no but according to the bible all non believers of jesus(billions of people) will die instantly

      September 12, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • RAWR

      *Cough* Abortion clinic bombings *cough*

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

      "Christans don't blow people up when Jesus is made fun of."

      They did... up until just a couple of hundred years ago. The only reason they stopped doing it was because of the pressures and repercussions of civil, secular law.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  19. kathy

    Its totally unjustified to humiliate and desicrate other religions,and in the name of free speech one cant cross red lines,we allow our troops to desicrate the holy books of others,and then say sorry ,we dont teach morals to our troops or our intolerant pastors ,we are becoming racist,intolerant society or I can say anti islam,the news and media adds fuel to the fire.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • AcesFull

      another typical liberal apologizing for islam – btw, learn how to use a comma correctly

      September 12, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • RAWR

      You should learn how to use capitals and periods correctly before critiquing someone else's writing.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • vernonfueston

      Last I checked we DON'T allow our troops to desecrate the holy books of others. We grovel when one gets burned in the trash by mistake and we punish idiots who do it personally, which has been extremely rare and hasn't occurred in years. All these recent cries about such things are accidental or unintentional by our troops. The idiot pastors are another issue. Shame on them, but as a Mormon myself, go speak to the one in Virginia Beach who burned the Book of Mormon during a church service. Stupidity is not directed to Musllims alone.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • ME II

      It may be unjustified in your opinion, but the whole point of freedom of speech is that someone else may have a different opinion.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  20. Julie

    So they are so worshipful of the prophet that they will kill anyone who shows an image of the prophet because they are afraid they will want to worship him? Okaaaaay, makes all kinds of sense.

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

      will u let me pass thru security checks if someone wears the image of hitler or laden.think twice before u comment julie

      September 12, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • ME II

      yes, I suspect someone wearing a picture of Hitler or Bin Ladin would be allowed through a checkpoint, eventually. It's called freedom of speech.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:53 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.