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. paul

    why do they(muslims) hate us? What are we doing wrong ? Anger againts us growing and growing and growing.. Did we do somthing wrong in the past ?

    September 12, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      what a hinduism, absurdity, asking why I am in trouble after commiting a murder, visit http://www.limitisthetruth.com/blog.html to learn more..

      September 12, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  2. GrampaSez

    I see that Dan Gilgoff and Eric Marrapodi, are like LIB GENIUSES.

    A JEW being depicted in a Madrasah as a PIG and hearing that it is the child's duty to murder their men, women, and children, is likely to go attack an embassy?

    A Christian who observes that his federal taxpayer money goes to support "art" that consists of a cross with an image of Jesus on it upside wown in a glass of urine is likely to go kill somebody's ambassador?

    A white person hearing a black power activist saying "You got to kill the white man. You got to kill they babies.", or hearing Eric Holder say, "To investigate WHITE PEOPLE'S complaints about voter intimidation would be an INSULT TO MY PEOPLE, who went through so much during the civil rights marches..." ...would make the white person, as OMAMA said in describing his GRANDMOTHER, "frightened when they see a black guy coming"?

    This is something that even a HYPOCRITICAL AND DISHONEST LIB would have trouble swallowing – we'd hope...

    September 12, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  3. kamal

    Joseph, Mary's husband, married 12 to 14-year old Mary!Was he too a pedophile?

    just before talking think about it.

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

      Yes, if he existed.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  4. Tom Hartman

    The whole thing is nonsense, they have now found out it was a planned event that used the film as an excuse, it had nothing to do with religion or this film, it was payback for the drone strikes last month that killed one of their "leaders"...

    September 12, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  5. yneeemee

    Maybe if so-called comedians, film makers, artists and their co-horts stopped making fun of Jesus, Moses, Christians, Mormoms, Scientologists etc, they might learn RESPECT for all faiths.... not just the ones that if they do, they will be KILLED.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • ineffable

      I respect people of all faiths. I have friends who belong to most of the faiths you mention. My mockery has nothing to do with lack of respect. Only the jester can tell the truth sometimes

      September 12, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  6. louise

    '"Followers of Islam will never silence me on my negative opinion of them and their so called prophet m.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • JoeS

      Why don't you go to Cairo and tell them your displeasure.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Keep your opinion to your self, hindu, criminal but not impose your hinduism, absurdity on Muslims by hinduism, propaganda, or face the consequences.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
  7. Draxta

    CNN sucks. This article sucks. Religion sucks.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  8. no room for politically correct talk...islam is anti america



    September 12, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  9. Thinks2010

    Everyone is sensitive about attacks on their religious beliefs. Those muslims that chose violence to protest what they perceive to be slights against their prophet and their religion should realize they do their cause more harm than good. If they turned out in large numbers for a peaceful demonstration in protest, they would receive sympathy and garner more support for their cause in other parts of the world. As it is, they have lost the sympathy and support of the very people they would hope to persuade. These types of violent attacks lose more respect for Islam than they gain.

    Having said that, I believe the attacks in Libya and Egypt were planned for the anniversary of 9/11 and the film was simply being used as a pretext to bring more people into the streets.

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

    After careful consideration, we have decided to upgrade the status of all Muslims to full-blown terrorists. Please feel free to shoot back at them from this point forward. It's no longer racist or politically incorrect now that they're all terrorists. We will begin rounding them up and sending them off to Gitmo as quickly as possible. Israel, please feel free to move into the vacant space throughout the Middle East.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  11. Jeff from Columbus

    I think we all get that Muslims find depictions of Mohammed offensive. Just like Christians have similar feeling about depictions of Jesus.

    But, that is NO defense for terrorism and what Muslims did at the embassies today. This author is trying to explain away that violence and it just doesn't fly.

    Sorry, Muslims, you don't get a pass on acting like civilized human beings, no matter how Mohammed is portrayed.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  12. dee

    Wow basically those interviewed are justifying the attacks b/c imagery is "sensitive" and [in their eyes] "wrong". At no point in this article does anyone interviewed bother to say sorry for the attacks on either embassy.

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

    The muslin insist on calling our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ a Prophet. Jesus paid an awful price for our sins. He was hang on a cross. Yet Christian does not go out and tried to kill them for their ingnorance. Where are all those Imans and leaders of the Muslin faith they should be coming out in droves to condemn this horrible killing of these wonderful lovely people. If it was the other way round you would not hear the end of it. Christians must pray for peace in the World. We are living in serious times.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • Hendrix1

      Unfortunately you are delusional about "god", and you should learn how to spell and use grammar correctly.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • Hendrix1

      So many people always pray for things, do they happen? Most of the time no. Why? Because there is no "god" controlling things! If there was why would people die like that in the first place? Oh wait, "god" was just waiting for you to pray... grow up and stop believing in fairy tales man..

      September 12, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  14. Blake

    I’ve heard several Muslim individuals express remorse for the Ambassador and his family, because they were “innocent”. What about the man who made the film or the actors? Are you condoning violence against them? It would be refreshing to hear a Muslim say “I’m against violence period. The movie is offensive to me, but nobody has a right to kill or injure the people that made it.” We shouldn’t have to or bow to Muslim demands anymore that we should Christians, Jews, Mormons, etc. The fact this keeps coming up shows a troubling trend.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Jack 3

      You're right...we aren't stupi people and are putting these actions and responses together to form our opinions.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  15. Just Another Reader

    I do not understand why this article exists. I do not think it sheds any significant light on the current situation. The violence is probably mostly motivated by political causes than the forbidden depiction of Prophet Mohammed. In addition, what is the purpose of showing an incendiary movie about Islam in Benghazi in that chaotic environment other than provoke some outburst?

    September 12, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  16. God

    Sorry Muslims...you're doing it wrong. Out of all of my children, you have done the worst job of interpreting my word. You're all D- students, so you'd better knock it off or it'll be even hotter than the Middle East where you're going....

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

      Your not very well versed in religious doctrines are you? They are not his children and neither are you. So you'll be going there to unless you repent. P.S. You can't repent unless he gives you the capacity to and your mocking him ain't helping you to that end.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  17. noteasilyswayed

    For those of you putting up the argument that the USA kills innocents on a regular basis: Two wrongs never make a right, so the argument is flawed and just an excuse or rationalization. No one should kill or injure innocents and justify it in any form or manner. That is one of the reasons that the human race is not really civilized.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  18. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    visit http://www.limitisthetruth.com/blog.html to learn more.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  19. Ron

    Shame on you CNN. You use the word "sensitive/sensitivity" when describing a hateful reaction, by Islamic followers, against a person who used free speech to object to his view of the prophet. If CNN and other "overly sensitive" media machines would stop attempting rationalize this sort of violent behavior, perhaps you wouldn't confuse additional people as to the justification of using violence, in any name.

    Certainly I'm not the most liberal person but I'm also not the most conservative person either... I wish everyone, including those with extreme views (Islamic (some), right wing (some), left wing (some) and those which back-door the toleration of those who are violent in any case (CNN), would really look inward and see what their actions are truly representative of.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Shame on you hindu, criminal, a hindu has a choice to not to commit action in hinduism, illegality, but does not have any control on reaction, live with it, your hindu absurd reason has no value in court of La. truth absolute. hindu Jew filthy self centered has no other way but to pay for his hinduism, crime.visit http://www.limitisthetruth.com/blog.html to learn more.

      visit http://www.limitisthetruth.com/blog.html to learn more.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  20. Shakil Ahmed

    Emre – I am from that part of the world that knows better than what you see and hear. I have personal experience when i talk. So saying Thalaak three times will force a wife to accept the husband's wishes because most of the women/wife who accept this are either uneducated or ignorant. And majority of the muslim women are uneducated, so they are scared of what will happen next if she doesn't accept the fact that her husband wants to marry multiple times. Don't tell me that hit and run is not happening in the muslim world. Welcome to Pakistan, Indonesia etc........ Do you know about " 5 day marriage" which is happening in Pakistan for centuries. They take girls as wives for 5 days by paying their parents for their debt and after 5 days these girls are divorced. Thalaak Thalaak Thalaak.. And i don't have to tell what these girls fate is going to be. I am talking about young girls.. So,.....

    September 12, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Jack 3

      Thanks for the honesty! i mean it.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • MP

      if you considered yourself an intelligent person, you would have paid attention to the name of
      the Countries you have said are practicing what you have described. In USA there are
      hundreds thousand of Muslims, have you seen them practicing what you described? do not mix
      culture with the religious. educate yourself first by learning Islam not from the Mullahs. read
      Oxford university , UK publication on Islam or any other University(well known) and then talk.
      the Countries you have mentioned have been running by Taliban type of people thanks to the help
      from the west(because of their interest) for years and it is their translation of Islam not the real Islam.
      People read some real books and get educated before writing.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • etm

      You sound like a very educated person, I would assume you are a muslim considering you know a lot about the religion. And you seemed to be against the practice of divorce and you seemed to see the abuse of young muslim girls. My question is will you do something about it? or will you be like the rest put your hand to cover your eyes, cover your ears and cover your mouth. I am always told the Islam is a peaceful religion like the rest of them but nothing that I have seen so far tells me otherwise. Could it be that few extremist are destroying your faith.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:13 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.