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. nuclearjim

    Another "explanation" of why we just offend these peace loving goombah's until the just HAVE TO KILL US". Not their fault of course. Why? Because we offended their prophet. Well I don't give two hoots for their pedophile, death cult religion. We have been fighting this cult for over 1400 years. It is time to stop the apologies and FIGHT THEM.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  2. kamal

    Joseph, Mary's husband, was "90 years old" when he married 12 to 14-year old Mary!Was he too a pedophile?

    before you say something that may hurt people, please think and read history.


    September 12, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • Heath

      That is ridiculous and false though there was probably a 10-20 year age gap

      September 12, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • Dennis

      No,the marrying age in Tennessee is 14 yrs.old...What is worse,to be offended or to murder someone who had absolutely nothing to do with this film?...What is wrong with you crazy people and your crazy religion?

      September 12, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • Who me?

      Simple..it's all BS.I for one, am getting REALLY tired of religion.How about we all grow the F up ,before someone loses an eye..Sheesh!

      September 12, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  3. KEVIN

    Sorry about my spelling. I'm a little shaky knowing what the US is going to do.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • Lolala

      if we know obamaschlama,himself a muslim,we aint going to do jack

      September 12, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • Heath

      Exactly Lolala. Obama doesn't want to offend the sweet muslim sensitivities; though we will arrest and try those responsible! lol (and cry)

      September 12, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • Dennis

      The U.S. is doing a preflight inspection of their drone aircraft.A sword can cut two ways,and it most certainly will.A drone missile is more lethal than an Islamic beheading.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
  4. CRC

    If any other religion did this they would be bad but in the case of muslims "they were incited". Can we say double standard?

    September 12, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • Dennis

      Instead can we say bloodthirsty,brainwashed Neanderthals?

      September 12, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  5. Susie T. Bean

    Frankly, I could not give two goats why muslims don't want their prophet drawn.
    I exercise my free speech rights to draw whomever I damn well plz.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • Who me?

      There-in lies the problem.

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

      I will be drawing a picture of Mohammed on each sheet of my toilet paper and put it to good use.Instead of flushing it down my toilet,I will send it to the closest mosque in hopes of offending others.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  6. Robert

    So i take it that killing innocent human beings is not sacred to that religion...i see...hummm, they have been killing each other for thousands of years!!! Is all right, i take the Pope...at least he is not sending squadron of killers all over the planet!!!

    September 12, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • .

      So we invaded Iraq, killed over a hundred thousand innocent people because the president said his God told him to do it.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Who me?

      not now perhaps..Now he is more interested in protecting his army of rapists and fear-mongers

      September 12, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  7. karenjay

    Let me get this straight-so it is considered wrong to create an image of Mohammad because he is just a man and should not be worshipped-but in response to someone treating this "just a man" poorly"-other men (innocent men) are murdered. Does this make any sense to anyone?

    September 12, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • Robert

      Not only that...they are authorized to eventually kill you if you convert to other religion, don't covert to their religion...if you are a woman and drive you could be executed and and adulterous relation means death!!! It sounds like the best prescription for sadist!!!

      September 12, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  8. Mei

    But advocating violence against your fellow humans (or imprisonment, torture, etc) because they show an image is morally wrong and evil. Advocating any violence to hurt other people will always be sinful no matter what religion you claim. It is hypocritical of Muslims who act this way when someone who does not share their religion chooses to display a picture of their leader. Most people no matter what their faith KNOW the Islam prophet was just a man. That is why I have more respect for Christians because Jesus was God Incarnate (fully Man and fully God)–after all, God can do all things.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  9. ari

    why should i, as a non-muslim, give half a s*** about anyone depicting mohammed? i'm certainly not going to worship him based on depictions. are muslims so childish and needy that they've adopted the "if i can't do it, NO ONE CAN!" mentality?

    September 12, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  10. Ned

    When they murder I cease to care how they feel. The religion sucks if this is what it creates. I have to wonder if their "prophet" would say it is good that they murder people. I don't care about them or their "prophet." What I do care about is criminals that murder people. Bring them to justice for murder. This whole thing reminds me of the Christians on the witch hunts or the Mayans chopping off heads for the gods. Lame and worthless. No part of a humane world with morals. Completely lacking of morals.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  11. Heath

    This story is such bull to be running within 24 hours of the murder of our ambassador on US soil (which our Embassy is)! Who cares if Muslims are sensitive when they act like murderous bullies. This is 10 times the reason to flood the world with images of their "prophet"; free speech must become louder, not more accommodating, in the face of such senseless acts of violence!

    September 12, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • MobySchtick

      Yep. I'd like to see the Danish cartoon printed on fliers and dropped from planes by the millions over Islamist countries. If you get offended over a cartoon, you don't deserve respect as a human.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  12. POD

    It is best that the Western World of rational humanism, personal freedom and freedom of speech disengage itself from the Islamic world of blind faith, personal subjication and censorship

    September 12, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • sybaris

      You must condone or are not not attuned to the blind faith, personal subjication and censorship in the christian world.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  13. Robert

    Spoiled crybabies have a religion that teaches no tolerence or patience. Everyone else's religion teaches those things, and so they don't throw an infantile tantrum. They don't even know how immature and spoiled they appear to the rest of the world.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • sybaris

      Like how christians protest gays and same se.x marriage and shoot up Sikh's places of worship, burn down mosques and kill doctors who perform abortions??

      September 12, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  14. David

    There are many examples of Muslims, throughout history, having depictions of Mohammed. It seems like only a recent view, in the past few decades, that any depiction of Mohammed is blaspheme. Here is a link, to another article that I saw, http://www.perplexicon.net/2010/04/is-it-even-wrong-within-islam-to-depict-mohammed/ . It may not show up, but you can google "Mohammed as depicted by Muslims", you'll find many articles of it.

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

      Are those that belong to the faith of Islam that insecure in their beliefs that they feel the need to defend it so violently? If religion is so good & so true, then it should be able to withstand anyone’s criticism of said faith. Plus isn’t God supposed to do the punishing to non-believers.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  15. Mohammed

    Hi Everyone,
    It's me Mohammed. Listen, being potrayed in the movie wasn't the issue. What bugged me was they cast Pauly Shore to play me instead of Brad Pitt.

    Thanks for understanding.

    Yours Truly,


    September 12, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • Ben A. W.

      LOL! Good laugh. Who do you think should play your 9yr old wife in the sequel?

      September 12, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • Trajan

      LMFAO!!! Where's your picture?

      September 12, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  16. Colorado Mike

    Someone needs to explain this Whoopee Goldberg, who was showing her ignorance (as usual) on "the View" this morning describing a portrayal of Muhammad as a depiction of Islam's "deity! Before endless day-time TV talk shows and the internet people actually went to school and LEARNED things before talking.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  17. DracisFL

    What a coincidence it happened on 9/11 – this has nothing to do with Muslim sensibilities, and everything to do with Extremist Terrorist.

    September 12, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • DracisFL

      .. which Obummer helped to install.. Thanks Prez

      September 12, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  18. MobySchtick

    Look, you fvcking azzhole Muslims, you don't get to dictate what other people decide to hold as sacred or not. You can only decide that for yourself. It's the height of arrogance and stupidity. It's the equivalent of christians declaring that all muslims are offensive and deserve to be killed. It's the same sort of insanity--so stop it. Who died and made you the boss of everyone else? Nobody.

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

      "Islam is the deadliest cancer and the sad news like all cancer it is spreading . America should absolutely stop immigration from any muslim countries who come to US with ten children and their sick ideaology before its too late ! Islam is the deadliest thing on earth as of now . ! Justr imagine just few months back US helpo free libya from a Islamic traitor and now they have turned thier back on US and killed its own people and thats eaxaclty what they have been doing in Afganistan . You can sleep with deadleist snake in the world but you can nver trust a muzlim .STOP ISLAMAIZATION in Europe and North America ,Practice your Islam and jihad in your own country !"

      What disgusting misinforming words. Islam believes in peace and equality, and condemns violence in every way. A muslim would never kill another sacred human being, just because someone does something bad in the name of Islam doesn't make them a Muslim. Terrorism goes against the beliefs of Islam, and you are wholly wrong for believe that it is the cause. Ghadafi was not a Muslim, dont just make assumptions just like any bigoted person.

      The only ignorant person is you for not understanding Islam and making up your own stupid theories.

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

      A lot of muslims need that sermon.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • Trajan

      A muslim would never kill another sacred human being, just because someone does something bad in the name of Islam doesn't make them a Muslim.

      Alan, Maybe the key words in you whole spiel is "sacred human bieng". It seems that anyone who is NOT muslim is NOT a "sacred human bieng".

      Here's your sign, and there's the door to Emigrate your ass out of this country ->

      September 12, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  19. Doc_77

    Let's not skirt the real issue here. A militant sect within a desert religion that wants a return of the caliphate of the Ottoman Empire. A return to the 7th Century and the wholesale slaughter of the kuffar.

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

    As long as we have millions of ignorant Americans we will continue to oversimplify religious conflicts and vilify millions or billions of people who have different religions but are basically just like us in behavior, morality, and aspirations. Not to say that those Muslim extremists need to be neutralized by whatever means necessary, but we've got plenty of Americans who are just as ignorant and aggressive as those extremists that they hate.

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

      No, there's not a sizable percentage of Americans willing to kill over a cartoon. Don't be stupid.

      September 12, 2012 at 5:57 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.