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. Circuit Rider

    Problem is... Muslims also revere Jesus as a prophet. I guess they are equally offended at the crucifix, or at stained glass windows in churches, or at any art out there that is a depiction of reality rather than a bunch of geometric shapes. So with a world-view like this, they should hate newspapers, cinema, the internet – anything with an "image" on it. Lets stop making excuses for fanaticism.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • Heath

      You nailed a big point and it shows the muslim hypocrisy of all of this. Jesus is constantly portrait in every form and likeness both good and bad, yet not a single note of outcry regarding this "muslim prophet". They must be acknowledging that Jesus is indeed a God-Man and worthy of worship!

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

      Muslims believe Jesus is a prophet – but a servant prophet of Mohammed, the warlord, womanizer and pedophile.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  2. God

    What part of Thou Shalt NOT Kill escaped your notice when you were reading the side notes?

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

      The part where you then commanded the Israelites to wipe out entire nations (except for the young virgins for the Jews to marry).

      September 12, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • MennoKnight

      Have you not heard of the New Testament? This is the way that Christians are called to live.
      The Old Testament is the historic background to the New.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
  3. berticode

    Trying to make peace with Islam is like trying to sleep a day in bed with the death adder.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  4. Fabjan

    Sounds like they don't have any faith that Allah will punish the infidels if they feel they have to go and do it for him.

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

      Allah must be a wussy

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

      Do you know who is the REAL Allah? Neil Armstrong. The MOON GOD.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • Stefan

      Allah is an Arabic word that means, "God," and refers to the character of the same name found in that book called the Bible.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  5. MennoKnight

    "The movie was made by Sam Bacile, an Israeli-American real-estate developer, according to the Wall Street Journal. Bacile said he wanted to showcase his view of Islam as a hateful religion,"

    This is exactly what the radical Islamists did. They have portrayed themselves as hateful evil people.

    Guys like Bill Maher say terrible, false things about Jesus and Moses and we simply ignore them.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • I wonder

      "Bacile said he wanted to showcase his view of Islam as a hateful religion,"
      "This is exactly what the radical Islamists did. They have portrayed themselves as hateful evil people. "

      Yes. They are very, very STUPID. I am not just name-calling - this is rank stupidity. I don't know how it can be fixed, but it must be done... and soon.

      (of course, they are not trying to win any intelligence contests, or convincing by reason - it's "Believe Or Die")

      September 12, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
  6. miamirealestateconcierge

    Is this Al Jazeera or CNN? “Why Muslims are sensitive on prophet” The day after the anniversary of 9/11 and last night’s violent attacks and killings at our embassies, and we are concerned with Muslim sensitivities. How about a story on: “Why Americans are sensitive to Muslim extremists” with a discussion about how our politically correct media is failing the American people. Try running that one.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Heath

      Agreed, CNN is way off the mark here

      September 12, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • Carol

      You nailed it, Miami!

      September 12, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  7. Robert

    They can keep their religion and i respect their desires for sadism...however i expect we don't build another McDonald in those regions and not a single penny more from my pocket. Keep our money here and give it to our schools and states!!! oh, and do like Russia does, sorry folks but the grain we have left is for local consumption only!!!!!! Russia has been telling us for months stop catering to Syrian rebels and Lybian rebels and even Egyptian rebels,,,,we never listened because of the stupid oil!!!!!

    September 12, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
  8. berticode

    Mahatma Gandhi tried to make peace with Muslims – what did the Indians get in return? Porkistan.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • Peter

      Unfortunately Ghandi was not a saint. He himself was trying ti establish an extremist, pure Hindu state. Pakistan was a reaction to extremism. All religions are sadly prone to it.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  9. banderito

    religion of peace, indeed.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • Robert

      Really!!! you know what we did? Sold them M-1 Abrams tanks!!! bizillion of them!!!! to Egypt and all those countries, our most advance weapons system!!!

      September 12, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
  10. berticode

    Destroy islam before islam destroys us – truer words never spoken!

    September 12, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • Heath

      That is exactly what Christ will do when he returns when Islam's Mahdi (better known as the anti-christ) leads the Islamic nations against Israel and Jerusalem

      September 12, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  11. DracisFL

    THE Dumocrats at the DNC were booing and hissing the mention of God being added back into their platform. Does that give the Repugnatans the right to go Jihad on them ? After all they insulted "God" !!

    September 12, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
    • Rodboy

      Glad to see there is one brilliant person left in the world but it is not you.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
  12. Tom

    MLK:"Violence begets violence!" Let's try to understand that from a Christian perspective. Understand that, based on the teaching of the Koran, ALL MUSLIMS have a predisposition for violence. This is what the Koran DIRECTS...MAKE NO MISTAKE!!!

    Should we then, as Christians, Take the SAME or even SIMILAR STANCE towards Jesus? How would Jesus HIMSELF respond to this??

    September 12, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
    • Jim

      Psalm 144

      September 12, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  13. berticode

    Islam is a terrorist religion, end of story

    September 12, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
    • nadeem

      i am not surprised by your comment but then what would you expect when the media is constantly talking against islam . have you ever heard anything good about islam which is followed by 1.7 billion people surely there must be some good in the religion.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  14. Hindu

    Lets treat others like how we would like to be treated. I do not understand what we gain by mocking others' faith. Does it strengthen our own faith in any way?

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

      Islam is not a faith, it is a cult. I am sure many Hindus will agree.

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

      i couldn't agree with berticode more.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Hindu

      @berticode -

      but we sure can try to exemplify civilized behavior better. how does unnecessarily trying to provoke them count for that?

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

      All the "faith"s are cults. There's no difference.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • DracisFL

      @Hindu – because if you don't push back on this death cult they take it as a sign of weakness and will move forward with their ideology

      September 12, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
  15. charles darwin

    I am often reminded that Islam is a peaceful religion. Unfortunately, I am normally reminded of that after yet another act of brutal violence committed in the name of Islam.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  16. doublestandard

    There are no protests when a people (including women and children) are butchered by Taliban or Al Qaeda in name of religion. There should be at least very loud demonstrations when no respect in shown for a human life. We do not see much of that.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  17. MobySchtick

    Somebody should make a prono of Jesus and Mohammed fvcking each other up the azz.

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

      I thought they were lovers. Was I wrong?

      September 12, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
    • infamiss1

      I agree

      September 12, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  18. ed thorner

    What I don't get is that when the US FEDERAL GOVERNMENT PAID FOR a picture of a Crucifix in a toilet, that is "art" and those that complained were told to shut up by the same people that now grovel at the thought of offending Muslims.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  19. Yechezkel

    This author of this article is trying to justify MURDER because people are offended by the pictures and adaptations of Muhammad?! You have got to be kidding! If they MURDERED his family would he be so inclined to chalk it up to not understanding the ways of Islam and certainly the violence must be justified if they are offended. The TRUTH is THEY only understand a BEATING! When they get a beating from the US they retreat back into their caves. Notice when they want the world to hear them, they don't sit down and explain, negotiate, reason...NO they lash out, they KILL and they maim INNOCENT AMERICANS! Where is the BIG STICK!! Where is the protection for American citizens from our own country???

    September 12, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • Stefan

      The author does not try to justify murder or anything else except the reason for the prohibition on images of Mohammed - and Moses.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • Carol

      I completely agree!

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

      I agree totally with everything Yech says. Where is the big stick? This is all these animals understand. Over a movie, you are kidding me!!

      September 12, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  20. Truth Teller

    because they are id iots.....because they are ashamed of how ugly she is.....because they know his poster is on the wall of the FBI's most wanted pedophiles.....because they know chris hansen will show up at his doorstep wanting to know why he has three five-year-old boys in the corner that he is sharing with mikey jackson.....and lastly because they know that he smelt therefore he dealt it.....

    September 12, 2012 at 6:01 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.