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. Drink my Kool-aid

    Jesus was a g.ay, Mohammed was a ped.ophile...who cares what either had to say they were both liars to the nth degree. Fvck religion.

    September 12, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • ReligiousPoopShoot.com

      Muhammed is the worst prophet I have ever heard of. He is a stupid d.ildo. A loser with dumb-a.s.s parables like a third rate Moses or Bill and Ted.


      September 12, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • Intrestimg

      Pretty dumb of the writer of the Quran to tell everyone that the prophet was banging a nine year old girl; the bible guys burnt the gospel according to Simon that had all the naughty bits that him and Jesus got down to.

      September 12, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • bunch of yellows

      You all sound so brave while hiding behind your anonimity. How typical.

      September 12, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • tuvia suks hindu racist filth

      No, yellow, I'd gladly kick your a$$ up between your shoulder blades for you. Futher more, I'd enjoy doing it.

      September 12, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • atheists are bunch of cowards and gutless jerks


      Unless you and your fellow would dare go out and bash Mohammed and Islam in the open, you are all nothing but piles of yellowish dipsh!ts.

      September 12, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  2. Khanyo

    This article is a masterpiece of incitement, using the power of suggestion. CNN really has the cowboys charged up and ready for their next genocide. bet your forefathers who wiped out the indigenous Americans envy you from the grave.

    September 12, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      For 200,000 years, h. Sapiens has been wiping out indigenous groups, and replacing them with themselves. The Native Americans we know today, did it to THEIR predecessors. So get off your high horse.

      September 12, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Perhaps the US should send a huge shipment of blankets to the middle east.
      Anyone know where to get a supply of smallpox?

      September 12, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • YoozYerBrain

      Dang Doc Vestibule!

      Brutal, cynically, brightly brutal! Great allusion – see Doc Vestibule Yoozed his brain to pull up an extremism from history in an appropriate application of satirical absurdism. Damn good! Spot on! How's that feel Khanyo? We can make fun of our ugly past and humorously apply it to a current situation showing conceptual and emotional progress on all fronts. NEE!

      WOW! Aint education great?! You should try it!

      September 12, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  3. realbuckyball

    “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.’”

    I guess they have a point. Just look what happened to Jeebus. He said "come follow me", not "come worship me", and look what happened to him.

    That being said, if these people had not been raised in a culture which condones, and encourages violence to promote religion, this would not be happening.

    Teach your children well.

    September 12, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • Doctor of Bblical Studies

      In Christianity, Jesus is considered to be both God and man. He is part of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). There is no comparison with Mohammed who is considered to be only a man. That is the difference!

      September 12, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • YoozYerBrain

      Hey Doctor of Biblical (fantasy) Studies;

      Did someone disprove Zeus? I'm still waiting to find out... try not to use book/saying vs book/saying. I need objective, concrete proof that Zeus doesn't exist before I risk changing mythological allegiances.

      I anxiously await your scientific disproval of Zeus' existence. Thanks in advance! Don't forget to YoozYerBrain!

      September 12, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • tuvia suks

      @ Dr. of BIblical Fairy Tales. Jesus never existed, so how could he be a god? Is your god a hermaprohdite, half fe/male, so it can screw itself?

      September 12, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • LetsThink123

      Jesus cannot be god because:
      – He came to save us from the sins committed by adam and eve. Adam and eve was a myth, and Jesus never knew it was a myth. SO he cant be god as someone with godly powers should be able to discern what is a myth and what is not.
      – He thought the world was flat just like other people in his time. In the Bible, Jesus was challenged by satan when he was fasting in the desert. Satan and Jesus went to the top of the mountain and satan showed and offered Jesus the world instead of fasting for god. Jesus chose god. This story resonates in the belief at that time that the earth was flat as both Jesus and Satan thought that they could see the entire world from a mountain top. Also in revelation, Jesus said that he will come back through the clouds to judge everyone. The quote from the Bible is 'and he will descend from the clouds for all eyes to see'. Again this shows the prevalent flat earth belief at that time because Jesus thought that coming through the clouds would enable him to see all people on earth.
      Hence Jesus is not god if u analyze these Biblical stories rationally.

      September 14, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  4. Drink my Kool-aid

    Ahh man, these atheist extremists are always pushing their agenda of their non belief belief using violence and hiding behind famous scientists to justify their hate....oh wait that's every major religion....ever.

    September 12, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • YoozYerBrain

      hey Drink My Kool-aid

      Blasphemer! For that remark, No One is very angry! Read the invisible most high holy text- Nowhere, vs 1 chapter 1- " And No One said ' Thou shalt say Nee about the No One that doesn't exist' for only then can thou know. And in the No ing will thou not be cast Anywhere to suffer Anything for Never.

      Now, dance in Your shooos for life shall be most profound for the believers of NoOne. ...nemA

      September 12, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • MDAT

      We don't kill people.Being extreme is not the way.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  5. pat carr

    I'm an atheist and you can make fun of me all you want or photoshop me, and i am secure enough to take it. Thus no jihad. islam must be a very insecure belief system with so much anger

    September 12, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • carrpet

      I'm an atheist and you can make fun of me all you want or photoshop me, and i am secure enough to take it. Thus I'm a useless dipsh!t as you.

      September 12, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  6. gastrash

    So exactly how do we know that this little movie sparked this unrest? Did one of the protesters say that and even if they did civilized people around the world don't pillage and plunder over a little movie.

    September 12, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  7. Muhammad Ali

    Don't disguise your failure of your OIL MISSION through "religion"... your report reflect your hypocrisy media!!

    September 12, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  8. Trish

    We should have blown these people off the planet 11 years ago.

    September 12, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Which people?
      Kill all muslims the world over? Just the ones in the middle east? Kill everyone in the middle east?
      How about good ol' fashioned xenocide – just kill everybody who is differnt than you.

      September 12, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • sam stone

      Wow, Trish, aren't you all macho....

      September 12, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      yeah, and their little dogs too.

      September 12, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Elvira Gulch

      Right, Trish, and then extermination for you and your cohorts... and your little god too (**cackle**).

      September 12, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Elvira Gulch



      September 12, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Elvira Gulch

      p.s. buckyball, I was typing at the same time as you were, so I did not see your comment first!

      September 12, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  9. sebastian.balbo

    i am christian i can tell that the artists in my country and in artisti from Usa usually dont' care about be offensive towards my religion.they depict Chrsit in evry way degraded..in way such violent and prosaic that i feel no to so angry against muslims when someone does the same with their religion..
    I am sad for that man.. but i am angr against that stupi that PAID FOR DOING A FIL..IT'S NOT ABOUT CENSOR'S SHIP AND FREEDOM WE ARE talking over things that i definetly define NECESSARY SUCH RESPECT AND caution..NON BLAZE THE ASHES THAT come from 9/11 we have to fire off
    UNDERSTAND HEBREW AND USA INAHABITANS? it'a more import to try the Peace instead of CLAIMING OUR so called RGHTS OF EXPRESSIONS(u can do it but in a different way and not over wvry matter..)

    September 12, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  10. manuel fernandez

    The radical Muslims are a problem all over the world,they kill each other and other people as well,look at Siria,Lybia,Egypt,Yemen,Afganistan,Pakistan etc etc it looks that they favorite sport is to explode some body with brain wash that they go to paradise if they take as much people with them, It is time the Western world ,Normal Muslims,Christians,Jews,
    or wathever religon you are in,be ready to defend yourself,aginst this radicals they have no right to take the lives of so many inocent people .

    September 12, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  11. Woody

    Man, it's always debates over trivial things in science that incite hatred and start wars...oh, wait that's religion that does that.

    September 12, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  12. Drink my Kool-aid

    Fvck all prophets, their all liars. No god has, is or will ever exists. Religions hold back the societal advancement of the human species as a whole. All religions are based on lies.

    September 12, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  13. Roelof

    Whheeeeeehhh... leave Mohammed alone :..(

    September 12, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  14. Yacine77

    The zionist who released the moivie knew that such a movie can cause a disaster in this countries, and despite that, he did and the result is 4 men killed.

    September 12, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • baboo

      Yacine, you're half right. People who purposely set out to offend people are pathetic. But the intended-offendees have the ability to choose if this is worth killing or harming over. My feeling is that God is all-knowing, and I can't imagine He gets offended by the petty things we humans do or say about Him. He cares that we love Him, not whether we are willing to kill others in His name. If God gets ticked off my the insults, He certainly has the means to smite the offender. If we believe God is great and that He loves us unconditionally, then we should be able to let the ignorant earn their own fate in the afterlife. There is nothing anyone could say about my God that would get me to hurt or kill someone. Anyone that mean-spirited or malicious will get his due down the road.

      September 12, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • Mucuscilia

      Perhaps the maker of the film wrongly believed that Muslims were civilized enough to not commit acts of violence over a silly film. In any event the Muslims who killed this man are responsible, not the film maker. The individual always has the power choose right over wrong. When Muslims finally realize that, and stop blaming other for their actions there may be hope; I, however, am not holding my breath.

      September 12, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • Man of few words

      The fact that this movie depicts Mohammad in a negative way is irrelavent. The results show the islamic religion for what it really is a barbaric sect that will stop at nothing to protect what they believe. I would love to see them do something like this in America and dont think they wouldnt like too. Of course we know they wouldnt dare! Or would they? The so called peaceful islamics are not going to hurt anyone, haha at least not for now. Just wait until their numbers increase!

      September 12, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  15. AvdBerg

    The Ambassador’s killing was a culmination of the rising tensions 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 1:46 pm |
  16. moephkdgrlz

    If Reagan were President, Libya would be a crater right now...God, I miss that guy.

    September 12, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Horus

      Reagan tried to kill Ghadaffi – he failed.

      September 12, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      His dessicated corpse would be just about as aware of what's going on as his senile brain was during the latter half of his presidency.

      September 12, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  17. YoozYerBrain

    Hey did I miss something? Did someone disprove Zeus?

    September 12, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  18. Socal Reggae


    September 12, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  19. Horus

    Ambassador's Killing Shines Light on Need to Rid World of Religion – there, fixed it for you.

    September 12, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  20. Jens

    If they were strong in their beliefs, they wouldn't need to recent to violence for every little thing they don't like. They could just shrug their shoulders and say; "well that's your belief, mine is like this...". The need to defend the religion so hard just show how much they don't really believie in it.

    September 12, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • sam stone

      same could be said for many religions.

      September 12, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • sam stone

      other than the violence part, that is. if people were secure in their reliigon, they would not need to convince others that their god is the correct one

      September 12, 2012 at 2:01 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.