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. Scott

    Religion has been used to generate hate, control populations, subjugate women. This has been going on for thousands of years. Christanity was simply one of the first, is it any surprise that Islam uses it now?
    Religion is about controlling the masses, nothing more....

    September 12, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • ScottCA

      Well said, Sir! I am proud to share your name.

      September 12, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
  2. 2357

    I've read that rising grain prices are behind these riots. These may be just another wave of Marxist uprising, this time with a pan-Arabic flavor. Or, there could also be induced shortages by the commodity cartels.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  3. david

    we need another enlightenment. the religious BS is ruinous. the muslim world is in the dark ages as are christians.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • What IF

      Yes, please.

      September 12, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
  4. Shakil Ahmed

    Hello MP – I don't consider myself as an intelligent person..I know the practical aspect and good, the bad and the Ugly. i spoke from my experience. The muslims in US are trying to get away from countries where there isn't any freedom or religion, speech or anything for that matter. If given a chance for the muslims in US to come together they will get together and over take others, which is am not for it. Culture is mixed with religion and vice versa if you don't know. UK pubs and Oxford University has to do more research on that, they haven't tried to check that avenue if you don't know. Try to listen from the horses mouth than from others (universities) not all the time they can cover everything. They send students to do PHD on religion. To get Doctorate, the PHD student who research on the religion tent to forget the culture behind it. You have the right to say what ever you can, and thats why we all are here.

    ETM – Divorce is the last resort if both the party concerned cannot tolerate each other and want to move on. I am against it. But reality is different. If i see or hear about abuse towards not just muslim girls but all the kids i will raise my voice just like this.. If you are doing something to stop it let me know, i will hold hands with you and we will fight against it together. From the Day one of Prophet's elevation this religion wasn't peaceful.. If somebody say that this is a peaceful religion, then they don't know the facts. THey are blind folded and ignorant.. Or because they are in this religion they don't want to accept that it is not a peaceful religion. thats all.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • berticode

      Well said! I am proud of you for abandoning this brainwashing terrorist ideology. Regards

      September 12, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • MP

      Hi Shakil, At least you are honest and your are saying you do not consider yourself intelligent.
      Just today the result of higher education exams was released in Iran and 60% accepted were
      women. it is because of the culture, The Mullahs & current regime could not change the view of
      culture of Persia towards women and they sure have tried and trying, but
      they could not sell to people of Iran that Islam says women can not go to school
      or they can not drive. they knew that people will not believe them and they know it is a lie.
      look at how marriage happens in different Islamic Countries, not one is the same.

      Good people of Middle East like you and that part of the world have to wake up and
      fight for getting more people be educated and be aware and not to be influence by
      others to use them to make the name of a faith bad. Islam Is GOOD the ones teaching it
      to ignorant people are BAD. because they are not teaching it right and accurate.

      September 12, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
  5. noly972

    Where is it written in the Quran (or for that matter, the hadith) that whenever Muslims get upset that people have to die? That blood on the streets is the standard reaction to perceived insults? Hundreds died over the Danish cartoons and who knows how many more will die because of this 'snit'. I believe that the the group encouraging the violence is the Imam's. They seem to be intent on getting their flocks fired up and bloodthirsty over the slightest thing. It's no wonder that non-Muslims shy-away from Muslims; they seem to be a misunderstood word or action from suddenly becoming a powder-keg. While all Muslims may not be violent; during the breaks between the riots, they all seem so peaceful that it's hard to tell them apart.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  6. ali

    why west and jews sensitive about hitler and jews in the holocaust

    September 12, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • ME II

      Generally it has something to do with 6 million dead.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      @Ali, I wrote my graduate thesis on the Concentration Camps of WWII, I could give you more reasons than you have time to read about. I encourage you to read some history books about the atrocities committed against Jews by the Germans.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  7. RudyG

    So, they go nuts and resort to violence in order to protect their god? Some god......

    September 12, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
  8. berticode

    If I were born a muslim, I would give up Islam, become an apostate and go in hiding rather than follow a terrorist killer, womanizer, child molester (MO-HAM-HEAD).

    September 12, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      No, you would NOT in all likelyhood, leave the Islamic religion. You would be just as brainwashed as they are, besides, there is a LOT of evidence out there against Christianity, but I doubt you would be willing to listen to it and change your current religion would you?

      September 12, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  9. andulamb

    The irony here is that: a) bestowing special status on Mohammed IS worship (Muslims also believe Jesus was a prophet, yet obviously have no problem with depictions of him); b) the images of Mohammed in question have not been flattering ones and could not possibly invite worship. If Mohammed is just a man, and is viewed by Muslims as just a man, then he should be treated as just a man. Hundreds of years ago, likenesses were only created of very important people and gods. Obviously times have changed. Everyone has been photographed. Fetuses are photographed. Members of isolated Amazonian tribes are photographed. If you want a drawing of yourself, just find a street artist. So what used to give Mohammed the status of just a man now sets him apart as something special. Which obviously goes against the intentions of the ban on depictions of him.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  10. Bill

    An explanation of why Muslims are sensitive to this belief is irrelevant. The tragic point of these most recent protests and murders is that violent intolerance is deeply embedded in Muslim culture and probably a barrier too great to overcome in establishing functional democracies in the Middle East. I've not seen throngs of Catholics burning down the local Outback Steakhouse for serving meat during lent. I risked my life in Iraq helping to rebuild their country and even the Iraqis I formed the closest relationships to, in the end, held me at arms length as an infidel. Until moderate Muslim leaders break the silence and Muslim followers muster large counter-demonstrations against this violence I'm afraid they will be forever condemned as guilty by association in most Western eyes.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  11. AvdBerg

    The Ambassador’s killing was a culmination of the rising tensions and deepening problems 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’, ‘Clash of Civilizations’ and ‘CNN Belief Blog – Sign of the Times’, 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 6:20 pm |

      This poster is a TROLL on this blog, they are liars and they are trying to sell their book to support their cult. Click the report abuse link to get rid of this TROLL!

      September 12, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  12. Peter

    Islam has been hijacked by an extreme, Saudi (Wahabi) interpretation. During Islam's golden age, when it was islamic countries that were considered enlightened, there was much more dialogue and discussion of various interpretations of Islam. Unfortunately petro-dollars that the Saudis earn from the US oil sales are used to spread this kind of Islam all over the world through mosque funding, right to your shores. Buy more Canadian oil America!!! Stop paying for this kind of crap.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • ME II

      " Buy more Canadian oil America!!! "

      lol, now that's free speech

      September 12, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • Peter

      We love our free speech here: in English or in French 🙂

      September 12, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  13. Mahmoud

    I am a muslim, and the reason I am infuriated is because of the lack of respect. I do not understand what gives this low life the right to disrespect a nation of almost 2 billion. For those defending the maker of this movie, I would like to ask them a question: How come when it is something insulting and disrespectful to muslims it is freedom of speech and it is alright, but if someone -God forbid- denies the holocaust it is a federal crime and anti-semitism?

    September 12, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • Peter

      Asalamu Alaikum, brother. Simple answer: the Holocaust killed millions of people and denying it implies perpetuating it and repeating it. Questioning your religion is actually a very civilized thing to do, sir. Islam needs more of it. Inshallah, we will have open dialogue one day and be more honest with ourselves.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • MobySchtick

      You mean because of all the christians who storm embassies and kill people because someone said something that they didn't like? lol.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • Joseph

      Because the Holocaust actually happened while religion is based on a myth

      September 12, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • ME II

      Holocaust denial is not a crime, in the US anyway, it's just stupid.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
    • Mahmoud

      I saw the trailer of the movie, it goes beyond criticizing the Prophet. I think the maker of the movie is the one to be blamed for what happened in Libya and Egypt. If you want to criticize someone make sure you are being objective and respectful, not insulting and full of hatred.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • MobySchtick

      Mahmoud, so if you believe that group A can decide all by themselves that group B is "overly critical" and then go kill people, what's your problem with Christians killing Muslims whenever they feel like it? After all, it would just be group A deciding that group B is too critical and doing as you recommend.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • josh

      I saw this on Facebook a couple of days ago: Announcing "I'm offended" is basically telling the world you can't control your own emotions, so everyone else should do it for you.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • MobySchtick

      Good to see taht somebody gets it, Josh.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • Heather

      Denying the Holocaust isn't, in fact, a federal offense. If someone decides to deny a historical fact doesn't make them a criminal...It does make them somewhat silly though. By reacting violently to an image of Mohammed the believers of Islam are, in fact, displaying that they do hold the prophet up as someone to be worshiped. If I choose to depict Mohammed in a notebook does this mean that killing and bloodshed is an appropriate response half a world away ? ABSURD

      September 12, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • Mahmoud

      I am not justifying the killings; but you have to be responsible for every word you say, or outcomes could be catastrophic, like what happened. Anyway not only Christians, but a lot of non-muslims are killing muslims all the time unjustly; I am not sure if you are aware of what's happening in Burma/Myanmar, but I am sure you are aware of the 100's of thousands of muslim civilians who perished in Iraq. White Phosphorous was used, and we keep receiving little kids and newborns with deformities and the weirdest cancers, this is the work of Christians.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • Mahmoud

      Heather, denying the holocaust in France is a crime and you go to prison for it and you pay a fine too. As for depicting the Prophet, the fury is not because of an image, it is because of the content and the way he was depicted. Again I am not justifying the killing of "innocent" Americans. Just please be aware of what you say and how you say it, or consequences sometimes are catastrophic; especially when it is related to religion; it is always sensitive.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
  14. sp

    /$:&;@($/&-):$;'v CNN
    Posting the picture of our patriot ambassador NEXT to muslims praying!!!!!!With a big mf-cking excuse!
    Slimeball corrupt marxist media!

    September 12, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  15. infamiss1

    The guy in the first pic looks quite hom0. I thought they were against that.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  16. Ojo

    We nid 2 stop all those who is killing people

    September 12, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  17. jla1125

    “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.’”

    Well Messrs. Gilgoff and Marrapodi, if he felt that he was "just a man" who was worried about people worshipping him, then I'm sure he wasn't anywhere nearly concerned with people criticizing and ridiculing him. If anyone is guilty of acting against his desire and belief of not being worshipped, it is the very same people who hold him out to be exempt from criticism and ridicule.

    Talk about cognitive dissonance.

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

      Bla bla bla, Mohammed was a nutcase and this is the result. Millions of nutcases.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • Mahmoud

      Would you like being ridiculed and disrespected? Would you love being described as a pig, for example? Everything has a limit, even freedom of speech has a limit, your freedom ends where others' freedoms begin. That maker of that movie wants to criticize, sure but do not be disrespectful, watch your words. Because of his work an 4 "innocent" Americans died? I blame him for what happened.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • MobySchtick

      Who cares, Mahmoud? Who cares what someone likes or dislikes as far as depictions? Grow up and get over it. It's an image, not an act of violence. If Allah has a problem with it, let him deal with it, but it's fvcking stupid for people to KILL over a drawing or movie.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • Mahmoud's sister

      She's just about the only girl I've ever porked that actually enjoyed the flying pig. Basically it's just your basic doggy-style surprise anal penetration, but you reach over her head and hook her nostrils with two fingers and pull back. That makes the pig nose. She'll squeal and flap her arms wildly hence the flying pig. Do all Muslim women like stuff like that?

      September 12, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • Mahmoud

      In response to "Mahmoud's sister": Let me ask you this, why are you saying that? What does it mean? Is this your response? Do you think that this is appropriate? I think what you just said falls under the same umbrella of the movie; it is utter disrespect. This shows that you are an ignorant person and what you are doing is out of spite.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • MobySchtick

      Well, Mahmoud, let's look at what you decided to respond to. I've addressed you several times, but you don't respond to me. Some jerk says something disgusting designed to bait you into an emotional retort, and you give in. Is that the type of person you are? Somebody who chooses to respond to ugliness instead of reason? Interesting.

      September 12, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • Mahmoud

      Moby, I care for depictions if they are disrespectful. People who are disrespectful must be stopped or they'll go overboard. I responded to "Mahmoud's sister" because I found an opportunity to show you all that this guy was disrespectful and that's the same thing the producer of the movie has done.

      September 12, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
  18. Ron

    CNN you need to read your own headlines! Earlier today on this site you noted that the killing of 4 Americans was (You noted your sources as the State Department) not a reaction to some slight over Mohammed, but a planned attack, by a specific group and that was possibly linked to Al Queda...come on some of us actually watch CNN enough to see the terrible bias at work here.

    September 12, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  19. Billy

    Islam the religion of peace. Somebody needs to tell that to the whack job Muslims. The only thing I like about
    Muslims is Muslims killing Muslims...

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


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

    Each and every religion is man made crap but at least Christianity has the pretense of being based on peace and love. Islam was founded by megalomaniac who married a wealthy widow, used his newly acquired funds to raise an army of Wahhabis, butchered his way out of the Hejaz slaughtering, thieving, forcibly converting and enslaving so-called "infidels" all the while practicing pedophilia with young boys and girls. I find the Islamic world ignorant and abhorrent. Let them fight their little sectarian wars and kill each other. They are not worth the lives of one more American. If they didn't have oil, they would still be living in tents.

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

      do some research on muhammad before spewing such venom but then what would you expect from people who are brainwashed by the media , i do not hold you for your comments . here is a link on you tube –

      September 12, 2012 at 6:24 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.