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. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    Opposition to Muslim's in middle east and Islam stems from, ignorance of Kafeers ignorant s, Muslim's believe in fundamental clause of Sharia, IN MOHAMMED WE TRUST OR IN TRUTH ABSOLUTE WE TRUST, OR OTHERWISE IN ALLAH, Al, the La, limit H, most high or absolute 360* we trust,and every Muslim believe in it by faith. USA has no danger from Islam but rush limbaugh's, deniers of truth absolute in their GOP Mithra ism, pagan savior ism , fearful of Islam to expose their denial of truth absolute enshrined in foundation of USA. For more for more visit my http://www.limitedthetruth.com, but turn off virus protection first.

    September 12, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • Polli

      Amazing how much we have to self edit isn't it?

      Egypt would be such a pretty place without he radicals who ruin it for the tourists.....

      September 12, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
  2. bob

    Islam is only the fastest growing religion because it prays on the ignorant and economically disenfranchised, the only significant gains it makes in the west are in the prison systems. Atheism secularism science art will swallow islam whole and spit it out despite the conniving efforts to censor

    September 12, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Is'lam, self centered, Muslim's believe in fundamental clause of Sharia, Al, the La, limit H, most high or absolute 360* we trust, and every Muslim believe in polygamy, makes us fastes growing truth absolute, filty self centered American Consti tution, denier of truth absolute. for more for more visit limitisthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Pro-Choice to open file, but turn off virus protection first.

      September 12, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
  3. New Yorker

    I hope Muslims will spread quickly in America and hopefully the atheists will realize their big mistake bashing Christianity now.
    You will eventually see what religion and its people are loving and peaceful vs. violence and intolerant.

    September 12, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Yeah, uh-huh. Sure thing, Elmer Fudd.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  4. John Doe

    Freedom Of Speech > islam

    September 12, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
  5. Sandra LeVin

    I wonder if the embassy attacks were solely the result of Muslims being "upset" about whatever this U-Tube movie depicted, or a celebration of 9/11 in their sick, warped way? What better day to plan and execute acts of violence on America than 9/11? It's Muslim high holy day.

    September 12, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
  6. Patrick in Wisconsin

    After seeing these repulsive comments, the death of this country will result from the atrocious religious illiteracy that is obviously present in America. The Sihk temple shooting a couple minutes from where I live is a perfect example.

    September 12, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
  7. Alturk

    Sad seing how people insult my religion of Islam in a "freedom" country of America

    September 12, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
  8. Muhammed/NY

    Millions of non-Muslims convert to Islam every week

    Islam is Allah's paradise and will dominate every corner of this Earth. Muslims are blessed

    September 12, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • Polli

      Jesus is Lord. Thou shalt not bring our Lord's Name in vain....isn't that what you are doing here Mr. Muslim? Insulting all of America???

      September 12, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
  9. Muhammed/NY

    Islam is the fastest growing religion

    September 12, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • Polli

      911 belongs to Muslims...that is what you are.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
  10. bob

    Lol islamists will begin to see their worst mistake was to ever believe they could spread islam to the west, islam will be dissected deconstructed gutted ridiculed and exposed you can not count on the self indulgent ignorance and naivety of the ideological far left for to much longer, its going to be like whiplash practically every liberal ideal is contrary to islam lol islam will never coexist or be part of the west peacefully it will only mean a push to the right more nationalism and a backlash against the left and islam

    September 12, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
  11. derek

    It doesn't matter what religion we're speaking about, they're all violent and a waste of our time. I wish we had more science in the World... There would be peace, compassion, balance, and the understanding of humanity. Death to all Religion!!

    September 12, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • georgex

      Religions do seem to be at the heart of these conflicts.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
  12. georgex

    The irrationality of these people being lead by extremists can not be blame on President Obama. Yet Mr. Romney seem to blame a statement from embasy in Cairo for the violence. He is so out of touch.

    Israel is again putting pressure on the U.S. government to do Israel's bidding. Israel has repeatedly resisted doing the suggestions from many of our presidents and yet expects unquestioning support from the U.S. This puts us in conflict with radical Islamic extremists

    Blaming the making of a video that ridiculed Islam's Prophet Muhammad as a excuse to do this harm is ridiculous by civil standards. This is an example of irrational religious ideology. Many people in the radical Islamic countries in something like European Dark Ages and need to be enlightened with access to outside sources of information. Such ignorance can be easily exploited by Al Qaeda extremism.
    As Thomas Friedman has repeatedly said Islam needs modernity.
    Growing up in the strict Islamic countries has much communities pressure to not question the religious leaders and leads to inhumane actions such as this. Outspoken critics are silenced by threats of violence. Some are then wipe for extremists to incite them to violence and in this case Al Qaeda may be in that role.
    Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes about this from growing up in Somali to arrival in the U.S. in her books "Infidel" and "Nomad". They heavily employ the threat of a painful eternity if people don't conform to what the interpreters of the Quran tell them

    September 12, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
  13. Muhammed/NY

    US Law will be based on Sharia.... Man-made laws should NOT be accepted but Allah (God)'s law.
    Allah will destroy nonbelievers

    September 12, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • Mahmoud's sister


      September 12, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • georgex

      Better leave that distroying up to God and don't take part in that.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Yup. Probably some lily-white, middle-class, spoiled kid, typing on the family computer.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
  14. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    Islam is not theocracy, hypothesis but fact, truth absolute, having nothing to do with hinduism, BS under the influence of drug. American conxti tution is based on truth absolute, Allah, enshrined in fundamental of Islam as God. USA belongs to Muslim's and Islam. visit http://www.limitisthetruth.com/blog.html to learn more.

    September 12, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
  15. Polli

    Constantly "Insulted" abherrations...

    September 12, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
  16. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    September 12, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
  17. Mahmoud's sister

    I actually did fire an AK47 shouting Allahu Akbar!! at the range not long ago. It was exhilarating. I feel I understand my Muslim brothers a little better now. Christians are so Nancy.

    September 12, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
  18. Polli

    Just say no to stupid.

    September 12, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
  19. Muhammed/NY

    Like it or not.... We will fight for Sharia Law and we will open many mosques all over the U.S. (We don't pay property tax anyway) and we will insallah one day put the Islam flag over the federal buildings.

    Several nations like Iran and Egypt were secular and turned into theocracy. Wait and see!!!!!!

    September 12, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
    • Mahmoud's sister

      I was eating a bacon lettuce and tomato sandwich as I read that Muhammed. You cannot win. Pork is too strong for you. No one is ever going to give that up.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Muhammed, did either of those countries have a Const itution that separated religion and government?

      September 12, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • Proud American

      Bring it on Pig Breath. I am now ready for the fight. The next time around, it will be a crushing defeat and not just a glancing blow that America delivers. Our motto will be death to all the murderous Islamic Radicals and those who support them. Death and dominance are the only means to destroying the Islamic Radical belief. As a people, Americans come together brilliantly after being spat upon. Enjoy Hell.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • Polli

      Stupid Idea. Keep dreaming. If God Killed for Pettiness all Muslims would be dead. Allah is not our God, HE WAS A LITTLE MAN WHO LIVED IN A CAVE A LONG TIME AGO WHO WOULD BE HORRIFIED AT WHAT YOU HAVE BECOME.And the USA believEs in free speech. Just becaUsee your crazy people got their little male panties in a wad becasue of a film made by someone WHO HAD THE RIGHT TO AIR...you Committed MURDER. MURDER IS MURDER ACROSSTHE WORLD. THESE PEOPEL DID A TERRIBLE THING TO AN INNOCENt MAN THAT HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THE FILM OR EVEN KNEW ABOUT IT....THAT MEANS YOUR PEOPLE AHVE NO ABILITY TO REASON. PERIOD.

      We should try to remove all Muslims from around the world. Perhaps that is why you were all sent to the deserts.....

      September 12, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • Commojoe

      Sorry, Mughammed, you and your pedophile prophet, along with the demonic allah, will be buried long and forgotten before you mess over the USA. We've fought and defeated all the other enemies; you will be NO different. Then we'll use the rags from your head to wipe up after.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
    • Mike

      And Insh'allah a fine American citizen will tear the flag up right in front of you and set the remains on fire...similar to the way the flag of the United States is desecrated by your people overseas.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
    • Muhammed/NY

      Keep insulting us and you will see what will happen to this nation!! Islam belongs to the west and we already took over many parts of Europe. Good thing is that most 'Christians' are not religious. Secularism vs. Islam. F off secularism = devil.

      I hate man-made laws

      September 12, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
    • Muhammed/NY

      Tom... Yes they did. Islam took over the nation 🙂 Allah o Akbar.

      Turn to Islam and you will have better life.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Islam is not theocracy, hypothesis but fact, truth absolute, having nothing to do with hinduism, BS under the influence of drug. American conxti tution is based on truth absolute, Allah, enshrined in fundamental of Islam as God. visit http://www.limitisthetruth.com/blog.html to learn more.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • OregonTom

      I would not hold your breath waiting. Actually go ahead, hold your breath.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      No, they didn't. You're a phony.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • Proud American

      We invited all you roaches into Iraq and killed as many as we could. That was the purpose of that war. You and your cowardly lot like to attack women and children in the name of your false God/Prophet/Myth...Tell me what field you would like to meet on next...Come out of your little rats nest, show your face, threaten my life, and you will find out what Hell is like.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • nope


      September 12, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • Muhammed/NY

      Tom does not matter. They were secular countries turned into I S L A M!

      ISLAM WILL DOMINATE THE WORLD.... Read Quran and get educated

      September 12, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • can

      Go visit some virgins.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Yes, dear, it does matter. You're just a teen-aged troll; that's why you don't know any better

      September 12, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • Bigboard

      Hitler had the same plan for the Nazi flag with the Swastika. When you see him in hell, ask how that worked out for him.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • Patrick in Wisconsin

      Are you from the upper midwest? I can sense your sarcasm from a mile away. It seems a bunch of other people here don't get the joke...

      September 12, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • Susette

      You are as disgusting as your name "muhAmmed". Islam is a farce...our country is far greater than the small penises do muslim men.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:11 am |
  20. Thomas Jefferson

    Imagine there's no countries
    It isn't hard to do
    Nothing to kill or die for
    And no religion too
    Imagine all the people living life in peace

    September 12, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
    • john lennon

      Without God there is no restraint and can be no peace. Atheists have murdered more people in the last 100 years than were killed in all previous centuries.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:18 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.