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. Basudan

    Prophet Mohammed peace be upon him WASN'T a pedophile he just get married to 9 years old girl but he NEVER slept with her tell she gets 15 years and become a woman and the reason is because he wants her to memories his action and move TRUE ISLAM to the next generation after the prophet died and because.And of course every Muslim around the world don't agree with what happened for American the killed in lebya and those people Don't represent Islam or muslims

    September 12, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
  2. Rev. Jason

    I offer a little experiment for Muslims and Christians.

    The top 5 Muslim countries (700 million = 1/2 of world Muslim population) live in: Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Egypt.

    The top 5 Christian countries are: Europe, North America, Brazil, Mexico and Russia.

    Here is the experiment: 5 Christians go to a major city in each of the 5 Christian dominated countries and stand outside a major (3000+ member) church and as the people get out of church, they stand there wearing a shirt with Jesus on it and insulting words below it (like: Jesus is a d o u c h e) while standing on top of Bible. See what happens.

    Now 5 Muslims go to a major city in each of the 5 Muslim dominated countries and stand outside a major (3000+ member) mosque and as the people get out of the mosque, they stand there wearing a shirt with Mohammed on it and insulting words below it while standing on top of a Quran. See what happens.

    Both groups make sure to film it. Then do it with 19 more groups (total of 100 of each religion) and we will see if both are equally moderate and tolerant.


    September 12, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
  3. Sandra LeVin

    Why are we still giving these countries/people our tax dollars?

    September 12, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      You mean like our "friends" in Pakistan who denied knowing ANYTHING about bin Laden....and then we went in and offended them by finding his @$$ and killing him!?

      September 12, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
  4. how about who cares!


    September 12, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
  5. pockets

    I get it. I do understand the thinking behind Mohammed's not wanting people to worship him. I do understand that. What I do not understand is why kill innocent people because some ignorant fool used Mohammed's image. I am an atheist, and I do believe that people have the right to "worship" Allah, God, Buddha, whoever they want to, but I for one do not want anyone of any "religion" to attempt to cram this down my throat. Do as you please, worship who or what you want, but leave me "alone."

    September 12, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
  6. SPW

    "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."

    So they're idiots, that's what you're saying?

    September 12, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      Yes! Muslims are obviously too stupid to realize the difference between a man (tangible, real) and a "god" (invisible, make-believe, with no evidence of its alleged existence). Stupid! Stupid! Stupid monkeys!

      September 12, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
  7. Jeanne

    Do we destroy Islamic people for their beliefs?
    So one person makes a movie that is very derogatory of Mohammed and that justifies bombing the US embassy and killing our people??!! And how many flags and bibles have been defamed by radical Islamists?

    September 12, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
  8. Ed Sr of Dallas Tx

    If they would get their noses off the floor and sit up like a human so we could all talk, maybe things could get better. As long as they act like a bunch of camels, they will be treated like camels. End of discussion.

    September 12, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
  9. CNN Needs To Correct The Article!

    In the article, CNN lists the filmmaker as "Israeli-American" which also means "Jew".

    Whoever made the film wants to create attacks against Israel and/or American Jews.

    The actual filmmaker is neither Israeli nor Jewish. There's no one in LA nor all of Israel named Sam Becile.
    The name itself is a taunt, as in "you must be an ambecile to fall for this, hehehe"
    The only two people with a visible connection to the film are an Egyptian-American and Terry Jones, each of whom has an agenda of tossing matches in hopes of sparking a fire.

    Finally it the attack involved military weapons – the embassy was hit by rockets, which killed the ambassador. Al Queda was looking to launch an attack an 9/11, and when they got cover from the riot they jumped. Had they acted alone they may have been tracked and killed, but with the cover of a riot in an unstable area they could get away clean.

    September 12, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
  10. Tom Paine

    Better not tell them Mohammed is depicted on the outside of the US Supreme Court building . . .

    September 12, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
  11. Matt

    And that makes murder acceptable? This is not a peaceful religion...

    September 12, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
    • pockets

      Do not paint all Muslims with the same brush. Moderate Muslims MUST speak out and up. Do not be afraid.

      Christopher Hitchens, may he rest in peace, was right. Religion Poisons Everything.

      September 12, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
  12. Polli

    I would expect CNN to be soliciting Apologies from Libya's government Heads as well as ALL the IMams, for murdering an innocent man, for sensless wanton killing not excused by any religion, for insulting America with the idea that Americans had anything to do with these murderers actions, and to announce to the world that Islam has no place in setting International rules, nor over ANY rights of Americans or other people of the world.

    September 12, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
    • midwest rail

      Why the he-ll would you expect that ?

      September 12, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
  13. Felipe

    I hate muslim intolerance.

    September 12, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
  14. DoctorBeta

    I don't agree with some commenters that this article is trying to excuse the behavior it describes, but just to explain it; so what I'm writing is not a criticism of the article but of the people who commit violence over this issue. I understand completely that Muslims are sensitive about depictions of Mohammed, but those who would commit violence over it have to understand that we have values too, and they are different from theirs. One of our values is freedom of speech, and many of us feel just as strongly about it as they do about the issue of depicting Mohammed (that in itself is probably an offensive statement to many). To kill someone for something they said, or in this case to kill someone because of something a totally unrelated person who happened to be from the same country said, is absolutely abhorrent and unacceptable to us. If Muslims expect non-Muslims to respect their beliefs, they are going to have to respect others' beliefs as well. I don't mean the beliefs about Islam of the person who made this insulting film, but the beliefs of those of us to who think he has that right to make that film, even if we don't agree with what it says. I think that most Muslims *do* respect our beliefs, but those few who don't need to realize that they have no right to use violence to force other people to believe the same things they do.

    September 12, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
  15. The Guy from GA

    Depicting Muhammed as an evil person is wrong, because it is motivated by hate. But that's still no excuse for fiiring an RPG into a friendly nation's embassy.

    September 12, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
  16. Ed

    The Middle East is populated by children. Sometime I think we need to build a fence around them, put up some anti-missile defenses and move the rest of humanity to future.

    September 12, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
  17. See Novak

    No one has any right to kill another human based on an illustration. These throwbacks have to be "trained" in
    the consequences of Medieval behavior. And while you are at it, shave those nasty beards.....

    September 12, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
  18. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    I am inspired to create a new movie depicting Mohammed feasting on chitlins and ham-hocks and slamming beers before he engages in be-stiality with a pig-and-dog thre-esome while he stones to death the 9-year-old girl he just r@ped!

    September 12, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
  19. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    September 12, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
    • Clifton Sanderson

      Please give examples.

      September 12, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • hal 9000

      I'm sorry "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things", but you assertions regarding atheism and prayer are unfounded. I see that you repeat these unfounded statements with high frequency. Perhaps the following book might help you overcome this problem:

      I'm Told I Have Dementia: What You Can Do... Who You Can Turn to...
      by the Alzheimer's Disease Society

      September 12, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
  20. Sandra LeVin

    I wonder if the embassy attacks were truly a result of Muslims being offended by the U-Tube movie depicting Mohammed or a celebration of their high holy day, 9/11?

    September 12, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
    • Tim

      Who realy cares...the dems and left are a bunch of apologists for anything American. Funny not too many years ago there was "art" in NYC that the ACLU and left said was ok even though it depicted Jesus in a bad way... but they get their panties in bunch if we make fun of MoUhammedede...haha...nuke em all...

      September 12, 2012 at 9:02 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.