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. wolfpackbob

    His own statement is that he is "just a man". No images are allowed so you are not tempted to worship "just a man". You are taught that he is "just a man". Yet Muslims murder in his name if there is not enough reverence given to his image, the image of "just a man"? This misunderstanding is not from non-Muslims. The misunderstanding must be between Muslims, and yet non-Muslims are blamed for the fatal confusion whether he is "just a man". Or is it simply OK in Islam to murder over the image of "just a man"? If that is true, then Islam is not the peaceful religion that it's moderates claim it to be.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:30 am |
    • aaqkhi

      If you dont know, just shut up

      September 13, 2012 at 12:33 am |
    • wolfpackbob

      OK, I don't know. Enlighten us. Is it OK in Islam to murder over the image of "just a man"?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:54 am |
  2. Adam

    So if I subscribe to only imaginary man instead of several false idols can I have an awesome beard and beat my wife?

    September 13, 2012 at 12:26 am |
  3. aaqkhi

    The filmakers have no right to make ilms about the prophet, in islam,through hadith it says not to, so dont do it. dont make barbaric animated depicts of our prophet.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:23 am |
    • gail Kaohilaulii

      Grow up and think for yourself.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:35 am |
    • manbearpig

      You have a weird definition of "right". In truth, since the filmmaker was an American in the United States, he most certainly did have the right to make his film, and any other stupid film he wants to make. Most of the world thinks your religion is BS. Live with it.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:37 am |
    • Atul Chaudhary

      You hypocrite. You would go worship graves, Shias take out processions with Tazias which are adorned and worshiped by people. To you, your cleric is almost like God if he calls, you will run in the name of Jehad.

      Because of your outward manifestation of your anger towards non-believers, most of the people (even though they might say anything openly due to backlash) question Islamic religion. In my mind, your religion is really weak that requires you to defend it. If it is really a true religion, it will come out on top without your excessiveness.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:37 am |
    • wolfpackbob

      Please note the comments here from "niknak" and others like him here. In America, anyone is free to insult anyone's religion via our right of free speech. In America, anyone is also free to cherish anyone's religious faith. We have both freedom of speech and freedom of religion and they both are compatible with each other. I think "niknak" is a wrong, but I defend his freedom of speech no matter how much we may disagree. In America, your faith would be defended, as long as you were tolerant of those of other faiths and those of no faith such as "niknak". We do not murder over the images of men. And if The Prophet said that "he was just a man" and did not wish to be worshipped, if Islam is a peaceful religion then he would not want innocents murdered over his image. We may have different cultures and different faiths but if we cannot agree over what is murder, then where can we find common ground for peace?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:49 am |
  4. niknak

    As I say to all religions.....
    phuck mohammed, phuck allah and phuck your stone age goat herder myth.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:22 am |
  5. Keith

    So, no one knows what Mohammad looks like but they kill people that make pictures of him. That makes as much sense as Christianity.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:22 am |
  6. Keith

    Kill them all, let God sort them out

    September 13, 2012 at 12:18 am |
    • manbearpig

      I think you should do that, provided you start with yourself.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:39 am |
      • Keith

        You aren't even cleaver

        September 14, 2012 at 12:01 am |
  7. Brian

    CNN wants free speech to end with Islam. If you work for CNN, you are a terrorist supporter and a traitor and also a coward. After Romney is elected he needs to get the FBI to storm CNN and make the appropriate arrests that need to be made, which is most of the people working for this terrorist propaganda network.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:17 am |
    • Dana

      You come off sounding like a scared little child who wants to take all the toys away from the neighborhood kids because you are scared of losing the game.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:25 am |
    • Atul Chaudhary

      I have heard that at CNN there are many Pakistanis at the top positions. No wonder somebody like Zakaria can get (escort) free.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:39 am |
  8. Evy bergman

    Everyone of our troops should be pulled out of these muslim countries, and not one single dollar sent to any of
    them. They are from another time, they are twisted , cruel, violent, mindless hypocrites. Any one who ever trusts any of them
    is a fool . They have always been duplicitous, and always will be. That any of our soldiers should be killed on their behalf is
    insane. They love to riot, they love to hate, there is no pleasing them, .... they are uncivilized, inhuman, and loathesome.
    Our only friend is Israel. They have every reason to fear Iran, and to disbelieve their claims about nuclear intentions.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:13 am |
  9. AvdBerg

    The Ambassador’s killing in Libya was a culmination of the rising tensions and deep-rooted hatred amongst civilizations in a divided world (Matthew 12:26). 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 13, 2012 at 12:13 am |
    • gail Kaohilaulii

      Read Erik Larson's book 'In the garden of the beasts' You will see what happened and what was in the minds of people in 1933, Germany is being repeated today including the drought and econamic mayham.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:38 am |
  10. slim

    The post is about a canadian born movie that portrays their deity in less than great light.  No matter what history has written/rewritten about the gods/prophets.  Their reaction was as knee jerky as a repukigan who just realized they actually nominated mitt dumney and who.  Nevermind they will both be out of our collective conscience in a couple months.  Glad to see these actions are obviously not justified or sanctioned by the rest of the population.  Don't hate all people just the ones who listen and believe that garbage spewed by rush, glenn, oreily pieces of trash.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:08 am |
  11. swin - Pittsburgh

    When will the media in all of its coverage of muslim issues stop using the biased term 'Prophet Mohammed' and replace it with 'alleged prophet Mohammed'? He's not a prophet in my book and, unless I'm wrong, I don't think most Americans would consider him a prophet either.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:07 am |
    • Why I'm the Science Guy

      Say a prayer about this to your alleged god.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:14 am |
    • KFKhalili

      Do you think is "Christ" is Jesus's last name? It comes from ancient Greek, Khristos or "Anointed", a translation from the Hebrew מָשִׁיחַ (Māšîaḥ), i.e. the Messiah. I don't hear asking for Jesus to be called "The Alleged Christ". Come on.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:18 am |
    • Becca

      Right... These people need to stay where they belong in their own country. There is no place in my country as far as I am concerned.They want to kill our people and they do but they do not want us killing their people. What is wrong with the picture here. My do they think they have mre rights than we do. These people come here to make money while our people are out of work. Then they work here and take the money they make back home. I just can not understand why these people are in our country anyways we have enough to take care of our owm people and I realy do not care if these people starve or not but I do care if our people in this country who are poor and hungry. So all I can say is Muslims go back were you belong!

      September 13, 2012 at 12:30 am |
    • manbearpig

      You're a fvcking idiot. America is not your country, or a christian country. All sorts of people are welcome here, including muslims, because it's one of the foundations of our country. How about this: if you want to live in a country where everyone is the same, go ahead and leave. America is not the place for people like you.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:43 am |
  12. Matt

    So, if muslims burn our flag and hang our leaders in effigy, we can storm their embassies and fly planes in their buildings? Why does free speech always end with muslims? And he was an illiterate pedophile who angels spoke too – in another words he was psychotic. All religions are barriers to true spirituality. Some, like Islam, are worse than others.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:03 am |
    • Becca

      All Muslims are the same! They all want to kill us.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:31 am |
    • manbearpig

      Anyone who says "All (insert group) are the same!" is retarded.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:44 am |
  13. Mike Speakman

    These attacks are a perfect example why Islam and our form of freedom do not mix. Freedom of speech and expression are just as important as freedom of religion, maybe more important in my opinion. If these cultists are so insecure in their faith that they have to resort to violence at some sleight toward their religion then we should severely limit immigration of Muslims to this nation and restrict further building of mosques. Those of Muslim faith should be encouraged to take on another faith or emigrate to an Islamic nation.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:01 am |
    • Why I'm the Science Guy

      Maybe you should emigrate to the world's only Christian nation - the Vatican.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:17 am |
    • swin - Pittsburgh

      1. The Vatican is not a Christian nation, it is a Catholic nation.
      2. George Washington, in his farewell address, referred to Americans as believing in the same God and only choosing to worship him in different ways. This reveals that the founding fathers envisioned this nation as being based on a religious belief that was basically common to all. As we let more Hindus and Muslims and Voodoo believers into this country, we are no longer believing in one God. Who's laws will become the basis for the law of the land? Do we allow polygamy to appease the Mormons? Do we allow female castration to appease some African beliefs? Do we allow Muslim Americans to kill their neighbor when he speaks out against Mohammed? Do we close all Mcdonalds and Burger Kings to appease the Hindus? Some religious belief has to be the basis for the law of the land. Washington knew this and he stated such in his farewell address. England allows freedom of religion but by law establishes the Church of England as the basis for the laws of the land. As we become a nation that the founding fathers did not envision, one that worships many different Gods and therefore many different ideas of what is right and what is wrong, then we open the door to division and conflict, and eventually internal religious wars and maybe the collapse of the country. May seem far-fetched, but an avalanche begins with a single stone. America has not known religious strife because America through most of its history has been a Protestant Christian nation. People immigrating to this country had to accept that and had to live with that. When one religious belief no longer dominates, then each individual group will try to take over and establish their belief as the supreme law of the land. And, as we see in the case of the Muslims, some of these groups believe it is their God given right to kill you if you don't agree with them. This doesn't sound like the America that Washington or Jefferson or Madison envisioned.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:44 am |
  14. swin - Pittsburgh

    As a Bible believing Christian, I both believe in and understand the meaning of the commandment that says 'you are to make no graven images of me.' The difference is that I'm not going to try to kill you if you either don't believe in this commandment or if you choose to break it. These people are wackos, short and simple. Which is why we have no business having our troops in there and no business giving them aid of any kind, military or economic. Leave them to their misery. And if they mess with us, then nuke them off the face of the earth. This nonsense of going into a muslim country and trying to sort out the good guys (if there are any) from the bad guys is insane. It didn't work in Vietnam so learn the lesson. What did work was illustrated in World War II – total destruction and/or annihilation of the enemy. Take them all out and let God sort them out.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:00 am |
    • All in it together

      "As a Bible believing Christian", "And if they mess with us, then nuke them off the face of the earth"
      -I'm also a Christian, and I don't understand your hatred? Many Christians don't walk the walk, many identify with Christianity just so "we" are different from the "other guys". It's not about following the path of Jesus anymore, we now much rather listen to Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin than follow the footsteps of Mother Teresa.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:27 am |
    • swin - Pittsburgh

      To All In It Together,

      This is not hatred, or at least not hatred of people but of behavior that is destructive of human life. Don't attack my Christianity based on your notion of what Christianity is. In Genesis God plainly stated: 'He who sheds the blood of man shall, by the hand of man, have his blood shed." When the Israelites entered the promised land, they were ordered by God to drive some tribes from the land, but they were also ordered to totally annihilate other tribes. This meant that they were told to kill EVERY member of that tribe, every man, every woman, and every tribe. God made it very clear to his people that evil people were to be destroyed. Yes they were to be loved and yes they were to be forgiven, but they nevertheless were to be destroyed. God said 'Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord, I will repay'. He did not claim that justice was His and His alone – man was to establish his laws based on Gods commandments and was to punish lawbreakers here on earth and to do so, not out of vengeance, but in the cause of justice. And yes, when their crimes were serious enough, that punishment was to be death, and death at the hands of men. This is not, as you say, hatred. It is an act of justice. It is an act of self-defense and self-protection. And if God did not want us to defend ourselves against evil, he would not have given us a self-preservation instinct.

      At the risk of being in the same position as you, that is, to judge someone else's faith, I would like to at least make this comment – read and study BOTH the Old Testament and the New. And remember what Jesus said, that He did not come to change the law, only to fulfill it.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:05 am |
  15. John6:54

    The extreme reaction by Muslims after Mohammed is portrayed graphically is not rational or reasonable. The Old Testament writings in the Bible are a story of God leading the Jews away from Idol worship. Sadly many self-made American Christian churches erroneously label Catholic church stained glass windows and statues of Biblical figures and saints as idolatrous. A tenet of a religion is should not be an invitation to riot. Mohammed was just a man and so was Joseph Smith, and they have done well to grow false religions full of non-tolerance and ignorance. Truth demands honest introspective challenge – I must constantly use the intellect gifted to me by God to ask "does this religion, does this church, does this priest teach and reveal truth of God to me?" Please challenge me, ask me why I believe – it is to put the blade to the stone, to put the tree against the wind – I will only become sharper and stronger, but I will not riot against you when you challenge what I believe. Completely irrational, devoid of love, devoid of the God that I know to say violence will instruct or resolve. Pretty simple why so much unrest in the Middle East.....not because the Jewish state was restored after WW II. Intolerance by Muslims is the reason. Who will they convince that there is truth in their religion through violence?

    September 12, 2012 at 11:58 pm |

    I make the perfect image of Mohammed in the toilet every time I take a crap.

    September 12, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
    • niknak

      Me too.
      And all the other imaginary friends that are still out there.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:13 am |
  17. lindy5576

    Libya and Egypt have no problem mocking jews and christians on tv and in films..

    September 12, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
  18. Run A Mok

    Wow, Atheism is looking more and more attractive every day.

    September 12, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
  19. Bluejeans

    All religions kill everyone else in the name of their religion. If their religion is so worth dying for, then I wish they'd start with themselves. Personally, I have no interest in who has the best imaginary friend.

    September 12, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
    • laodegan

      My imaginary friends are pretty awesome by the way.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:08 am |
  20. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    visit http://www.limitedthetruth.com/blog.html to learn more, turn off virus protection first and let our spywares explode with joy on your computers.

    Allah O Akbur

    September 12, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
    • Atul Chaudhary

      Although I don't follow Hinduism but I can tell you one thing that Hindus tolerate all religions (including Islam and Christianity). Muslims have survived in India for last 60 years whereas Hindus are being forced out of Pakistan and they are migrating to India in loads of trains so keep your cr-p to yourself.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:46 am |
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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.