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. Reticuli

    A religion that has clearly not progressed into modernity sufficiently.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:48 am |
  2. CGS

    CNN, please don't try and help us understand this vile religion. We've seen enough.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:37 am |
  3. Joe White

    Muslims will never understand democracy or free speech. They have been led all of their lives by fanatical religious leaders. Any religion that believes "our way is the only way", will never be a member of the international community.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:33 am |
    • manbearpig

      Ummm...Christians believe that their way is the only way, and everyone else is doomed to be tortured for eternity. Many religions think that their way is the only way.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:53 am |
  4. Joe White

    Muslims will never understand democracy or free speech. They have been led all of their lives by fanatical religious leaders. Any reilgion that believes "our way is the only way", will never be a member of the international community.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:33 am |
    • *facepalm*

      You should probably tell that to the families of Muslim American soldiers who have died in combat protecting your democracy and freedom of speech.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:56 am |
  5. Fitz

    Islam is violence and violence is islam. All muslim should wake up and embrace the truth. Mohammad is not Allah and if his image is shown, should that cost to kill people. You are all terrorist.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:28 am |
    • Michael Puffer

      Of course Mohammed isn't Allah! He's the prophet of Islam. You paid attention to history class didn't you?

      September 13, 2012 at 1:35 am |
    • *facepalm*

      Islam is no more or less violent than xtianity – it just happens to have a greater number or adherents who actually read and follow its book in today's world than xtianity does.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:03 am |
  6. ciaopaparazzi

    Because they are fanatics with a medieval religion.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:27 am |
  7. Herewe Goagain

    I don't care why they are sensative to images of Muhammed. There is no room in the world for these violent maniacs and if they do not change their ways it will end badly for them.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:27 am |
  8. Jayson


    ........YEA MOFO [ CAPS LOCK ON ]

    September 13, 2012 at 1:25 am |
  9. cardog

    When you deal with vipers and/or rats, there is only one way to react to their nature. I'm not for starting a war with Libya or Egypt because of these attacks and the death of American personnel. What I am for is a continuation of using intel to find these people and either use special forces on the ground or our drones to exterminate them. I really could care less what the world thinks of our ability to protect our interest.
    We are in a world battle dealing with people who have no soul(s). Their fanatisim has no bounds. The only thing people associated with the Taliban or Al Quada clearly understand is power and the willingness to weld it.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:22 am |
  10. Rev. Tyrone Pope


    September 13, 2012 at 1:21 am |
    • Mark From Middle River


      September 13, 2012 at 1:50 am |
  11. Mohammad's Direct Superior, Zeus!

    The real reason Muslims do not like depictions of Mohammad is because after all the years of naughty business with animals and children his face got a bit stuck in grotesque contortions from the excess loving. He also didn't bathe. In fact after getting it on with his mom, she said, "Mohammad, although I enjoy taking almost anyone in the rear, especially when you wrap your doodad in bacon and thrust it home, I just can't abide you anymore until you take a bath."

    Luckily, Mohammad's unwashed dad was always up for some snuggling. So as it turned out Mohammad didn't have the need to bathe, as his dad took care of his desires even without using a clip to shield his nose from the stench. They enjoyed stinky back door love together, often while feeding each other bits of ham and rubbing their feet in one another's face. From time to time they would enjoy shaving each others' beards while they secretly giggled to one another about the false religion Mohammad had created one evening while stoned on goat turds. They knew it would be successful because uneducated people are so easily fooled by sparkly magic things.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:15 am |
  12. aka

    While attempting to show strength through violence they show us their greatest weakness. Anger is born of fear and fear is a weakness. The Puppet Master is now in control of all Muslims bothered by this.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:06 am |
  13. hater

    Screw the salafi fundamentalists and their goat abusing ways.. I am so sick of that tribal b.s. flooding our space.. enough! Print the koran on toliet paper and flood the world! Get over it rag-heads

    September 13, 2012 at 1:02 am |
    • Jayson

      yea good idea from a dumb MOFO, how about I print ur religious book ans Jerk 0FF on it?

      September 13, 2012 at 1:21 am |
  14. Blue Sky(Sayed)

    Some people are wrongly interpreting Islam.....and I strongly believe that is not the true picture of Islam....The motto of Islam is "Peace"...and if we all learn or go through the "Holy Quran" & Prophet Mohhammad (SM) words that is called Hadidth...then we can find what is actually they said about religion....please don't be misunderstand Muslim...because you should not be blamed muslim for some of guilty muslim......we love peace and we respect other religion and that the things we learned from our religion and our beloved Prophet Mohammad(SM).....So please my frnds...don' be misguided by others arrogant words...and don't hate muslim....we respect u & u should respect us....don't misunderstand us.....May Allah Bless u all.....

    September 13, 2012 at 1:00 am |
    • lacoaster

      How can you talk about peace following a leader that killed people and asked people to kill? How can you follow a book that condemns people from thinking with the intelligence given by the "Alla" you worship. Why is a young girl preferred to an adult woman for men? If you are a true modern Muslim; why don't you answer my questions below and show me what the truth is to you other than what you have been told?

      September 13, 2012 at 1:07 am |
    • lacoaster

      Sorry I misspelled "Alla" twice on my two posts, I meant "Allah". I am tired and stupefied.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:52 am |
  15. Leo

    sen·si·tiv·i·ty  (sns-tv-t)
    1. The quality or condition of being sensitive.

    When they turn around and kill people SENSITIVITY is NOT the word you should be using!

    September 13, 2012 at 12:52 am |
  16. gggg

    If it's against Muslim rules to depict Mohammad, then I guess they shouldn't. However, as a non-Muslim, it is not against MY religion to depict images of Mohammad; or any other religious figure. Muslims will just have to grow up as a society and get used to the idea that not everyone follows or even respects their religious rules. To paraphrase a great line: Muslim: You must not depict Mohammad in any way. Everyone else: Get used to disappointment.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:49 am |
  17. 52pan

    I saw the movie and I thought it was pretty accurate.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:49 am |
    • Jayson

      some of ya'll MOFO gone extream about ISLAM, I guess yall MOFO needs to soend some time on reading the QURAN in ur native language and try to understand what is ISLAM all about instat of spending time watching PORONS u psyco haters

      September 13, 2012 at 1:19 am |
  18. ed

    Muslims should leave the dark ages and join the rest of us in the present.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:45 am |
    • Michael Puffer

      Fun fact, it was the Muslims that got fanatical Christians out of the Dark Ages after the crusades because, at that time, Muslims were generally cleaner and healthier than anyone in Europe.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:39 am |
  19. Kate

    Islam should be stopped at ANY cost, collateral damage is the way it goes. There is no reason in the world to take Muslims or Islam seriously. Actually we really should out law it. No woman is safe around an Islamic man, old mo was GD pervert that took his 6 year old cousin as a wife. That is it for me, MO is crap and Islam needs to be outlawed, there is not once decent thing in that cult. Ya, I am not fond of religion, but Islam is not religion it is simply evil.

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

      It is absolutely no different then any religion.
      When you believe in imaginary creatures, then you can use them to justify anything that you may want to do.
      Xtianity was exactly where where islam is now, just 500 years ago.
      And left to their own, xtians here would go right back to those days.
      Religion is the scurge of humanity.

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

      Indeed, niknak. Fatwas and Jihad bring the Inquisition and Crusades to mind... I'm not fond of religion myself, but I look at it like how people complain about drugs and guns and how they wish they would go away. They will not go away. Ever. So, the only thing to do is figure out how to deal with it.

      If Islamic leaders could see how barbaric their behavior appears to the rest of the world whenever someone draws a picture of Mohammed, they might see why the rest of the world feels very uneasy about Muslims. It's like anything you say or do can set off a barrage of RPGs and machine gun fire. It's ridiculous.

      The Catholic Church or Judaism don't like criticism either, but at least they're civilized about it. Muslims need to grow up starting with the religious leadershp.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:57 am |
    • Nah

      nik: "When you believe in imaginary creatures, then you can use them to justify anything that you may want to do."

      If you believe in anything you can use it to justify anything you want to do.

      From sports fanatics, to ELF members, to Nazism, to Communism. Your belief that human failings (violence and vindictiveness) are failings of religion tells either you haven't thought about this issue very deeply, or you're as big a bigot as the people you claim to oppose.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:35 am |
    • manbearpig

      "Your belief that human failings (violence and vindictiveness) are failings of religion tells either you haven't thought about this issue very deeply, or you're as big a bigot as the people you claim to oppose."

      Nice strawman. I actually didn't notice niknak make that claim in his/her post. All I got out of niknak's post was that the tendency of Muslims to react violently to perceived insults against their sacred figures is strikingly similar to the behavior exhibited by Christians in the past. It's a huge stretch to go from "religion causes violence" to "human failings are the failings of religion". Why don't you address the point that niknak actually made rather than trying to portray his/her position disingenuously?

      September 13, 2012 at 2:01 am |
  20. lacoaster

    According to the Quran; how many persons did Mohammad personally killed? How did he killed them? Why did he specifically killed them? When did Mohammad asked the followers to kill people? What did Mohammad answered when he was asked if it was permissible to deceive (lie)? So, to follow him, it means that you agree with him correct? Use the book or history. You answer. Am I an infidel because I am asking you to review the book you worship or to go back to a history that took place? How many persons did Jesus Christ killed himself? What about Buddha? How many persons has Satan killed with his own hands, in person, and not by influencing humans? Where does love, compassion and peace come from? Can a person that is not religious love, compassion and/or have peace? How do you know? Please support your answer. How many lives do you need/want? Why? How do you know if a book is sacred or not? How do you know if when somebody says that God or Alla told them something is true or not?

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

      Oh come on. You really expect the followers of any religion to actually think critically about what they believe? You should know by now that that is not going to happen – if it did, there would be no more religion. Religions have actually successfully brainwashed their followers into believing that it's a virtue to continue to believe in your religion/god even if all signs indicate that it's completely fabricated. They are built around suppressing reason.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:02 am |
    • lacoaster

      I am just trying to highlight their hypocrisy and ignorance. They promote and worship books and people they don't even know.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:17 am |
    • manbearpig

      Yeah, I know. It frustrates me too, since most of these people are willing to apply logic and rational thought to literally EVERY area of their lives EXCEPT their religion.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:28 am |
    • lacoaster

      Sorry I misspelled "Alla" twice on my two posts, I meant "Allah". I am tired and stupefied.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:50 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.