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. R. Harris

    Muslims don't like the 'Prophet' Mohammed shown because hes really not a Prophet. Hes a fake just like anyone who claims to be a Prophet or God.

    September 13, 2012 at 4:57 am |
  2. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    September 13, 2012 at 4:42 am |
    • A Frayed Knot

      You betcha. These killers prayed at least 5 times a day while planning and executing this attack. They probably prayed as they shot each RPG. Take your prayers and shove 'em.

      September 13, 2012 at 4:48 am |
    • truth be told

      Prayer to allah is not prayer. allah is an idol, prayer is conversation with God. You lose your bet and your life if you think Muslims pray to God.

      September 13, 2012 at 4:52 am |
    • A Frayed Knot

      truth be told,

      Your "God" is just another idol.

      September 13, 2012 at 5:00 am |
    • sam stone

      prayer to allah is not prayer?

      you just said it was.

      silly, silly person

      September 13, 2012 at 5:24 am |
    • sam stone

      how do you know that the person who is having a conversation with allah is not communicating with the same god you are?

      because a book said so?

      September 13, 2012 at 5:28 am |
  3. Joe S.

    Maybe he was just ugly.

    September 13, 2012 at 4:33 am |
  4. Leo the Isaurian

    Welcome to the 8th Century and Iconoclasm... Oh wait it's the 21st Century... Join the modern world please. If the Christian world, which isn't the most progressive either, decided to kill Muslim ambassadors worldwide due to ridiculous slights the Islamic world would be having a fit. All of you should be ashamed of yourselves, Christian and Muslim extremists both.

    September 13, 2012 at 4:19 am |
  5. KB

    Kill 'em all,,, Let Muhammad the pig rapist sort em out.

    September 13, 2012 at 4:16 am |
    • sam stone

      Or at least thrown them to the virgin boinker

      September 13, 2012 at 5:29 am |
  6. Jkimbo

    if this is true, 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.I ask why have we never seen Muslims outraged over Jesus being mocked or ridiculed in cartoons and movies?

    September 13, 2012 at 3:58 am |
    • A Frayed Knot

      ALL of these fantasy figures, and their shamans, need to be put on the shelf. We are on our own. We must make the best world that we can.

      September 13, 2012 at 4:06 am |
    • shah

      that is a very good question? Perhaps it is Christian or Judaism belief that it is ok to depict Jesus(PBUH) and Moses(PBUH) and to redicule them (astghfirullah). Also, to attribute sons and daughters to god. I absolutely do not agree the violence over depicting pictures of sacred men but i will NOT disrespect someones belief either. To come back to your question, why not be outraged over the matter of insult. It should be that we have no authority to change your belief even if you disrespect the prophets or even god!! why because I didn't do it you did it to yourself and it is your belief. God knows best.

      September 13, 2012 at 4:21 am |
    • Thisisur Conscience

      I asked that very question this morning. If Muslims were so concerned about Jesus and Moses as well as Mohammed, show me ONE example of this sort of insane response they are insulted.

      If they "honor" Jesus like they claim, then the fact they they DENY him as the Son of God is an insult because they are denying the very words of Jesus himself. Christians don't riot and murder over "insults" because OUR "prophet" says to "LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF". You don't murder your neighbor for hurting your over the top sensitive "feelings".
      Matthew 22:36-40

      36 “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?”

      37 Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”

      If Christians rioted every time Jesus was depicted in a negative manner, they would be rioting every day of the year.

      September 13, 2012 at 6:48 am |
  7. shah

    First of all my heart truly goes out for the loved ones of the murdered in Libya. I absolutely condemn the cowardly sensless act of these mobs and I hope they get caught and prosecuted. I am an American Muslim and proud to be one and very much patriotic to this beautiful country. I respect everyones religion their ideas and if you are an athiests that is your choice. Freedom of choice so beautiful. This is what makes America great. Let us respect each other and their belief and let us not play blame game please. This is a land of free and yes we have a freedom of speech, let us use freedom of speech with respect. All five fingers are not same and no ones is perfect. Thank You and yes peace be upon you too.

    September 13, 2012 at 3:55 am |
  8. fat back and spuds

    A prophet? Mohamed? You have got to be kidding. What exactly did he say that was enlightening or new or different from the Torah or Bible? He was illiterate as are most of the present day followers.

    September 13, 2012 at 3:52 am |
    • A Frayed Knot

      True. Otoh, what, besides a bit of ancient Hebrew history and historical fiction, do the Torah and The Bible add? There is not a shred of verified evidence for any of the supernatural beings or events told about in those books.

      September 13, 2012 at 4:11 am |
    • sam stone

      literacy rates in the muslim world.....kazakhstan at 99.3% is the highest, burkina faso is the lowest at 15.2%


      September 13, 2012 at 5:40 am |
    • sam stone

      my bad. afghanistan is at 12.6%

      September 13, 2012 at 5:41 am |
    • sam stone

      the united states is at 97%

      September 13, 2012 at 5:44 am |
  9. maelstromscientist

    Islam: The religion of peace – only in Utopia.

    September 13, 2012 at 3:46 am |
  10. Faxon

    Why is anyone assuming this crime was anything other than hatred of America and Americans? Why do you find it necessary to offer a "rational" explanation? The truth is, the Muslims involved are basically violent non-tolerant zealots.
    The movie had little to do with this. In a rational world, the United States would stop sending money and apologies to Muslims. Perhaps it is time for a new administration, one which understands what monsters inhabit the Middle East.

    September 13, 2012 at 3:45 am |
  11. Weels

    Global Re-orientation, the only way to save humanity! http://truthmovement.blog.com/

    September 13, 2012 at 3:42 am |
  12. atroy

    I looked in my skillet and saw an image of Mohammed in my bacon grease.

    September 13, 2012 at 3:37 am |
  13. mmi16

    If you can't laugh at your own religion you have no faith in your religion, no sense of self worth, and no sense of security about what your religion means. Only those that have no real faith in the teachings of their religion would riot when someone else challenges it.

    September 13, 2012 at 3:36 am |
  14. Mohammed Z

    If this article is written in English why are you using the word "Allah" ? "Allah" is just the arabic word for "God" same God as Abraham, Jesus and Moses peace be upon them all. Stop making it look that Allah is some kind of Deity.

    September 13, 2012 at 3:34 am |
    • Mohammed Z

      Forgot to offer my condolences to the Families. And condem this act of terror against a civilian.

      September 13, 2012 at 3:37 am |
    • A Frayed Knot

      Mohammed Z,

      Thank you for your condolences. It seems as if you are a peace loving man, but the fact is that this Middle Eastern fantasy "God" of the Bible and the Quran has NEVER brought peace... not EVER in the thousands of years since it was dreamed up. We are on our own. WE must make this a peaceful world. I'm sorry if that puts a damper on your emotional, rhapsodic illusions.

      September 13, 2012 at 4:01 am |
  15. more2bits

    There is little point in discussing religious diety with cultists–they are not logical having been brain-washed from birth. That is the true danger of all religions–brainwashing. Hitler understood it. Used it. Look what harm it brought the world. Until the cancer growing within Islam is eradicated mankind will never have any peace. And everyone knows to kill the cancer you nearly have to kill the host. All of these Mullahs preaching the sacrilege of their god is total baloney. There is no god and therefore no sacrilege no matter what you say about it.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:30 am |
  16. john lennon

    imagine there's no religion....

    September 13, 2012 at 2:29 am |
    • John

      I must say, the growing percentage of atheists on these CNN boards compared to even five years ago when religious zealots completely dwarfed the more rational and morally grounded atheists on said CNN boards gives me hope in the future

      September 13, 2012 at 3:36 am |
  17. Joe Plumber

    Welcome to 1545. Time to grow up Muslims.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:18 am |
  18. Oregon Guy

    I'm absolutely repulsed by the violence against Americans or anyone else for that matter in the name of religion. But sometimes I wonder what the rest of the world thinks about a so-called "Christian" society that uses one of it's names of diety as a common curse word (Jesus Christ). In a general sense, as a people, I've had a hard time understanding how it is we claim to worship God when we pay such blatent disrespect to His own name or the name of His divine Son. We wear crucifixes in his memory but flth pours from our mouths. We claim to worship Him on Sundays but we profane His name ain anger at the drop of a hat.

    We should clean up our own act before instead of condeming others. It's no wonder the Muslim world believes we are a Godless and vulgar society.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:13 am |
  19. moas786

    one word, RESPECT to ALL prohpets of God.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:10 am |
  20. IslandAtheist

    Religious indoctrination is the cause of the problem.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:51 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.