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. dugg

    This makes muslims look like a bunch of pathetic, insecure babies. If your religion is so strong, it should be able to stand a bit of satire.Suck it up children!

    September 13, 2012 at 6:56 am |
  2. Richard Fore

    Islam men like to dress in pink little girl dresses.

    September 13, 2012 at 6:55 am |
  3. Richard Fore

    Islams should be flogged.

    September 13, 2012 at 6:54 am |
  4. Use Your Brain

    All religions serve only to divide people. They have never been, and will never be, unifying influences in human interactions. 'God, please protect me from your followers!'

    September 13, 2012 at 6:54 am |
  5. gatorfldennis

    These crowds of so called religious men and boys only do what their handlers tell them to do. It demonstrated the insecurity they have with their faith the fact that they will kill, murder and mame in an attempt to hide their faithe legitimacy.

    September 13, 2012 at 6:52 am |
    • Richard Fore

      Islams like to suck co<ks..

      September 13, 2012 at 6:52 am |
  6. Richard Fore

    Islams like to jack-off thinking of Mohamed's poo-hole.

    September 13, 2012 at 6:52 am |
  7. Richard Fore

    Islam's eat maggots out of their poo-holes.

    September 13, 2012 at 6:50 am |
  8. Richard Fore

    Islam is a bunch of fu<kheads.

    September 13, 2012 at 6:48 am |
  9. Richard Fore

    Islam is a bunch of pedophiles.

    September 13, 2012 at 6:47 am |
  10. Publishing

    Reblogged this on Soapbox and commented:
    As you consider religions, don't think of each as a separate whole, but each as a part. Both Christianity and Islam learned from what came before and you can see where Islam tried to correct Christianity's making Jesus god-like. But instead it fractured Islam when Mohammed died and, since Mohammed was human, he had power and that power wound up being divided and creating Sunni and Shi'ite. The best of intentions, the worst of results.

    September 13, 2012 at 6:44 am |
  11. Jb

    I don't give a rat's ass what they believe. I am through walking around on egg shells around these neanderthals. If they don't like, too damn bad.

    September 13, 2012 at 6:26 am |
    • saggyroy

      Any religion. As all of them demand respect as if they deserve it. How much respect do we give to the guy who believes Elvis is still alive? But if a woman is convinced to eat an apple by a snake, then that's all right?

      September 13, 2012 at 6:33 am |
    • Damien


      September 13, 2012 at 6:45 am |
    • Richard Fore

      Islams are pedophiles.

      September 13, 2012 at 6:53 am |
  12. saggyroy

    Religion is as religion does.

    September 13, 2012 at 6:21 am |
    • Gail D

      It was 1 person, not a whole company that posted this video. It is NOT representative of the United States or any other country. To retaliate like this shows a lack of understanding and if any terrorist think this thinly veiled excuse covers their evil, they are wrong. Sure, they probably would have done it anyway. But it is a few bad people, NOT the people of any country or religion of the world that harbor such ugly intent. We must bear in mind that ALMOST ALL people are basically decent and we should not allow any thug the air time to advertise their sickness. Rather, all people should unite to uncover the facts and punish or take these perps out of circulation.

      September 13, 2012 at 6:33 am |
    • Gail D

      It was 1 person, not a whole country that posted this video. It is NOT representative of the United States or any other country. To retaliate like this shows a lack of understanding and if any terrorist think this thinly veiled excuse covers their evil, they are wrong. Sure, they probably would have done it anyway. But it is a few bad people, NOT the people of any country or religion of the world that harbor such ugly intent. We must bear in mind that ALMOST ALL people are basically decent and we should not allow any thug the air time to advertise their sickness. Rather, all people should unite to uncover the facts and punish or take these perps out of circulation.

      September 13, 2012 at 6:35 am |
    • saggyroy

      Gail D doesn't get it.

      September 13, 2012 at 6:38 am |
    • saggyroy

      @Gail D if it isn't the Muslims, then it is the Westboro Baptists, If it isn't Westboro, it's Catholic priests, if it isn't the priests, it's Benny Hinn scamming money, if it isn't Hinn, it is Terry Jones burning a Koran, if it isn't Jones, it is people denying their kids medical help or transfusions....I am tired of typing now, but can you see my point?

      September 13, 2012 at 6:42 am |
  13. Jonline

    The concept makes no sense then. If he is not a god, you can depict him. You can make fun of him. They treat him exactly opposite the way the Koran tells them too. He is just a prophet. Prophets are human and make mistakes.

    September 13, 2012 at 6:12 am |
  14. mikeokla

    THIS SHORT FILM & OBAMA'S APOLOGY BROUGHT DEATH & DESTRUCTION TO U.S. SOIL AND NOW ALL OF MIDDLE EAST >>>http://www.buzzfeed.com/rosiegray/inflammatory-anti-muslim-movie-may-not-be-a-real

    September 13, 2012 at 6:08 am |
  15. Salim Obaid

    It is absolutely breathtaking as to how the insult of more than a billion Muslim can be justified in the name of freedom of speech and democracy. Why does the west expect the Muslim world to tolerate the degradation of their religious founder while they would not just respect our believes?

    Why are aggressors on the Muslim world justified and excused in the name of democracy and freedom while the aggressors on the West are labeled as terrorism when really both acts are similar?

    September 13, 2012 at 6:03 am |
    • saggyroy

      The difference is westerners don't do this kind of violence over an insult.

      September 13, 2012 at 6:12 am |
    • saggyroy

      ...and I would hardly call a film maker an "aggrerssor".

      September 13, 2012 at 6:15 am |
    • Abraham

      Both acts are not "similar". Murder and violence are not "similar" to insulting words.

      September 13, 2012 at 6:17 am |
    • LakeRat1

      To a "westerner", this type of violent reaction to an insult indicates some sort of disturbing mental disfunction.

      September 13, 2012 at 6:25 am |
    • tokecode

      I reserve my right to make a mockery of all religions, islam included. Muslims absolutely will not dictate what I can or cannot make fun of, depict or insult, anymore than I can dictate what they choose worship. mohammed was a pedohile and jesus was gay, have a nice day

      September 13, 2012 at 6:38 am |
    • remoteDef

      How tenuous and fragile your beliefs must be if you are so easily offended.

      If you were truly devout and absolute in your faith, you would not care what non-believers say, think, or do.

      September 13, 2012 at 6:41 am |
    • Sam A.

      The only way to stop irresponsible film making is to "out" the maker of this file. If you want to be a hate monger, then have the balls to stand by your product. Why is this guy in hiding?


      September 13, 2012 at 6:43 am |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      LOL wow.....maybe because one group does it with words, the other flies planes into buildings.

      September 13, 2012 at 6:45 am |
    • ignorance is bliss

      Islam is the most insulting religion of them all calling Christians and Jews pigs. Is a Church or Synagogue even allowed in Saudi Arabia? Is someone born a Muslim "free" to chose to worship differently. You are a fake fraud and a phony to even talk about Muslim sensitivities as if Islam has any itself!

      September 13, 2012 at 6:52 am |
    • Joe

      Complete wack job

      September 13, 2012 at 6:59 am |
  16. NorwoodX


    September 13, 2012 at 5:49 am |
  17. setnommarih

    The belief in invisible sky gods borders on insanity. The actions of these 'believers" is insanity. The world would be an oh so better place if people just accepted they are here and try to do good for themselves and those around them. All religions that push their beliefs on others are senseless foolishness.

    September 13, 2012 at 5:41 am |

    somehow they lost their way. They were supposed to believe in the concept of 'allah' and follow his message for happiness, not abandon the religion because someone insulted it. revenge is a powerful thing. someone who was wronged will go out of the way to commit wrongs and go against everything they claim to believe in to get their vengeance. Really petty and immature.

    September 13, 2012 at 5:17 am |
  19. John Doe

    Prevarication, that's all this article is.

    September 13, 2012 at 5:06 am |
  20. rojopa

    Islam is neither peaceful nor tolerant and needs to be wiped off the face of the Earth!

    September 13, 2012 at 5:00 am |
    • OTOH

      I'm afraid that the face of the Earth will be wiped off the face of the Earth by religious zealots.

      September 13, 2012 at 5:05 am |
    • sam stone

      religious and political zealotry will be our undoing

      September 13, 2012 at 5:22 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.