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. Lola

    Human life is sacred to me and in the Middle East they are proving that is a religion of hate & murder.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:27 am |
  2. Jim

    Imagine a world without the cult of islam. Ohhh, what a wonderful world it would be.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:27 am |
  3. No2Islam

    Mohammed is not a prophet, Islam is not a religion, and Allah is not the same as God. when will american and europe get this. when after they kill us all?

    September 13, 2012 at 7:23 am |
    • JIm


      September 13, 2012 at 7:24 am |
    • Lizardking75

      Why did we decide to give these people a foothold in our beloved society. We have suffered too long under this liberal yoke.

      September 13, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • Upset&Mad


      When will you go back under your rock and stay there. You are such an ignorant person, uneducated and frankly a racist!!

      September 13, 2012 at 7:32 am |
  4. obama is Out Of Touch with reality

    They can burn our flag and kill our people, it is time for all Americans to come together and put down these dogs and put them down permanently ! Make the burn in hell.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:19 am |
    • Bill

      This problem is much bigger than that. The entire world must stand together in unity and drive this backward cult back to the middle ages where it belongs.

      September 13, 2012 at 7:32 am |
  5. Lizardking75

    How long must the West stand in fear of these animals? Why do we need to appease them? Now is the time to strike and teach these pigs a lesson. No more bowing down to these SOBs.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:18 am |
  6. Observer

    So the Prophet is a man and not God - that makes the bizarre reaction and violence even more absurd. So the nation of Islam will kill innocents because draws a cartoon or someone depicts a man (Mohammed) in an unfavorable light (but true, we don't know) If the United States acted so wildly and violently whenever someone defaned its flag or Christ, we would be in a Crusades-like World War III perpetually

    There is no justification for killing –and regardless if it is a religious response, any such violence should be met with equal justice. In the Mideat they used to say "an eye for an eye" Nowadays it should be a US Embassy and killing of Americans be met with drone attacks and cruise missles... God bless America – one nation UNDER GOD with liberty AND JUSTICE for all

    And for the record, I consider being called an infidel no different than someone putting Mohammed in a cartoon -

    September 13, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • Joe Yates

      I read the first three comments. Two call for endless, non-winable war; obviously people no different than the criminals they seek to kill. One an intelligent response to insanity. God help us if that is representative of who we are.

      September 13, 2012 at 7:35 am |
  7. BigAl

    Islam-the "religion" that brings you hate, intolerance and violence.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:16 am |
    • Moby Schtick

      Christianity, the cult that brings you a god who commands death and eternal torture–the biggest azzhole terrorist of all time.

      September 13, 2012 at 7:27 am |
  8. Ezra Griffiths

    "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."

    SHOW me ONE instance where Christians acted like this when a negative portrayal of CHrist was shown... its simple THERES NOT! But according to this guy we are handling it better because we have had a longer time to deal with it. SO I suppose he can point to a time where an anti-Jesus film/book/painting was made and Christians burned down houses or embassies and killed people. Please show this to me.

    Killing and rioting IS NOT the way to condemn something.

    I wish these people would realize that God does not need their protection. Can can defend Himself and is able to.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:14 am |
    • Mark Reed

      Oh, so there IS a god, and you really, really know about him unlike the Muslims.

      September 13, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • Lizardking75

      Bottom-line is that most muslims are uneducated animals that could not even to begin to comprehend what is wrote in their filth book-the koran. They are illiterate monkeys that mumble empty chants when they pray at their temples and commit violence by listening to the garbage their mullahs propagate. Common sense tells us that by eradicating these "top pigs", a sense of peace might come to region. Remember, "slay the priest and spare the poet".

      September 13, 2012 at 7:23 am |
  9. Mark Reed

    This is not a Muslim issue. Religion in general is the problem. The next largest hate group are the Christians that live all around us.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:13 am |
  10. bobby

    “It's all rooted in the notion of idol worship,” says Akbar Ahmed,...no its rooted in stupidity

    September 13, 2012 at 7:11 am |
  11. GimmeABreak

    Time for the Modern Crusades. The Non-Muslim world needs to stop waiting for the next attack and put Political Correctness aside. Treat them like the violent predators they are – when they kill an innocent human, hunt them down and kill them. Not all alligators, grizzlies, or mountain lions will attack but you can't trust any of them. It's a matter of survival.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:10 am |
    • Itsonlyme

      So we should hint down and kill all muslims, alligators, and grizzly bears? What a great solution.

      September 13, 2012 at 7:12 am |
    • Lizardking75

      Yes, we must have a holy war against these animals in order to stop this abomination that is islam. We must destroy these child rapist and murderers of woman.

      September 13, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • GimmeABreak

      @ItsOnlyMe = Read closely... don't trust any of them and hunt down the ones that kill. Although your misread approach would work also.

      September 13, 2012 at 7:55 am |
  12. hassan bin hussain lade.

    Richard fore loves cokk

    September 13, 2012 at 7:10 am |
  13. Itsonlyme

    Islam came along 700 years after Christianity. Look where Christianity was 700 years ago... Burning witches, polygamy, etc, etc.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:09 am |
  14. Beck

    I can only see that the filmmakers have reached their goals – they sparked once again the violence between the Muslims and the Christians. Outcomes of the movie were obvious- the filmmakers knew that there would be killings and a bloodshed. they exactly knew and probably wanted those results – I think so. why did they do that? should they be responsible? if they did that merely for the5-minutes fame -its one thing. if they did it expecting bloodshed-its a crime. I know that Americans in general do not like to insult people or religions, because otherwise there is no logic: why the Americans are politically correct when abstaining from derogating races, and why they would not be sensitive while derogating religions? this is not a freedom- its a voluntary choice of violence then. I think the American society should pay more attention to those who wants to spark hatred between the Christians and the Moslems.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:08 am |
    • Moby Schtick

      I think that film makers built a terrorist detector. If someone is willing to kill for images or drawings, they're a fvcking animal.

      September 13, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • Lizardking75

      Middle-Easterns should stop promoting a child molester as their prophet.

      September 13, 2012 at 7:27 am |
  15. LT.Aldo Raine

    Nobody gives a rats ass,what any muSlim thinks or wants.Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:04 am |
  16. linda

    If muslims don't want to post images of mohammed, that is their choice. Non-muslims do not need to abide by muslim rules.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:01 am |
    • Michael Hunt, Esq.

      Exactly. Muslims can't show images of Mohammad. Non-Muslims can show whatever the heck they want. If Muslims are offended by it then they can avoid seeing it.

      September 13, 2012 at 7:44 am |
  17. drinnc

    Akbar Ahmed makes a completely nonsensical argument in his assertion that because Mohamed was only a man they have to get all crazy when he is depicted unfavorably. By that logic we should kill anyone who depicts Jesus unfavorably sense he in fact what not just a man, but the son of God.

    September 13, 2012 at 6:58 am |
  18. WW

    If anyone cares to notice the greater truth, it is only the muslim religion that commits murder and atrocities around the world in the name of their religion. At this present time, there exists no other religion that pursues the aforementioned acts. These idiots of no particular nationality deem it their duty as set forth in their teachings. The poor, uneducated, ignorant masses are incited to violence quite easily by only just one individual taking control. These zealots and fanatics leave out no one from their mandated right to commit violence in the name of islam and don't even exclude their own as these people are void of decency and morality. Obama, a self-proclaimed muslim himself, through his lack of leadership, his arrogant posture towards Israel, his commitment to weaken U.S. defenses (look at the comment he made to the russian which is tantamount to reducing our nuclear capability while the russians have no intention of limiting their own stockpile) and his open support of all muslim terrorists through apology and appeasement is opening the door to an attack worse than the 9/11 WTC.

    September 13, 2012 at 6:58 am |
    • linda

      At least use facts. Obama is NOT a muslim. You can rail against islam, because there is cause their because of their double and triple standards and their knee-jerk response to what they perceive as a slight to their religion. That is fact-based. But don't make this tragedy into a American partisan event and post lies.

      September 13, 2012 at 7:06 am |
    • Itsonlyme

      You're a pathetically ignorant person.

      September 13, 2012 at 7:11 am |
    • James

      Obama, a self-proclaimed Muslim? Since when? What planet are you on? Because it's not Earth. Get a grip and get your facts right.

      September 13, 2012 at 7:11 am |
  19. Richard Fore

    Mecca is a slum.

    September 13, 2012 at 6:57 am |
  20. Richard Fore

    Islam men like to stick bananas in their bums.

    September 13, 2012 at 6:57 am |
    • hassan bin hussain lade.

      Richard why yaaal red necks boon town bufoons fk ure sisters. No wonder all this inbreeding got u retarded.

      September 13, 2012 at 7:12 am |
    • Lizardking75

      Actually muslim men loving sticking bananas in each others arrrres. Then they eat them with some nice lamb meat and chickpeas. They wash it down with Israeli spunk.

      September 13, 2012 at 7:33 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.