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.

Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter

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.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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. Duke5343

    Just another reason to revert to being the animals they are, we sit and watch them burn bibles, deface churhes 1200 years of trying to conquer the Med area destroying whole cities which proves they have been an evil force of murder for all those years- the Koran was written based off the Christian & Hebrew bibles and the religion began with war and violance and will end that way

    September 13, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  2. johnfrichardson

    But then, Muslims, including Islamists, carry pictures of the Ayatollah and Bin Ladin and other Islamist big shots and have shrines to their "saints". So this exception for Mohammed actually tends to deify him even more. He is the one and only person in all of history who cannot be depicted? At any rate, people who respond to speech and drawings and cartoons and films with deadly force should never ever be appeased.

    All that said, while we decry the killing of an American official on foreign soil, perhaps we should pause to remember civilians killed by the American military in their own homes.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  3. Steve

    Ah, someone offends them so they murder other people. Noted. Why do we help this country out financially? By doing so we are condoning their behavior.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • WASP

      @steve: that i do agree with. we shouldn't give hostile foreign powers money, it doesn't do anything but allow them to line their pockets and buy weapons that are used against us.

      keep our money in the hands of allies that mean to work along side the US, not those wanting to destroy us.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  4. Kfed

    Mohammed and Jesus were lovers

    September 13, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  5. Jim

    Just an excuse to attack

    September 13, 2012 at 7:56 am |
  6. WASP

    what these ignorant people don't understand is by attacking people of an image of mohammed, they are worshipping him as more than a man, by being willing to ki11 for him.

    religion breeds such ignorance.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • dubs71

      NUKE THEM, make them eat glass

      September 13, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  7. Homey Clause

    I think we should truen all of the Middle East into Glass. That would solve the problems!

    September 13, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • Homey Clause

      Mohammed is an ass clown and gay!

      September 13, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • Homey Clause

      We should stuff the Koran up all Arabs Asses!!!

      September 13, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  8. Gemeniguy

    The Arab god is Allah. The U.S. god is Oil.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • Cindy Brower

      America's God is Jesus Christ- Never forget the true Messiah, you Muslims keep living in denial!
      Until you recognize Jesus Christ as your saviour, there is no hope for the people of Islamic faith!

      September 13, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • WASP

      @cindy: until you religious freaks realize that ALL OF YOUR GODS ARE NOT REAL, the rest of us will be stuck having to witness your violence over who's god is better.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • Duke5343

      Oh really ever think maybe more than just Arabs worship Mohamad- stupid statement

      September 13, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • johnfrichardson

      Get over this god nonsense. I'll be impressed when god himself attacks someone for some supposed act of blasphemy. Attacking people on behalf of some wimpy cry baby god is just pure human thuggery of the sort found within religion and without.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:10 am |
    • tinkrrbel

      America's God is NOT Jesus Christ. YOUR God is Jesus Christ and it is because you live here that you are free to worship him in whatever manner you see fit. There are those of us who live here who choose not to worship any God at all, but have no problem defending your right to worship as you see fit. That is the basis of our nation. When people get off their soapboxes and stop preaching to others about their religion and leave it to each person to decide for themselves, then we will have peace. It is not YOUR job to save the world by insisting other must worship your God or be dammed to eternal hell. When you do that, you are just as bad as all the other religious zealots out there. FREEDOM IS TO CO-EXIST!!!

      September 13, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  9. Michael

    I don't understand. Why would they protest a depiction of their Prophet Mohammed and then turn around and raise such a fuss about someone burning paper with words on it (Quran)? Islam sounds so hypocritical.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:48 am |
    • johnfrichardson

      One might say that Mohammed knew what he was working with culturally and tried but failed to convince people that mere pictures and stone figures and words on paper are just stuff. That's the best I can concoct on behalf of Mohammed. There's no excuse for some of his followers.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  10. Ryan

    the problem IS religion – teach people to believe absurdities and you can get them to commit atrocities. This global barbarism is 100% the fault of religion, which continues to bring mankind nothing but misery and false hope.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:45 am |
    • jeff t

      global barbarism is due to poverty. not religion. religion is used as an excuse to keep people from revolting against their own governments.

      September 13, 2012 at 7:58 am |
    • ECM

      Perfect truth Ryan!

      September 13, 2012 at 7:58 am |
    • johnfrichardson

      Global barbarism is NOT all the fault of religion and spouting such transparent falsehoods only serves to discredit atheism and other forms of disbelief in/rejection of formal religion. Global barbarism the fault of poverty? Oh for god's sake. Most barbarism is committed or condoned by the wealthy and powerful within ALL political systems.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • Muhammad Ali

      Dear Ryan – the problem is not about the religion, it's about the people they act . Islam is betifull it's the the peace of soul in a life that is full with contriductions.

      You can be a ciminal but that doesn't mean Christinity is that bad, it's teh way you understand your religion and how you act in accordance to your understanding.

      you can use teh knif to kill and you can use teh same knif to cut an orange!

      finally, I know many will go an screw me and islam , we never (as good muslims) should do the same.

      I really appreicate if you know what you are talking about before you spead your thoughts everywhere.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  11. tcaros

    Mohammad is filthy Arab bstard. I drew a mustache and big schlong on his picture.

    So, screw you Arab little rats. We'll put some pain on you for even raising a protest.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:44 am |
    • Cindy Brower

      tcaros, Agreed!

      Islamic faith has no place in America!

      September 13, 2012 at 8:01 am |
  12. Ryan

    These "protests" are the best way to promote the film. Way to go Arab world! You are promoting what you are protesting! My GOD that is STUPID!!!!

    September 13, 2012 at 7:43 am |
  13. PBUH

    So backward So stupid..............

    September 13, 2012 at 7:43 am |
  14. 1zb1

    By now it should be apparent this is a coordinated series of attacks. Radical groups – probably with close ties to Al Quida -s are staging attacks by manipulating relatively small numbers ofring elements of the population. We need to view this as a military assault from an enemy that is adapting to the changing battlefield that is as much about perception as reality. Embassy's are relatively easy targets with high PR value and visual imagiry.

    On the other side of the table there are elements in the US that also want to provoke conflict. They can virtually press a button at will to cause violance in the middle east and thereby justify their own religious war. Clearly the willingness of Romney to try and politically exploit the current – but really not unusual – situation demonstrates how such fringe thinking has become mainstream politics in America.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:41 am |
  15. nepawoods

    Let me see if I understand this. Mohammed can't be depicted because it could lead people to worship him as God. And a movie that depicts him as "a child molester, womanizer and ruthless killer" is seen as a big violation in that regard?

    September 13, 2012 at 7:41 am |
  16. IcemanN4

    Muslims. It's why Americans should not and will not disarm. As long as there are crazy fools like this on the planet, I will have a house full of guns. Myself, and every other SMART American needs to realize we live in a world that hates us. I hope it never happens, but, let this craap start going down in OUR streets...and Americans have the means to stop it...as long as Obama doesn't take that right away. Watch the video above and ask yourself...is this crazy? Pretty much.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • Beck

      way to go?! those who call for the violence against any religion will face lots of problem. namely the American citizens are one of the fastest growing convert groups into Islam. I guess that namely here in the States many Americans convert into Islam. Are you going to violate them as well? do you know all what it will bring to? another thing- there is no single or common power in the world which can destroy any-any religion in the world. Look what only one Afghanistan does to the West. i hear silly comments lie – lets teach them, we can do that, lets do a new crusade- I can only answer- learn history. theonly way for EVERYONE is to respect each others believes and religions. thats how we could ALL survive

      September 13, 2012 at 8:12 am |
  17. Tim

    These are ignorant and uneducated people

    September 13, 2012 at 7:35 am |
  18. Howdy Ho

    Gee, yet more deaths due to religious fanaticism. Anyone seeing a pattern here??

    September 13, 2012 at 7:35 am |
  19. Boom Boom

    What shines light on is how violent these people are. Why can't they protest without murder?

    September 13, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • amigay

      Jews have been demonized for centuries yet they don't protest so why do it at all? Muslims are nuts.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:10 am |
  20. John

    Death to Islam and Mohammed.

    September 13, 2012 at 7:28 am |
    • Moby Schtick

      and christianity and jesus

      September 13, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • Frank

      What are Christians doing to hurt people Moby Di ck Face? You Evil Ba&tard.

      September 13, 2012 at 7:32 am |
    • WASP

      @frank: it was a christian that made that film...............so yeah i think he holds most of the blame for how did he put it "wanting to show the world his views on mohammed"

      a christian instigated this event by broadcastings his views in a movie that he knew would upset the muslim population; he's no different than that insane preacher that burned the quran.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      The Manmasi National Christian Army and the National Liberation Front of Tripura force Hindus to convert to Christianity at gunpoint and aren't adverse to killing children to get their point across.
      The Army of God kills doctors in the US.
      Then there are the white supremacist Christian groups like the Aryan Nations, Aryan Republican Army, Phineas Priesthood, and The Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord.
      It's not just Islam that has groups of violent nutters

      September 13, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • johnfrichardson

      And it's not just religion, either, right, Doc?

      September 13, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      It certainly isn't just religion.
      Politics, greed, and good old fashioned avarice and revenge are the motivations for plenty of violent groups.
      But nothing is so handy for rationalizing brutality as religion.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:27 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 100 101 102 103 104 105 106 107 108
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.