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. Steve

    That being said, there is no excuse for the violence. They have a right to be upset and offended, but the violent protest has no excuse. There is no reason to kill anyone.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  2. Muhammad Ali

    Who is Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings be upon him?
    He is the one who defended the rights of all humanity 1400 years ago.
    He defended men's, women's and children rights
    He commanded and fostered the love between relatives and neighbors
    He established a coexistence relationship between Muslims and Non-Muslims
    He organized the relationship between the members of the family putting duties on sons and daughters towards the parents
    He fought injustice, called for justice, love, unity and cooperation for the good.
    He called for helping the needy, visiting the patients, love and exchanging advises between people

    He prohibited (by orders from God) bad manners such as stealing, lying, torturing and murdering
    He is the one who changed our lives and manners to be better.
    A Muslim doesn't steal
    A Muslim doesn't lie
    A Muslim doesn't drink alcohol.
    A Muslim doesn't commit adultery
    A Muslim doesn't cheat
    A Muslim doesn't kill innocent people
    A Muslim doesn't harm his neighbors
    A Muslim obeys his parents and helps them
    A Muslim is kind to young and elderly people, to women and to weak people.
    A Muslim doesn't torture humans or even animals, and does not harm trees
    A Muslim loves his wife and takes care of his children and show mercy towards them until the last day of his life.
    A Muslim's relationship towards his children never stops even when they become adults
    He is Muhammad (PBUH)

    Did you know why all Muslims love Muhammad (PBUH)

    Did you know what does Muhammad mean for Muslims?
    Every Muslim loves Muhammad (peace be upon him) more than himself and more than everything in his life.
    Before judging a Muslim be fair and:
    1-Listen to this person, and watch his doings.

    2-Compare his ideas and teachings with what is Islam and Prophet Mohammad PBUH ordered.
    3-If you think that his thoughts are typical to that of Islam and Prophet Mohammad PBUH, and then compare them with his doings; is he applying these teachings?
    4-If he is applying these teachings and sayings, so for sure represents Islam, if not then he calls himself a Muslim but doesn't represent Islam.
    Hint: Prophet Mohammad is the best Muslim, no Muslim can be as perfect as he was, Muslims try their best to be the typical Muslim like Prophet Mohammad PBUH but sometimes they disobey God and Prophet Mohammad PBUH as they are normal humans who are subject to do wrong but the repent and get back to the right path.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • serana

      If a muslim loves Mohammad more than anything in his life, he is not a muslim but an idol worshiper of Mohammad. A muslim is supposed to love God the most. Mohammad was no more than a man like you, and will disown his people on the day of judgement for not following the Quran. This is what the Quran says.
      This is exactly what most muslims, like you are doing – idolizing Mohammad. It is a tragic human trait to worship God's messengers. You have learned nothing from what the Christians did with Jesus. At least they admit they idolize Jesus whereas you deny you idolize Mohammad.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • serana

      [Quran 25:30] "and the messenger (Mohammad) will say (on the day of judgment) My Lord, my own people (muslims) have deserted this Quran". He will disown their idol worship of him just like Jesus will disown his followers,
      [Quran 5:116] GOD will say, "O Jesus, son of Mary,* did you say to the people, `Make me and my mother idols beside GOD?' " He will say, "Be You glorified. I could not utter what was not right. Had I said it, You already would have known it. You know my thoughts, and I do not know Your thoughts. You know all the secrets.
      [Quran 5:117] "I told them only what You commanded me to say, that: `You shall worship GOD, my Lord and your Lord.' I was a witness among them for as long as I lived with them. When You terminated my life on earth, You became the Watcher over them. You witness all things.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • Steve L

      Really, what I'd like Muslims to do more than anything is just keep their faith to themselves. You have a right to believe anything you want, but it still doesn't make it true. Listen, I try to believe in Jesus, which is very challenging, and I don't understand how people can use their faith, any faith, to bash somebody over their head with it. Faith is no proof of anything.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • Reality

      Mohammed was an illiterate, womanizing, lust and greed-driven, warmongering, hallucinating Arab, who also had embellishing/hallucinating/plagiarizing scribal biographers who not only added "angels" and flying chariots to the koran but also a militaristic agenda to support the plundering and looting of the lands of non-believers.

      This agenda continues as shown by the ma-ssacre in Mumbai, the as-sas-sinations of Bhutto and Theo Van Gogh, the conduct of the seven Muslim doctors in the UK, the 9/11 terrorists, the 24/7 Sunni suicide/roadside/market/mosque bombers, the 24/7 Shiite suicide/roadside/market/mosque bombers, the Islamic bombers of the trains in the UK and Spain, the Bali crazies, the Kenya crazies, the Pakistani “koranics”, the Palestine suicide bombers/rocketeers, the Lebanese nutcases, the Taliban nut jobs, the Ft. Hood follower of the koran, and the Filipino “koranics”.

      And who funds this muck and stench of terror? The warmongering, Islamic, Shiite terror and torture theocracy of Iran aka the Third Axis of Evil and also the Sunni "Wannabees" of Saudi Arabia.

      Current crises:

      The Sunni-Shiite blood feud (e.g. Syria and also Iraq) and the warmongering, womanizing (11 wives), hallucinating founder.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  3. DrinkinKoolAide

    By that reasoning, anyone depicted in anything (film, photos, cartoons, etc.) could potentially be worshiped as an idol. The only solution would be to remove all depictions of everything and everyone throughout history. Good luck with that one. A sensible person would accept that preventing idol worship would be the responsibility of the believer, not an artist.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • ken

      All KFC's must burn. 'The Colonel' is not our Colonel. He's just a man, not our commander!

      September 13, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  4. John Hammer

    If your belief in your religion cannot withstand satire then your belief is weak and possibly your religion could be false.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • serana

      Please read the definition of satire versus insult. they are not the same.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  5. SeaTurtle

    This is what is wrong with people. A prophet says "no pictures of me because I don't want to be worshiped." All well and good. But as often happens with religions, things snowball, contexts change, dogma becomes entrenched and amplified, and next thing you know we're in the realm of the ridiculous, killing people who don't know or care about your peculiar not-character worship compulsion. At some point sanity must be re-introduced, but for it to be effective, it must come from within the Muslim community.

    Which compulsion do you think Muhammad would have objected to more? A representation of him that wouldn't even look like them - let's face it, since there's never been one nobody knows what he looks like - or murdering otherwise-innocent people?

    September 13, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  6. johnquepublique

    Concern about the Prophet's image? Apparently he's not showing us his good side...

    September 13, 2012 at 8:34 am |
  7. 2357

    Jesus Christ re. atrocities and freak accidents:

    "Unless ye repent, ye shall likewise perish."

    O the gentle brutality of my Lord's fair warnings..

    September 13, 2012 at 8:34 am |
  8. serana

    Muslims say that depiction of Mohammed leads to idol worship because he was a man. This is a smokescreen. Truth is that because they already idolize him, they think he is too sacred to be depicted as a man. It makes no sense that humanizing him by depicting him as a human, which he was, would lead to idol worship. However they consistently praise him, consider him the greatest prophet and mention his name alongside the Creator as a fundamental principle when it is clearly against the Quran to make a distinction amongst God's prophets. Mohammad is instructed in Quran to say 'I am no more than a human being like you'.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • ken

      It just makes no sense. Logic says that the riots are for reasons other than what this article says. I see a land filled with mostly young males who want nothing more than relevance. Their desperation is being exploited by people who want to create an atmosphere of fear so that they can further their own agenda.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  9. laffing

    As usual, I've enjoyed the comments far more than the actual article. Watching the English language used as a chew toy by people who are stating that Muslims are all " ignorant, uneducated, animals" is kind of refreshing.

    Having a hard time with your native tongue while bashing someone else for their uneducated ignorance? Priceless.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  10. mike

    They don't want to idolize Mohammed , but yet every muslim man is named Mohammed....

    September 13, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  11. PR

    Muslims are ignorant azzholes. The only good musim is a dead muslim.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • sam stone

      PR...volunteer to go to the middle east and kill them.

      Do you have the guts, or are you another big mouth keyboard warrior?

      September 13, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • serana

      PR, in fact you are ignorant for not knowing about muslims and their religion, but what the media propagates. Learn to see who benefits and you will know who the culprit is.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  12. Brown Noser

    Mohammed touched me in my special place. It was divine. then he said that I could have 50 virgins if I wanted to drive a truck for him. My stipulation was only if I could wear high heals. He said no. I am so confused.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  13. ken

    This doesn't make sense. Muslims believe that Jesus was just a holy man too and I see Jesus everywhere... by this logic, muslims should be burning museums everywhere because classic statues of old Greek Gods are kept inside. I wonder, I've never been to the Middle East. Do they have museums containing old Akkadian and Babalonian relics? Or did they destroy everything?

    September 13, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • ken

      by treating Mohammed differently, they're in effect idolizing him... thereby destroying the whole purpose of this logic.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      A few years back, The Taliban blew up magnificent 1,500 year old statues of Buddha that were carved into a mountainside about 100 miles outside of Kabul.
      And let's not forget that much of Baghdad, Kabul and countless oulying regions have been decimated by American bombing over the last decade or so...

      September 13, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  14. Doc Vestibule

    A man named Thomas Aikenhead repeatedly maintained, in conversation, that theology was a rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense, patched up partly of the moral doctrines of philosophers, and partly of poetical fictions and extrava/gant chimeras.
    He ridiculed the holy scriptures, calling the Old Testament Ezra's fables, in profane allusion to Esop's Fables.
    He railed on Christ, saying, he had learned magick in Egypt, which enabled him to perform those pranks which were called miracles.
    He called the New Testament the history of the imposter Christ.
    He said Moses was the better artist and the better politician and he preferred Muhammad to Christ.
    The Holy Scriptures, he maintained, were stuffed with such madness, nonsense, and contradictions, that he admired the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them.
    One cold January morning, Thomas was brought before the people of Edinborough, Scotland and for his blasphemy was hung by the neck until dead, dead, dead.
    The history of religion is strewn with the corpses of heretics and blashphemers. Any religion that gains sufficient political power will vigorously persecute all those who question the official Dogma and will seek to expand its influence by conquest of neighbouring pagans.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  15. Sharon

    Who among us will stop and try to speak peace to this situation? Who among us will stop and try to calm the rage that seems to overtake this situation. Our Ambassador to Libya is DEAD! His family is mourning and so are other families. There is fault for both sides. THINK, PRAY AND THEN REACT. This out rage of hateful words and discourse is NOT making anything happen to better the situation

    September 13, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • serana

      One way to fix this problem in the future is to have laws against mischief makers who chose to remain anonymous. I bet you the intelligence service was behind this to create trouble, then get an excuse to attack that country or at least create destabilization.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • Kfed

      Calm down Sharon. Think then react, leave the prayer out of it. Thats what this is all about!

      September 13, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • Kfed

      I'd like to see an image of you!

      September 13, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  16. all

    All faiths have their rules. There is NEVER any reason for violence though which goes against Islam as well.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • fiftyfive55

      well,there is a whole world full of muslims who would argue your "peace"comment.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  17. Calvin

    Mohammed was a child molester. Period.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:16 am |
    • Sharon

      You need to calm down!

      September 13, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • vj chak

      For that matter, muslims in the middle east are all child molesters because quran (their holy sacred book) permits them to marry virgin young girls regardless of age. What a shame of a religion? The bottom line is that it is a barbaric religion which teaches that only islam is the greatest religion and allah is the only god. What a shame again to even call it a religion?

      September 13, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • sam stone

      Calvin: And the Christian god is a virgin boinker.....do you have a point?

      September 13, 2012 at 8:35 am |
    • sam stone

      vj: and christianity doesn't teach that theirs is the only correct belief?

      September 13, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • serana

      Really, did you see him do that? It is ignorance that leads to these problems and you are right up there.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • serana

      VJ, FYI (for your ignorance), no religion specifies a minimum age. Quran talks about mutual attraction and a dowry (for protection of women). Muslims are no different than Christians in abusing their religion. Jesus said 'My God and your God, my father and your father') but do Christians believe him? They would rather believe visions attributed to Paul described and written by others, ton idolize Jesus against his wishes.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • logic@reason

      go right around the corner to your local catholic church to witness child molestation first hand

      September 13, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • serana

      VJ, again FYI, the quran states that Islam is not the only religion and Allah is not the only name of God. 2:62 and 5:69 say "Surely those who believe, the Jews, the Christians and the converts, anyone who believes in God, the Last Day and does righteous works, their reward lies with their Lord. No fear shall come upon them neither shall they grieve."
      You would do yourself a service by reading the Quran.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:48 am |
  18. cha cha brown

    I love bacon!

    September 13, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  19. Too Much

    Its just an excuse for their rage and hatred. Period. You can't justify these actions.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  20. barbara

    Decrying images of the prophet is one thing, murdering people is another. Their reaction to ANY perceived insult is tantamount to an immature child having a temper tantrum, only they are adults and use guns. I personally would never draw, say, or make a movie that is anti- muslim or that is against their prophet, but I will DEFEND TO THE DEATH, someone else's right to do it. Did you know that Muslim groups in the US are pushing to make it a crime, yes a crime, to say or do anything that they perceive as an insult to their religion? Boy, will the supreme court have fun with that one.

    September 13, 2012 at 8:08 am |
    • Calvin

      " Did you know that gay groups in the US are pushing to make it a crime, yes a crime, to say or do anything that they perceive as an insult to their life style? Unfortunately, the precedent has been set.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • serana

      Nobody should make fun of, or offend others. Freedom comes with responsibility. When freedom is used to hurt others then it becomes a crime – even freedom of speech. Simply go out and broadcast that the holocaust never happened and see what happens to you? They won't kill you but they will put you in jail to rot, even in America. This freedom thing is much abused.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • sam stone

      Calvin: Got a burr up your a$$ about gay people, too? Show us where they want it to be a crime to insult gay people. If you got a link, provide it.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • sam stone

      serana: show us where people are put in jail in america for saying that the holocaust never happened.

      September 13, 2012 at 8:56 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.