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. Bishop Hairy Palms

    If your "God" needs you to avenge him or carry out his will, your religion is a bunch of bullsm@ck.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      If your God tells you to do such things in a clear and unmistakable voice please choose medical intervention rather than obedience.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  2. glades2

    Interesting to note that only two weeks ago the US was tested by Hurricane Isaac, and now by those who are the descendents of Ishmael, and as some also know, Abraham was the father to both Isaac and his brother of Ishmael, Ishmael considered the father of Arabian culture and the forefather of Muhammed...

    Ishmael, Ishmael – why do you persecute Me...

    September 13, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  3. palintwit

    Muslims prefer to hire teabaggers to dig their latrines.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • Steve L

      How long did it take your pea brain to make that one up? Do you really think anyone would find that funny? Go back to your comic books and leave us adults alone.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  4. Bishop Hairy Palms

    Religion creates fanaticism.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • 3 cents

      SO... they attack and kill people because they don't follow their religion... sounds like a winning strategy. Then they wonder why the West call them terrorist

      September 13, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  5. chicagorich

    My values and freedoms are not to be determined by different peoples religions around the World. If that were be allowed to happen I would soon find that I had no values and no freedoms. It is our right and duty to fight and defend our values and freedoms against those who intend to impose their beliefs upon us. There is absolutely no way you can justify to me an attack on our embassy because of a film some particular individual made that you did not like. It is a waste of your time trying.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  6. Truth

    Violence is not encouraged by Islam. Self defence is. The quran was narrated to the prophet in parts. When early muslims were being persecuted for not practicing the faith of the day God told the prophet to fight back. Thats it. That's where it ends. I'm not too familiar with the Torah but I think it's just like the Jews were told to fight the different tribes to establish a homeland after they left Egypt. It's not a call to constatnly fight non-believers. There are statements in the Quran that say that if the non-believers stop fighting you, you also have to stop fighting them. In peoples hateful minds that want to the believe what they want to rather than the truththey don't care to realize this. They'd rather create their own context which doesn't exist. I'm kind of glad that all this disinformation is out there because eventually people/governments are gonna try to establish if that information is correct or not, and they'll hire vetted objective people with no agenda, which will learn the truth. There are already lots of books written by non muslims which state the real meanings of the Quran. There are also lots of books written by people with an agenda which spread false information.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • chicagorich

      Just from a statistical standpoint, there is a significant positive correlation between geographical areas with above a threshold presence of Islam and violence. It may not prove cause and effect, but the correlation is there. It could be that the rest of the World is attacking Islam, or the reverse, or even something else, but where there is more than a 10% presence there is a higher probability of sectarian violence and war within the past 20 years.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • Tyler

      Yes, Muslims willl stop fighting when there enemies stop fighting back and the world is under the control lf their Caliph, the Caliphate certainly will be honorable and nobel while killing the infidels.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  7. Mark

    The ignorance is astounding. How could you possibly feel comfortable saying Islam is any more unbelievable than Christianity? How would you all feel if you saw a middle eastern cartoon or film portray Jesus or the Pope in a manner you felt was unholy or desecrating? I don't think any one religion can be more correct than another. You all sound crazy to me. Maybe this is why so many people over there hate us so much.

    The problem here is ignorance.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • DontPretend

      People make cartoondepictions of Jesus all of the time. Heck, he has been a character on South Park for years. The difference? We don't take it upon ourselves to commit murder over it.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • Jim Duron

      European churches did exactly that for Centuries. To blaspheme against god/church was punishable by death. The amount of blood the catholic church has on its hands is mind numbing. Islam is is just a present day version of that ignorence and hatred.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • Steve L

      You're kidding , right? You think the ignorance is over here? What rock did you just crawl from under? Jesus is attacked all the time over here but you don't see people killing over it. If some symbol of Mohammed was placed in a glass of urine, what reaction would Muslims have? They would kill and burn as many infidels as possible, even if they were not the ones responsible. Over here some people, view it as art. Never seen any killings or be-headings over that.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  8. Bishop Hairy Palms

    Religion requires you to surrender logic and reason.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  9. Dallas

    The middle east and all the muslims over there are so backwards, still in the dark ages. Why else would the ones that wanted "normality" get the heck out of there? Islam is one dark religion that should be done away with.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • Jim Duron

      Europeans had same idea about all non traditional christians in Middle ages, Pagans, Jews, non conforming Christians etc..Two wrongs don't make a right. Even if you get rid of Islam it will be replacedd by somthing new. Education is big part of it whiping out ignorence. Here in the USA people are going crazy when you tell them the Bible is Mythical and there Stories are fantasy. In fact a large potrion want bible and God to be a base for goverment and School.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  10. serana

    The muslims killed Dr. Rashad Khalifa, who found the superhuman mathematical structure of the Quran. Unfortunately this math code also proved that what the muslims were doing was completely against the Quran. They should have been happy that the divinity and preservation of the Quran was proved, but they could not stand criticism of their idolization of Mohammad even from the Quran.As Dr. Khalifa wrote in his book 'Quran, hadith and Islam', telling the muslims that hadith and sunna (attributed to Mohammad) are satanic innovations are just like telling the Christians that Jesus is not the son of God, and that those who claim adherence to Quran are in fact its worst enemies, by distorting and misusing it.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Dr. Khalifa was a sort of numerologist, at least in his approach to the Quran. A really odd bird. He was assassinated by one of his students, I believe.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  11. Frank

    This movie simply depicts the verses and facts in the Koran. Why didn't any of the hundreds of movie makers who created movies about the bible and Christianity have to go into hiding so they wouldn't be MURDERED?

    Because ISLAM is HE11 on Earth and is not a religion. Its a radical, violent ideology he11bent on world domination. Their GOD demands it.

    Am I the only one who see's this fact that now movie makers about the bible ever had a problem? Is the world truly this BACKWARDS!?

    September 13, 2012 at 9:16 am |
    • Dallas

      I'm with you!

      September 13, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • tuvia suks

      Frank, I'm with you as well. Fundamental xtians are not much better though. All religion is bogus.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  12. palintwit

    One time when I was vacationing in the middle east I saw a muslim by the side of the road with his arm all the way up a camel's butt. " Car trouble ? " I asked. Badda-bing !! Badda-boom !!

    September 13, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • tuvia suks

      @ palintwit. That was falling on the floor funny!

      September 13, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  13. Rod

    Religion that supports thuggery is not so much a religion as a haven for the worst kind of behavior masquerading as religion.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      A religion does not come into being on its own. Neither is it self-sustaining. It is entirely a creation of people and reflects the ideas and habits of the people who created it and, most of all, the people who follow it. Islam is an environment and justification for oppression and violence when and where its adherents want it to be so. When you find reason to condemn Islam, look to the people – leaders and followers – who are behind it. Hold them accountable.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:24 am |
    • Jim Duron

      Most religions are full of violence in there history, christians vs. pagans, catholics vs. all other religions in Europe and south America. Mormons killed there own and any one who chanllenged Brigham Young(not Joesph smith he was Killed by his own). Islam is all these things but not that different take a closer look at history of popular religions it wll make u shake your head.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  14. volara

    The right question would be "Why should normal people care?"

    September 13, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • Marco

      Exactly, we should cut our losses, drill at home and leave them to wallow in their 7th century filth.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  15. Tyler

    The Scientologists should take a crack at converting Muslims into a more believable religion.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • Wm.

      I'm usually someone who tiptoes around religious sensibilities, but that's pretty funny.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  16. JDJ

    The problem with the film is that it is true. It is well known that "the prophet" married a 10-year girl and that Islam forced itself on its neighbors through bloodshed.

    Can anyone with a straight face say that there would be riots if "the prophet" were portrayed positively in a film?

    September 13, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • Frank

      Exactly. How many movie makers of the bible and Christianity or any other religion for that matter had to go into hiding to keep from being murdered in a FREE COUNTRY!?

      September 13, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  17. Greg

    There are dozens of online images of Mohammed, all from ancient Muslim paintings, books, texts and other printed material. It seems that a lot of the material is Persian, but there certainly has been no absolute bar in the past to depicting Mohammed.This is not dissimilar to the fact today's othodox Jews think that jews never did any art, due to 2nd commandment. Yet, excavations all across what was the ancient near east reveal lots of Jewish art in homes, synagogues and public buildings.They have forgotten their own history.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  18. Common Sense

    Why is the image of a fake prophet considered sacred? Because the people who worship it are ignorant of the world around them. Why? They have been raised ignorant and with that comes fear and hatred as a by product of their own ignorance.
    They are looking for an excuse to hate others. And, there no is better foundation for ignorance and hatred than RELIGION.
    It's a myth, poor ignorant people.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • housmann

      If you are not sure of what you are saying " it's better to shut up your mouth" because it only manifest your ignorance. What do you think right, the people who are whorshipping IMAGES and IDOLS?

      September 13, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  19. Cheo

    Now CNN is going to hire all the opinion they can hire to make us understand the "killings and burnings in the greater context of Muslim sensitivities".

    As a Copt, who reads and listen to those mobs in Arabic, I can tell you that the rage boiling in those followers of the "religion of peace" has nothing to do with idolatry as this BS claims. They are raging about the so-called the honor of the prophet.

    Just think of how they dealt with the Catholics' sensitivity on the issue of birth control. A world with totally inverted moral order will not stand for long.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • Frank


      September 13, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  20. irunner

    Profit is good!

    September 13, 2012 at 9:06 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.