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. Hoover23

    FK all religions , they are all poison to humanity.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  2. steelerguin

    I certainly understand that Muslims do not want to worship an image of a man (Mohammed), but how does that translate to killing people who use that image but are not of their faith? I believe they use any excuse to kill those who are not Muslim.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  3. Hobbes73

    The entire middle east should be cut off from the rest of the world for the next 50 years. No planes in our out. Borders put up and nobody gets out. They can practice their hate amongst each other. Heck, Mohammed will take care of them if they need anything. We have enough crazies in America the way it is.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • JohnS

      Great idea! I hope you enjoy your $35 a gallon gas.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  4. Rh404

    Muslims do nothing to promote the peace and love they claim is part of their religion. Their actions portray a religion of hate.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  5. Leroy

    Muzzies also revolted against the film "Prometheus". They said it was a lousy Alien ripoff and are calling for the director's head.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  6. Tyler

    So according to CNN, if you get bit by a rabid dog, it's your fault for not leaving it alone.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  7. Kizidek

    Muslims...unfortunately, you are only proving what the video was saying , however inelegantly, that it is a "beginner" religion based on a violent theology with a Prophet who unfortunately killed (beheaded) many people himself. By having such a prophet you give yourselves permission to act violently to defend whatever you want, even though his teachings expressly forbid murder or suicide. BTW it was later scholars who added the Hadiths that said no images of prophet or women must wear scarves. The actual Koran does not say this and if anything is only saying women should cover their breasts out of modesty...which is common in all cultures.

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

    @((:-{)> Mohammed emoticon, let's see yours.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • Kizidek


      September 13, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • Pika


      September 13, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • Very good

      I couldn't figure out how to depict a dirty old man hu*mping a 9 year old girl, so I'll have to pass.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  9. Ed

    There are several Christian Religions which also do not have "graven" images but they don't turn to violence against others. I think that there is an element of controlling the message at work. With no images, they can create whatever image they want thus controlling the PR.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  10. DB

    I'm not interested in hearing about the cultural and theological explanations behind these barbaric displays of violence, to even discuss it implies that it even makes a difference...it doesn't.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • tuvia suks

      @DB You are so right. To discuss it is to give it validation. There is none.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • Jimbo

      Great comment.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  11. mordrud

    ummm...I'll take a wild stab in the dark.....because they're b@tsh!t crazy?

    September 13, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  12. Ric Stevens

    You dont see the Christians burning down places when mockeries of CHrist come out because a true Christian wouldn't even THINK of that.. Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter... The LAst temptation of Christ are only 2 Examples of this...DEAL with other people and thier views of your own.. If they dont Jibe.. Oh well It isnt Our place to judge one another .. Just to accept those Differences

    September 13, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • T-Max73

      Perhaps not. But when confronted with inquiry and opposition to their views most Christians (as well as other collectivized systems of mandated thought) tend to stifle questions and examination of their beliefs, and resort to playing the "hurt feelings" card whenever someone points out the obvious (which is that there is no evidence for the childish belief) to them. Peace.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • Bob

      Actually, Ric, the nasty users' manual for Christianity, AKA the bible, does demand some pretty horrid violence from you. Here are some choice snippets. Perhaps you should RTFM:

      Numbers 31:17-18
      17 Now kiII all the boys. And kiII every woman who has slept with a man,
      18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

      Deuteronomy 13:6 – “If your brother, your mother’s son or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend who is as your own soul entice you secretly, saying, let us go and serve other gods … you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death”

      Revelations 2:23 And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works.

      Note that the bible is also very clear that you should sacrifice and burn an animal today because the smell makes sicko Christian sky fairy happy. No, you don't get to use the parts for food. You burn them, a complete waste of the poor animal.

      Yes, the bible really says that, everyone. Yes, it's in Leviticus, look it up. Yes, Jesus purportedly said that the OT commands still apply. No exceptions. But even if you think the OT was god's mistaken first go around, you have to ask why a perfect, loving enti-ty would ever put such horrid instructions in there. If you think rationally at all, that is.

      And then, if you disagree with my interpretation, ask yourself how it is that your "god" couldn't come up with a better way to communicate than a book that is so readily subject to so many interpretations and to being taken "out of context", and has so many mistakes in it. Pretty pathetic god that you've made for yourself.

      So get out your sacrificial knife or your nasty sky creature will torture you eternally. Or just take a closer look at your foolish supersti-tions, understand that they are just silly, and toss them into the dustbin with all the rest of the gods that man has created.

      Ask the questions. Break the chains. Join the movement. Be free of Christianity and other superstitions.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • tuvia suks

      @Ric. Wrong. You judge by actions. This speaks of barbarity and sheer ignorance, and a willful desire to do harm.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Joe

      Um ... what about Christians that bomb health centers that perform abortions. Granted they are extremists and they are rare – reality, because Christians are the majority they don't need violence to bring attention to their views.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  13. serana

    The muslim religion is not based on Quran but on hadith and sunna, lies attributed to Mohammad.

    The Quran condemns this and says [77:50] Which Hadith, other than this, do they uphold?

    For as long as muslims followed Quran they were leaders in science, arts, military. With the introduction of hadith and sunna some 250 years after Mohammad's death, the muslims started going downhill. Similarly the trinity was introduced 250 years after Jesus, at the conference of Nicene by a slim majority vote of the bishops, who also decided to discard the gospels except for 4 that favored their beliefs/agenda (gospels according to Mark, Matthew, Luke and John).

    September 13, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • Akim

      @Serana: Muslims do believe in Quran AND Sunnah at the same time. They do not worship any creature but only ONE Creator.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Kizidek

      You are correct...hadith's are random musings of dead old tribesmen...THEIR interpreation of Koran but not the Koran itself which even forbids the Hadiths so it's ridiculous to kill based on hadith which is what they do.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  14. Whome

    My guess would be because he is as dumb looking as the people who follow his teachings.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • Richard Jones

      I heard that it is due to the fact that he closely resembles a perverted pig ???

      September 13, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  15. VegasRage

    God does not need our protection, grow a brain you fools.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  16. Rick McDaniel

    There is no common sense reason for any religion to have zero tolerance for their ideology. If they cannot defend their ideology in a proper manner, it simply says that ideology is indefensible.

    The violence makes no rational sense, therefore, the religion is irrational!

    Wake up, world! Islam is a dangerous and violent religion, and the world must see it for what it truly is......a danger to the entire free world.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • Joe

      I agree – that really is the key issue – some religions have no tolerance for people who don't agree with them. While Islam may be the biggest offender, some Christians believe the rest of us need to agree with them or else we go to heck. That is sick.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  17. serana

    I think it is hypocrisy for muslim Imam's to justify this killing by saying that depiction of Jesus and Moses are also prohibited in Islam. Where were the riots when The Ten commandments were shown, or movies depicting Jesus? They hide their idolization of Mohammad from the people but not from God.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  18. Steve L

    If Christians or Jews do the same thing in the name of their religion, then they are as bad as these brain dead Muslims. Would if Christianity demanded that all turn to their religion or they must die? What in hell kind of religion is that? You mean they would want to kill the non believers and give them no chance at redemption? Does that mean they would go to a so called hell? For how long? You see, this is all insanity, mostly made up to give meaning to a lot of people's miserable existence. Does that mean you?

    September 13, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  19. Bishop Hairy Palms


    September 13, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  20. truthBtold

    this proves that Islam is NOT a timely religion, if Mohamed was alive today his picture would be EVERYWHERE. Islam needs to be thrown back to the 7th century where it belongs with it's backward ancient way of thinking. If Mohamed wa alive today he would also be thrown in jail for Pedophelia, Murder, Racism ....Muslims ought to wake up and accept that Mohamed was nothing more than a FALSE prophet and his religion is a sham

    September 13, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • Akim

      TruthBTold (or it should be LieBHold), what is great in taking pictures that someone have missed long time ago. If you are familiar with history (read instead of just having all the hates for Islam in ur heart), even before Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the kings used to have their statues/pictures. You should be ashamed of yourself having nothing but hatred, and still try to falsely claim to live in "civilized" culture.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • serana

      Mohammad preached the Quran, the theme of which is to worship the one true God, and work righteousness. Muslims do not follow Quran, but hadith and sunna made up by his enemies. The muslims are duped into following this just like the christians are duped into worshiping Jesus. The muslims and christians need to be educated and relieved of their ignorance and stupidity.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • Jake

      Islam and Truth mean the same thing im Islamic. There is no acceptance in Islam that things in the Koran are not true. Plenty of Christians believe in evolution, something in absolute contradiction to the Bible. Muslims cannot handle this. They want to do back to the 7th century where there wa no science or television telling them the Koran is wrong.

      The real reason radical Muslims hate the West isn't George Bush or Isreal- its Hollywood. The biggest threat to Islam are ideas contrary to Islam playing in very theatre and every television. Many In the Middle East receive their education soley through religios groups. They aren't being taught in school anything that contradicts Islam. They only flow of info they can't stop is Western entertainment.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:39 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.