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. citizenUSA

    Sorry guys. Your prophet is a historical figure and subject to public scrutiny just as much Kim Kardashian is. However I believe people should respect your feelings and just not do anything as much as I believe that Muslims should not be so quick to anger. You can't expect the rest of the world to walk on eggshells forever. You burned our flag. In our country that's a crime and an huge insult to our people but are we killing your emisarries? Destroying your property? Peeing on King Tut's tomb?

    September 13, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • Amniculi

      Can you imagine if some nutjob like Jesus or Mohammed were alive today? They'd have a reality show in an instant. Doubt there'd be religions based on them though. There's no First Church of the Kardashian – though that does sound like some religion that would be encountered on Star Trek.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • Akim

      "citizenUSA" do you really live in USA or on another planet; where the heck did you see Muslims are burning the flag of USA, in the USA. (I hope u r no talking about any film you might have seen on Fox, which they might have filmed in their backyard or u might have heard from Henetttty or Lumbahaaa).

      September 13, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • Amniculi

      Akim, he's not talking about burning the flag in the US. They did desecrate the flags in Egypt and Libya, however. The point he is making is that even though our flag was desecrated, you don't see Americans attacking Egyptian and Libyan consulates in the US.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • portcon801

      Did David Koresh or Jim Jones have a reality show? Nope. They sequestered their subjects so they could thoruoughly brainwash them. Publicity, education, and dialogue is the enemy to Islam because it informs the masses. Information is ok so long as it ONLY comes from the Imam.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  2. Doc Vestibule

    During the first Gulf War, the Kurdish people feld to the mountains bordering Iraq and Turkey in order to escape the genocidal pogroms of Sadaam Hussein.
    A UN task force setup relief camps in those mountains in what was dubbed Operation Provide Comfort.
    The Kurdish people, mostly devout Muslims, were dying by the hundreds of malnutrition, dehydration and exposure.
    Companies from all over the world donated supplies to assist the refugees, including Levi Strauss who sent palattes full of blue jeans to keep people from freezing to death in the mountains.
    The Kurds took the clothing and then tried to re-sell them, refusing to wear "Jewish" clothes (Levi being a Jewish sounding name).
    Just another example of religious indoctrination overriding common sense.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Amniculi

      Well, that and Levis are worth a heckuva lot more in the Middle East than in the US.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  3. Math

    when your "peaceful" religion is the butt of the world's joke, its not a stretch for you to live the the worlds exhaust pipe.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  4. geckopelli

    Shall we allow barbarians to dictate what we as Civilized people can say and do?

    I think not!

    Our money is the only thing keeping the joke known as "islam" alive.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Then stop buying their oil.
      The United States is quite happy to maintain friendly diplomatic and trade relationships with brutal dictatorships so long as the leaders of those despotic states keep the oil coming.
      Sadaam Hussein was no less a genocidal madman prior to invading Kuwait, yet had a great relationship with the Reagan administration.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  5. drc

    Sensitivities? Perhaps if those 'peaceful' muslim countries actually had something to offer their lunatic citizens other than the Pig Allah they would have evolved beyond living in flea infested areas.

    While all religions have their 'extreme' followers, Muslims hands down have the craziest most evil and their child molesting Mohammed would agree if it was alive today.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  6. Person of Interest

    That's one thing that always confused me: Mohammed can't have an image displayed because he is a prophet, even by non-Muslims. But you have everything from old School Jusus to Buddy Jesus with the Christians and no Muslim freaks out about the depiction of Prophet Jesus. They should do this whenever any of their Prophets are depicted Jesus and Moses included. They don't so it's a bit convenient for people that say they don't worship Mohammed. They worship Mohammed the same way many Americans worship stupid celebrities.

    To me there's a bit of hypocrisy there.

    I think that shows they failed ages ago

    September 13, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  7. Reality



    From the studies of Armstrong, Rushdie, Hirsi Ali, Richardson and Bayhaqi––

    The Five Steps To Deprogram 1400 Years of Islamic Myths:

    (Analogous steps are available at your request for deprogramming the myths of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Paganism..)

    ( –The Steps take less than two minutes to finish- simply amazing, two minutes to bring peace and rationality to over one billion lost souls- Priceless!!!)

    Are you ready?

    Using "The 77 Branches of Islamic "faith" a collection compiled by Imam Bayhaqi as a starting point. In it, he explains the essential virtues that reflect true "faith" (iman) through related Qur’anic verses and Prophetic sayings." i.e. a nice summary of the Koran and Islamic beliefs.

    The First Five of the 77 Branches:

    "1. Belief in Allah"

    aka as God, Yahweh, Zeus, Jehovah, Mother Nature, etc. should be added to your self-cleansing neurons.

    "2. To believe that everything other than Allah was non-existent. Thereafter, Allah Most High created these things and subsequently they came into existence."

    Evolution and the Big Bang or the "Gi-b G-nab" (when the universe starts to recycle) are more plausible and the "akas" for Allah should be included if you continue to be a "crea-tionist".

    "3. To believe in the existence of angels."

    A major item for neuron cleansing. Angels/de-vils are the mythical creations of ancient civilizations, e.g. Hitt-ites, to explain/define natural events, contacts with their gods, big birds, sudden winds, protectors during the dark nights, etc. No "pretty/ug-ly wingy thingies" ever visited or talked to Mohammed, Jesus, Mary or Joseph or Joe Smith. Today we would classify angels as f–airies and "tin–ker be-lls". Modern de-vils are classified as the de-mons of the de-mented.

    "4. To believe that all the heavenly books that were sent to the different prophets are true. However, apart from the Quran, all other books are not valid anymore."

    Another major item to delete. There are no books written in the spirit state of Heaven (if there is one) just as there are no angels to write/publish/distribute them. The Koran, OT, NT etc. are simply books written by humans for humans.

    Prophets were invented by ancient scribes typically to keep the un-educated masses in line. Today we call them for-tune tellers.

    Prophecies are also invali-dated by the natural/God/Allah gifts of Free Will and Future.

    "5. To believe that all the prophets are true. However, we are commanded to follow the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) alone."

    Mohammed spent thirty days "fasting" (the Ramadan legend) in a hot cave before his first contact with Allah aka God etc. via a "pretty wingy thingy". Common sense demands a neuron deletion of #5. #5 is also the major source of Islamic vi-olence i.e. turning Mohammed's "fast, hunger-driven" hallu-cinations into horrible reality for unbelievers.

    Walk these Five Steps and we guarantee a complete recovery from your Islamic ways!!!!

    Unfortunately, there are not many Muslim commentators/readers on this blog so the "two-minute" cure is not getting to those who need it. If you have a Muslim friend, send him a copy and help save the world.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Reality

      Putting the kibosh/”google” on all religions in less than two minutes:

      • There was probably no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

      • There was probably no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

      Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell.

      • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

      • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

      • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

      • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

      • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

      Added details available upon written request.

      A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

      e.g. Taoism

      "The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

      Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother's womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. "


      September 13, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  8. Fed-up

    As with any fundamentalist religion, Islam preys on the uneducated and weak. The same as in America.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Amniculi

      Yep. We even have our own Taliban. It's called the Tea Party.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  9. Cliff

    The people of islam need to understand they DO NOT DICTATE what the rest of the world can and cannot do. There imams, clerics or what have you need to explain, that in a free society, people can say and do what they want. These actions are ridiculous at best. Is anyone going over there into their countries and doing this, NO. These films, cartoons and such are from individuals, in their own countries, and not being made by the governments, what part of that don’t they understand. Furthermore maybe we should start protesting because I sure find it offensive to my sensibilities seeing them destroy my flag, our embassy, killing our people or dancing and celebrating on the street after some whack jobs fly planes into our buildings. (I remember the celebrations being held on the streets of islamic countries when 9/11 happened.)

    September 13, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      And the people of Afghanistan aren't big fans of having their cities, villages and countryside reduced to rubble by invading imperalists trying to usurp their natural resources.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • Amniculi

      I think it can safely be said that Afghanistan is the one Muslim country that we have interfered with for reasons other than natural resources. Not enough there for us to worry about.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Akim

      Cliff, open your eyes and mind... 99 percent Muslims on the face of earth denounce killing innocents people, kids, women, etc, does not matter if it done by any suicide bombers or by any country's army. As for the celebrating on 9/11 that's another lie of Fox, who showed the previously recorded film (see the film closely and then see the time here USA on that day and that country's time and then see the back-ground of the films). They showed it because they know nut-head don't think.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • Bob

      We have the same customs here in America, they just look differently and are accecpted by us because our culture is familliar to us. See through the lens of those you do not understand. You do not have to agree; but know where they are coming from. And, understand your own culture to be able to spot similarities that could connect you to those from different cultures.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Well said.
      Remember – your enemy is never a villain in their own eyes.
      Keep that in mind and it may offer you a way to make friends.
      If not, you can dismiss them quickly and without hate.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  10. Sam

    Acts of senseless violence like this is why we need to condemn religious indoctrination. Children grow up believing these fairy tales as absolute truth. Thus when doubt is introduced into their worldview that claims to have all the answers, they react violently.

    The truth is people are scared to seriously take a second look at their most deeply held beliefs. They believe that the problem always lies outside of themselves, that the great evil is always overseas or 'out there' in the world. People refuse to accept the possibility that they have been living a lie their entire lives, they would rather strike out in violence against anyone who states opinions contrary to their own, Because for them, their entire self is built from the beliefs. We need to stop it before it starts.

    Dogma is a cancer that needs to be cut out.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • kebcarerra

      Sam , they pray five times a day . These people are living their religion . Maybe we should stop judging them and start respecting what they have been telling the world . No more images of the prophet.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • Amniculi

      BS! There is no religion that deserves respect – especially one that demands respect through violence (Christianity included).

      September 13, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  11. JeanneLH

    What a perfect article for me, a teacher, today. I am attempting to explain the killings of the Lybian ambassador and staff and it's all right here. I learned alot about Islam in this article. Well written.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  12. kebcarerra

    Okay I got it , no pictures of the prophet . Easy enough . Looks like a jewish realtor , by posting his video has gotten our ambassador killed. He owns it .

    September 13, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • Harvesting

      You have got to be kidding. The only laws that were broken were done in Libya and Egypt, and you blame some dumb guy who did a movie almost no one watched. There is NEVER an excuse to kill people that have NOTHING to do with the party or group that made this offense to the this religion.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  13. Ali

    40 years ago when I first went to Egypt, we were warned not to take pictures of people without asking their permission because at that time it was also considered a form of idolatry. Now, Muslims are very comfortable not only having their pictures taken but in appearing on TV. When I was a kid, it was likewise considered disrespectful to Christians to portray Christ in movies, etc. Of course, I don't recall riots and killings when Christ was portrayed in movies and on TV. People simply didn't watch.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  14. portcon801

    This is about evil men exercising power and dominion over uneducated people. These evil muslim men use Islam as a tool to bring about their evil designs – power and control. It started long before Mohammed – he just mastered the art form and created a following that deified him. Yes deified; why else would there be riots across the world because of disparaging comments, depcitions about Mohammed? The prohibition on depicting prophets is an utter farce. Muslims lie as easily as they breathe – its called Taqqiyah.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  15. tom

    Famous Muslim quote:

    Islam is a peaceful religion; and if you say otherwise, we will kill you.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  16. stonedwhitetrash

    The Muslims are completely brainwashed from birth. The Catholics did the same for centuries and still do to some extent

    September 13, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • therealhawkman

      Catholics do? Pray tell where that is happening where Catholics are rioting against anyone? Perfect name you use.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • Tyler

      Traditional Catholics are taught that the Pope, archbischops, bishops speak the word of God. Until recently, if the Pope said jump, Catholics said 'how high'. Catholics would follow what their relgious leaders said over all else. That's why there was concern over electing JFK, as a Catholic, would he disobey the Pope? Now a days this is just non-sense. The Pope says no birth control and Catholics don't care. In the US, many Bishops are very liberal speaking out on issues like immigration, death penalty and social justice, which is greatly ignored by the flock. Many of those who claim to be a practicing Catholic in the US honestly has more in common with an anglo Protestant than a true Catholic.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  17. A Traveler

    The reason Islam hates the west is because of our success and their failure. Their "fairy-tale" says their "big guy" will provide for all of islam. Well look around. It does not provide - they live in poverty. So they shake their tiny little fists and burn flags and murder peoiple. They should be ignored until they grow up and join this century.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  18. Kinpen

    Pointing fingers to each others will lead us no where. If they are idiots we are no better off. Above all religion we all are same sharing the same mother earth, which means one family. Lets us all work together and pledge to stop violence right now and right here. If not between push and pull we all will remain suffering without having any proper sense of right direction. We need little bit of right view, right understanding and handle the situation in peaceful and wisely manner.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  19. Patrick

    As a veteran of foreign service I have seen a great deal of beauty and at the same time, from my perspective unjustified anger from those of the muslim faith. I have seen and spoken to many who practice this religion and for most they are relativley polite, well mannered and dream of peace....... Perhaps I am foolish enough to believe that the actions or words of one single man regardless of how ignorant or naive should not be considered the words of a nation, a people or religion. To those who would feel offended by some no one film maker, that is your right. However, to retalliate against those who have done nothing is pure unjustified hate and cowardice. Your frustration allows you to be taken advantage of and used by men who would use your own religous teachings against you to achieve their own misguieded goals.Goals not of your own and that bring shame upon your people, not your religion!!!!!! Peace will come to those that want it, not those who follow those who wish otherwise.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • stonedwhitetrash

      Very good post

      September 13, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Akim

      Patrick, as Muslim, nothing but agree with you, religion of Islam teaches nothing but peace, respect and dignity. But my point is that when religion of Islam and today VaAAAAAAst majority of Muslims are condemning this un-Islamic, and un-civilized act, then why still these nut-head, full of hates (and still shame-less to call them-selves civilized) blame all this on Islam?? In Islam this act is forbidden and it strongly said to give respect and protection to the all envoys/ambassadors,etc from other countries, not only during peace time, but during war time was as well.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • Harvesting

      @Akim The problem is why within the Islamic community not calling each other out when acts like these are happening? Note I am not blaming you or your specific community. Within the leadership of Islam we do not hear anyone comdeming these people or groups that would make their statements. Example is within Christianity there is a group that seems to read that going to soldiers funerals and making statements of hate are justified. There have been many statements within the Christian community about how this type of act is viewed. People will always make thier own decisions but leaders have an obligation to take a stand if they want the perception of the community to be positive.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • BM

      "religion of Islam teaches nothing but peace, respect and dignity"

      Total nonsense. The Qur'an is full of advocation for incitement to violence, intolerance, and disproportionate reaction. For example Muhammad's claim that persecution is worse than slaughter. Words he put into the mouth of his Allah. That just scratches the surface of the bad behavior Muhammad advocated and practiced, all with a shallow veneer of politeness and respect. He only quoted other religions rules on politeness and respect to cover his own evil tracks as he violated every one of them.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  20. Evenstar13

    The bible has several references against worshiping idols and I, as a Catholic fully understand why Islam refuses to worship any idols. The Catholic church has stautes in its churches, which are representations of the saints, the blessed mother and of our savior and lord Jesus Christ. The protestant reformation was against these reprsentaions as people at that time , and some still do today, were praying to them. To pray to a statue or a man is indeed idol worship, however, the difference between Islam and Christianity is that Islam does not forgive as Christians do. They prefer to kill anyone whom they deem as an infidel and it is a label they apply, like anyone else, when and where it suits there needs. Christianity is taught "to forgive us our trepasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." Christianity converts people through the teachings of the gospel. Islam converts thought the point of a sword. These differences are fundementally irreconcilable and therein lies the dilemma. How do you share an ever shrinking world with a people whose religion teaches them to kill those who will not convert to Islam?

    September 13, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Mary

      As a Catholic, the church as statues, paiting and images to remind us of Christ, His mother and ordinary people who have lived saintly lives. We don't pray to the statues. As stated before, Islam converts the point of a sword and conversion to Christianity can be a deadly. As the country is predominately Christian and Jewish, it's not clear why Islam wants to gain a foothold in this country. It would seem that Muslims would want to stay in their middle east homeland where they can freely practice their belief system which is incompatible in the western world.

      September 13, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Evenstar13

      The goal of Islam is to convert the world. Suliman the Great (a Muslim) made it to the gates of Vienna and the Moors had to be driven from Spain through long and bloody warfare. They will never cease in the attempts to convert the world. In the next great war Muslims will be at the heart of the matter. Read your history!

      September 13, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Amniculi

      How is this any different than the Christian conquest of the western hemisphere?

      September 13, 2012 at 10:31 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.