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. TruthbeTold

    I personally condemn this act, and believe it was used under the guise of Islam to achieve another agenda. I mean think about it, logically a coordinated move in Libya and Egypt on Sept. 11 smells fishy.

    As for depicting images of the prophet...
    Even with freedom of speech, there are certain taboo statements/images (aka nyger, holocost in a derogatory picture) that cannot be made....I can't see why depicting the image of the prophet can't be put in the same category.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • TomPaine

      Pretty much everybody agrees the movie was a really stupid and hateful thing to make–it's the over-the-top tantrum responses we so often get to such things that make Islam look so childish.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  2. Gonz

    One day it is because of the burning of THE book, another because of a cartoon....... Who is going to want to invest in any of these countries?. I just see that region falling further behind, intolerance increasing, and just more of this.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  3. trigtwit palin... America's favorite tard baby

    *poot* --> muslims, teabaggers, birthers

    September 13, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  4. Drink my Kool-aid

    More stupidity perpetrated in the name of religion. All religion is built on stupid, outdated, ancient myths that are verifiably false, yet 3000 years later people are still buy into the garbage. Apply logic to any religion and and it will crumble under the weight of its lies. God is man made.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  5. awol51

    Maybe this is the solution,maybe not.Let's pull all military out of the region,close all of the Embassie's,and leave them to thier own end.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  6. Russ

    Israeli movie maker: "your religion is hateful."
    Angry Muslim mob: "we're not hateful! we'll kill you for saying that!"
    CNN: (patting on the head, patronizing) "they don't know any better. just don't provoke them."

    CNN might as well be saying: they belong at the kiddie table. They don't get a real seat at the discussion table because we can't expect them to be adults & have a civilized conversation when someone does or says something with which they disagree.

    In the name of being politically correct, this is actually incredibly ethnocentric & insulting.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  7. Burnt Koran

    Mooslims get upset because I named my dog Muhhamid,I dont get upset because Mexicans name there children jesus,what gived?

    September 13, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • BM

      Why abuse your dog that way? Don't you love it?

      September 13, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  8. Craig

    Buy a copy of the koran at a flea market for a quarter. Use the pages to pick up your dog's waste, line your bird cage, wrap your used tampaxx–as it stupid narrative sure does not keep its idiot reader's from blowing up innocent people. Feel free to add other uses below:

    September 13, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  9. donner

    Well, if we learned one thing, it's that Mitt Romney is not ready for prime time.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  10. wb

    Kill'em all and let God sort them out.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • richard gardner

      Ironic, that seems to be their philosophy as well.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • Drink my Kool-aid

      What god?

      September 13, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • Atheism is Great for Kids and Grown-Ups Too!

      It's really best for all people including children to have an agnostic approach to god, and an atheistic approach to all religion. It keeps things simple for kids, and let's them be all that they can be. They just need to be taught that some things, like all religion, were just made up by salesmen and politicians from long ago**; and that other things, like god, we really don't know a damn thing about.

      Atheists have strong minds and don't need a religion. Sometimes, religious folk run and hide their misdeeds within their religion (and by doing so, they disserve society). Sometimes, religious folk are easily offended when someone mocks their make-believe characters – and, as we can see they can get really CRAZY!

      So instead of praying to make-believe people, get a good cup of tea and go on and sit down and collect your damn thoughts. My goodness.

      ** (yes, charlatan spam started long before the Bible; what would make your think it hadn't?)

      mama kindless

      September 13, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  11. trigtwit palin... America's favorite tard baby

    Glurkle sllooorrpp, ppffftttssssss? Blagghh !!! drool...

    September 13, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  12. w5cdt

    I guess conservatives in this country would never do that regarding denigration of the Christian religion.....right??

    September 13, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  13. lefty avenger

    The Innocence of Muslims does not feature Muhammed, it has Some Awful White actor with a towel on his head running around in a fake desert. It's Total D movie Garbage. It always seems that Muslims are on edge and waiting to explode like a ticking time bomb. There is no Comedy in Islam, though this movie is not even that, just bad!

    September 13, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • w5cdt

      They are sheeple listening to their trouble making leaders. Anything for a good riot.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  14. Joe J.

    No film can make people riot. Stop blaming the film and blame the religion for these animals.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • ME II

      "Animals"? How does dehumanizing anyone help?

      September 13, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  15. BEM684

    According to Jewish law, it's forbidden to make images of Moses. But when South Park and others make those images and put them on TV or in the movies, you never seem to hear about Jews threatening to kill the people doing it.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • TruthbeTold

      Moses isn't depicted as a person in South Park. He's instead akin to the master control program in Tron. Also Moses isn't depicted in a derogatory way.

      Remember nobody really complained when Super Friends depicted Muhammad in July 2001, and was shown over and over again in syndication. Blame the Danish Cartoon in 2005 which caused this to become an issue.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  16. TomPaine

    Muslims: If your religion prohibits images of your prophet and you feel it's your duty and not your god's duty to police that, then fine, by all means do that–but police other Muslims only, please. It's just ridiculous and childish to expect non-Muslims to conform to your beliefs, just as you do not need to conform to theirs.

    And this movie was obviously intended to be hateful and hurtful, but the people who are getting so wound up about something the rest of the world sees as trivial and idiotic are taking it out on people who had nothing at all to do with it–how stupid do you suppose that looks? Strong condemnation from your leaders is needed here.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:44 am |
  17. James

    It amazes me how most of the posts on this story don't apologize for Muslim behavior and hold them accountable and yet when Romney does the exact same thing the liberals go crazy. All Romney said was don't blame those who believe in free speech for Muslim terrorist acts and just look at the liberal propaganda machine at CNN spin the story.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  18. Twm

    Muhammed was a pedofile freak.
    We coddle this ridiculous religion far too much.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  19. John Geheran

    Just imagine the outrage if Jews, Christians, et al, went on the rampage every time their religions were criticized . The real tradegy here is the continued apologetic tone of the Obama camp. Left unchecked, the US will be toast.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  20. Wastrel

    This article gives one explanation. How about this one: They do worship Mohammed. Since he is an object of worship, it it forbidden to depict him because that would be a depiction of a god. Idol worship is fobidden.

    This article epitomizes the sort of specious religious anaysis that people do to justify the beliefs of dogmatic religions such as Islam and Roman Catholicism. Please stop trying to explain religion when it's unexplainable.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • Craig

      mo-ham-sandwich is a poseur among charlatan's, not even a good one.

      September 13, 2012 at 10:52 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.