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. strangways

    interesting – how many Pope/Catholic jokes, cartoons, scribbles, whatever have there been? no rioting or madness. But just say the Prophet's name and they go wild, burning and killing – then they dare call it the "religion of tolerance." yeah, right.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  2. Jay

    There is no such person as Sam Bacille. Why are you rehashing a days-old inaccurate report when the current information reveals that we know nothing about who made this or what his nationality is? You're CNN, for goodness sakes. Get on the ball.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  3. jerseydevils76

    They're called Extremists. Too much of anything is a bad thing. Same happened with the Crussades yet it seems like Christians, now, are always the ones in the wrong.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  4. domeunit

    Being sensitive about your "prophet" being depicted doesn't give someone the right to kill/attack others. That is in fact the opposite of what these so called religious people should be doing.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  5. buckshot

    I realized this at the age ot ten and started to see things as they really are and no gods are going to do anything about all thats going on and has been for eons and eons.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  6. Sandy

    Mohammed is not real...Islam should wake up and realize they are but an insignificant part of this race we call human...they will die as we all do with no purpose.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • ME II

      I think Mohammed was a real person, wasn't he?
      Oh, and I don't think ~2 billion members is "insignificant" either.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • James

      All claims of divine communication aside, it's most likely that a man named Mohammed did exist. Much like Jesus or Budha (Siddhārtha Gautama), there was almost certainly a historical figure by that name, whose religious claims are up for debate

      September 13, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • TinKnight

      Oh really? 1 billion people are insignificant??

      Whether or not you agree with their belief structure is irrelevant...that many people are ALWAYS significant, especially considering they are in some of the most resource-rich areas of the world.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • raju

      It does nt matter you are 2 billion. One day Islam will die, becasue your religion is based on Pedo profit who lied and was a war mongerer. Why do you think there is violence eachtime someone speaks about the truth of islam.
      Nobody thought communism would collapse. It just did one day.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • Kevin14618

      Sounds like you need prozac with that view of the world, especilly that part about life having no purpose.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • ME II

      Don't get upset there. I'm not Muslim or any religion, I just don't like distortion of the facts.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  7. ME II

    I've found a few articles about it, but I would think that more Muslims would come out against the killings and violence in general, rather than, just explaining their sensitivities around their prophet.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • Moses

      I am a muslim, and I can assure you that muslims do condemn the killing of the embassador, and also condemn all the damages being done to the U.S embassies around the world, please forgive my ignorant brothers in Islam, who are falling on the same trap that some chritians fell into after 9-11-01, both of them are alike, and we reaaally need to help put a stop to this kind of ignorance, and the best way to do that is simply through educating muslims more about our religion of islam, because what they are doing now is totally against its mimimum basics and also re educate christians about christianity, and most importantly have more interfaith dialogs, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, have so much in comon, they should never fight each other or even talk bad about each other. i challenge any one that doesn't agree to first read the books of these three religions before respnding.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  8. AvdBerg

    The Ambassador’s killing in Libya was a culmination of the rising tensions and deep-rooted hatred amongst civilizations in a divided world (Matthew 12:25,26). For a better understanding of the history of Islam and the Middle East we invite you to read the articles ‘World History and Developments in the Middle East’, ‘Clash of Civilizations’ and ‘CNN Belief Blog – Sign of the Times’, listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    All of the other pages and articles listed on our website explain how and by whom this whole world has been deceived as confirmed in Revelation 12:9.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  9. Woody

    Mohamed is easy to Blaspheme because of the historical content of his character. Even the Koran paints him as a "man" of questionable character

    September 13, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  10. buckshot

    If thats the case, the mormons could start worshiping their prophet(s) looking on them as some sort of god. This is why all religions suck. Gods are crreated in their minds, and are none of them reall.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  11. Steve Cook

    Link to case law relative to this film being released.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • Ryan

      I don't care what the reason is; it's wrong. You do not light buildings on fire and KILL PEOPLE over a movie. Imagine Buddhists killing people because someone else did not engage in one of the four noble truths. These people are insane. Fundamentalist Christians are insane too but Jesus! Kill someone?????? Even they wouldn't do that with a few exceptions.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • ME II

      Interesting.. I wouldn't have thought this would be their decision. Of course, it was in 1942...

      "2. The Court notices judicially that the appellations 'damned racketeer' and 'damned Fascist' are epithets likely to provoke the average person to retaliation, and thereby cause a breach of the peace. P. 574"

      September 13, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  12. 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 11:08 am |
    • smokin1011

      This might be the best post I have read about any of this insanity. Worship a box of raisins if you want, but don't kill someone because they said the raisins taste bad.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • Johnny

      There is no one solution for all people. Reaching spiritual peace with yourself is not a set in stone formula. I am a Christian therefore I would recommend any person that is struggling with their spiritual well being to Christianity. If atheism is what brings you true spiritual acceptance, good for you. But I know many people that are "atheists" that choose atheism because it is the easiest "religion". The easiest religion is the absence of religion. The arguments are the easiest to "win", there's no ethical obligations to your religion, and they can always fall back on the 1% of religious representatives that perform evil deeds. But it takes true work to maintain a religion, be it Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  13. Teeph

    The level of outrage shown from any perceived "insult" shows that they do, in fact, revere their prophet as a god. In fact, they may revere him more than god. They seem to get more upset about silly things like this than they do over insults to god.

    Beyond that, if the concern over depictions of the prophet are rooted in the fear of idol worship . . . how is this unflattering depiction in ANY danger of causing that to happen? Are these people concerned that they will come to worship a child abusing, womanizing, violent egomaniac? That's what they deem worthy of worship? If that's their concern, maybe that should tell them something about themselves.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  14. schaz

    There are many reports out now, that say "Sam Bacile" is not Israeli, and that "Sam Bacile" is not his real name.

    CNN please correct this article.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  15. Laurie in Spokane

    Mohammed may be holy to Muslims, but he's not holy to the rest of us. These reactionary Muslims must be very unsure in their beliefs or they would not take such umbrage at ridiculing or parodying Mohammed. If they were confident in their beliefs, and comfortable with all its teachings, they would not have to defend it so viciously.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  16. SDCinNS

    They decry images of Mohammed, but are fine with cutting the throats of innocent people? How sick is that!!???

    September 13, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Kind of like "pro-life" activists killing doctors....

      September 13, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • SDCinNS

      Not really... because.. a Muslim is not saving the life of anyone when he kills people over a picture or a cheap home movie. I don't think either is justified.. but.. I don't see them as being the same.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • Steve

      Kinda like doctors killing babies!

      September 13, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  17. palusko996769

    I guess they never heard the saying "Image is worth thousand words". Well, the images we see now from Egypt, Libya, Morocco are worth million words...

    September 13, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  18. TDHawkes

    If the Prophet is just a man, then why can't he be criticized? It seems that many Muslims' worship of the Prophet is idolatrous in nature.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  19. MikeInNebraska

    Islam isn't a religion but a cult. A very sick one at that.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • Amniculi

      All religion is a cult.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • ME II

      Get a lot of exposure to Muslims in Nebraska, do you?

      September 13, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      How do you dinstinguish between a religion and a cult?

      September 13, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Drink my Kool-aid

      Christianity is technically a cult of Judaism.
      just saying....

      September 13, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • farzana

      the followers of prophet jesus were ridiculed by the followers of prophet moses and now the followers of islam are being treated the same way , there is no cure for ignorance

      September 13, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • raju

      Its a blessing to not have exposure to Islam.
      I am from india, these rats conqured India and never left. Now we are infested with them.
      Your forefathers fought and kept them away. But the new generation is allowing these rats to come in to your country.
      Sit back and enjoy the ride baby.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • Ann

      Probably the difference has something to do with celebrating human sacrifice and cannibalism.

      Oh, wait – that's Christianity!

      September 13, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • farzana

      @ raju – people who worship everything and anything between drinking cow's urine and rodent's poop should not criticize other religions i am from india too and please dont call the british rats

      September 13, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  20. JW33

    This whole incident is a reality of what we call the "Third World". It's no wonder they are so backward compared to the Western countries.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:58 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.