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. Sailor101

    Mohammed was a man so that means he can be wrong. But muslims worship Mohammed as if he were a god, taking every little rambling as if it were the words of a god and not a man. So even they are all mixed up and don't know what the heck they are doing or what they are suppossed to be doing or waht is the saying of a man and what are the sayings of god.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  2. Avdin

    and yet by making such a big deal about it they seem to elevate the prophet to status of godhood. They should care less that he is shown in a bad light. they should only really care if he is shown in too GOOD of a light.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  3. jasonn13

    So the Prophet Mohammed was a child molester and pervert? Fits right in with the rest of those goat ropers that follow his teachings. Those guys need to find their sense of humor and not go bonkers every time someone points out the obvious.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  4. tony

    The cowardly idiotic american film maker who didn't have the cojones to stand by his/her film coupled with the muslim nut jobs who kill people over a picture. Hard to take this religion seriously when it's perverted by fools. Much like Christianity i would think as interpreted by the evangelical fools.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • Sailor101

      As we learn more and more about this film and the story behind it, the more and more it looks like this was done by Jihadist/Salafists in order to create the violence so that they could gain a foot hold in these countries who just recently lost their leaders and are looking to gain a foot hold in order to convert the populace to their twisted way of thinking.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  5. James

    We don't want to worship him. We want to mock him.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:20 am |

    These days, however, Hindus are fixated on a surge of kidnappings of teenage girls by young Muslim men who force them to convert and wed. Pakistani human rights activists report as many as 25 cases a month..........'2Ti 3: This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come.'

    September 13, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  7. job

    stop manipulating people, it is obvious this is not true. 99% of muslim peope didn't see any movie and never heard of any thing like that. guys think about the muslim world is 3 world country, they have no movie theaters, they don't even have tvs at home. how the heck in the world you show them this movie if there is no mean to communicate with them.

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


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

      then what is this bollywood I hear about?

      September 13, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  8. myspaceyourface

    I don't really care why they are doing it. It is an act of war. The rubber bullets and tear gas should be put away. Mr. Obama and his fellow muslim leaders are all saying the right thing. Let's see how their actions line up. I would stop giving the muslim brother hood the billions of U.S. dollars that would be a start.


    September 13, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • Christian!

      It's a peaceful religion 🙂 🙂 🙂

      September 13, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Hate4none

      A Bankrupt country can give Billions of Dollars?. HAHHA AA.......... GREAT Debt nation can give BILLIONS? QE is coming soon deepen this DEBTS which NEVER had by any other nation other than USA in history of mankind

      BE a realist man

      September 13, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  9. irock

    Never I mean Never take a rock and a board for a shield to a gun fight.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  10. deepak

    Akbar Ahmed says half truths. Praying to the graves of dead preachers is part of Islamic life in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, as well as other Arab countries like Iraq. These mazars or dargahs are billion dollar business, and have been patronized by Emperors. Emperor Akbar is said to have been blessed with a son after praying to the grave of Khawaja Chishti in Ajmer. In Pakistan such dargahs are cults and most homes will have an image of the grave which are adorned and offerings made. Islamic jihadists will find any number of excuses to attack non Muslims. It is time to stop theorizing and finding silly reasons like in this article.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  11. Josh Burton

    In today's modern world, religion is not needed. It's a dark ages dogma and the world would be better without it.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • nostrildamus

      Exactly. We need to get rid of the cult of sports right now.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • lil

      Absolutely–religion is responsible for almost all the ills on this planet.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • FredKelly

      You have more faith in human nature than I do. No matter your beliefs, or lack there of, humanity is not ready for pure secularism now and may never be. We need to believe that we answer to a higher power, and that we will be held to account for our actions even if no one else witnessed them. If religious tenets are just "words", then the words of tyrants are just as valid.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • Christian!

      you're by yourself there bub... absolutely alone in a corner .. 🙂

      September 13, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  12. Earthling

    Show a film in the US depicing Jesus as a womanizer or thief and watch the Christian extremists appear........they are just not as openly violent.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • Christian!

      that's because they know they will go to jail.. and we have too much to live for . 🙂

      September 13, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • John

      Really? A lot of people wouldn't like it, but you wouldn't see us violently breaking into your embassies and blaming foreign governments for the actions of a filmmaker and some jerk in a basement somewhere who decided to dub in the lines that were so offensive in the film. Actions like those taken outside of the US embassies are inexcusable and have no place in this world. Get your rabble under control or get them educated enough to see the harm they are doing to their own countries.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • FredKelly

      Do you remember the 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ? It was a major film and widely criticized as blasphemy by the Christian community. There were protests, debates and a lot of angry rhetoric. But no one died over it. The current situation has everything to do with Islamic hyper-sensitivity, not Western insensitivity.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  13. trueab

    Sensitive? Crying tantrum throwing children is more like it.
    Learn to laugh at yourselves. Fundamentalism is for the uneducated.


    September 13, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Christian!

      I'm fundamentalist... and very well educated on Jesus! 🙂

      September 13, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  14. JS

    I was just trolling thru the pictures, and it is interesting that these people will resurt to violence against the United States, but not take off their Levi's, nikes, and Angry Bird Shirts. It just seems like a slight oxymoron to me.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  15. tiggerswoodsy

    and what about the muslim communities playing videos of martyrs in mosques to youth groups?? spreading hate, time for that practice to be stopped also!!!!!!!!!!

    September 13, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  16. Malachiah

    The way Muslims feel about pictures of Mohammed, I feel about the pictures of Jesus, it is idolatry. But I do not burn down their shrines. I wait for Jesus to do that and He will. Muslims cannot wait for Mohammed to defend himself, for he is dead. Jesus lives!

    September 13, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Drink my Kool-aid

      You are just as stupid and deluded as the Muslims you chide. Jesus is dead. No zombies homie.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • Christian!

      Amen! Malachiah! Amen! 🙂

      September 13, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  17. Barry

    I dont get it we live in a democracy I can burn the flag, the KKK can march in Skokie, i can deface moses, jesus and other religious symbols but g-d forbid we do anything to Mohammed it is the end of the world. If you don't like democracy leave and in those countries where the citizens don't like us take all of our Government people out and $$ back home. I am a proud American and will never apologize for our freedom of self expression even when I disagree

    September 13, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • Hate4none

      Freedom means to insult, make cartoons, make such a movie hurt 1.5 billion muslims? IF you are right & on TRUTH side then make arguments prove your point of view & change their opinion in decent manners. Immorality of this society is gone far ahead. You don't respect own religious figures & want to Muslims must accept this.
      Why you are not condemn film maker who is the responsible for all this including 4 innocent Americans DEATH.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  18. Bill


    No, those words don't seem to fit.

    Crazy. Murderers. Ya, those work.

    See, if somebody calls my son stupid, I'll get angry and tell them to go shove it. I'm SENSITIVE to that sort of thing. I don't decapitate you or throw acid in your child's face. That would be CRAZY.

    Stop defending their f–king crazy, anti-social b.s.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  19. tiggerswoodsy

    oh, but where are the canadian and american muslim protests? thats right no where, so its all a red herring!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    September 13, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  20. Mew Mew

    CNN should cut the crap for once in their hokey propaganda pushing existence. Tthe violence is blowback from a heartless and murderous U.S. foreign policy.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • Drink my Kool-aid

      Drone strikes rule! Faceless death for all!

      September 13, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Tyler

      drones are necessary because Islam is incompatable with modern civilization. A religion that teaches it's followers even mentally ill children should be executed for blastphemy laws. Islam teaches nothing but violence and hate. What they can't stand is the the liberal media's constant spin, American understand the religion of terrorism.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • TJX

      Actually the protest is because Muslims are whiney little girls. Islam in general needs to be wiped off the face of the earth. The best way to do this is to bomb Mecca and Medina and burn every single quran in the world. Any muslim backlash should be met with equally fierce and violent force until muslims get the message that they're not going to be handled with kid gloves anymore.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • Christian!

      No it's not it's from ignorant Islamic nuts who hold on to their false religion like Khan did to kirk in "The Wrath of Khan"

      ROFLOL 🙂 🙂 🙂

      September 13, 2012 at 11:47 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.