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. darrenhankins

    who care what they think....it a twisted demented religion based on half trueths

    September 13, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • Alert Citizen

      Well, if you want to continue thinking on these terms, you either stop going for their oil or get ready for these violent retaliations. Its just sad that why can't we leave people alone!

      September 13, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  2. Diogenes23

    yeah rm13, the obvious truth is that being a member of one religion means you believe yours to be the one and only true religion, the concept of "respecting other religions" has always made me giggle, its ludicrous, really, "what a christian is saying when they say that is essentially "I respect your right to burn in hell for all eternity" cracks me up

    September 13, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  3. Ztom

    Imagine there's no heaven. It's easy if you try. No hell below us. Above us only sky.
    Imagine all the people. Living for today...
    Imagine there's no countries. It isn't hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for. And no religion too.
    Imagine all the people. Living life in peace...
    You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one. I hope someday you'll join us. And the world will be as one.

    Unfortunately doesn't look like that could ever happen. Contrary to the lyrics, I'm not against people practicing religion, even though I'm an atheist. I just wish that people didn't use religion as an excuse to harm and hate. I realize not everyone does this. There are many peaceful religious people out there. More power to them! But there are some bad apples. And it seems that there is a higher percentage of bad apples in some religions vs. others, though all religions have their fanatic groups.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  4. Muhammedthepig

    Suck it Muhammed. Suck it good.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  5. updateonfacts

    Sam Bacile is a pseudonym and the filmmaker is not an Israeli citizen.


    September 13, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  6. dee

    Shoot these rock throwing idiots!

    September 13, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  7. Honey Badger Dont Care

    F*#K Moohamed right in his child rapist a$$.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  8. ELH

    I have given up trying to come to grips with the actions of Islamic i d i o t s and as far as I am concerned, any Muslim who practices Islam by killing innocent people because somewhere someone supposedly desecrated their prophet Muhammad should be stuffed with bacon and fed to the hogs.

    There is no more intolerant and cruel a religion as Islam.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • A Traveler

      As long as the event is streamed on the internet for all to see.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  9. Suleiman Ashraf

    People don't like to see their loved ones insulted (if you truly love them). Muslims love the Messenger of God more than anything else. What makes things worse is when the ignorant fools who are all about "freedom of expression" insult him in such a cowardly way. Muslims are open to debates and discussions, but to mock and run away like a coward will not benefit the Coptic Christians or the Israeli Jews or Christian Extremists. Muslims will get stronger in their love and faith because of acts like these.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Squeezebox

      Why do you Muslims insist on holding us non-believers to the same standards of dress and behavior as members of your religion? Mohammed was just a man to us, and as subject to ridicule as President Obama. If we're supposedly going to Hell anyway, why not leave us alone to our sin?

      September 13, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • TJX

      We don't care if you're so emotionally insecure that you can't handle criticism and mockery of your terrorist prophet. That's how freedom of expression works. Your senstivities are your problem, not ours. If you try to make it ours, we will bomb your holy sites and wipe you and your demon religion off the face of the earth.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  10. USA

    We live in America, and in this country every citizen has the right to depict whatever he wants. It's a freedom of our society. If Muslims don't like it, that's fine ,they don't have to, and thankfully it this country does not have sharia law.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Drogba Chens


      So you will be proud of yourself when you are accused of molesting you own children and haveing s** with your mother and when (whatever text you respect) is mixed with poop and drained down the toilet? Free speech or hate speech? If you have differences come out and discuss/debate/critisize like men.

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

      That would be true if we were offending Americans but we are not. With that same thinking we should have the right to offend every countries leader and use our laws to protect us if war peruses.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  11. MPLS70

    Mohammed was an epileptic. His "visions" came from his seizures. He was also an amateur revisionist historian who simply took stories from the Torah and New Testament and tweaked them in ways that were convenient for Mohammed. In other words, not a prophet but a fraud.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  12. Alex

    I flush Mohammed and Jesus every morning since their faces are printed on our toilet paper!

    September 13, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • i12bphil

      ...along with any sense of dignity you once had.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • Excuse me

      I gotta go take a big ol' Alex

      September 13, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  13. Moore

    The truth of the matter is there has been many depictions of Mohammed throughout the ME history.

    Muslims turn violent for only one reason, becasue the depictions of Mohammed as a child molester and war mongerer (Which was true based on the teachings of Islam itself) will be end of Islam. There is no debating this and muslims have no answers to this debate. Hence the voilence.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • Ryan

      I especially like how Mohammed didn't want anyone to idolize false gods (AKA Jesus), and everyone has turned him Mohammed into, what exactly? Time to wipe the Arabs off the face of the earth – Would the world really be at a loss if they were no longer here? What have they contributed to the world?

      September 13, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  14. dingleberrydewdrop

    explain to me why this is all worth the death of 4 Americans?

    September 13, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • brajeshblog

      Exactly! Violence my certain muslim fanatics only makes Islam look like an intolerant, violent religion. It gives more fuel to the fire, basically films, cartoons and other depictions by some (different kind of fanatics) to be produced.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  15. RM13

    This is not about people not respecting your right to follow any religion you wish, you can't expect people of a different faith than you to follow the tenants of your faith....EVER! While people should respect everyone's right to practice whatever religion they wish ..they do not need to actually respect that religion!!!
    If you do not support gay marriage..don't have one, If your offended by halloween..don't dress up and go trick or treating, If you are offended by pictures of Mohammad...don't make or look at them, If you are offended by movies or books critical of your faith...don't go see or read them. But if you force others to follow YOUR PERSONAL beliefs then you are oppressive and a threat to freedom everywhere.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • Alert Citizen

      RM, You can make whatever rules defining freedom in USA however, you cannot define freedom for someone else. If someone else in other country is not happy with you and you are around them, you bet your ass is going to get whooped! Its about enjoying freedom or using it to pull pranks. For you it may be a prank, for someone else it is invoking a freedom right to retaliate!

      September 13, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  16. Diogenes23

    Anyherethe dogamatic principles of Christianity, Judeaism, or Islam are allowed to become the dominant education/worldviewof a culture, you will se violations of what free democratic people see as basic human rights, in addition to fervant stubborn defense of these dogmas/way of life....this is because in their core, these religions are about political control of mass populations, get rid of them all, we dont need religion to know theft is wrong and that we should love our neighbors...I cant believe in the year 2012 religions still cause so much ignorance, intolerance and hate

    September 13, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  17. Bill

    Really simple solution to all this:

    Vote in a President to carry out Obama's promise of getting the f–k out.

    Remove *ALL* soldiers from the MIddle East. Let them live their lives exactly how they want. Even if you don't like it. Even if it is an evil terrorist organization like Hamas. That is what they want. It doesn't affect us beyond oil prices.

    So suck it up.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  18. Major Disaster EDF

    Simple solution . Quarantine the whole region . Deport all Muslims from the free world to the quarantine zone , nobody or nothing in or out so they can have thier Islamically Correct society . If they can't play well with others , take them out of the game . No need for war . Problem solved . Let them have thier Caliphate , make it one big prison .

    September 13, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • absolute marine

      I have to say this probably the only answer to this world problem . All tho I must say that I fell that all religions are the problem of this planet . We must stop this belief in someone or thing is all powerful and just to just on area of the world. The rest of the humans on the planet are wrong and need to be punished? That has got to be the stupidest thing anyone has hear of and if that's what someone thinks then you are a idiot !!! End of subject !

      September 13, 2012 at 11:46 am |

    THis story should be "WHY DO Muslims KILL and WHY does our President let it happen?"

    September 13, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • Honey Badger Dont Care

      For the same reason that xtians kiII and do the crazy things that they do. Simple delusional behaviour.

      We need to move past these silly religions so that the human race can finally enter the Age of Reason.

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

      Please they have been killing way before this country was even a country.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  20. AL Humanist

    Yeah, I'm not sure I'm really buying the thesis of this article. If Muslims think Mohammed is just a man, what's the problem with portraying him in an unfavorable light in the film? Is someone going to worship his portrayal in the film? Doesn't seem likely. No, I think Muslims are irritated that someone made fun of the guy. Actually seems a little gratuitous to me as well, but that's not the point – in the West we think people should be able to talk about and even make fun of public figures and in the Middle East they apparently don't think so. The underlying problem is that they apparently want other people to follow their values and we're not prepared to do that. They're just having way too much contact with the broader world right now.

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

      That makes them Republicans

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

      You saved me a lot of typing. You nailed it.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
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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.