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. Run A Mok

    "One of the great tragedies of mankind is that morality has been hijacked by religion."
    – Arthur C. Clarke

    September 13, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • BillDee

      Amen. Until all organized religions are purged from the face of the earth, they will ultimately doom mankind and are directly responsible for the vast amount of human suffering, misery and bloodshed (ie. "holy and other wars") throughout the centuries. Systematic, generational, brainwashing and mind control for the masses. Period.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  2. Chad

    unbelievable, we're actually apologizing to the people who are attacking us.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  3. Corkpuller

    After these ungrateful people of Islam continue behaving as uncivilized brainless animals I could not care any less for Why Muslims are offended.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  4. Tyler

    Does CNN ever put articles on their Arabic site about how murdering an ambassador and crowds cheering as his body was drug the street might make Americans just a little angry,

    No matter the spin, what happened to Ambassator Stevens is no different than what happened to our brave soliders in Mogadishu. Nearly 20 years later, Americans are still angry and that was clear when the calls for donations for Somalian famine relief donations were ignored in the US. F- Libya,

    September 13, 2012 at 11:35 am |

    Ok,,, so they don't like that there God, is a Man, wait... what... so there God is actually not a God but a Man...wait.... these radicals need to go go back to school, or start school...not even funny they are spitting fire over this ridiculousness.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • Ken M

      Before you start telling people to educate themselves you should probably take your own advice. Your lack of comprehension is simply stunning.

      ... and before you even come at me with what will surely be yet another demonstration of your stellar intellect know this, I find the whole notion of violence in the name of religion, ANY religion, abhorrent.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  6. Margaret

    Of course, it is seriously pathetic to make a movie ridiculing a major world religion. I don't blame people for being offended. what I blame people for is rioting and killing. Is it a matter of differing civilizations? In the west, we tend to shun people who do cowardly, stupid, bigotted things. We don't usually riot. But sometimes we do (think Los Angeles) riot, too. I guess, when any group is offended enough, people get really angry and will sometimes act badly.

    But I have a question, and I mean this seriously. If the reason for not showing the prophet is so that he won't be worshiped, then hasn't it got to a point where people act like the iconoclasts in Byzantium? As tho it is an image of God that has been made? As though an image of the sacred has been made, which is forbidden. Which then, in a perverse way, then implies tyhat the prophet is God. Which isn't what he would have wanted.

    So I'm genuinely confused and would love to see a serious discussion about this.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • Tyler

      Gee. Liberals have their panties in a bunch over this 'film' but libersals would have any problem if if there was an exhibition in a public art museum featuring sculptures of Jesus made out of dog dirt. Apparently, It's acceptable to make fun of Christians but no one else.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • Sam

      In Islam, God (Allah) cannot be seen. No one can bear seeing God. There is a verse in Quran when Moses asked God if he can see him and God replied I will show myself to the mountain in front of few and then the mountain collapsed and Moses fell into a shock. So, God cannot be seen by humans. Mohammed and all prophets are humans in Islam. Mohammed, and by the way all prophets including Jesus, Moses, Joseph, etc., cannot be portrayed by humans because of their special character and uniqueness in history and virtually no one can have the morals and values of those prophets. For example, some actor depicts Jesus but in his real life he is an alcoholic womanizer with no such high morals.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Eduardo

      I see your point. At first I was thinking you were going to go down the road that since reaction to non-portrayal of the Prophet is so intense that that in and of itself is a kind of worship. Which, although I can not articulate it well, may make sense.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  7. Glenn

    Bring home our fellow americans, let us focus on rebuilding our own nation give jobs to our citizens here and let us build this stronger economy lets keep our faith here where we are all safe, we should slowly leave the middle east let them handle their own problems, I guess we are not fully strong to stand on our own without the support of this Oil rich nation countries .

    September 13, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • Ken M

      While I agree with your view on balance I have to point out that Libya and Egypt are NOT Middle Eastern countries. The are located in Northern Africa.

      People hear Islam or Muslim and automatically think Middle East. This is wrong.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  8. unblvble

    BCOS Muslims are F****d up in the brain!!!!

    September 13, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  9. Tim Hurley

    Written in an apologetic tone trying to logic with illogical tenants and customs.
    Allah is a god of frustrated little girlie-men endowed with a small member.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  10. Diogenes23

    but just because I dont respect any religions doesnt mean I'm going to maliciously attack their members or their prophets, some of you people on here are disgusting me with your statements

    September 13, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  11. i12bphil

    It doesn't matter, the what and the why! It is simply inexcusable for anyone to kill someone just because they are offended! EVER!

    September 13, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  12. Serious flaws

    Protesting, threatening, and killing over the image of a man seems like worshiping as more than a man to me.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  13. saidso

    I understand why its offensive. But if Catholics reacted that way very time someone makes a crude film about the pope, or if Christians reacted that way over every disgusting depiction of Jesus, the whole world would be on fire.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  14. Eli Cabelly

    I have asked why the Christians worship the image of Christ and the cross for a long time. It seems like idolatry to me. I guess I, as a Jew, have more in common with Muslims than with Christians.

    Jesus was also a Jew, one who firmly denounced idolatry among the Pharisees. Now the people who claim to follow him practice idolatry. The faithful aren't very faithful.

    With followers like these who needs critics?

    September 13, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  15. BillDee

    As evidenced, it's very dangerous to disrupt the brainwashing or cause any Muslims to question their faith with respect to the peace-loving, respectful-towards-women, ever-so-tolerant religion of Islam.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  16. Burnt Koran

    ┌П┐(◉_◉)┌П┐ <---- Prophet Mohammed
    gives this movie 2 thumbs up

    September 13, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  17. sanityguest

    when was the last time that a Muslim group murdered people over images of Jesus or Moses?? might I suggest that they go after Mel Gibson for his Jesus movie?

    September 13, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  18. James

    So there's nothing in the Qur'an that forbids dipictions of Mohammed? Only some references to some conversations where he said he wasn't too comfortable with dipictions of himself for fear of idolizing?

    Yet, dipictions of him in any other light causes Muslims to go bizirk and if anyone says anything negative about Muslims or Islam, then they have the right to attack and kill anyone who looks like they were the same race/nationality as those who made the offense?

    Does it go both ways? If a Muslim offends Christianity or the United States, does that give me the right to kill any Muslim that crosses my path? To restore honor? Or is it just a one way street?

    September 13, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  19. paul harvey

    I think those who are tired of Muslim Fanatics have a great way to get all this over with once and for all; keep posting stuff like this on youtube and the news organizations will show extremist Muslim reaction...... Then Islamic militants will undoubtedly do something that the US has to respond to and so on..... The only challenge will be teaching enough rednecks how to operate camcorders and post to youtube.

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

    Ok let us not fool ourselves. The religious aspect of this is totally an invention. The depiction of Mohamed clearly is a ruse, an excuse to do what they want to do. Religious zealots of any variety are a danger in this world. And no, I am not an atheist. When zealotry gets to this point, it no longer has anything to do with religious principles and teachings. It is about fear and power, and fear of power, and trying to be more powerful so people will fear you. They have lost all sense of reason and destroy for the enjoyment of destroying. Because they have found no higher good in their lives. I think we should stop trying to explain why Islamists are so sensitive about this or that thing. If you kill someone for drawing a picture of someone who you claim not to be a God anyway, then you have a screw loose, period.

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

      Well said!

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

      I believe that the Quran does not preach violence but tolerance of other religions and people. Violence is suppose to be the last resort. However, with that being said, the orthodox and others who are not mainstream, interpret the Quran in a way that it justifies what they do. I.e. terrorism etc. and for any muslim who speaks out against this perception subjects themselves to the same fate of those who are terrorized. They are said to be blaspheming the Quran. Everyone around the world needs to be more tolerant of others beliefs. Religion for ages has always been the root of wars. No sect is really absent from this perception. Christians and Muslims have been at each others throat for a very, very long tme. i.e. the Crusades. I am Catholic and I have friends who are sunni and they are not anything like the Muslims who preach violence.

      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.