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. Martin

    Islam is no religion, the only thing these people worship is blood, terror, oppression, slavery of women and pedophilia. Islam is the greatest evil in the world today, even more so than corporate greed.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  2. Steve

    What I find interesting is that when radical Muslim's wish to show disrespect they burn and desecrate symbols of those whom they wish to disrespect. It is perfectly okay to desecrate others symbols. But when it is turned around on them they claim blasphemy. It seems like they can't handle their own medicine.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  3. Steve

    They are backward people obviously. Muslim, Catholic, Christian or whatever if you are fanatical about it you are screwed up. Organized religion of any faith is dangerous and in my humble opinion religion is a waste of time and plain nonsense but to each their own. There are plenty of ways to be a good person and religion does not make you one.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  4. mike58

    Violent Religion Violent People just the way they are it's time we deal with it

    September 13, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  5. Mike

    Explanations do not make Excuses. There is NO justification for their conduct. If they insist on behaving like Neanderthals in the 21st century, they have long lived past their appointed time to be rendered extinct.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  6. Charles

    There is a picture of Jesus on toast ontop of the CNN webpage. Who's killing because of that?

    September 13, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • Jimmy

      I dont know, but its making me hungry for Christ and His Word.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  7. Oz

    To kill someone and cause such barberic devestation over a Picture of a porphet. These Muslims are bunch of animals. CNN do not be sympathetic to their cause.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  8. sweebach

    sounds like Muslims would prefer that a "Paul" not come along and turn their teacher into an idol as well . . . but no excuse for violence and killing . . .

    September 13, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  9. kit8

    We must be respectful of what other people believe and tolerant of those who show no repect for what we believe

    September 13, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • BobC

      ... and vice-versa. We believe in freedom and the right of free-speech. These Muslim freaks believe in committing violence in the name of a man whose history was filled with violence.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • nubes

      just further proof that muslims are stupid as sh**. Religion the one device to be used to gain access into heaven is single handedly destroying our planet one stupid person at a time! LMAO!

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

      What if their beliefs are abhorrent, manifestly fraudulent, and lead directly to immoral and reprehensible behavior? Do you really think all beliefs should get a free pass? Come on. Stop lying to yourself. Beliefs matter. And in some cases they matter gravely.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • Matt54

      Islam has earned and deserves the lack of respect it gets. Honor killings, beheading, stoning, blasphemy charges against an 11 year old girl in Pakistan, murder of our ambassador, do I really need to add more.This is not the time to be timid. "You can take the enemy at their own words", Thomas Jefferson.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  10. Saleem

    I find reading the comments the best part on articles & seeing the extent of stupidity & ignorance. Where do you all get your info on any religion? Do you actually take the time to research it or just go with what fits your warped perception? Do you even realize how many Muslims there are in the world? If they were all psychos & truly engaged in the type of behavior that are being broadcasted by the media, non of you would be around to make any comments because they we would blow you all up, but the truth is not all of us think that way nor do we condone that sort of behavior. And no we are all not going to go around the world and apologize to the world for what a small minority do because the truth is they kill their own in the process. Any and every faith/non-faith have their bunch of psychos but since Islam is the flavor of the decade thats all that gets the attention & everything is not as black & white as it appears especially not when the West is involved. The truth is this film was made on purpose to incite and make way for bigger plans to go into effect, you all know that & I know that. This film is not about freedom of speech or anything of the sort it was made purely to insult, aggrevate and fuel the fire. Stay tuned for events to unfold.... My heart goes out to the families of the US ambassador & the other victims of this horrible event.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • warmweather

      If what you're saying is valid then it begs the obvious that these minority groups inciting violence need to be better educated to really understand what Islam teaches. Why is it that Christians, Budhists, and people of every other religion don't act in such barbaric behavior when images of our God/venerated saints are trodden upon, and that the majority of terrorist activities worldwide are the works of muslims?? That doesn't speak well of the muslim community as a whole, does it? Muslims need to speak up to condemn the acts of these other muslems who cause harm/violence to their own kind and to non-muslems.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • Needmore education

      The video was wron,, yet it doesn't in anyway represent the US or its citizens. You mentioned other events. What other events might occur. We don't know. Please use your knowledge and in sight to enlighten us.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Opinion....

      Eloquent... simply Beautiful. Thank you but unfortunately many will not understand... especially the Fox News or Rush Limbaugh followers... They don't have the capacity to understand. God bless our Ambassador and 3 others who were killed and give their families the strength to cope with this horrific tragedy.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • TJX

      Uh, Saleem the reason why you're not around to blow up the rest of us in mass droves is simply because you're not powerful enough. Not because you're somehow more tolerant. The fact of the matter is because of a worldwide lack of outcry against these fanatics by fellow muslims, you yourself are guilty of intolerance. Make not mistake, if the rest of the world, especially here in the west, were as intolerant as you sand jockeys, we actually could and would wipe you off the face of the earth. Muslims are an infestation, and it's high time to exterminate the lot of them, starting with dropping a few nukes on mecca and medina.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • BobC

      Eventually, we are going to tire of putting up with all of this crap and launch some nukes to eliminate the problem – or at least tamp it down significantly.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • Oz

      Saleem, you bring good points and yes many will concure with you. You are correct. But you are in the minority of the muslims. You will never see Chrstians or Jews behave this way.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • Opinion....

      TJX is a perfect example and depicts exactly the type I was referring to my post... I don't get mad at his types... I pitty them.. Warmweather: Unfortunately I must say, your points are really valid and I'm sad about it that they are... also media hypes it up too which does not help the already sad situation...

      September 13, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • Matt54

      Saleem, you are the one who has expressed arrogance by calling people who have valid comments stupid and ignorant. You babble to much

      September 13, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  11. Corkpuller

    After these ungrateful people of Islam continue behaving as uncivilized brainless animals I could not care any less for Why Muslims are offended. I'm thinking a sequel of this move should be made.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  12. StopFlaming

    Get real. They protest and pursue violence because some Ayatollah somewhere tells them to. Your average Muslim in the streets would not care less about a movie in the U.S. if someone, probably with an anti-U.S. agenda, didn't stir them up. We have that here too. Look at most riots. It is mob mentality. Most of the mob doesn't care why they are protesting; they just go along with it for the fun and excitement of it. The few mob leaders, or those who break a peaceful protest into violence, are to blame.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Hyrax

      You sir are absolutely correct.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  13. Realist

    Religious people decry the various perceived blasphemies/offenses of their respective faith because: 1) By implicit definition they are weak-minded and unable to think for themselves; 2) They are also stupid for having such fervent faith in sky fairies or whatever. This is also CERTAINLY true for Christians. For example, consider a cross on display in a public/municipal space .. They think that somehow because their religion is the right one, their shrines, symbols, messages and tokens should be accepted by everyone and fight to keep it there (where it is offensive to smart people). And that since other religions are the wrong ones, that those people are wrong, evil, and that they and their symbols/etc should all be obliterated from the face of the planet.

    Each day there is increasing proof that RELIGION IS THE PROBLEM, NOT THE SOLUTION. The unfortunate reality is that a religion-inspired war will destroy the planet before the wisdom of people (to jettison religion) is realized.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • peace

      Well said my friend. When will all religions be good riddance so we can all truly live in peace?

      September 13, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  14. joshuastringer

    I get the theory of the argument about idol worship. We see it in denominations of Christianity who put God-like value on beads and icons. But, and I don't think the author is suggesting this, the denigration of any religious symbol does not give the ok for violence.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  15. 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 11:36 am |
  16. memine

    9/11 is a terrorist holiday, and the US continues to be a favored target. It has more to do with that than some obscure movie that nobody even saw.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  17. warmweather

    Muslims kill muslims, so their violence toward non-muslims doesn't come as a surprise. These images of angry riled muslims do nothing but reinforce non-muslims around the world that the muslim as a whole are violent people, and the misconception that their religion CONDONES that kind of barbarian behavior. I haven't seen any news of any muslim leaders decrying this violence happening all the over middle east. Where are the good muslims who condemn such behavior? If it is true that this inciting the undereducated/poor to violence by pro-alqaida groups , this sort of operation is no different than how the communist party infiltrated many 3rd world countries.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Magid

      Your comment really underline how the author of this article has successfully managed to shift the focus form this being a video full of insults to the feelings of Muslims to the subject of images of prophet Mohammad, making this look like Muslims are outraged because of showing images of the prophet.

      Completely against the riots and the reaction, but logically if you through a jab at 1.5 billion people you should expect some reaction. Try this; go to a busy downtown or a crowded mall and start throwing insults at people what do you think the reaction would be? I can tell you it would range between people ignoring you completely, to some rolling their eyes, to dirty looks, to insulting you back to and even to physically attacking you. Now try that with 1.5 Billion people! Our friend, the movie maker has just insulted a lot of people and it seems we’re all expecting only the first variety of reaction – No reaction. This is very naive as it goes against the basics of human sociology and statistics.
      I guess the point is if you provoke people you should expect them to be provoked in varying degrees. That’s just the nature of people.

      finally you state that Islam CONDONES violence but I challenge you to read the Quran and find anything that backs up you claims.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  18. Matt54

    Pictures of Mohammed couldn't be worse than his character or words that are the the false inspiration of it's followers. Islam has no tolerance of anyone who does not follow it's fascist line.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  19. dugg

    OK. I am unclear about the whole 72 virgins thing for these pathetic martyrs. Assuming you sleep with one each night, you are out of virgins in 72 days. That is hardly eternity. Do they bring in a fresh batch of virgins each 72 days to reset? Or, do these ladies magically become virgins again?- after all ....it is heaven we are talking about.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  20. paul harvey

    How about a 5 minute youtube video of Mohammed licking 20 Rabbi's roosters, that ought to make them do something insane !

    September 13, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • Lucius Clay

      Ha! Now that really made me laugh. Thanks.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:32 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.