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. vance

    they only use any excuse they can use to act in this way. uncouth and uncivilized completely. we should pull out everything, including food, medical care, and all other forms of aid we send to these countries. all of it. and next time they attack our embassy (which is an act of war by the way) then we should respond in kind. make the entire middle east a glass parking lot

    September 13, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Scott

      If our nation had had a real leader in the Oval Office the moment the first embassy was attacked by the goat pokers a real leader would have deployed extra Marines to all of the embassies in goat poker land with order to shoot on sight any goat poker that tried to invade embassy grounds.


      September 13, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      The main reason middle eastern countries require such aid is because they've been bombed into submission by the west.
      If someone burns your home, kills you children and beats you to a bloody pulp, do you thank them when they give you a band-aid and a cookie?
      If your solution is to cease all aid, then cease all interference!
      No more trading in oil or other resources and remove the western military presence.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Furthermore, the "aid" offerred these folk is paid for with a heavy coin.
      When the IMF/World Bank offer economic as/sistance to countries rava/ged by war, natrual disasters etc. the cost is that nation's autonomy.
      All of said nation's resources are immediately privatized and subsequently bought up by western corporations.
      Local people are excluded form the rebuilding process, said coroporations preferring to employ their own contractors who invariably take far too long to do a poor job on a simple task.
      The people become disenfranchised as they recognize that they've been invaded and taken over not by infantry boots and guns, but rather by economic subterfuge.
      Those leaders who refuse to utilize the resources of the IMF/World Bank in order to maintain their nation's independence are demonized in the western world, a la Hugo Chavez.
      For examples, check out pretty much every South American country.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  2. Gene Cole

    Muslims can decry all they want. Rioting and murder, however, should not be the almost automatic reaction of the members of the "religion of peace".

    September 13, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • no more please

      Amniculi: actually you're wrong.. it is historically proven that jesus was a real person who lived and was in fact crucified. whether you believe he is the messiah or not may be your issue but he was real person and he was a jew not a muslim...

      September 13, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  3. none

    Hey Rick! Jesus was Muslim.........

    September 13, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • no more please

      umm.. jesus was jew

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

      Umm...Jesus was an imaginary conglomeration of Bronze Age mythical figures.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  4. lionhart

    To all those saying the Muslim faith is violent I have one question. Why do you think many immigrated here ? To escape religious prosecution.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Ballz

      "Persecution." English. Learn it. Live it. Love it.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Amniculi

      I dunno...Sharia law = religious prosecution.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • chris

      So your point is basically that Islam is 400-500 years behind christianity? The church has changed quite a bit since then...I'm agnostic, I think its all dumb, but I don't think christians would storm someones house and murder them because they were insulted by someone who looked like them 5000 miles away....

      September 13, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  5. joejoe

    Stupid article. Once we pretend to try and understand these animals we somehow try to make them in to real human beings with real passions. But they just are not human beings

    September 13, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Tima

      Have you met a Muslim? Do you think ALL Muslims are this way???

      September 13, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Dustie

      Typical media white wash of real issue. The attack in Libya was well-planned by heavily armed men, and the growing consensus is that it was done to mark 9/11. Almost no one (but CNN) is saying that it had anything to do with that stupid video, and no one of any authority or expertise is saying that this was a protest that spiraled out of control.
      This was a misleading article by CNN, unfortunately, to hide the real issues facing the US. The attacks on 9/11 were unprovoked attacks, nothing to do with cartoons or videos... and neither are these attacks today.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  6. Ballz

    Who gives a flip what they believe? Muslims, KEEP YOUR GODDAM HANDS TO YOURSELVES! Who raised you animals?

    September 13, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  7. Kevin Barbieux

    The problem is not that Muslims "decry" images of Mohammad. The problem is they freak out, become violent, destroy property and kill people, over images of Mohammad.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • donald

      very well said

      September 13, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  8. R Lanken

    Islam today is primarily a hate filled, violence obsessed, utterly intolerant evil masquerading as a religion. All religions must be treated the same or not at all. There are very many Christians who as just as outraged at hostile portrayals of Jesus or of Christianity as there are moslems angry about their prophet. Maybe if Christians acted as moslems do, much of that would cease. Is that really a good thing?? Why is islam accorded such special treatment from the West??? If the Christian God is just some fairy tale about some mythical "friend in the sky", then so is Allah. And, so is mohammad.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Scott

      A couple years ago there was a Christian woman up in Fort Collins, Colorado that defaced a piece of "art" (notice the quotes) of Jesus that was not complementary of Jesus. HOWEVER (and notice the caps) local Christians chastised the woman for the act. You'll never ever hear that from the followers of the pedophile prophet.


      September 13, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  9. Scott

    Who cares why these goat pokers don't like images of their pedophile, errrr prophet. If they don't like them, then don't look at them.


    September 13, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  10. Georgia Girl 1

    The attacks we are witnessing with horror are not a response to a book, cartoon or a movie. The animals involved do not even know such a "twitter" exists. That is an excuse made up by the current administration to turn the conversation away from the stupidity of not having our embassy(s) properly protected. Maybe one of the late night talk hosts will ask the President why he is making excused for these barbarians. We know that no one from CNN will ask – hey look CNN, gullible is written on the ceiling.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Dennis

      Right,we should have deployed 1,000 Marines to protect our embassies and consulates within the hour around the globe.This was a spontaneous,violent upheaval with no real pre warning to these attacks.Are you really that stupid to make a comment like you have?..Apparently you are.On the other hand,you could have Romney in office with ZERO foreign policy experience.How do you think he would react to this crisis?..He wouldn't.Either stand behind this country and President or leave it.We have enough hating,bellyaching crybabys as it stands right now.You offer no help or solution,so scoot your little behind on over to Fox News for your daily dose of hatred and propaganda.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Emabssies are supposed to be houses of diplomacy, not heavily fortified military outposts.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  11. Jeff

    Here is something THEY need to understand: we know why they get upset; WE DON'T CARE.
    This understanding of cultures can't be a one way street, it needs to have a meeting point somewhere in the middle, and what they aren't getting is that Americans take great pleasure in the things that offend people. Some people are offended when people mock Jesus and yet I can't tell you how many pictures I've seen of Jesus riding raptors. Some people are offended by women exposing their bodies, while I for one encourage it. I'm offended by giving white trash troglodytes any form of validation yet reality TV subsists on them.
    The cultures that embrace Islam tend to see themselves as courageous and stalwart. My message to them is "Get over it and don't be such a baby. The universe doesn't care what you like and what you are offended by. You're angry that it isn't raining in the desert."

    September 13, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  12. more2bits

    I would imagine if we found the DNA from the prophet Muhammad and resurrected him the Islamic fundamentalists would probably depict that act as taking an image of the prophet and react violently. And even the prophet himself would be powerless to stem their illogical (and violent) minds.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  13. Reality

    Putting the kibosh/”google” on all religions to incluce Islam in less than one minute:

    • There was probably no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • There was probably no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    "The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother's womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. "


    September 13, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  14. gojetsgo

    do these people have anything better todo than be outraged day in and day out?

    September 13, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Scott

      The goat pokers will use ANY excuse to murder those that don't follow their pedophile prophet.


      September 13, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  15. Sternie

    Muslims are the cancer of the earth

    September 13, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Amniculi

      RELIGION is the cancer of the Earth.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Jeff

      No, Honey Boo Boo, Toddlers in Tiaras and anything Kardashian are cancers on the Earth.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Amniculi

      Nobody has ever been killed in the name of Honey Boo Boo.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  16. Isma'il

    The movie was only the spark that lit the fuel of poverty and oppression. Only foolish American would think the LA riots were about Rodney King the problems in Asia and Africa is about Islam

    September 13, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Reality

      And who keeps them oppressed and poor? The imams and ayatollahs !!! And the 24/7 blood feud between the Sunnis and Shiites does not help.

      September 13, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • ChesterL

      Right on!!!!!

      September 13, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  17. Mopery

    If their faith is so weak as to be tested by a poorly made independent film, then it shows how weak their religion truly is. If their faith is so weak that they threaten the life of an 11 year old girl over trumped up blasphemy charges, then it really shows how pathetic and bloodthristy their religion truly makes them.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  18. Andrew

    If Muhammed was anything close to a good human being, he would not want you to kill someone for drawing a picture of him. If you believe that Allah is a true diety, you can only assume that any diety would not want you to kill another human being. Otherwise the religion (any religion) is empty and pointless.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • TR6

      “you can only assume that any diety would not want you to kill another human being”

      Someone is obviously in denial of the more violent parts of the Koran. Probably in denial of the Old testament too

      September 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  19. pscaraf

    These people are pigs and deserve the world they create for themselves. I say kick them the hell out of this country, turn off the money and leave them to themselves. If they continue to create problems fly a few air missions and bomb them back to what they deserve. Islam is a cult of blood and has nothing to do with the true God Kill this snake NOW.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  20. Seadog

    In America we have something called the freedom of speech...because some idiots in the Middle East don't like it and decide to start killing, oblama and the left fell a need to apologize for our American right.

    How about this oblama and lefties...just because you don't like the message, that doesn't give you the RIGHT to kill someone. How about we stand up to these lunatics and tell them we have the right to say what we want, and we will defend that right and our Embassy's across the World. This coward and the lefties care about the feelings of murders, but damn it all hell Christians aren't praying in our schools......

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

      What delusional world do you live in? Planet Fox News? Nobody has apologized for anything. In fact, Obama has sent Marines and two destroyers with drones and cruise missiles into the area. Does That look like an apology to you?

      September 13, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Seadog

      You missed the oblama World Tour, and yes there was an apology about the film...

      I guess your World left that out...why doesn't that surprise me....

      September 13, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Home of the brave

      You are aware that the military, as instructed by Commander in Chief Obama, is actively pursuing the killers of our diplomat?

      September 13, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • @seadog

      @ Seadog,
      Why would you want by any means to depict someone whose children say not to, because they don't want, someone that you do not know?
      Do you children? can anyone walk on the street with a camera and decide take pictures of your house and kids without your permission? What would you reply to him if he said this is my freedom of expression?

      Not to defend any violence, but I am just wondering sometimes, why persist on wanting to hurt someone else's belief by any mean, can you explain? I believe you would support the Sikh temple shooter because this is America.

      Stop the nonsense and start cultivating mutual respect, there is no shame on being and letting someone else be.


      September 13, 2012 at 11:58 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.