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. Irfan Haqqee

    I am not a practising Muslim but I do not condone public humiliation of someone's religius beliefs or something similar.I am sure Holocaust is a sensitive subject for Mr Sam Bacile, who is an Israeli American Jew. How would he or other followers of his faith would feel if some Muslim author wrote a derogatory book on Holocaust and said unpalatable things about those who perished in that tradgedy?

    September 12, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • sybaris

      Apples and Oranges

      The holocaust was real

      There is no evidence for any god(s) or logical reason to practice any religion.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • 2blackcats

      Uh, Irfan, there ARE people out there who have published books about the Holocaust being a conspiracy, terrible jokes made about the unspeakable tragedy, etc. Many "unpalatable" things have been said. You don't see upset Jewish people bombing embassies in violent retaliation now, do you? Uncivilized, crazy people.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  2. Mike D

    In the United States we have the RIGHT to express opinions for and against every subject that exists. We don't have to agree on anything anyone else says. And we don't have to follow any religious doctrine if we don't want to. But if any religious doctrine tries to force me to live according to their ideas – they are my mortal enemy. The only outcome will be someone's death.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • sybaris

      If you live in the U.S. then you must be against chriistians as well

      September 12, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  3. Lucy

    Allah must be totally powerless and egocentric that he needs Muslims to stick up for him. My God is bigger than that.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      Well, you're clearly not a Jew or a Christian then, since Yahweh commands his followers to kill non-believers. So what religion do you follow, exactly?

      September 12, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • sybaris

      By the same token, your god needs:

      bibles in every motel room
      billboards along the highway
      televangelists 24/7
      it's reference on our money
      to be prayed to before NASCAR races
      have a bookstore in every town over 12,000
      VBS to brainwash children
      have it referenced in the National Anthem.......

      September 12, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  4. Dinesh Sharma

    Muslims are so terrified that people will find out that their religion is just an intolerant cult the encourages violence against anyone with a different viewpoint, that they will not tolerate an insult to their silly prophet..I think we need to organize mass burnings of holy books from all religions to show these buffoons that other religions may not welcome insults but they will not kill for it either, secure in the knowledge that their religion is good and decent.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      Ummmm ... Try organizing a bible burning in certain parts of the world, and even in the US, and I think you should very legitimately fear for your life.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  5. Billy

    Bla bla bla – religion is for the weak. Mohammed is and was a joke. The people who actually believe in him are
    Stupid as stupid does. But Muslims killing Muslims is a good thing.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • Lucy

      However, Muslims killing Americans – not so good.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • sybaris

      By contrast exponentially more Americans have been/are murdered by fellow Americans than ever were by Muslims.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  6. Sagebrush Shorty

    Islam is a cult for people who are unable to form their own opinion.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Amniculi

      You could say that about any religion.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • sybaris

      AIl religions are for people who are unable to form their own opinion.

      The only difference between a cult and a religion is the amount of people practicing it.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  7. Timmy

    Why is it so hard for Muslims to understand that I'm not Muslim so I don't have to follow any of their rules? Which means if I want to draw 500 thousand pictures of their "prophet" I can.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Jack 3

      But you're aninfidel and they are right and you are wrong. they know more than you and are willing to kill you for not believing. They are the most arrogant peopel in the world.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Joseph

      I don't get it. Why should they care what we think. I don't care what they think about Jesus.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  8. HM8432

    Why don't Americans trust Muslims or care about their psychotic cultural sensitivities? Here's a quick quiz:

    1. 1968 Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed by:
    a. Superman b. Jay Leno c. Harry Potter
    d. A Muslim males between the ages of 17 and 40

    2. In 1972 at the Munich Olympics, athletes were kidnapped and massacred by:
    a. Olga Corbett b. Sitting Bull c. Arnold Schwarzenegger
    d. Muslim males mostly between the ages of 17 and 40

    3. In 1979, the US embassy in Iran was taken over by:
    a. Lost Norwegians b. Elvis c. A tour bus full of 80-year-old women
    d . Muslim males mostly between the ages of 17 and 40

    ...4. During the 1980's a number of Americans were kidnapped in Lebanon by:
    a. John Dillinger b. The King of Sweden c. The Boy Scouts
    d. Muslim males mostly between the ages of 17 and 40

    5. In 1983, the US Marine barracks in Beirut was blown up by:
    a. A pizza delivery boy b. Pee Wee Herman c. Geraldo Rivera
    d. Muslim males mostly between the ages of 17 and 40

    6. In 1985 the cruise ship Achille Lauro was hijacked and a 70 year old American passenger was murdered and thrown overboard in his wheelchair by:
    a. The Smurfs b. Davey Jones c. The Little Mermaid
    d. Muslim males mostly between the ages of 17 and 40

    7. In 1985 TWA flight 847 was hijacked at Athens, and a US Navy diver trying to rescue passengers was murdered by:
    a. Captain Kidd b. Charles Lindberg c. Mother Teresa
    d. Muslim males mostly between the ages of 17 and 40

    8. In 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 was bombed by:
    a. Scooby Doo b. The Tooth Fairy c. The Sundance Kid
    d. Muslim males mostly between the ages of 17 and 40

    9. In 1993 the World Trade Center was bombed the first time by:
    a. Richard Simmons b. Grandma Moses c. Michael Jordan
    d. Muslim males mostly between the ages of 17 and 40

    10. In 1998, the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed by:
    a. Mr. Rogers
    b. Hillary Clinton, to distract attention from Wild Bill's women problems
    c. The World Wrestling Federation
    d. Muslim males mostly between the ages of 17 and 40

    11. On 9/11/01, four airliners were hijacked; two were used as missiles to take out the World Trade Centers and of the remaining two, one crashed into the US Pentagon and the other was diverted and crashed by the passengers.
    Thousands of people were killed by:
    a. Bugs Bunny, Wiley E. Coyote, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd
    b. The Supreme Court of Florida c. Mr. Bean
    d. Muslim males mostly between the ages of 17 and 40

    12. In 2002 the United States fought a war in Afghanistan against:
    a. Enron b. The Lutheran Church c. The NFL
    d. Muslim males mostly between the ages of 17 and 40

    13. In 2002 reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered by:
    a. Bonnie and Clyde b. Captain Kangaroo c. Billy Graham
    d. Muslim males mostly between the ages of 17 and 40

    No, I really don't see a pattern here, to justify profiling, or to give one **** about respecting Mohammed, do you?

    September 12, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Huh?

      Obviously you don't understand the brutality in the history of Christianity. Prejudice and ego make you blind.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • Sagebrush Shorty

      I'll be D..........

      September 12, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      Who killed 6 million Jews during WWII?
      a. a Buddhist.
      b. an atheist
      c. a Muslim
      d. a Catholic

      September 12, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Billy

      Thanks I needed that. Muslims killing Muslims is even better.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • Jack 3

      @ huh...Are saying it's ok for muslims to kill because you say christians used to do that?

      September 12, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • fred

      He actually never mentioned christianity at all. He just mentioned some acts committed by muslims, in the name of islam. Just because Christians are crazy as well, doesn't really take anything away from that fact.

      I get such a laugh out of people defending islam by saying "christians do bad things too!" Like I care. I'd gladly be rid of both groups, but if I we are in the comparison games, its quite obvious who is the most insane currently. Incidentally, it wasn't always this way. Arab world was once a place of (comparitively) immense scientific wonder.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Dave in ATL

      Very creative! Not very statistically significant, though. If I had the time, I could easily construct an equivalent quiz whose answers are all Christians (Timothy McVeigh, Anders Breivik, Eric Rudolph, Bull Connor and various KKK members, numerous abortion-doctor murderers. etc.). I don't say this to blame Christianity, either...just to point out that people of any religion can perpetrate evil acts.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • .

      "Are saying it's ok for muslims to kill because you say christians used to do that?"

      Used to do that? Really? We invaded Iraq based on lies and killed over a hundred thousand innocent lives and yes the president at the time said God told him to invade Iraq. .

      September 12, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  9. Jon

    The authors treat westerners as stupid when they say westerners may not understand the negative reaction of muslims to negative portrayals of their prophet. Of course we understand why they react negatively. What we do not understand is why some go to the point of killing innocent people who had nothing to do with it. The muslims who attacked the U.S. consulates are simply irrational monsters.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  10. Diamond Dave

    You gotta love these peaceful mooslims

    September 12, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • .

      You got to love those peaceful Christians....or did you forget we invaded Iraq on lies and killed over a hundred thousand innocent people.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  11. Rafik

    As an American Muslim, I am disappointed by the lack of knowledge of many Muslims, and the fanaticism of some with very little knowledge and understanding of Islam. During the life of the Prophet (s), he was persoanlly insulted, attacked and denigrated many tiems, and yet always responded with compassion, mercy and understanding. Those Muslims who are busy getting infuriated over a silly movie should calm down and go study their religion.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • niknak

      Then you must get upset daily, as your brethern are whack jobs.
      All religions are whack, but your currently is on another scale of whackness.
      Plus, most of your book was ripped off from other religions, just like all the others. It is not special or original.
      Face it dude, your god does not exist. You are wasting your time as absolutely no one is listening.
      And all the while, your religion is keeping all the countries that follow it dumb, backwords and violent.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • TDHawkes

      Indeed! The Prophet was compassionate and rational. He strove to create the Ummah - the knowledge that we are all of the same family. He tried to uplift the status of women. His followers have not lived up to his high example, any more than Christ's followers have lived up to his.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • 2blackcats

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. However, it seems as if every image we see of Muslims is angry, screaming, wild-eyed, and crazy. Granted we are getting sensationalized images for maximum effect, but still. You think Catholic (like myself) and Jewish religions don't get portrayed negatively too? Good grief, Muslims need to calm down and stop the insanity...upset about how your prophet is portrayed? Take a number, get in line. What do they put in the water over there? Doesn't appear like a "peaceful' religion to me.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Danielle

      Dear Rafik, please know that there are many Christians of various faiths that stand with you and the comments you have made. The problem is just like Islamist fanatics we also have fanatics in other religionsand they live all over the world. All these individuals do is spew hate while hiding their ugly words. I stand with you and am proud to do so. We all have the same God and he will judge all evil fanatics, whatever religion they are.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • LetsThink123

      @Rafik and TDHawkes
      What u r saying is false. muham_mad was a pedophile and womanizer and murderer.
      Quran sura 4:34 -> ...and a man must not be asked why he beat his wife
      How do u say with a straight face that muham_mad tried to raise the status of women by condoning wife beating?? Dont u know how to read your own holy book? The point is that muham_mad was a lowly criminal who said all this stupid stuff in the quran. Its there! go read it!
      Muham_mad also tried to 'raise the status of women' by marrying his child bride aisha when she was 6 and consummating the marriage when she was 9. Its a fact and is on wikipedia too. go look it up! Scholars agree and say that muham_mad used to get in her favor by playing with her dolls while she played with them before doing it with her. What a sicko! I cant believe muslims stand up for such a 'prophet' despite the evidence of his sayings in the quran and his pedophilia. You guys must be thoroughly brainwashed from childhood with no thinking brain when it comes to islam to buy that muham_mad was a good person and 'raised the status of women'.

      September 14, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  12. Sean

    Would would have though the Religion of Peace* would kill someone over an insult?

    September 12, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  13. Wondering

    Do these radical Muslims actually believe that Allah (or Muhammad) is so weak that he can be injured in the slightest by ANY comment, writing, cartoon or comment by a mere human!!

    September 12, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • niknak


      September 12, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • Jeffrey

      Whatever. You don't see Christians looting Comedy Central's office for the weekly 'making fun of Christians' South Park....but the station sure kisses Islam butt.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  14. niknak

    I would think the xtian fundies would find these fools kindred spirits.
    If the xtian fundies ever get ultimate power in this country, this kind of thing will happen here.
    Crazy is crazy, no matter which religious corporate logo you subscribe to.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      remember that you said this

      September 12, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • sam

      Yeah, remember you said this, because Bill is being super subtle in trying to tell you GOD GONNA GET YA FER IT LATER.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
    • niknak

      I more then say it, Billy Bob, I live it.
      A life without religion is such a wonderful thing.
      Especially when I see all the religious nutjobs here and around the world killing in the name of their imaginary friend or friends, whichever the case may be.
      So go and read your book of magic spells, but cursing science all the while using every bit of scientific discovery to make your like easier and healthier. Punk.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      Subtle non-assertions are the best that Bill can come up with since he seems to want to avoid having to actually be questioned on anything specific.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  15. Ralph in Orange Park, FL

    The First Amendment protects the dirtbag who made the movie, at least in this country, but he is still a dirtbag.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • joe

      Dirt bag? What? These people who step up and stand against the absurdity of religion are to be commended and certainly are not dirt bags.

      The dirt bags are the people willing to commit violence in the name of their religion. I mean you got to be mentally disordered to believe in any religion in the first place but getting violent over it? Unbelievable.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • TX Red

      You should read up on what the 1st Amendment actually does...

      September 12, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  16. Grand Ole Party of Christian Taliban

    The ME is still a region of wild ignorant animals....we need to conduct ourselves accordingly. We once lived in the dark ages and slaughtered in the name of fear and religion. ME is goign through the same...however weapons have changed...question is will the ME survive its ignorance with weapons of mass destruction? Until then we are stuck with Muslim morons....and their God/Allah

    September 12, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • niknak

      I for one am all in favor of leaving this area and cutting our funding to all of them, Isreal included.
      Let them figure it out, or kill themselves, whatever.
      The oil will still flow as that is all they have to sell the outside world.
      Close our airbases, bring out ground troops home, and close Gitmo.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      And give free housing to all the detainees in your neighborhood.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  17. Ron

    Sam Bacile should keep a really really low profile, they take this stuff very seriously. He should change his name and move his family to be safe.

    September 12, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      I wonder if he introduces himself like this: "I'm Bacile"

      September 12, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  18. khan Alam Afridi

    First of all i strongly condemn this sad incident and i share my condolence with the family of ambassador and other victims. I wonder how can this be possible to kill an ambassador in the presence of ambassadorial security mostly from US. Whoever behind such ugly plot is the enemy of Islam first because the Ambassador was the guest in Islamic country and a true Muslim will never hurt his guest and secondly the Holy Prophet Muhammad PBUH said that killing of one human is like u killed the whole humanity.Personally i believe that the world is high jacked by hidden Monsters like Bankers, Industrialist, Extremists ( from any religion and race), politicians etc(i don't want go in details in social web).These set of people r making money by playing with the bloods of innocent almost every where in the world. They r caring for thr luxurious and they dont care about common man on street. We should not blaming any religion instead we should work for religion harmony. Instead of spending money on wars we should concentrate on fruitful discussions to understand one another, we should solve our problems through negotiations and we should point out the gray areas which leads to wars and measries and we should take steps to avoid wars and troubles. May Allah save us and make this world a place of peace to live. I as Muslim want to see the world a place where i can sit with a priest, with a monk, with a Jew scholar, with a Hindu scholar, with every scholar from any religion, to seek knowledge from them... May Allah Protect us from these Monsters.. Amin

    September 12, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • Ron

      Well said

      September 12, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • Dave in ATL

      I agree! No religion has a monopoly on good or evil. There are good people of all religions (including the non-religious), and unfortunately, there is a lot of evil done in the name of all religions, also. The litmus test is not what religion you follow, but whether your actions come from a state of love/openness/understanding rather than from hate/fear/ignorance.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • CaptObv


      As a fellow believer in the God of Abraham, I can agree that tolerance and respect and kindness are needed from all parties. It does not matter which God you believe (or don't believe in); we are all members of the same human family.

      The only fool is the one who cannot respect and even appreciate the diversity of human belief. All of us, (whether Atheist, Muslim, Jew, Christian, Catholic, Buddist, Agnositc, Hindu, or Mormon) needs to regonize that we are all on the same team - we are all members of the same human family and desire to see this world become a better and kinder place for our children.

      We will only ever overcome true bigotry when we not only recognize, but even celebrate the beautiful tapestry of diversity of human belief.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • dr greg

      First off, forget about asking Allah to help you. Take some personal responsibility for the problems with your religion and DO SOMETHING to help educate the fanatics within your religion

      September 12, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • Bayousara

      When did humans decide they are so special? We are a weak link in evolution, and we will not survive too many more centuries because of this. I am not a believer in any kind of religion or supernatural stuff, and I think more damage has been done to humankind because of all religions than any other concept. Islams biggest problem is they keep their people ignorant and their women subjected to cruelty. By the way, who raises Muslim men to have such little respect for women and girls? Their mothers.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  19. Bad taste can be funny

    And now, to help with your imagination, some images:

    Allah: 👿

    Mohammed: 😈

    The little boy Mohammed was doing: 😳

    Bin Laden as the SEALs came in: 😯

    September 12, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      Funny, that "little boy Mohammed was doing" has a striking resemblance to the boys getting mol....est...ed by priests.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • Yelti

      Or, by those secular football coaches. Ugh, secularism.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  20. American Youth

    What's with Kay?

    September 12, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • tuvia suks

      What's with Kay, you ask? She missed out on getting 'mol.es.ted." No one is paying attention to her.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:40 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.