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. MiAmerican

    I can kind of understand them being angry
    . Being a Christian, I do not like to see blasphemous of my savior. This is not the peaceful way we should deal with it. Any religion is made fun of due to lack of respect.
    There is plenty of no respect for religions.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • tc

      If you let people know that a fairy tale plays an important role in your life, you can expect rational, logical people to laugh at you, either outwardly or inwardly. And expect the laughing to get worse as the collective education of the world increases.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  2. Jim

    Kooks. Any further dialog is in vain.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  3. rebuw

    And so we answer the question "well, even if you don't believe, what's the harm in others having religious beliefs?".

    September 13, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  4. nick

    did anyone youtube trailers of this movie? honestly, this looked like something produced in the 1950's and was complete and utter garbage. the fact that muslims felt compelled to kill people over this is downright mind-blowing and shows how simple minded these people are when it comes to religion and the concept of life.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  5. Patton

    Drop on bomb on Benghazi, a big one, with the words "Made in the USA" printed on the side. I bet Mohammed will run...

    September 13, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  6. Red Pison

    They have no problems ripping up and burning American Flags, let's see how they react to us ripping up and burning an image of Muhammad.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  7. tomcat

    This administration is apologizing to them, and for what??? Our freedom of speech? They should be appologizing to us!
    Our current adminstration is WEAK and pathetic and the people who raided our consulate and killed 4 people are just encouraged by this.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  8. freedom


    September 13, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  9. Mohammed's Bacon Dinner

    Mohammed had a huge pig farm and he ate a lot of bacon. True story.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  10. Steve Cook

    My guess is that the actress who is complaining about this film is upset because the acting in this film is so terrible. Anyone associated with this film(everyone should look at it, by the way) must be pretty low on the intelligence scale. It is a laughably awful excuse for professional work.
    It's clear that this film was produced by stupid people for consumption by stupid people, and was clearly created to be offensive to and to inflame the very groups who are now up in arms.
    Book 'em Danno.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • nick

      True story. And I have a hard time believing that these actors didn't have the slightest clue as to what this movie was going to be used for.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  11. tc

    Religious zealots cannot restrict freedom of speech through violence or threat of violence. But I can't say I'm surprised by this behavior. Anyone who takes any religion seriously has already demonstrated that they are not rational, logical thinkers, so killing people who had nothing to do with the film would make sense to them. Really, these rioter and protestors have to be very very insecure in their religious beliefs. If I put so much importance on a fairly tale, I would at least develop thick skin regarding it.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  12. bill

    once again baboon on this side of the ocean are being critical of the baboons on that side of the ocean.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • Charles

      It is good to see your 3rd grade education is working for you.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  13. Carolyn

    Oh quit CNN, there is no validation for using the violence they do because something offends them! If something on TV offends me I change the channel, people have every right to depict what they want in film.. The Muslims do it all the time.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • tc

      I couldn't agree more. Our government and media need to stop with the "religious sensitivity" angle, and call this what it is. A bunch of lunatics who take their religion too seriously and don't understand how to just ignore things they don't like or agree with.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  14. Jason

    How about this headline "Christians Set Fire to School for Teaching Evolution"? Yeah, you don't hear that one. Mainstream Muslims are very tolerant of violence like this. It is past time for the western world to abandon the middle east. No good comes to us from that part of the world, and they refuse any good we try to do for them.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  15. Charmin'

    Liberal article.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  16. Moses

    To all non muslims here, I am a muslim and first of all please do not always blame every body for the crime of one person, these so called muslims burning U.S flags and damaging U.S consulates around the world are totally wrong and should held accountable for their crimes, and the killing of the good man, Mr. the embassador is a totally shockingly heinous crime, and i pray that those criminals that killed him and his collegues will be caught as soon as possible and be brought to justice. as i said in one of my replies to another poster, i think muslims are falling in the same trap that some christians fell into after the attack of 9-11 and accused all muslim for that terrorist attack, and really hope for more interfaith dialog and re education of people about their own religions, because we got so much ignorance in both sides that's causing all this.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Momma B

      True, Moses, but it is time for all Muslims who decy these violent acts to stand up and OB JECT, Silence only adds tacit
      support to the perpetrators. And, Americans also must take a stand against people like Terry Jones and the people behind the film that supposedly incited these current riots. Free speech is being used as the excuse for instigating hate and intolerance. Would bet heavily on the fact that this was not the intention of the framers of the bill of rights.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • chuck

      Thank you Moses, I'm American and I agree with you. Why do we need to divide ourselves so much, we all come from the earth the same. It was wrong to depict Mohammed – it wasn't for educational purposes, it was to insult. And it's wrong to kill and riot.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • Charles

      Moses youarewong on a few points.
      1) It isnt one muslim dong ti it isthousands.
      2) You are all guilty for allowing thee people t ue your faith to justiy these atacks.
      3) 9/11 dd not include a single non-Muslim.

      We Christians are not without blame as many atroctieswere carried out in the name of Cristianity. The difference is it is 2012 and these people don't seem to be able to move past the year 0001.

      America gives food money and medical aid to all of these people so they can kill us.

      It is time to ignore them and let them kill each other off once and for all.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • nick

      These are the crimes of many people, though. Not one.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  17. Matt

    I do not claim to know anything about Islam, but I can smell BS a mile away. This depiction of why Muslims act out like this regarding depictions of Mohammed, while possibly accurate, fails my BS test. The fact that the Muslim world considers the image and likeness of Mohammed sacred, in fact makes Mohammed more than just a man. He is in fact an idol religion. After all, if he was "just a man," no one would care in what way or how he was depicted. So this smells of BS.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Kiffer

      You couldn't be more right

      September 13, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Charles

      Very true.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  18. TexDoc

    Aren't they 'idolizing' his image by making it wrong to possess or draw it? Making something unattainable is making something just as sacred as worshiping the image.

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

      You're exactly right TexDoc. The article is just attempting to justify their behavior, Muhammed was a pedophile and a murderer. I might say that I also find it sickening the way that the on air commentators are attempting to place the blame on the maker of the film. If you don't like the pic, stick your head in the sand.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  19. abbot25

    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 11:53 am |
    • Kenneth Banks

      It won't be if we drill in the idea that Mohammed was 70% right, 30% wrong (like the Chinese learn with Chairman Mao) – they will learn to respect him, but to believe that it was a "mistake" for him to be a war mongeror, and to acknowledge that the Bedouin custom of men marrying young girls (common with all Bedouins, including Mohammed, at the time) is now disgusting and primitive. No matter what the Quran says, it's disgusting and primitive and you should understand and accept it.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  20. WVLady63

    These people are backward, ignorant and uneducated. NOTHING will ever be done to get them to be reasonable or to even listen to reason. Terrorists are just that. These people only understand one thing and that is to be destructive.

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


      September 13, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • Jonhy Cash

      Maybe if you stop messing with their religion, oil, money and lifes then they will stop to react to the west attempts to destruct them.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • Sailor101

      @sam WWI & II were not religious wars, what text book did you use in school?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • Charles

      Sam please go back to school and learn before you speak. WW1 and WW2 was not about faith. Do a google search on Germany and a little known guy named Hitler.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:15 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.