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. Gonfis

    islam is not peaceful, is a sham front for power mongers....ie imams and its sole purpose is to allow the strongest power monger to rule the world as if he is god. excusing muslims for the terrorism they've caused over the last 50 years is appalling.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  2. Dennis

    These are people just like the politico's in our country worshipping their political leaders.
    Some of them pretend to be the savior, of the poor, women, ethnic groups, tax payers, welfare recips, and many believe them, I ask Who are the backward, ignorant, and "uneducated".

    September 13, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  3. CNN

    Funny how people think that Muslims react violently because they are "insecure" about their religion. LOL. May be Muslims react violently because they love their Prophet of God. Can you stand insults to your loved ones?

    September 13, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Scott

      And I dearly love Jesus, BUT (and notice the caps) I don't go around murdering people that denigrate Jesus. Big difference between what the majority of Christians tolerate and what the the goat poking lovers of the pedophile prophet do.


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

      Yes, I can stand insults to my family and religion. I am "SECURE" in my beliefs and I understand that no matter what you say about my family or religion – that is your opinion. And I could give a Sh** about other peoples opinions. The muslims are indeed insecure about their religious figures (obviously) if they need to avenge a slight on mohammed with an act of murder.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Shine222

      The Western world and the Islamic world are incompatible. The Islamic world needs to stay off the Western world's internet as it will offend the Islamic world's sensibilities.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • J.G,

      If my loved one is wrongfully insulted, I won't like it but I will surely not resolve to violent actions- especially on the innocent ones. If any thing, with my strong faith and understanding in goodness of my loved ones, I will pray that the hateful person will someday come to the realization soon.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • vicky

      thats the difference between what your pedophile prophet teaches and what Jesus taught. One taught to kill and one taught to love your enemies. can you guess who taught what?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Lookout4

      Would you please consider how much Islam has held back the evolution of humans in certain parts of the globe. I know Christianity has had a few bad decades and maybe even a bad century or two. But Islamic countries, generally, are populated by people who have a middle ages mentality.
      And look at a truely peaceful religion, Buddhism, which has never had a religious war, ever. Please, for the human race to live in peace and evolve, Islam must be eliminated.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • paul

      The Koran says to know the scritures and to look to those who know the scritures. Here is what true love is (1 Corinthians 13:4-8) 4 Love is long-suffering and kind. Love is not jealous, it does not brag, does not get puffed up, 5 does not behave indecently, does not look for its own interests, does not become provoked. It does not keep account of the injury. 6 It does not rejoice over unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never fails. . .
      So no matter what there is no excuse for hate and violence no matter who is insulted, even if, especially if it is God, Jesus, Mohammed or the prophets. God is a big boy. He says if there is injustice HE will take care of it in his time.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  4. paul

    Given the reaction and level of violence it is clear these people do indeed worship Mohammed. They are willing to sacrifice themselves and others for this concept.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • CNN

      Muslims don't worship Muhammad, but they follow him. Anyone who worships Muhammad, Jesus, Moses, Abraham, Adam etc. will be fuel for fire in hell. Get your facts straight. Also, Muslims love Muhammad more than Christians love Christ. Christians can stand insults to Christ, but Muslims can't do the same. Human emotion of love is a powerful emotion.

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

      WRONGO CNN! You pedophile prophet lovers need to take a lesson from Jesus and "turn the other cheek" when someone insults your beloved pedophile prophet.


      September 13, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  5. Unafiliated

    CNN apologizing for Muslims. Look, there is no rational explanation for killing an uninvolved person for offense against your religion. Doing so is simply evil. There can be no justification.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • War on freedom

      exactly! can CNN answer this: even if as you say they are defending their religion, what do the folks working at these embassies have to do with the creation of this offensive film?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  6. War on freedom

    we KNOW why they are upset but why should we care? so muslims get their feelings get and its okay to kill people? may christians get their feelings hurt just watching an episode of family guy, but you dont see them storming production studios and killing the shows creators. again, the true hate-filled nature of islam reveals itself. (side note- how many of these people took to the streets to decry the actions of 9/11?). America should NOT apologise. we should not apologise for our right to free speech. we should not apologise to these barbarians who would destroy the west in a second if they had the chance. so their feelings got hurt, big deal. they are turning this into a war on our freedoms and it should not be tolerated.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Unafiliated

      Great post.... But it's even worse than you portray. It's not like storming the production studios of a show you don't like. it's like being offended at the Family Guy and going down to the local pub and killing people there because they don't hate the show the way you do.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  7. Roy

    Why are the fuss and excuses for this "religion of peace"?

    September 13, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  8. Steve L

    If these radical Muslims had any kind of reasoning power, they would come to understand they have been duped. Why do they want to live in a 7th century world? Probably because they don't know how to get along in today's world and they long for the bad old days. A lot of them have no regard for human life and that includes their own. They seem to want to end this life for as many people as possible and then think it is what God would want. They're delusional!

    September 13, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  9. libdumb

    BS. You don't go killing innocent people over this crap. Let's impose the Christian way of an eye for an eye. Enough of this crap rationalization.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  10. smk

    “…anyone who murders any person who had not committed murder or horrendous crimes, it shall be as if he murdered all the people. And anyone who spares a life, it shall be as if he spared the lives of all the people....." Qur'an [5:32]

    In Quran God speaks to the whole humanity ....

    “Proclaim, He is the One and only GOD. The Absolute GOD. Never did He beget. Nor was He begotten. None equals Him." [112:1]

    “They even attribute to Him sons and daughters, without any knowledge. Be He glorified. He is the Most High, far above their claims.” Quran [6:100]

    “The example of Jesus, as far as GOD is concerned, is the same as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then said to him, "Be," and he was.” Quran [3:59]

    “No soul can carry the sins of another soul. If a soul that is loaded with sins implores another to bear part of its load, no other soul can carry any part of it, even if they were related. ... [35:18]

    It does not befit God that He begets a son, be He glorified. To have anything done, He simply says to it, "Be," and it is. [19:35]

    Thanks for taking time to read my post. Please take a moment to clear your misconception by going to whyIslam org website.

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

      Try practicing what you preach and denounce these murders.


      September 13, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • nmk

      Qur’an 9:7-9-Don’t make treaties with non-Muslims. They are all evildoers and should not be trusted.
      Qur’an 9:12-14-Fight the disbelievers! Allah is on your side; he will give you victory.
      Qur’an 9:5 Kill the nonbelievers wherever you find them.
      Qur’an 2:191-2-Kill disbelievers wherever you find them. If they attack you, then kill them. Such is the reward of disbelievers.

      you cant get away with trying to spread misinformation.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  11. David Saroff

    Why Muslims decry prophet images. Firstly, it is only the prophet Mohammed's image that they are sensitive about. The other prophets (Moses, Abraham, Jesus, etc), most Muslims have zero sensitivity about. So distinctly a very double standard. This also highlights a reality or partial reality that some version idol worship is occurring which is something which Muslims have a heightened sensitivity regarding. So perhaps, a lot of introspection is needed on the part of the Muslim community in regards to this issue.

    I would also say that the movie/video that helped throw gas on to this fire – is a rediculous piece of garbage which was largely ignored until the Egyptian media decided to give creedence.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  12. Jubril

    Thats why I am Muslim, Moses, Mohammed,Jesus,Adam are all Men, Men that came out through a woman's organ, They were prophets that came to spread the word of God, Their is nothing like Son /Daughter of God, God has no Father,Mother or children. We are all Creations. A cross was used to crucify Christ, And i see a lot of people wearing crosses, Will you wear a Knife Icon if a knife was used to kill your father?

    September 13, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • Lino -Noble1- Reynoso

      You know, you have a good point asking that question... I can take a shot at it based on my point of view.
      Women are not known through history because history are written by men, not women. Unfortunately this has been so. Imagine if our past world would've recorded history as it really was? It would've been wonderful the lessons of equality, human value that we would've learned. Unfortunately, that is not so. That's is one of my points of views on this great question.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Lino -Noble1- Reynoso

      Sorry Jubril This comment was not meant for you. System error. But consider it anyway.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Tom

      Jesus accepted his crucifiction because that is what gave us eternal life. The remembrance of the cross is a good thing.

      Easter in my opinion the most important event in Christianity and not Christmas.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  13. FactsRBad

    How insecure are these Islamast followers about Muhammad's legitimacy that they cannot tolerate any speech which calls into question their prophet's provenance, authority, integrity or any other claimed attribute.

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

    I watched CNN today where a woman with glasses seems to suggest that a movie about Islam seems to have caused this . She shakes her head , lets out a long breath in disgust. CNN has got to be kidding . Isnt there a play on Broadway pretty much making fun of Mormans . So , if there are deaths associated with this Morman play , will we blame the playwright ? You people at CNN dont seem to have any brains in your head.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Brooklyn Boy

      Exactly – it all boils down to the same question: if I find your beliefs REDICULOUS, why can't I say so? Is it because I might hurt your feelings? So what?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • cn

      Well Tess, the answer is likely yes. The uprisings over the past couple days are in direct reaction to this movie that has made its way to the internet. Sure, The Book of Mormon is written by comedic writers to poke fun at Mormonism, but the difference is that Mormons aren't burning down consulates and killing US ambassadors, they act like civilized people. Anytime some sort of media surfaces that pokes fun at Islam, certain groups of people in the Middle East find it necessary to cause unrest and take it out against innocent Americans. Are you that thick?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  15. Kevin Barbieux

    It is time for Muslims to purge the violence from its culture.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  16. scottt01

    Is Mohammed's image sacred to be shown or is it taboo to be shown? Either way, the world rejected one cultures attempt to create their idea of "the perfect race" and, I am sure the world is not going to embrace one cultures attempt to enforce their idea of "the perfect religion" on the world.

    September 13, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  17. Abdullahi

    I would suggest those who continue to Insult Muslims to read the Qur'an for themselves rather than listening hateful preachers; Americans preach the gospel, but do not practice. Muslims worship Allah (only true God), not Muhammad, he was a messenger. Do not hate the messenger.

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

      not true..Muslims also worship dead peers in graves and ask for boons..that is pure idolatary. Kissing the black stone in Kaaba is idolatory. There is no religion without its symbols aka idols.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Tom

      By not seeing Mohammed as a man you actually make him equivalent to God as we only have faith that God exists but we do not have an actual picture. If you show the man you know he is a man. Now if you say you can't have statues and pictures of Mohammed that is fine but having an actor be Mohammed to tell a story is not idolization of the prophet.

      You have to admit that due to the frenzy this has caused Muslims really do idolize Mohammed.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • nmk

      I have read it:
      Qur’an 9:7-9-Don’t make treaties with non-Muslims. They are all evildoers and should not be trusted.
      Qur’an 9:12-14-Fight the disbelievers! Allah is on your side; he will give you victory.
      Qur’an 9:5 Kill the nonbelievers wherever you find them.
      Qur’an 2:191-2-Kill disbelievers wherever you find them. If they attack you, then kill them. Such is the reward of disbelievers.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • David Saroff

      While it is easy to say that Muslims only pray to Allah, There are too many behaviors toward the Prophet Mohammed which make the first statement suspect. There are contradictions in every religion. What is Islam is discovering – is that as the interest in Islam is peaked, there will be a increasingly larger number of non-Muslims who not only learn about Islam to its core but can knowledgeable speak about Islam to a greater depth than many of the followers of Islam. This has already occurred with Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Budhism. So as the Good, the Bad and Ugly of Islam comes out into the open, accusing some in the audience of not understanding Islam would be a mistake.

      September 13, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  18. The_Mick

    So an image of Mohammed might make people worship him, but the Muslims have no problems with their dictators posting photos of themselves on every wall in every business in their nations?

    September 13, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  19. none

    Jesus (May God's Peace Blessings Be Apon Him) was a Muslim and will return to this Earth to rule according to the Holy Quran

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

      You're an idiot. The rаgheаd religion of the pedophile prophet didn't exist until HUNDREDS of years later.


      September 13, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  20. Bible just a theory

    NOBODY KNOWS what this F#!*X! Mohammed looked like, so it makes the usual ZERO SENSE for religious zealots to worry about somebody picturing or portraying him, especially someone with a silly fake beard. Of course, no one has ever accused religion of being logical!

    September 13, 2012 at 11:59 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.