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. ron

    Then mocking the "man" Mohammed, should not be an issue, for how can you worship what you deride, or mock?

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

    heres the problem tho mohammed was a pedophile and one of the original terrorists just ask the Zoroastrians.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  3. BD

    I don't know what will ever change the idealogical landscape enough to make this situation reconcilable. One groups wants true and free speech, the other group wants exceptions to what is considered free speech. Both parties are willing to die for their beliefs and atleast one of the parties is willing to kill for them.

    Personally I think the only thing that will work is a deterence strategy (police yourselves or we bomb your whole country back to the stone age). Its the international equivalant of making a whole class stay late because one person misbehaved. After a couple of full class detentions, no one misbehaves again.... painful lesson, important moral.

    Personally, I'd love a peaceful or alternative solution but I've lost faith that a solution along those lines will ever be found. When a conflict has gone on in one form or another for the better part of a millenia; letting the situation stew without concrete action is equivalent to self-castration.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  4. LightOne

    I understand Mohammed's reasoning. I also understand wanting to hold someone as sacred/important and being upset when other's blatently, in-your-face, disrespect that person.

    But: One person in another country disrespecting you ≠ destroying property, hurting and killing innocent people.

    It's stupid and disgusting.

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

      As has been pointed out previously, whats the point of banning idol worship if the ban itself becomes a form of idol worship?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  5. Salah

    The movie producers will have the blood of all the Coptic Christians living in Egypt in their hands. The Founding Fathers gutanteed us freedom of speech not freedom of hate.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  6. Gil T

    Finally, the Benghazi citizens' protest against the killing of US Embassy Ambassador and personnel states what this article and much of media coverage would never state: The killings shine light on the STUPIDITY of SOME Muslims, not all in Benghazi, Libya or other parts of the Middle East.
    Imagine!! These Muslims protesting openly without concealing their faces to make their statement to America and the world.

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

      You are absolutely right! As a Muslim I felt miserably sad to see those Americans killed after leaving their loved ones in order to help rebuild this country from the ground up. The world is full of zealous, ignorant and stupid religious extremist be it from the Islamic faith or the Christian, Jewish and other beliefs. As a Muslim, although it really hurts me to see the depiction of our beloved Prophet as a merciless violent and corrupt man, it never changes the fact that he changed history and came with. True message of peace that had been twisted and changed by Muslims MORE than any other people!

      September 13, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • MPLS70

      "As a Muslim, although it really hurts me to see the depiction of our beloved Prophet as a merciless violent and corrupt man"
      Except that he was a merciless, violent, and corrupt man. Holy men don't lead armies to kill those who oppose them.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  7. z2cents

    Islam was built to gide barbarians who are not smart enough and have to be told to follow one and only one way. Otherwise, they can deviate from the message wasily. It makes sense for some people, but not all

    September 13, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  8. TX78213

    Why does CNN continue to trot out this theory that the riots were in retaliation for this video as if it were fact?

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

      They are apologists and make excuses for terrorists. They support the liberal movement that says America is no better than any other country and we must deserve bad things. These animals will use anything as an excuse to kill people. A video is just convenient.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • SMB

      While respecting the religious sensitivity to worshipping only God and not man, what kind of God condones the wanton slaughter of people created in God's image that Islamic extremists are perpetrating on the world?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  9. Amanda

    You see the symbols and pictures of prophets of religions desecrated all the time. Yet, if you measured the amount of people from each religion who reacted violently, you would only have one religion leading the pack by the THOUSANDS, (speaking present day of course). I wonder why that is? Sure, you have your nutjobs in every religion, but the last time someone insulted my religion or tore up a picture of my prophet (which happens daily in the U.S.), we didn't kill go out and kill anybody over it.

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

      I guess the world no longer expects muslims to behave civilized so they get a pass on many things that non-Muslims would be held accountable for.

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

    I would like to hear how the peaceful,non-violent Muslims feel about this. Because all we hear about is the violent Muslims. Not just this, but remember a few weeks ago about the story of Muslims in Pakistan who wanted to kill at 14 year old teenage girl for burning pages of the Qu'ran? Which, later it was reported that she didn't even do it, yet they wanted to kill her. I'm not saying that all Christians throughout history have been peaceful but if these people believe in Allah and what the Prophet taught, they would try a different approach if they don't agree instead of just killing. I'm sure the Prophet condones murdering, so these radical Muslims over there are simply just crazy psychos who take to the extreme. It saddens me but makes me happy to live in a free society in America where I don't have to worry too much of being slaughtered by a angry mob if I do something that they don't agree with.

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

      Sorry, meant "condemns" murder, not "condone". My mistake.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  11. jomama

    Stupidest. Religion. Ever.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • mama kindless

      That's silly. All religion = stupid. There, that's more like it.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  12. blahblahblah

    I only clicked on this story to see a bigger picture of that sweet shield... but was disappointed.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  13. 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 12:04 pm |
    • Rob

      uh, wrong!!! So let me get this straight...you WANT your kids to be condemned to hell because you didn't want to bother to teach them about the one, true God. Interesting.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • jamesr1976

      Being an ahteist isn't going to save you from the mu slims. They hate every non-musllim and will k i l l you too.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • mama kindless

      It will save everyone from the ill effects of all religions. They are all like clubs – each trying to out do the other and inspiring hate along the way (disguised as love).

      September 13, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  14. greg

    I find it odd the logic; from my outsider perspective, the absolute intolerance Muslims have regarding their prophet is itself the worship of a god-like figure. If he's just a man, why be so concerned? Especially, why be concerned with an unflattering protrayal? does anyone really believe that such a film would lead a person to worship? Clearly not. The reaction is that of a people who do in fact worship their prophet and have elevated him to something far beyond that of a mere man.

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


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

      Well said.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  15. Jon

    "Violence over depictions ... 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." This is such BS. In the Old Testament, only images of God were forbidden. Therefore when muslims forbid images of "The Prophet", they treat him *exactly* like God, and that is *exactly* the problem. Muslims are idiots.

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

      Exactly in point

      September 13, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  16. Chat Pata

    Hmm. So if Mohammed's image is allowed to be painted, he will be elevated to the level of a human son of god like Jesus, Krishna,Hercules, Ra? Will Mohammed rise three days after his death? LOL

    September 13, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  17. JackDW

    My tolerance of religion ends when it ceases being tolerant of others and committing violent criminal acts. I DON'T CARE if it bothers you that someone creates an image of your imperious leader Mohammad – It is not your right to hurt others because of it.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  18. KWS

    Gee, thanks for explaining. Now I can totally accept that they devolve into marauding murderous animals when someone draws a cartoon.

    Now, shouldn't Christians be encouraged to blow anyone away who says "Jesus Christ!" when they're mad? It only seems fair, don't you think?

    September 13, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  19. Mike

    The right wing here and in the middle east like to use the same tactics just to different extremes. They both use hate and intolerance to attack their perceived enemies. Thankfully we haven't gotten to the same level as the middle east but we are headed in that direction with that judge in the south west and a few others saying that if Obama is re-elected there will be civil war in this country. The images of the town hall meetings during the health care debates of all these people showing up armed to the teeth are but one misstep away the same kind of mob reaction we see in the middle east. The rhetoric and lies that are told in our politics are disgraceful. We see from our elected officials a total breakdown of civility and manners and even plain common sense and reason and they are setting the tone for the rest of the country and it's not a positive change in my opinion.

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

      Does cranial/rectal inversion hurt? Hope so.

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

      The left wing nuts are far more hateful. Ever go to a meeting if union thugs or the black panthers?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • Kim Mitchell

      Oh, really?? The "right" acts like this? OK, then maybe the next time the lefty atheists make us take a Nativity scene down, we should murder and drag bodies through the streets...why, we are just exercising our freedom of religion and someone is attacking it, right? Get real, OK? Grow up Mike and realize what is going on in this country. We are being used and pitted against each other. Left against right, instead of Americqans ike you attacking what you don;t agree with..

      September 13, 2012 at 12:06 pm |

    I make an exact image of Mohammed in the toilet when I take a dump.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:02 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.