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. Atheist

    Really, they just need to get over it. Allah is a figment of the collective imagination, and Mohammed was most likely a delusional cult leader like David Koresh.... really, do something meaningful with your lives already. Focusing on fictional characters is a waste of time.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  2. cranston snord

    Yes, we in the west understand that Muslims have specific rules around desecration and such. They've made that clear. But Christians, Jews and probably most all other religions do also. The difference is that we've generally evolved up on the civlization curve such that we don't kill and maim when people don't follow our views of desecration. In the 90's, an artist created an exhibit in NYC called Pi** Christ. You can imagine what it was. It outraged everyone with an ounce of social consciousness, but it ran for several weeks and no one was killed or injured. That's the difference. We're not stuck in a violent time warp of the 12th century. These guys are.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Too Much

      Well said. We don't need articles on CNN to tell us why they are outraged. We understand and still disagree with their disgusting behavior.

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

      ^^^ SPOT ON. What's worse, is that their apologists in the United States keep patting these radicals on the back while telling the rest of us to examine why we're making the radicals angry. IT DOES NOT MATTER why they are angry, they do not have the right to threaten, destroy and kill when they are angry. They need to get a grip and re-examine the morals and ethics behind treating life so cheaply.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  3. Spencer

    I almost wish they wouldn't state the "reason" for these attacks - that being the film about Mohammed. It makes it seem like the attacks were justified in some way. Like if this film wasn't produced there wouldn't be uprisings. The reality is that many of these people hate the United States, and they will always find a "reason" to attack us. If it wasn't about the film it would be about MTV or a newspaper column or the presidential race. They don't really need a reason.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  4. Kim Mitchell

    So I guess CNN would not think it was barbaric for Americans to storm the Embassies here in the States over desecrating our flag? This tolerance and PC garbage is going to be the death of us..

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

    Adolf Hitler infused the Nazi Philosophy into religion. He used this to indoctrinate millions into the Nazi philosophy. These Islamist have made no bones that Hitler was a and is a Hero of theirs. So as you can see, history is repeating itself. These Islamic extremist are using the same game plan as the Nazis. Hijack a religion and sucker people into believing. The world defeated the Nazis and the world will defeat these idiots.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • ME II

      " These Islamist have made no bones that Hitler was a and is a Hero of theirs."

      Citation please. This appears to be complete BS.

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

      That's quite a leap. I think the only thing Muslims would like about Hitler is his hatred of Jews.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • Derrek

      @ME II The connection is clear and it has been going on since WWII. You just need to do some research. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has quoted Hitler in speeches before. The Muslim brotherhood had strong ties to the Nazi regime.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Derrek


      Read about the Muslim Brotherhood and the following connection between Nazis. Look up Hajj Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and Sheikh Hassan al-Banna. Then tell me if this is a quantum leap.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  6. mike

    Islam is going to have to evolve or die.

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

      Why would religions need to evolve if they are true? Of course they do but what does that say about them? Christianity has always followed the morally superior secular world and then pretending it's the other way 'round.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  7. phillylady66

    I cannot believe CNN is still flogging this story!

    Enough sympathy for Muslims, please!

    September 13, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  8. Joe

    Yousif Heyden, you are asking the wrong questions. Publicizing hate speech is mostly within the boundaries of our rights as Americans. We also have the right to do it without harmful retribution, AND others throughout the world deserve to live their lives in peace, regardless of what Americans are saying publicly. So, the question you should be asking is, "why can't Muslims mind their own business?" or "why can't Muslims respect others' rights to personal safety and the very right to their lives?" Otherwise, you are putting the cart before the horse. It isn't up to the rest of us to walk on eggshells around Muslims. It is up to Muslims to suck it up. If you want to believe we're going to hell, fine. That's up to you. But BUZZ OFF and leave us alone.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  9. Jonathan

    This article is a complete blind. Muslims reacting violently to this video are not concerned about the possibility that it will lead to idolatrous worship of Muhammad as a deity, but they are incensed by the insult they perceive to their prophet, their religion and themselves.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  10. mirrorview

    It's man's act of putting someone in higher roles that leads to God like status. I beleive in God but Jesus didn't act better than othjers he would question man on his actions to what made them think they have a right to do things or put them selves higher.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  11. Freedom of Expression

    Who says I am the light and the source of all good? I can incite hatred for sure. I can do whatever human beings want me to, but not all human beings are good. So use me wisely.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  12. Craig

    heres the problem tho mohammed was a pedophile and one of the original terrorists just ask the zoroastrians,

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

      The real problem here is that for hundreds of years muslims painted representations of Mohammed. They hang in museums around the world. Google them. There is no such authentic prohibition against it in their faith. This is a relatively modern response to "catholic" like muslims who venerated those paintings.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  13. Jonathan

    This article is a complete lind. Muslims reacting violently to this video are not concerned about the possibility that it will lead to idolatrous worship of Muhammad as a deity, but they are incensed by the insult they perceive to their prohet, their religion and themselves.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  14. none

    In Prophet Muhammad's (SWT) Holy Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia, he is buried alongside his father-in-law/close companion. A third tomb is empty.

    Jesus (May God's Peace and Blessing Be Apon Him) will be buried there.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • eegur beevur

      Which of his thirteen fathers-in-law?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • mtntrvlr

      Country of origin?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  15. Dan Chartier, Ph.D.

    IMHO any religion (or other belief system) becomes invalid at the moment the followers kill others in the name of that religion. Thus we are left with few if any valid religions.

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

      thanks for including your credentials – but that's nonsense.
      and no, i'm not religious

      September 13, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • none

      So Timothy McVeigh invalidates Christianity?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • none

      What about David Koresh?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  16. freedomringsforall

    What kind of insanity is this?!
    Apologizing because someone in the USA made a little flick about the truth of Islam!

    What kind of looney idiot do we have sitting in the oval office?!

    He should be shouting from the highest mountain tops that if you do not like freedom of speech then stay away from the USA and we who love freedom will stay away from you!
    But no instead he is a coward and an idiot that kisses our enemy commie and islamic tyrants’ bums while stabbing our historic allies in the back.

    Isn't it interesting that one of the main doctrinal ordained methods of operation for both communism and islam is that it is right and righteous to lie about anything that advances the cause of communism or islam.

    Let’s please get these commie fascists out of power in the USA!
    Let's please return this nation to a bright shining beacon of freedom on a hill for the rest of the world to aspire to.

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

      There are always consequences to actions, and we Americans should know better. When you bully someone that someone is going to react in a way to protect himself\herself. See, most people look at religion as something sacred, personal; like a sentiment and respect that you have for your parents. When other people disrespect that it is going to be a fight. When people laugh at you because of the way that you dress and act, IT IS NO FUN.

      Look at the shooting in Virginia Tech, look at the shooting in Colorado High School.

      America gets into trouble because of their big mouth not because of FREEDOM OF SPEACH. People should stop offering their 2 cents because it is worth nothing, and when you have nothing good to say; don't say it. It is totally fine to mourn your lost in silence.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:45 pm |

    OH and christians arent sensitive?just because we dont torture our women and believe in a passionate lord and live in a society that recognizes all religions we must be extra sensitive to certain callings because there violent gimme a break

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

    when pressed over his failure to see that americans are protected overseas a tearful obama cried out...I WANT TO GO ON VACATION!!!!

    September 13, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • Peter Grenader

      WHat? MY email address is this name at gamail. I want you to send my a link about tht. I don't believe a fing word of this and I want you to prove it to me. WHen you can"t, I want to you to retract that statement. Are yuo adult enough to do that?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  19. Chad

    Muslim sensitivity and outrage should not be the focus here. I don't care about their sensitivity. After all, shouldn't everyone be a little more sensitive about a US Envoy getting killed by a rocket attack? The story here is really about violent idiots who don't understand American values of free speech and liberty who decided to terrorize on the anniversary of 911. There is no apology for this kind of hatred and moronic behavior. Journalists should quit trying to explain away the kind of bigotry and evil we see demonstrated in these acts. This has nothing to do with valid expression or justified anger. For whatever reason, whether it is due to their faith, their depravity of good sense and knowledge, or their limited brain cells, the people who actually stormed these embassies are sick nut-jobs and they should crawl back under their rocks, or face serious consequences.

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

      If history teaches us anything is that religion has killed many many more than all the wars, epidemics, natural disasters combined. Just look at the early centuries and the Crusades. The Catholic church has killed, hundreds of thousands if not millions because people refused to convert. You might argue that those are Catholics, but lets not forget that Christians and Catholics believe in the same god. The Nazis also killed millions of Jews because they abhored the Jewish culture.

      Now, you and many others are trying to connect this event with whatever significance that it has to do with 9/11; and that is poor judgement. Connecting un-related events without proof is the root to discordance and conflict. If connecting events works then let me enlighten you with a few: Why did the terrorists attacked on 911? Maybe because the Germans were behind it because of their forever popular Porsche 911. Maybe is the resurgence of the Nazis and they are the real instigators. SEE, CONNECTING UN-RELATED EVENTS IS NOT SMART!!!!

      America gets into trouble because of their big mouth not because of FREEDOM OF SPEACH. People should stop offering their 2 cents because it is worth nothing, and when you have nothing good to say; don't say it. It is totally fine to mourn your lost in silence.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • ZFairplay

      No doubt the act of violence is not justified and these are clearly hooligans that have perpetrated the ugliest of crimes killing an ambassador. What is worse is that the ambassador was a friend of arab and spent his career trying to build bridges. What a sad day. That said name calling and denegrading someone's religion is not justified either. This video is vile and ill-intended. Why would anyone create this except just to spread hatred. This is not freedom of expression – just as there is no freedom of expression to malign and defame.. That's why there are laws against it. If you say something with the intent to defame and incite then it is not just deplorable but illegal as well. Mulims need to learn to ignore such acts, and imbeciles like the one who created this video need to leave islam alone as well. That way nobody gets hurt.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  20. Shine222

    It is very clear that the Islamic world can not tolerate the internet and its free speech. The Islamic world needs to stay off the Western world's internet as it will disturb the Islamic world's sensibilities.

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

      This is a non-starter. How can you control any people not using the Internet? BTW Internet has nothing to do with this. It is the movie that was produced with ill intentions and spreading hatred. Violence is not justified, but neither is defamation and inciting. There are no winners in this case, we all lose because of unjustified use of so-called freedom of speech, and a minority of people's inability to see through this act and ignore it.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:52 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.