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. Bruce Carter

    A man, not God, and Jesus was simultaneously God and man. I choose Jesus over the pedophile prophet any day.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  2. Shine222

    To say that Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. don't love their religion as much as Muslims do is wrong. That Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus don't riot and kill over slights to their religious figures shows that their religions are superior.

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

    I find it ironic that muslims, by putting so much importance on mohammed and on attacking anyone who depicts him, actually ARE worshipping him as an idol. It may not be a tangible idol, but an idol nonetheless.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • Slovensko

      Hit the nail on the head.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • Absolutely!


      September 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  4. Jonjojr

    When they tell us that Jesus was nothing but a man, do we go out on the streets of Washington and tear down all the Koran bibles and make a pile of them in the middle of the scare and make a bom fire? So, folks we are dealing with a very primitive society that does not know how to cope with critisim. Instead of being humble and believe in their faith. they rather go out and rocket cars and tear down buildings, because that is all they know how to do right now. It is just like a child with their tandrums

    September 13, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  5. Say wut?

    So let me get this straight: Muslims are offended by images portraying Mohammad because they are worried it will lead people to worship him and detract from the peaceful teachings of Allah, and the maintain this by killing people? Oh, now it makes total sense.

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

      Egypt is a country of 85 million of which more than 80 million are Muslim. There were less than 2000 people at the first night of the riot and less than 500 on the second night (according to CNN). This is a very very very small ,but loud and violent, group of people. The majority of the Muslim, although disgusted by the film, are peaceful and respectful of lives and property of the others.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  6. NorCalMojo

    The premise of this article is that only Muslims have values and sensibilities that they hold dearly. The rest of us are uncommitted because we don't react violently when our values are offended. That's both offensive and very dangerous.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  7. mirrorview

    Ask a atheists if they were proved wrong by a GOD (no religion attached)would they admit that this is their GOD? If 1 said no & he was blown to bits by a GODS word then would other be so inclined not to admit? This is what a atheist wants for proof. I could be a man and do the same its called submission. Atheists love to playing w words!

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

      Sure, bring the God (any God) and I will talk to him and if I am convinced I will him my God!

      September 13, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  8. Dan

    Mohammed was a murderer. He spread his religion through force and the sword. That is why it was called the religion of the sword for many centuries.

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

      You seem to be forgething about the Crusades between the 10th and 13th century. Or maybe you think that Christians soldiers envading Muslim territories does not count as violence ?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  9. Antonio

    Does anyone else find it interesting how Islam claims to be a religion of peace, and Mohammed, their prophet, a peaceful man who lived a peaceful life and promoted peace, yet whenever ANYTHING happens that remotely offends people of this religion their first response is to act in a violent manner. Do the religious fanatics of Islam not realize that by reacting violently over a video they do nothing but disgrace their own religion and core belief system? And to use the excuse that the anger was caused by a video on YouTube is pathetic. There are so many anti-religion videos out there for every religion, so to use this one as a crutch for killing innocent people is disgusting. I know not everyone who follows the Islam set of beliefs agrees with these actions, but I sure don't hear them speaking out either, and their silence is just as bad in my opinion. So if you would like to be known as a nation and religion of peace you should start by being peaceful and not killing innocent people over a video they had no part in making and probably didn't even know about, that might help perception, just a thought.

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

      Well said.

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

      If someone is close to my heart and beloved to me, just like my cute 20-month old boy, and is insulted and ridiculed, YES i would get offended. Do people have the right to be offended? Do you EVER get offended?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • Antonio

      Yes, people have the right to get offended, and have a right to their opinion, but they DON'T have the right to kill over it. If someone insulted your child you have every right to be offended and say what you want, but you don't have the right to kill the person over it. That's the difference. You say what you have to say, they say what they have to say, and everyone moves on, alive and not physically hurt by one another. And, in this case, the people that were killed had nothing to do with the video. That would be like if I insulted your child, and you went and killed someone else. That wouldn't make any sense, would it?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  10. rutiluspallium

    I would wager every dime I have and every dime I could borrow that there would be NO riots if a western artist were to present a favorable representation of their Prophet. This is a tantrum because their religion was insulted, nothing more.

    Hopefully some day they will outgrow this childish behavior.

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

      Oh, they'd still likely protest, probably just not with as much violence, or vandalism.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • laughingstock

      You'd lose for two reasons. First, they deplore ANY depictions of mohammed, either good or bad, and Second, they would leap at a chance to protest and get violent over something a Westerner did.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  11. Spirituality

    I hope they wipe out all Coptic Christians in Egypt. May be then people will realize that freedom of expression should be used wisely. What did the movie maker get out of this? One thing for sure – Muslims are coming back to Islam after 400 years of deviance.

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


      just wow

      September 13, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • rutiluspallium

      What did the movie maker get out of this? Thousands of Muslims reinforcing his point of view that their religion is one of violence and mindless hatred. In their outrage over his work, they are validating it.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Jeaux Bleaus

      You should use your freedom of expression more wisely, dimwit.

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

      Apparently you don't understand the term "freedom".

      September 13, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • Think

      No, they're just showing the fruits of their belief. That violence, killing and the abuse of women is the default reaction. If they believed that Mohammad was just a man as they say then any depiction of him should mean nothing. Since they are so offended, it's clear they are worshipping him, not the God they pretend to worship. Judge a religion by it's fruits. The fruits of Islam are very rotten.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  12. lol@the3rdworldwackadoodles

    Haha!, We say something to insult islam and they destroy and set fire to their own country. silly wackadoodles.

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


      September 13, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  13. Lies

    Seriously? Are we really supposed to believe that Muslims are acting like mindless animals because they're afraid that those of us in the civilized world are suddenly going to start worshipping Muhammed as a god?

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

      It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. They are insulted by the negative portrayal, not that their Prophet is portrayed. Peole who make jokes, not pictures, about their Prophet are also condemned. If the Prophet is a man, why should they care? They should care more about God. American has more religious people than many nations, millions who believe in God, and we do not insult God. By the way, Christians do not worship images, we only venerate them, meaning that we care about the people in the images, not the wood or stone or paper. Those are windows, or sometimes called writing, not "pictures." Iconography means written image, not drawn, because we write the history. Much of the entire argument is based on hatred and judgment, not love of God.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  14. Joe

    Because they're batsh!t crazy. That is all.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  15. Colin

    The first picture could be captioned "Al Queda"s fist openly gay bloodthirsty terrorist."

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


      September 13, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  16. Amanda

    I like Don's answer. An excuse to kill Americans.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  17. jjp

    Do muslims ever see an image of Mohammed on their toast?

    September 13, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • palintwit

      No, but teabaggers see Sarah Palin in their feces.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  18. Al Fan

    Look at that idiot with the broken cardboard shield from the front page. Is that supposed to protect him from people throwing slander at him?!

    September 13, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  19. AmericanLiberal

    What a crock...
    Any excse at all to attack Jews and/or Americans works for them.
    Anything !
    Just think how many movies are made at the expence of other groups.
    We are poking at them all the time and I don't see any bloodshed.
    These are hot-headed Arabs and it is a major ugly of thier culture and lifestyle.
    Also what is al;l this crap about it just being a few isolated extremists that are ruining it for all the onderful peace loving muslims, BALONEY !
    They are winning elections (like Egypt) by a landslide – It is the MAJORITY that support this behavior.
    And the first thing thier newly elected leader did was give a rip roaring speach (to the applause of the masses) about killing Jews and Americans, WOW !
    our friends... the muslims, ya right !

    September 13, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Smell my Junk

      It was a jew who made the movie...

      September 13, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  20. zp

    What about OUR sensitivities???? We have done nothing wrong. Our doors have always been open to the world – unlike any other nation on the planet. These people are not fighting for a holy order – they are evil – period.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • AmericanLiberal

      agreed !
      This is how they pay our beloved Ambasador back for all his help.
      I know he helped free our country from an evil tyrant and helped restore order to our city, but you know, kill him
      He's an American !

      September 13, 2012 at 12:14 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.