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. Smell my Junk

    Well, considering a jew is the one who made the movie...

    September 13, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  2. Meester Taco


    ( . . )
    ( ^ )
    / \
    / \

    September 13, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • allaisa

      Are you depicting Mohammad? You kaffir, you will burn in hell!

      September 13, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  3. J-Pap

    Screw all religions. It's time to worship science.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  4. AmericanLiberal

    Poor Misundersood muslims...
    They just want to kill all us infadels and take over the world.
    What's wrong with that ?
    and when that's not working they kill each other (wives, daughters, etc..)
    Just my peace lovin' nieghbor – cleanin' his AK47 – polishing his rocket gernades

    September 13, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  5. JP

    The Torah, which antedates the Koran by 2,000 years, lays bare the prohibition of representing G-d in human form. Yet, history indicates no Jewish storming of the Sistine Chapel. A pretext for wanton murder should never be an excuse. What we've seen on display in Libya and Egypt is the product of hate – not religion!

    September 13, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  6. allaisa

    Library of Congress has Mohammad's image. American muslims , I am sure, would love to burn the Library

    September 13, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • danita

      would that be the jail inmates who turned muslim while pulling time?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  7. Rodney McNeely

    I don't give a rat's ass WHAT they believe. When a grown adult (Christian, Muslim, or otherwise) tells me about their belief in God, I immediately start dealing with them the same way I would deal with the 16-year-old who tells me they still believe in Santa Claus.

    Don't get me wrong, I'll be kind and handle them with kid gloves. But it won't be out of respect for their beliefs. Sane or not, I'm going to handle them as if they're functionally retarded.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • justice4sarah

      As factual as your comment was, It still gave me a belly laugh followed by sadness, because your statement is reality...PEACE

      September 13, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • IslamIsEvil

      Well said. Religious belief is a mental illness and should treated as such.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:31 pm |


    Look, it's an image of the heathen monster Muhammud! Go back to eating camel dung and killing your daughters. Hopefully your inferior species will wipe itself out soon.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  9. none

    On the Night of Power in Islam: Prophet Muhammad (SWS) was taken by a horse from the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem to Heaven to meet God, all the Prophets and to visit Heaven and Hell.

    The first prophet to get up off the floor and hug him and say "Welcome brother:" Jesus (May God's Peace and Blessings Be Apon Him)

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

      And you were there to witness all this?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • FactoidLover

      Wouldn't it be great to have had video capabilities back then to record these sights.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • jb

      You believe that c r a p?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  10. Ren

    All of these posts from other people make me sick. I understand why it makes them so upset. I can't really explain it though in a comment. We need to be more understanding of them. If they spent some time here, they would probably understand that this is not the view of every American. If you all spent some time there, I believe you would understand WHY they are protesting, and I believe you would also understand that not every Muslim feels the same way as the protestors.

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

      then tell "Every Muslim" to clean up thier own kind.
      So bring us the killers, take care of it yourself, before we do it for you !

      September 13, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • George

      Ren, you could not be more correct about your views...regarding both religions and cultures being very foreign to each other..Listening the news or reading books or listening some other people regarding other cultures is not helpful...You have to be there and live with them for a awhile.. also they have to live with us here to understand our values, otherwise They are all terrorist to us and We are the Great Satan to them...

      September 13, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • jb

      Ren, if so sick go to the doctor or iman or whatever his name is. Islam is forever equated with horrific acts against mankind

      September 13, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  11. Derek

    I find it kind of ironic, because it seems like the fervor to prevent depictions of Muhammad itself has actually deified him.

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

      In their quest to keep Muhammed from being deified, militant Muslims have in fact demonized him to the rest of the non-militant world. True followers of Islam do NOT engage in violence on behalf of their prophet just as true followers Christian philosophy do NOT engage in violence on behalf of Jesus. True believers of men who preached peace... PRACTICE peace. Al Queda operatives play on fear to manipulate the masses and hijack a religion. They should be treated as the criminals they are as there is absolutely NOTHING religious about their actions.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  12. Rich

    It is very clear that the Muslims already worship the Prophet Mohammad. What other reason would or could justify such outrage over a depiction of Mohammad as anything or anybody? They are protecting his image with such zeal that they, Muslims, are willing to take life.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • Realistic85

      Did you read the article or did you just not get it?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • George

      Rich, You worship to Jesus and you have a drawings of him!....They do not worship to Muhammed and say they do not worship him???? and They do not have his pictures???

      September 13, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  13. Saboth

    "that the Prophet was a man, not God, and that portraying him threatens". I'm sorry, that makes no sense. If someone portrays him as a bumbling inept fool or in other ways humanizes him, that is the opposite of portraying him as a god.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  14. tstu98

    They really need some help to kill innocent people and cause havoc and destruction over something as a negative image of a prophet. Nobody should be defending their actions or justifying what they did or are doing either, i dont care what some's religous beliefs are, they use this as an excuse to cause violence, plain and simple.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  15. allaisa

    The reason muslims do not want Mohammad's photo is because he suffered many war injuries and basically his face was defaced and he always wore a cloth covering most of his face during his life time.

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

      That's all well and good but it still isn't a justification to kill innocent people.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  16. Chuck Steak

    "portraying him threatens to lead to worshiping a human instead of Allah" So if I want to show an image of Mohammad as a rabid mad dog, there is a chance some Muslims might start worshipping the image?!

    September 13, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  17. rrutman04

    Who cares why they're angry? There is no justifiable excuse for such actions. Besides, they don't seem to care about other people's sensitivities, such as burning a flag of a country. Would someone write a blog/ article explaining a person's actions if he killed someone for burning the US flag?

    September 13, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  18. Big V

    Blaming the victim is never appropriate. It vindicates the perpetrator and violates the rights of free people everywhere. We cannot allow our freedom of speech to be over-ruled by violence.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  19. RelisionIsOfMan

    Religion tends to blind people out of logic. Having said that, I can say that the Middle East literacy rate combined with religion is a "Hot powder keg"

    September 13, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  20. Oudeis

    Religion per se does not kill or teach to kill: I would rather blame Politics and the struggle for Power! To blame Religion for the existence of Evil in human history is like to blame the Laws for the existence of crime! Of course is true that Politics uses Religion to disguise itself and find a shortcut to Power instead of choosing a more difficult and uncertain path...Even today in Islamic Countries we are facing a very clear struggle for Democracy, Equaliity and Justice but also for Supremacy and leadership of all Islamic nations....Think about that!

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

      When religion becomes politics, then admonishes to punish, threaten, and use violence to maintain conservative beliefs become inseparable.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:35 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.