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.

Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter

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.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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. Jeff in DC

    Yes, the world understands that this is a sensitive issue of faith for Muslims. Too bad. Nothing can justify the attacks on Tuesday. There is no room for sympathy in the civilized world for feelings hurt over a garbage film produced halfway across the globe.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • Realistic85

      How much more civilized are you really? I believe in the last election we had "civilized" people applauding when suggested sick people without health insurance just be left to die. Yeah, American has the real high ground...

      September 13, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  2. Big V

    This article is no different than explaining "why dads molest their daughters". It's because the daughter has the audacity to be cute and affectionate, and she might have disobeyed him even. Seriously, the reason is because he's a VIOLENT CONTROL FREAK. That is the reason.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  3. csp

    okay, so I believe in God and a higher power personally, but I do think it's so ironic how religious views lead to a majority of the violence and bigoted beliefs in this world–not even just today, but historically. Think about it... Ironic.... That's why I'm not a practicing member of any organized religion, but consider myself a person of faith...

    September 13, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  4. Tim B

    I see. So it is the inability of those that follow Islam to distinguish between a HUMAN and GOD that we should not portray Mohammad. And if we do display a picture of the HUMAN Mohammad they find it so offensive that their religion justifies the killing other HUMANS. What a great religion. Sign me up!!!

    September 13, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • Kelly

      I second that! Sign me up also.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  5. Tish

    We need to get out of all them countries and just let them kill themselves. They HATE us, so why are we spending so much money on these loosers? I hope I didn't offend any Gay Muslims or Gay Allah's. To our president: Grow some balls and swiftly deal with this before it's to late.... The U.S.A. is looking pretty weak right now and other countries are laughing at us..

    September 13, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • Realistic85

      America looks weak because they are week. Your government bickers like school girls while your country falls apart. Your kids are getting dumber with every generation because you fail in making education a priority. Give it another 10 years. America will be on par with these Muslim countries. By the way you fool, the reason you are in the middle east because about 80% of the worlds oil comes from there and you have to make sure you have cheap gas so you can drive your SUV that gets 5 MPG to cart your fat @ss to McDonald's for your daily big mac attack. You are an imbecile...

      September 13, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • csp

      Realistic85, what country do you live in??

      September 13, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Realistic85

      Oh csp you don't really care. After all you are American. With your freedom and free market capitalism. What would you care what country I'm from other than you'd like to tell me how much better it is where you live. From what I've seen it's a regular utopia with your freedom to say whatever you want and think you have no repercussions for what is said. Your economic crushing debt, your ineffective government. I could go on, but it sounds like such a great place I'm starting to get light headed. Far better than where I live... 🙂 I'll help make you feel better because I know you Americans need your ego stroked regularly or you just don't feel special. Let's say I live in a mud hut in a woods somewhere. I don't wear cloths and hunt for food and pick berries. There you go. That must make you feel real good about yourself doesn't it? You have it so much better than me it doesn't matter now does it. Keep living that "American Dream"... While you still can... I'll just stay where I am and keep watching the freak show that is America and laugh about it.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  6. Blaine

    "The film that’s believed to have inspired the violence depicts the Prophet Mohammed as a child molester, womanizer and ruthless killer"

    So in order to show that their "prophet" was not those things they kill innocent people. Hmm kinda runs contrary to what they say they believe.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • Tish

      Blaine, you are right on the money here, our president needs to grow some balls and put a stop to this and quit appoligizing that we offended someone...

      September 13, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • csp

      Ummmmm....maybe he's not taking such a stance right now and saying "we have free speech in the US, so deal with it"–which I totally agree with btw–because we in the middle of a crisis where American's are already in harms way overseas. So, not the time to add fuel to the fire and "grow some".....

      September 13, 2012 at 12:39 pm |




    September 13, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • Big V

      Yes, Mohamed is a troll. I agree 🙂

      September 13, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  8. Romney Un-Electible

    Muslims are a Plague upon the Earth and must be stopped now!

    Time to play Cowboys and Muslims!

    September 13, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  9. Major Disaster EDF

    Islam needs riots , suicide bombing , beheadings and terrorism , and genocide to induce fear , and to show how strong and important Allah and Islam is .
    Without hate and murder , Islam has no power .
    Muslims love death more then they love life , ask any Imam .

    September 13, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  10. GnatB

    "that the Prophet was a man, not God, and that portraying him threatens to lead to worshiping a human instead of Allah"

    I doubt it. "Poking fun" at him almost certainly doesn't threaten to lead to worship of a human. Quit the opposite. They do it because their leadership tells them to. And their leadership tells them to in order to maintain their power.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  11. Jerry

    Please stop making excuses for these irrational and abusive people. They are murderers.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  12. chrismccowan

    I have a serious question. The Prophet Muhammad himself was aware that if people saw his face portrayed by people, they would soon start worshiping him. So he himself spoke against such images, saying ‘I’m just a man.’”
    Then why are all those people engaging in such violence, for just a man, isn't that a form of worship? Didn't in ancient times people fight for idol Gods? That is what they are doing. They are not fighting for Allah they think they are but if u think about it they are not, the prophet is the issue. So why then get angry over such a thing I could see this if it was a diptiching of Allah in a terrible way, because that is the God they worship the one and only Right? So isn't what they are doing now totally a double standard which I'm sure isn't the right term for it, but you get what I'm saying. They are worshiping the Prophet by being so up in arms about such a thing.

    Also they probably have pictures of family members in their home couldn't that lead to worship of a human? "just a man" so why not get angry about that too.

    I also believe that this may also have to do with lack of jobs, and education too. Violence tends to be a "poor mans sport" the poorer the more aggression against society a person holds within themselves. Based on lack of opportunities, if you really look you don't see the rich people out their fighting, they tend voice their opinions in smaller groups such as a form or a convention instead of going out and destroying things to try to get a point across.

    You see what I'm saying?

    September 13, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • Scott E

      You noticed that too? I've seen dozens of ancient paintings of Mohammed painted by Muslims. Anyone who says there are no ancient pictures of the guys face is lying or misinformed.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  13. Jason

    This needs to be rationalized? Why are they angry? Because they are animals, sharing this planet with the rest of us in present time, but culturally and socially about 1,500 years behind us. A completely primitive society who expect all the respect in the world, as long as we share their archaic and laughable beliefs. There is no reasoning with them, as one can't reason with a virus...You simply do your best to occupy the same world with them and hope they don't infect you.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • Realistic85

      Painting a pretty moral high ground for the US. I wouldn't say Americans are any better. Your arguments are different, but your mentalities are the same.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • Jason

      @Realistic85.....Perhaps, but I'll leave that argument up to somebody who is actually American.....

      September 13, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Realistic85

      Sorry Jason. It's easier being a third party that isn't blinded by their own ignorance. Nice try to justify yourself though. Give it another try. Maybe you'll have better luck next time...

      September 13, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  14. Don

    Why are Muslims so insistent and determeined to demonstrate to the world through their actions that their God and his prophet must be pigs?

    September 13, 2012 at 12:23 pm |

    A book, by itself, has nothing to do with whatever faith a man/woman may have in their higher power. Although it is suggested that the Holy Bible be donated, and only buried if it's been blessed by a priest, the book itself holds no power. Am so tired of hearing about these people and their self righteous religion fueling their anger and hate. Nuke them.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  16. kenmac8

    To me this proves that they are doing exactly what they say they are upset about. It looks to me like they are worshiping him as a god. If he were merely a man and got insulted it would be justification for anger or even demonstrations. If your god is insulted then it is far worse. Then there is an insult where they would want to kill people and destroy their homes (or missions). Seems to me that murdering people and destroying all their property is proof positive that they are worshiping their prophet as a god.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  17. msquared2

    One civilization is living in the 21st century, has been to the moon, put object on Mars, has cured numerous diseases, and basically invented the information age. The other, is still living in the year 700, can barely feed itself, is just starting to recover from Mongol invasions in the 13th century, and if it wasn't for oil exports to the industrialized west...would still be a poor backwater region with no value to the human species at all.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  18. rutiluspallium

    "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."

    Decades? Let's try centuries. Islam is still in the Dark Ages with theocratic rule and ignorant masses being told that God wants them to do whatever the priesthood says. Western Christianity left such things behind long ago.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  19. TexasPete

    Hey Muslims...f%@k you. F%@k your silly, backwards, hateful, brutal religion. Your women resent you.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • Realistic85

      There's an intelligent comment... Texas huh? Figures...

      September 13, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • csp

      that's the way to settle things texas....

      September 13, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  20. Dyler Turden

    As I see it, by "protecting" Mohammed's image through their extreme acts of violence and ridiculous levels of outrage, the Muslims have managed to place him on a FAR higher pedestal than would have been possible through any other action. Epic FAIL.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 100 101 102 103 104 105 106 107 108
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.