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)

    Muhammud was a braindead idiot that worshiped a talked poo called Allah.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  2. Boisepoet

    Isn't the bigger question 'why do people give themselves so completely over to believing in fairy tales'?
    Answer and solve that problem and the image of Mohammed becomes irrelevant.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  3. TheWiseOne

    In the Quran It says how Muhammad was 51 when he married a 6 year old girl as one of his wives. It also says how he consummated the marriage with her 3 years later, when he was 54 and she was 9. And this is the man that Muslims will kill to honour?

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

      give me the number of verses saying that

      September 13, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • khan.k.

      There is no verse in Quran as such.Please do not spread false information

      September 15, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  4. nmk

    we keep talking about these murders being done by "extremists, but its time to ask ourselves this question: does islam justify these murders? you decide:
    Qur’an 9:7-9-Don’t make treaties with non-Muslims. They are all evildoers and should not be trusted.
    Qur’an 9:12-14-Fight the disbelievers! Allah is on your side; he will give you victory.
    Qur’an 9:5 Kill the nonbelievers wherever you find them.
    Qur’an 2:191-2-Kill disbelievers wherever you find them. If they attack you, then kill them. Such is the reward of disbelievers.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  5. Wise Texan

    I pray that God will comfort the grieving families of the Americans who lost their lives to this senseless violence. The lessons that should be learned from this are: 1. American beliefs concerning free speech should not be espoused in countries where freedom is not the rule of law. 2. The belief that "diplomacy without the threat violence is the equivalent of music without instruments" is idiotic. Diplomacy is to elimante the threat of violence, "gun barrell" diplomacy is part of the reason the US is hated in most Islamic countries. 3. It is time to sever ties with countries that support extremist Islamic views, and recall all of our ambassadors from these countries.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  6. felix

    Aren't they already worshipping mohammad? I mean who are they fighting for now, God almighty or mohammad?
    Can one fight for God? answer is no!!
    It is sad that innocent and responsible people have to die in the hands of these misfits.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  7. Lino -Noble1- Reynoso

    This movie should be considered exactly what it is... A MOVIE! It has no meaning, it has no purpose and if it's offensive. Boycott it! Spread the word to everyone you know, let them know this movie is offensive, say this movie has no spiritual values, etc.
    But don't go out on a violent rampage! Much less kill innocent people just because he comes from the Nation the movie is being presented! This is senseless behavior... I will say it again, like always. Religion will always be against human progress and should never have any influence, but spiritual, in any place of society. Much less in the Political arena! Shame on the cowards who did, and are doing this acts of violence!

    September 13, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • MarylandBill

      Yeah, religion is always the enemy of progress. We should expunge everything religion has brought to society. Lets start with Universities!

      There are two types of religious extremists, those who are fighting for a religion and those fighting against religion. Generally neither really understands what they are fighting, or what they are fighting for.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • dbrueck

      Why bother spreading the word? The film was in nearly complete obscurity until a few Muslims went bonkers about it. Had they not done that, we wouldn't be talking about the movie. No need for a boycott per se, just ignore it and move on and the "problem" takes care of itself.

      These goofballs who react so strongly have a problem on their hands – there are way too many people who don't give a crap about their hypersensitivity. So they have a choice: waste away their lives overreacting to stuff like this or ignoring it and moving on. If they reacted with a little more maturity, it might actually help their religion's stature in the world.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  8. time

    Bomb these sand rats and be done with it. Why do we even try to help these people. They don't like their god insulted so they kill people.

    I don't care if you wipe your @#$ with the bible. 7th century society should be treated as such. Shoot them all and be done with all this crap.

    Nobody cares about them anymore. America has had it with ignorant bass ackwards people

    September 13, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  9. See Novak

    It doesn't make a tinker's damn how one's religion is perceived to be slighted or insulted, it doesn't give one the right to kill someone over it and we need to teach these throwbacks a lesson. I don't care if they choose to think and live in medieval times but they can't be allowed to react violently ever time they feel insulted. I'm tired of trying to "understand" or "appreciate" their backward culture.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  10. Nick

    What is Dan Gilgoff and Eric Marrapodi along with other news reporters going to do when it is found out that the attack on the embassy in Libya was a coordinated attack and not a spontaneous mob, angry about this movie?

    September 13, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  11. Paul Willson

    need for censorfship in USA both for miovies and media

    September 13, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • Drink my Kool-aid

      No thanks you fascist.

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

      umm this movie was made in USA, but clearly edited by al quida to incite violence against the west.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • It's Mythology Fool!

      Go away fascist!

      September 13, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • dbrueck


      September 13, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  12. Mitch

    Ahh the protests, the riots, the killing of innocents. Seems that's all they know how to do in this world.

    Imagine if they used this energy to better the world in science, medicine, technology, etc...you would hvae a much more advanced and civilized world. Can you name me 10 Muslims in any realm I listed that have achieved such success? Exactly.

    Jews have been persecuted since the beginning of time. Instead of acting like barbarians they educated themselves, and they achieved high levels of success in the arts, business, medicine realms just to name a few.

    On the other hand, you have deranged peoples from Muslim countries that do absolulely nothing to advance civilization, but continue to live in the stone age, and perpetuate violence and misery.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • Jose Arciniega

      And who does our President decide to meet with and who does he decide that he's "too busy" to meet?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  13. Kuff

    Dan Gilgoff and Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Liars, would have you believe that these violent protests are over depictions of Mohammed, which by the way is not a central tenant of Islam, nor is it in the Koran. How can the portrayal of Mohammed in this movie lead anyone towards idol worship? It can't.

    Muslims protest and riot because they can't accept any criticism of their prophet and faith and can't accept any ridicule of their religion, which they see as supreme and triumphal over all others. These riots have nothing whatsoever to do with depiction of anything sacred.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  14. Mohammed Cohen

    Why doesn't some have the guts to depict Moses in negative and ridculous and offensive image and see what wrath of Zionist's terror will unleash upon such "intellectually free thinkers"? Try it. I dare you!!

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

      I guess you have never heard of the television show South Park and the Super Best Friends club.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Jose Arciniega

      Ever heard of the movie, "The Life of Brian"? How about "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"? Some of the most sacred religious beliefs of jews and christians were parodied in those movies. Funny, I don't remember any riots or embassies being stormed. I must have missed it.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • GathisNC

      Christ and Moses have both been portrayed as stupid or insane in the film buisiness for years, and as far as I know there have been no riots or killings over it. There is no justification for the Muslims to kill people they disagree with. I'm sick and tired of people arguing on their behalf in the US. If you feel so strongly about their belifs that you try to justify their actions, then please feel free to move to the middle east!

      September 13, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • dbrueck

      LOL. Ever seen a Mel Brooks movie?

      I can't speak for other countries, in the U.S. people have portrayed God, Jesus, Moses, and a host of others in poor light, in satire, etc. Even if those things came across as offensive to me, I wouldn't react with violence. At worst I'd begrudgingly help protect their freedom of speech, but more than likely I'd simply ignore them.

      I can understand Muslim concerns about having their prophet depicted visually. What I can't understand is their over the top reactions when people do this – it's such an absurd reaction that you can't even account for it via cultural differences. Some obscure nutjob in the US or Israel makes a movie you don't like, so you burn stuff down and shoot people? I don't get it.

      The people who react this way don't seem to grasp that their reactions only make the problem worse – if you just ignore the obscure people who offend you, they generally remain in obscurity. If you go bonkers reacting to them, it raises their profile. I had never heard of the Danish artist who made political cartoons about Mohammed until some Muslims reacted with violence. Pretty much nobody had heard about the guy who made a crummy video poking fun at Mohammed until these recent days of violence. If people had reacted in a level-headed manner, that dumb guy and his poorly-made video would still be unknown.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • South Park!

      It's been done, my favorite: South Park Season 3, Episode 9 where Moses is depicted as a giant glowing dreidel. Last time I checked, no rock throwing mobs, no deaths, but maybe some well formed angry letters?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Io

      there are already films that ridicule Moses (google it), you didn't know because nobody turned violent about them.
      u don't have a point.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  15. jamie

    if people were throwing concrete blocks like that in the U.S. they would be shot and killed by police, sounds like a law enforcement issue

    September 13, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  16. palintwit

    Muslims are the teabaggers of the middle east. They even have trailer parks.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  17. Florida

    OK, Now that I fully understand it WHY thay kill, jail ans torment people for it......carzy planet we live on.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  18. Elizabeth

    If Muslims hate pictures of people, why do they hold up banners and want their pictures on TV or newspapers?
    If Muslims believe their Prophet is a man only, why do they care whether or not he is insulted?
    God is respected and worshipped in many places; can't they respect others who worship God? Don't they understand that Christians do not worship pictures or statues, but only use pictures as reminders of the history?

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

      The insult isn't toward Mohammad, it is toward God. Muslims don't associate the very idea with worshiping a human being as God as Christians do. For Christians it isn't a memory they are looking at their God right in the flesh. Muslims don't depict any prophets at all and only believe in one God above Mohammad or any other human being.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  19. Spirituality

    With love, comes the fear of losing the love. You would be more concerned about your brand new car than your old junky. Make sense? Similarly, Muslims love their Prophet of God. If sincere non-Muslims read about him from authentic sources and not from fake anti-Islamic hate websites, you would become a Muslim as well. Human emotion of love is a powerful one and people react to insults in different ways. Unfortunately, in the media you see only the ones that riot on the streets. The rest of the 99% of Muslims that react peacefully by sending prayers and following the ways of the Prophet in their lives will not be shown in the media. Because what bleeds, leads in the media.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • Kareem (not abdal-jabbar)

      SPOT ON!

      September 13, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Conrad

      "If sincere non-Muslims read about him from authentic sources and not from fake anti-Islamic hate websites, you would become a Muslim as well." Not likely. There are a number of highly sensitive passages that are typically not included in the Koran–plus there's the whole thing about pitching a fit when the first Jewish tribes he tried to convert said,, "No thanks," so he slaughtered them, and spent the rest of his life vilifying them as apes. Yeh, a real winner.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • Io

      oh wow, there is a riot at the embassy (EMBASSY) and u think the issue is the media showing it. what is ur point? people have denounce the film, just denounce the violence and call a spade a spade.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  20. jamest297

    Why is is so hard for the authors of these kinds of pieces to just say that "...they do this kind of rioting, destroying and killing because they are bat shlt crazy..." Can any of the muslim intellectuals kindly tell the rest of us what the potential harm is to them as individuals if other individuals happen to depict either mohammed or allah? All religions are second or third rate belief structures used to rationalize the natural world. Islam is near the bottom of those belief structures and is mightily struggling to keep itself from being sucked back to the primordial muck which gave rise to all religions. Islam is losing its battle to stay relevant and the more its adherents riot, burn and murder out of the perceived offenses and insults to islam, the more ground the religion will lose. That is a good thing, but in the meantime there will be more twitching and lurching and mockery for them to experience.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:25 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.