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. Kareem (not abdal-jabbar)

    Don't blame the Muslims if Coptic Christians get murdered in Egypt. The blame is on the inciter of hate speech. And Atheists (sons of apes and monkeys) need to shut their traps. Your insulting posts are not appeasing to anyone.

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

      I agree Kareem. I wish I lived in country where when I felt offended by someone I could just kill them and be done with it. Yeah! I want to raise my kids in that environment, not in a peaceful, law abiding society. Who needs peace?? Why respect life? F that!

      September 13, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • tonsquad

      4q 4q 4q and fork mohamad.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • NorCalMojo

      ....and don't blame the US when we bomb them into the stone age. After all, they incited us by burning our flag.

      Still like that logic?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  2. Rufus T. Firefly

    A black flag insisting that "there is only my God" atop a pile of burned ruins and dead bodies is a fitting symbol for the effects of religion on humanity.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  3. Norm

    I guess it says something about the guy who made the film.
    He thought it was important to spend time and money to make a film about something we already know.
    I still think the republicans are behind all of this.

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

      you need help.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  4. warwulf

    In Sudan, the arabs killed hundreds of thousands of black africans to clense the African country.
    In the Philipenes, the muslim minority continues to bully and kill Christians in that country.
    In Egypt, the first chance arabs had at democracy, they vote in a terrorist organization. Ditto for Palestinians...see Hamas.
    In Syria its ok to kill thousands of civilians just because. Iran is building nukes to 'wipe Israel off the map'.
    Now, its time to kill Amerericans because of a youtube video. Does ANYONE else see a trend that has NOTHING to do with offending our muslim brothers rather sensitive sensibilities? WAKE UP people.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • DJS

      I think we are all aware of this. What do you want us to wake up to? There are over a billion Muslims around the world. What would you suggest we do?

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

      Comment was not meant for open minded folks. More for the media not calling things as they are and being stuck in the "political correctness". This is not opinion, or bigotry. This is pointing out what is happening around the work RIGHT NOW and drawing some connections to the one thing that joins them all. Islam.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  5. Mona

    Once people get violent and kill innocent people, their reasons for doing it are irrelevant. I don't care what they do with the image of Mohammed anymore. They have no respect for our flag or embassies, who cares what upsets them.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • warwulf

      You said it Mona.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  6. Frank

    Keep tolerating this pig religion and soon we will all banned from eating pork and bowing to satan 5 times a day.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  7. pinetarjunky

    answer: they have simple minds

    September 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  8. IslandAtheist

    More evidence that religion must die, if mankind is to survive.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  9. Boss

    Obama empowered the extremist by helping them overthrow their leaders in Egypt and Libya and soon in Syria. The media is America is fraudulent in trying to protect their spiritual leader Obama. The silence is utterly deafening. This is just a sample of the future. Obama and NATO took Kaddafi out because he started a new currency called the Gold Dinar. The Western Media has been lying to us during the entire episode. We bombed Libya into the Stone Age for banking reasons and helped Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood take over these countries. Obama and the Western Media are lying to us about Syria too. Soon Obama’s friends in Al Queda will be running Syria next. What could this lead too...? I can see all of these countries starting a war with Israel. Obama is literally pushing the World into WW3!!!!

    September 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Bill

      You sir/madam.... are retarded.

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

      Truly mentally challenged Boss. I know people in Syria. Believe me when I tell you, the only thing Obama is guilty of in Syria is complacency. What is being reported by the people living that ethnic cleanse is real and true. Only a closed minded person would look for conspiracy when there is open slaughter happening of civilians. Wow.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  10. BOKinLarksville

    What would be so wrong about worshiping Mohammed? Instead, the nuts worship idiots like Bin Laden..

    September 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm |

    Allah does not exist. Muslims are filthy animals, the worst form of humanity. They are slightly above the democrats, however.

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

    Muslims that hold this view should not use the internet. They cannot handle free-speech.

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

    Any religious nutjob zealous enough to go into a murderous rage when a spokesman for their deity is made fun of needs to be put out of their misery.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  14. none

    Jesus and Mary (May God's Peace and Blessings Be Apon Both of Them) were Muslim.

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

      Muslim jews, makes perfect sense.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Belarus Marek

      Ummm... No.... They were Jews.

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

      Sure and I believe in the tooth fairy.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Pushover1234

      Ummm....Islam came 600 or some years later.

      That just makes you look stupid.

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

      Muslims think that **everyone** was born Muslim. They don't even consider new members to have "converted" - they say that they "reverted" to Islam...

      September 13, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • none

      It was always Islam folks. From the beginning. From the time of Adam.

      Got corrupted over time because Jews changed the Torah (Those Who Earn God's Anger) and because Christians worship Jesus (Those Who Go Astray).

      Holy Quran Chapter 5: The Table Spread: "Today I have perfected your religion for you, and completed my grace upon you and approved Islam as your religion."

      Consquently this chapter deals with Jesus (May God's Peace and Blessings Be Apon Him) and his disciples.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • none

      Deletion from the Holy Bible: Jesus (May God's Peace and Blessings Be Apon Said) before he was lifted to Heaven said that there is another prophet coming after me and his name will be Ahmed.

      Prophet Muhammad (SWS) was given the name Ahmed when he was born in Mecca in 610.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • OTOH

      none = the amount of verified evidence that *any* supernatural being **ever** "spoke" to **anyone**, including Mohammad.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  15. 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 12:31 pm |
    • Pushover1234

      Then the world has to hear load and clear from the populace and the Egyptian government, they will not tolerate this violance.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • Dan P

      Why does it matter how small a percentage of "Muslims" are doing these things. I don't see any percentage of Americans storming embassies in Wash DC, and I guarantee there is a greater percentage of Americans who have a true hatred of Muslims (I'm not one of them). It just so happens that we as a society have an ability to control our behavior and actions, whereas these nutjobs in Muslim countries do not.

      This is precicesy why we need to immediately stop giving aid to these countries. I don't know why we sitll are sending BILLIONS AND BILLIONS of dollars to countries like Egypt and Libya, while our own economy is going down the tubes.

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

      Do not be apologetic...
      You don't want muslims to protest against that?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Suzanne

      The majority of Muslims are peaceful? Er...are you kidding? If they are, when are they going to step up and do something about the violent "minority" within their religion? Yeah! They won't because the peaceful Muslims are the MINORITY and the violent Muslims are the MAJORITY. Until the rest of the world's religions realizes this and stops trying to deal with them in a "civilized" way and starts dealing with them on THEIR own terms, we will continue to see them run amok and the killing will continue. Let's start doing to them what they do to us and see how quickly they stop. I wish we could just erase Islam from the earth. 90% of ALL world conflicts would cease immediately.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  16. anonymous

    when muslims make remarks about other religious figures its completely okay , but god forbid if you call their so called prophet something , by the way which are all true then they start rioting

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

      Joseph, Mary's husband, married 12 to 14-year old Mary!Was he too a pedophile?

      Go read you bible and the history before you say something that you will regret one day.

      You will be accountable in front of god of every word that comes out from your mouth or you write.

      Please, do some due diligence and read before you can take position. Go read the Koran, the bible and the torah and do a comparison.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Akram

      It is clearly mentioned in the Quran that we shouldn't attack or make fun of other figures of other religions.. i.e. it is against our religion to insult other figures.
      I don't understand why you are defending someone to use insulting and hatred language/means to show he is against something... you can show you are against something without stimulating harsh emotions from the others...

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

      Insulting anybody's sensitivities (religious or otherwise) to incite them is immoral.

      I support peaceful protest but I don't agree with burning and killing. Again, the violence was orchestrated by political groups to muddy the water to further their goals (to weaken the government in both Egypt and Libya), and the uneducated mob followed.

      This is no different than the anti-abortion thugs who have murdered doctors in clinics.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  17. Pushover1234

    This shines a light on the ignorance and stupidity of Muslims in the Arab world as a whole. This is why they are backwater third world countries, and why we loathe to support them. I don't see this in Indonesia, home to about a quarter of the world's Muslim population. not even Iran. A few idiots make a dumb , poor quality short film on your goar herder, and you riot to kill people. That is why we need to kick the Muslims out of the US , and quarentine the entire region. Well, maybe just the Arabs and Pakistani's. Let them kill themselves.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • db3

      Speaking of "shining a light on the ignorance and stupidity" you're doing a pretty good job yourself. Moron.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Akram

      Very calmly...
      Any group has the educated and the ill-educated.. if you do something that insults that group some will react educatedly, others will react uneducatedly...
      You can pick so many examples like US soldiers (as a group) in Iraq, where some did barbaric actions like 5 soldiers raping a 14 yr old girl...
      I am not with the killing that happened.. but I do not like overlooking the trigger that did all of this...
      Why do you have to harm through being sarcastic/verbal/hateful? Can't you show you are against something without all this garbage means?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  18. none

    Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States, the West and in the World.

    WHY??????? If its such a !@#$%^&* religion to most of you and the media out here.

    One side is completely right. One side is completely wrong.

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

      its growing because they reproduce like pigs

      September 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Pushover1234

      No, atheism and hinduism are. ingnorant cretin. China, india. Not very muslim are they? #1 and #2 in population growth.


      September 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • MPLS70

      Islam is a religion for stupid people. That's why it is doing so well.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  19. Belarus Marek

    Muslims hate for hates sake. They are using the terrible film as an excuse. There is no coincidence that these attacks happened around 9/11. We need to withdraw and isolate all Muslim countries and put every Muslim everywhere on notice that their brand of evil will not be tolerated. Or just wait for Israel to nuke Iran and take that as an opportunity to nuke the rest.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  20. Vicky

    Why is the media so focused on why murderous, intolerant, religious zealots are upset as opposed to the crimes they have committed? If they were Baptists at an abortion clinic we wouldn't be investigating their belief system and attempting to explain/rationalize it to the public. Who cares if someone made a movie depicting a religious figure negatively? Isn't that what we are allowed to do in this country or has religious fanaticism hijacked the media? Why is the media so intent on pinpointing the movie producer/directors? They didn't kill anyone. They have the same right to criticize public and religious figures as anyone else – human rights. If you don't like it, don't watch the movie.

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

      I applaud you, very well put!! The media has been trying to lean people to the left or the right for years now depending on the beliefs of the organization. The media needs to be put in it's place, and thier place is to report the news and NOT thier opinion!!! We will make our own opinions!!!!

      September 13, 2012 at 12:43 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.