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. alaiyo88

    This is the kind of journalism that spreads further misinformation and hate. The focus of this article is way off. Violence over depictions of the Prophet perplexes the majority of Muslims too, and is not justified by Islam whatsoever. Also this is not an issue of depicting the prophet. Many Muslim artists have depicted him in the past in paintings, despite the widely held belief that this is forbidden. But where is the discussion about the intentional hateful and bigoted depiction of an entire religion that was meant to incite and provoke? That by no means justifies the senseless murder, but this article makes it seem as if this is a response that Islam condones, just because we Muslims have been offended, which is far from the truth.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Christian!

      that's a false hood on your part...This violence is on America and we are interested ...These Muslims are speaking for all Muslims as far as we are concerned 🙂

      September 13, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  2. Darkslicer

    This is my only big issue with Islam, even if it's a very small minority that does these things. Instead of voicing how offended they are (which is justified in a civilized society), they decide to kill someone whose mission is to build bridges between nations. Sounds reasonable, right? Innocent people die because these 'people' (I use the term extremely loosely) can't control their urge to kill. I also wouldn't be surprised if it had nothing to do with the film, and it was just a bunch of people rioting and killing for the sake of rioting and killing because it's what they're used to.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  3. Robert

    Most Muslim countries are going to have nuclear weapons in a couple of generations. Therefore, if I were president, I would use the power that we now have to de-fang these blood-thirsty animals called Islamists. I would just go in and tell them to lie down their weapons or face nuclear anhiliation. Then, I would put all of their Islamic religeous and political leaders in jail to never see the light of day again and begin de-Islamizing the people. I would take the children away and send them to schools where they'll be taught other world religions, ones that are peaceful, rather than demonic Islam. And if that didn't work, I would sadly, wipe out their populations and just take their oil. Sometimes in history, you have to destroy a people group inorder to remove evil from the earth.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  4. Jim R.

    Who cares? Tell them to grow up. None of this medieval nonsense is worth the loss of one human life.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  5. Bob

    The logic of not worshiping a man instead of a God is sound however the idea of worshiping an imaginary God is not! Claiming to understand HIS Will is nothing more than lunacy and yet we tolerate it in all religions of the world.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  6. internetisgay


    September 13, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • truth be trolled

      When did the pope grow a beard. I need to catch up with the news.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  7. MarylandBill

    Here is my question. Muslims view Jesus to be a prophet as well... indeed if I understand it correctly, perhaps second only to Muhammed in importance. Yet I can't recall them protesting his portrayal in the Last Temptation of Christ. For that matter, since they consider it heretical to believe Jesus was crucified (and God), they should protest The Passion of the Christ as well.

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

      Muslims are taught in the Quran to respect other people's religion. However Christians want to depict Jesus is up to them, Muslims do not use that for means of attack but when it is there religion they have every right. By the way all prophets in Islam are treated equal, Americans just like to use the name Muhammad because it isn't one familiar to them.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Truth

      Well, passion of christ was banned in many middle eastern countries.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Marco

      Brandon, please be a bit more specific. There's nothing in the quran that states muslims should respect hindus or sikhs or buddhists or a long list of other religions. And being respectful of christianity and judaism is, well, a matter of which verse you pick. It's also rather hard to see that supposed respect for other religions: it boils down to respect for other religions as long as that fits with the beliefs they hold themselves. And thus you will not find a muslim who respects a christian viewing Jesus as the son of god. He cannot let that be, he will at the very least argue that it isn't true.

      September 14, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  8. patrick harris

    Allah ta crap if you ask me.. wake up people- there is no such thing!!! and I hate to ruin your holiday, but Santa doesn't exist either,

    September 13, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Bob

      LOL, I totally agree! It's just another scam to make money.... LOTS of money! I'm glad their not getting a penny from me.

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

      This was no doubt a deliberate provocation to create a problem and whoever did it succeeded. Very sad indeed with all the loss.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  9. internetisgay

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    September 13, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  10. JohnRJohnson


    The reason that there is a TRADITION forbidding the creation of likenesses of the Prophet is because clerics saw many people making money by selling drawings, sculptures and paintings of the Prophet after he died. It was the same kind of commercialization that you can see any time you visit Rome and the Vatican. There is edict in the Qur'an which specifically forbids creating these images. This is a TRADITION, just like the wearing of the niqab. Since the 8th century, Islam has become confused with various tribal traditions which came before and which arose after the Prophet died. But the law forbidding images of the Prophet were neither based on old tradition OR scriptures. It was simply a rule which was created in response to the rampant commercialization of the Prophet's image in the wake of his death.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  11. Atheism is Great for Kids and Grown-Ups Too!

    It's really best for all people including children to have an agnostic approach to god, and an atheistic approach to all religion. It keeps things simple for kids, and let's them be all that they can be. They just need to be taught that some things, like all religion, were just made up by salesmen and politicians from long ago**; and that other things, like god, we really don't know a damn thing about.

    Atheists have strong minds and don't need a religion. Sometimes, religious folk run and hide their misdeeds within their religion (and by doing so, they disserve society). Sometimes, religious folk are easily offended when someone mocks their make-believe characters – and, as we can see they can get really CRAZY!

    Religions are just big old evil clubs – each trying to out do each other and inspiring hate and division along the way (disguised as love).

    So instead of praying to make-believe people, get a good cup of tea and go on and sit down and collect your damn thoughts. My goodness.

    ** (yes, charlatan spam started long before the Bible; what would make your think it hadn't?)

    mama kindless

    September 13, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  12. unbelieverble

    Religion will kill us all. Denounce all religions.Believe in humanity and the beauty and preciousness of life.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  13. Tim McFall

    Disgusting that CNN apologizes for their IslamoNazi masters.

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

      I agree 100% this is why CNN is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  14. Jim Volo

    A bunch of apologists for crazy people.
    Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of Western civilization.
    If we don't defend it (sorry no apologies), Western civilization will soon be gone
    and the women can go buy burkas and the men can marry 9 year old children.
    Wake up, it's your civilization at stake here!

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

      What do you expect from a nation led my a Muslim loving President. He is not going to turn on his own, are you Barack Hussain Obama?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  15. Eumir

    Eat PIG Islamic Slime!

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

    raise your hand if you're sick of muslims.....

    September 13, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Papa6

      and CNN making excuses for them.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  17. commonsense

    The video was clearly designed to anger the Muslum community. It had nothing to do with the US. Be above this and don't let the video define your actions.

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

      Meant Muslim.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  18. SML4

    I don't get how there are 7 billion people on Earth, and one of them happens to make a movie that offends a religion. So what do adherents of said religion do? They kill some innocent people and blow up things. I guess they think that will teach the guy who made the film a lesson. I hate religion and the power it has to brainwash. Their actions don't even make sense and therefore have no positive outcome other than making the world respect such a religion less and less.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  19. Jan

    All Muslims are terrorist... I don't care where the are. You NEVER heard one smelly muslim condemn these attacks. War against ALL Muslims. OCCUPY MOSQUES !!! Stop going to 7-11s.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • kit8

      I am a muslim. I am from Trinidad and Tobago. I am not a terrorist. I guess this would make you a racist for assuming all muslims are terrorist as you don't know me or the vast majority of muslims who are not terrorist.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  20. Danny

    As a follower of my God and Savior Jesus Christ, I pray on behalf of all Muslims; for my war is not against flesh and blood, but against the dark powers of Satan that rule the world and that they themselves influence these dark religions and blind their followers to commit these acts in the name of "God". I bless all Muslims in the name of Jesus Christ and may the Holy Spirit convict them of their stranded ways.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • SML4

      Ummm . . . your religion is really not much better. All the bloodshed Christianity has procured over the years?? Sorry. All religions are fairy tales and future mythology. I doubt anyone cares to be blessed by you. How sanctimonious.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Drink my Kool-aid

      Your god is a pipe dream. All religeons are stupid. Prayer is a joke.

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

      Oooga booga!!

      September 13, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Nicole Chardenet

      I hope you do the same for all the crappy Christians in America who pay only lip service to the Gospels and who make Christians look stupid every time they deny the science of evolution or global warming. I hope you pray for all the so-called "pro-lifers" who claim to want to save fetuses but then abandon them after they're born, and turn around and support illegal wars like the current one in Iraq that has murdered countless innocent people who had nothing to do with 9/11 (including Saddam, bad guy that he was otherwise). I hope you pray for the "Christians" who send their children to madrassah-style "Jesus Camps" where they're taught it's okay to use violence to achieve their religious/political ends (how is that in any way unlike Islamic terrorism?) And most of all, I hope most of all you pray for those "Christians" who claim they don't like "Christian" abuses but are silent, rather a lot like many Muslims, when crimes and outrages are committed in Jesus's name.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:50 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.