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. DJESQ

    Sorry, I didn't get that ... would you please repeat ...

    Thank you ...

    September 13, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  2. J Dogg

    Have some bad news for you, dudes. There is no God in the equation, when you are talking about the Koran or any so-called "holy book." They are all just works created by the mind of human beings.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • T Reynolds

      The word of God definitely does not need your approval... There is a God unless you are a firm believer in magic that created this universe and planet. Uh, big bang theory... Takes more faith to believe in the believing there is a God......

      September 13, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • T Reynolds

      The word of God definitely does not need your approval... There is a God unless you are a firm believer in magic that created this universe and planet. Uh, big bang theory... Takes more faith to believe in than believing there is a God......

      September 13, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  3. Bob

    Christians and Mormons called in death threats to family members of the American Atheists and Billboard Companies and you have the NERVE to claim Muslims are the problem!! You are all just as fanatical!

    September 13, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Heath

      This is an apple and orange comparison; since when did a threat and the actual act of murder become equivalent in our society?

      September 13, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Saboth

      The problem is not Muslim, Christian...it's religion in general. Hardly anything good comes out of it except easing our own self-doubts about mortality.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  4. WisdomVS

    Muhammad was a business man turned prophet. Please note however that his family was constantly dying around him. His parents, grandparents, 2 sons, etc. This sounds more like the angel of death, not a prophet!

    Also, the Islamic calendar date of his birth is 570 C.E. (= 620 A.D.) yet he doesn't mention is predicessor Jesus. Odd?

    The Muslim religion is used to excuse riots, murder, terrorist, etc. Does that sound like a religion of peace from a holy man?!

    Sorry people of the Muslim faith but I have a serious problem with your so called prophet and the religion based upon his writing.

    Something isn't right about it and I think you know that already.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • stevensrmiller

      "Muhammad was a business man turned prophet. Please note however that his family was constantly dying around him. His parents, grandparents, 2 sons, etc. This sounds more like the angel of death, not a prophet!"

      Sounds like a Tea Party Free-Marketeer to me.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • Bob

      You really want to go into what atrocities have been committed in the name of Christianity?

      September 13, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Todd Reynolds

      When it comes to violence, one excuse is as good as the other. Anyone with even half a brain should know that these attacks are related to 9/11. Because of our Political correctness and apologetic demeanor, America is now perceived as weak. All the Middle East respects is force, a sad but true fact. There are those in the world that will hate the U.S. regardless of what we do. We should quit trying to please everybody and just do what is right to protect our own interests.... Nice job Obama.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • muslim

      Jesus is mentioned 500% more times than Muhammad in the Quran. There is a special chapter named Mary. She is mentioned in the Quran more times she is mentioned in the Bible.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  5. stevensrmiller

    Article explains why Muslims object to depcitions of their prophet. It doesn't explain why any of them are moved to a murderous rage by them, nor why they blame the United States as a whole for a YouTube video.

    We'd better start finding out the answers to those questions, or this is just going to go on and on, again and again.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  6. James

    Not the same situation but ... I wonder what kind of reaction the Islamic community would have if every time they burned an American Flag we rioted and killed their people? Then, the next time the people of a nation that harbors these extremists needs assistance or presence we politely decline...?

    September 13, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  7. seank

    its hard to side with the muslims when their so called leaders stay silent and will not condemn these murders.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • College Prof

      Sorry You are wrong there. The newly elected chief executive of Libya has not only denounced the attacks, he has promised assistance in locating and capturing the perpetrators.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  8. Hiram Davis

    Who says anything about worshipping him? We just want to expose him for the immoral ayhole he was, so these modern day ayholes will see how ignorant they are.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  9. Sarah

    It is also in the 10 commandments to have no graven images of anything found in heaven.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  10. lee

    Freedom of speech trumps religious sensitivity. If your religion leads you to kill people over words and images, the problem is with your religion, not the words and images. Mohammad was a pedophile and all-around awful human being. His religious cult now threatens much of modern society. We need more movies criticizing Islam, not less.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Sarah

      Lee, great comment. I am liberal and would normally side with Obama and CNN but this is just wrong!! America needs to tell Libya to get the people who did this and bring them to the US for trial. If that doesn't happen in a timely manner then the US needs to go to Libya and use whatever measures necessary to get whoever did this to the Libyan ambassador and his colleagues and bring them to justice. America should not sit back and apologize for freedom of speech. I don't agree with the film or the movie but there is no excuse for anyone to kill anyone else for exercising their right of expression. How disturbing that these barbaric extremists are not brought to justice. I think Obama should be impeached if he does not react more firmly to the situation. How disrespectful to do nothing to honor the lives of the Americans that were killed and tortured. By not responding firmly it's saying that the innocent lives that were lost were cheap lives and no life is cheap. Obama definitely lost our vote over his response.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • lee

      Sarah- the response I think you are referring to (the one condemning the film) was actually issued BEFORE the attacks, not after as Romney would have you believe. http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/13/opinion/avlon-romney-libya-attack/index.html?hpt=hp_t2 I hope you reconsider your vote, for the reason that the religious right in this country is only a few steps behind the religious fervency of our Libyan and Egyptian counterparts.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  11. Svenghooli

    Everyone one of them is a COWARD!!!! Bring back the Crusades........

    September 13, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  12. Vanquish

    Interesting that CNN has this article filed under
    "Filed under: Islam • Violence".
    That file must be filing up pretty quick these days.
    Truthfully, Islam is not based on violence, but events like this are starting to make even the kind-hearted (ie willing to presuppose this violence is just a couple extremist) Christians question that belief.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  13. MKM1234

    I say turn it all into a sheet of glass and bring all of our poople back to the USA, protect our borders and keep all the money we keep sending overseas for nothing and take care of this country and our soilders. These people are sick and do not want our help so the heck with all of them. If your in this country speak english and get a job, no more welfare for the useless and bring back public executions. If this post makes anyone mad then good.

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

      mad? no, surprised no. Wondering is people like you will ever realize that your fear and frustration leads to worse conditions, not better. Most of the people on the planet do not deserve to be burned to death in a nuclear attack. We learned in Iraq and Afganistan, not to let crazy leaders suck us in to actions that are not in our best interest. Or did we learn? Shrewd diplomacy and speak softly / big stick foreign policy is what will keep our borders secure, grocery stores open, kids and wives healthy. If we over react in equally fearful and evil ways, we make the exact same mistakes these thoughtless brainwashed extremists make. Are they getting what they want in the end? No. Is is honorable to kill innocent people? No. Start there / logic / rational behavior. Think.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  14. paul321

    What an egocentric nutjob.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  15. asiya

    For all who keep insulting Islam and Muslims...please keeping do. It only goes to show how ignorant u really are. If u know nothing about Islam know this..if Islam is horrible and all Muslims are terrorist then all Prophets from Adam (A.S) down to do the one worshipped most Jesus (A.S) were all terrorist b/c they all were Muslims who submitted their wills to Allah. If u have no religion that's on u. If some one made a movie kicking Jesus there would be hell breaking loose regardless of what part of the world it came from. Islam is the FASTEST growing religion in the world. Get it facts straight and if u wanna keep being brainwashed by the media go ahead and keeping being a part of the flock. Keep causing problems to make political ppl billionaires b/c being president only pays a few thousand. Gotta get the money from investments somehow.

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

      There are millions of films/music etc. that seriously offend Jesus. Even saying "Jesus Christ" could be considered talking his name in vain... BUT YET... we don't go around killing others because we were offended.
      Don't blame the media. The media didn't kill anyone yesterda.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • Skye

      You are ignorant. Jesus was a Jew, not a muslim and Jesus did not beat any woman nor commanded his diciples to beat women.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • serveJBR

      We forgave the people who kicked and killed Jesus. We are friends with them now. We don't want anyone to be separated form God. That is honorable. We are not afraid. Extremists act afraid.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  16. 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 12:48 pm |
    • Marco

      So, Alaiyo, you are saying the blasphemy laws in e.g. Pakistan are a blasphemy itself? After all, it proscribes violence for insults against various aspects of islam, in particular insults against Mohammed.

      The ultimate question is, of course, why *their* interpretation of islamic laws is wrong, and yours is right. Again, the Pakistani say that insults against Mohammed carries the death penalty.

      September 14, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  17. Medina

    Does your mind ever harken back to the good old days of the 7th century? Do you ever feel like running water and electricity are overrated? Don't you think trousers are a bit restrictive on the lower limbs? Well folks, I have a travel destination tailor made just for you.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  18. Emily

    Having reasons and motivations is not justification for murder. Cloaking criminal behavior in religious beliefs does not make it legitimate. Murder is murder.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Carl

      Absolutely correct! Judaism also prohibits graven images of any sort so you never see human figures portrayed in a synagoge. Moses, the central figure of the exodus from Egypt isn't mentioned at all in the Passover haggadah for a similar reason as given in this article. Yet you NEVER see Jews seething, rioting and murdering for a depiction of G0d, Moses, Abraham or any other other religious figure, no matter how offensive. Were there riots over Charleton Heston's famous portrayal of Moses in the Ten Commandments? NO!! Why are Muslims so unable to control their rage? And how does killing innocent human beings show "respect" for their prophet, who was also just a man by their own admission?

      September 13, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  19. Pete

    While I think this article was great at explaining why Muslims take portraying Mohammed so seriously – I mean it is for a good reason. But their reaction, and over reaction is unreal. I guess this is what happens when a society does not have free speech or well educated people. That and they are incredible sensitive little b* tches.
    Imagine if they had nukes...."What you heard some backwoods hillbilly preacher said he was thinking about lighting a candle near a Quran....Nuke America! Simmer down middle east, simmer down.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • ash

      egypt does have nukes – not only are you a complete moron but your arrogant in your ignorance, Dont worry you're not alone lol

      September 13, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  20. ned

    they decry prophet images because they have nothing else to do over there except get worked up over religious crap. seriously.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:47 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.