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. fsjunkie

    You could have just said that these people are indoctrinated psychopathic anti-socials who live in a parallel universe. Much more succinct and to the point...don't you think?

    September 13, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  2. brad1001

    On a side note, that guy in the picture with the AK looks like he is wearing high heels. ooooh snap ...

    September 13, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  3. Saboth

    I'm sure that's what they think.

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

    Deleted from Holy Bible:

    Jesus (May God's Peace and Blessing Be Apon) said before he was lifted to Heaven: There is a prophet coming after me and his name will be Ahmed.

    Prophet Muhammad's name at the time of his birth was Ahmed when he was born in Mecca in 610.

    Consequently, it was Jewish rabbi, when Prophet Muhammad SWS was traveling as a boy with his grandfather in desert on trading route, that recognized the boy as a prophet.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Heath

      Deleted from Bible: In the future, someone will make up a story that was supposeably deleted from the Bible

      September 13, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  5. Commonsense

    Fanaticism and even fundamentalism will always lead to acts of brazen destruction. I don't care if we're talking about Muslims, Christians, Hindus, or soccer hooligans.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • College Prof

      Spot On! I try to make it point not to applaud posts, but one something that true is stated it should be applauded

      September 13, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  6. Walli King

    Why is it a crime to make an antisemitic statements (which touches human beings an) while it is not a crime to do much worst by defaming insulting and destroying the most sacred of 1 billion people's core belief that they breath and live by. It's time to criminalize insults to all religions not only Judaism, but to Christianity, Islam, and others.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  7. gijoe

    This is America and any depction of mohammed is free speeach. If u no like then yo go back to your 3rd world countires and blowie each other uppie.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Drink my Kool-aid

      Not eloquently put, however I do agree.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  8. Heath

    We got the point; knock it off

    September 13, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  9. WisdomVS

    Please stop with the image. It proves nothing, just an annouyance to the readers.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  10. Vanquish

    You're ruining the discussion.. please stop.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  11. FatherMike

    Holy Fkn Flying Carpets it's Aladdin...!!!

    September 13, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • WisdomVS

      Ha-Ha... I think you're right!

      September 13, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • OTOH

      It doesn't show well on this graphic, but in the original of this "portrait" that thing up in the right hand corner is a bomb (dynamite) with a lit fuse!

      Give it up, spam poster... your image is impotent.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  12. heloise8

    Reblogged this on The Trough.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  13. internetisgay


    September 13, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  14. WisdomVS

    Further more... Pakistan deliberately hid Osama Bin Laden and I think most Islamic countries hide terrorist. Libya is letting terrorist hide in their country and covers for them in order to hold on to the foreign aid we provide.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • College Prof

      At no point in that rambling rant did you even approach saying anything close to factual.

      Libya just started getting aid from the US after the revolution succeeded. Since then they have been helping the US track down and capture known terrorist in their Country. The current theory for the assassination of our ambassador is that it was in retaliation to his involvement in the killing of a top Al Queda leader.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  15. Mario

    Muslims need stop crying over stupid little things like a stupid low budget film. If you can't handle free speech and debates without going crazy and using the Quran as a right to kill and murder because muhammad said so. Then go and do yourself a favor and hang yourself because you will never have a place in God's Kingdom of everlasting life. Peace upon those who believe in our true saviour Jesus Christ. AMEN!

    September 13, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Drink my Kool-aid

      You just a deluded as the Muslims, all religion is stupid. No gods, no saviors, no prophets, all lies. Your faith is a joke.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • none

      Jesus was Muslim.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Mario

      @drink my kool aide. I'm not deluded and I respect your comment. So don't worry I'm not gonna come a bomb your home or kidnapp you and hold for ransom then chop your head off.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  16. B B A

    Thanks, CNN, in helping me understand why mob driven lynchings are OK!

    September 13, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  17. Rudy Ortiz

    The statement that the reason Muslims react violently to someone deifying Mohammad by creating an image of Mohammed is patently a lie. Their resorting to violence is what is deifying Mohammad. Their acts of violence can only be explained by the fact that Mohammad is like a god to them and the defiling of his image or persona is a sign of disrespect to their god. THAT would be understandable!

    September 13, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  18. GAW

    SPAM!!! Time to get back on your meds dude.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  19. DJR

    Good try but you'll have to do better. The reason for the killing is that Mohammed is their savior GOD not anything else. The excuse given would mean that any movie. play or portrayed story of any man, Jesus, Moses, Joe Q the guy next door, would requirer the same lame actions. The prophet said, thus it is to be followed or else removed. Thus said GOD. The prophet was a man who raised the sword out of Arabia, the greatest warrior ruler of moslem history. His death, (by his own people) and the successful revolution in Spain by Q,Isabella and Ferdenand, spelled the end of the conquest and the turn of the tide for mans history. It's the same as worshiping Alexander the great. Or Gengeis the Chann. Time has convoluted the prophets life story. But with in it can be seen the destiny of mankind. Are you willing to die for your belief of life, liberty, religion, home, family, happiness, government, wealth, FREEDOM to chose? The trickster uses this great question to manipulate all mankind. What seems so right is so easily wrong.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • College Prof

      Please get your history correct before posting. The Islamic Invasion of Europe was stopped by Charles Martel. If you don't know that simple fact how can we be expected to believe the rest of your statements.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  20. Heath

    I can't believe CNN is still running this as a feature article. No one is owed sensitivity in speech; it is a courteously not a requirement. Obama, Clinton, and CNN are elevating a ‘right to be spoken kindly to’, which is not a right at all, to be equal with free speech. Get over it muslims, or sword will be answered with sword

    September 13, 2012 at 12:53 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.