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. derp

    I'd love to disguise myself as a mooselim, go to one of their stupid backward countries, and shoot a video of me burning a Koran.

    They'd have to attack their own embassy.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • derp-hatrer

      i hate you derp face.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  2. JAG

    Really we did just kill so many Muslims in the last decade what do we expect? But really if I had to take a side, I'm so sick of these idiots. We can microwave them, and let Israel build the Temple. They have Mecca right? We need to have a strong stance or this hornets nest of idiots will keep doing this. Hell leave the middle east out of our foreign policies and trade until they collapse because nobody is buying their oil and we can have our cake and eat it to I say

    September 13, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  3. nccltdave

    I am going to depect Mohammad at every chance I get. Because I live in America and I can.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:03 pm |

    This is sooo stupid. The middle east is always burning bibles, cursing christianity, and burning american flags but we don't go balistic like they do. They need to stop getting offended becuase if America got even got romotely offended as they did they probably wouldn't be alive or the middle east would be part of america

    September 13, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  5. rim

    Thank you CNN, Now I understand the right for Muslims to Kill us.

    don't do the good job to tell them don't kill us but teach us more about how we should be killed.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Jim

      What are you talking about? CNN was not justifying Muslims killing Americans. They were trying to explain the controversy of showing Muhammad's image. What is wrong with that?

      September 13, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • T-Max73

      @Jim- No, what CNN is doing here is attempting to justify murder and brutality and intolerance in the name of some sickly, mealymouthed multiculturalism.

      "What we need (in the case of Islam) is inoculation against the plague-NOT the spread of a more gentle version of it." Christopher Hitchens

      September 13, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  6. Phyllis

    This is what comes of no education and no use of contraceptives: huge groups of roving, ignorant, violent young men.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  7. ObammySucks

    IF you might be in peril of worshipping a man on account of stick figures, cartoons, and youtube videos, THEN you're probably a cave dwelling genie worshipping troglodyte.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  8. Todd

    I think to more of the issue, really is a lot of these people really do not understand the United States First Amendment Right. They think if it is from America that it is an endorsement from America.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  9. noway

    Dude... pretty sure the computer created that picture in about 10 seconds....

    September 13, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  10. none

    Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (May God's Peace and Blessing Be Apon Them All) are brothers in God's Paradise.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Amniculi

      Which does not exist. Next!

      September 13, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • rim

      Really, and Mohamed saying to Jesus hey I'm sending you here your people dead.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  11. Stinkweed

    Being Muslim is a BLAST!!!

    September 13, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Amniculi


      September 13, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  12. arif

    i will invite all to study islam. please donot label all muslim by the action of ignorant so called muslin who killed other people.
    in Quran it says that killing one person is same as killing the whole humanity.
    islam teaches us same respect to Moses/jesus and Mohammad and donot differntiate among the messenger

    September 13, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • sensor

      Your not all lumped together. Most US are smart enough and have dealt with religious zeal of our own which is violent. But Islam is not impervious the freedoms of expression about just Christianity is not free from expression, good or bad.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • T-Max73

      You are saying the same thing every Muslim, Christian, and Jew says when the evil nature of their sick religion results in death or harm. These foundational texts (Q'uran, Bible, Torah) are filled with mandates to kill, harm, butcher, subjugate, and enslave those who either disagree with the claims being made, or who simply do not believe. Your claim is "special pleading"; just make this exception in MY case because I know the TRUTH. Your religion is no different that all the other religions-they are all manmade falsifications, originating in fear of death and the unknown. You should spend some serious time exploring the origins of the monotheisms. You will likely become a non-believer when you finish.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  13. WASP

    @"truth": dude how much time do you have to waste on making that "picture" of mohammed? seriously give it a break.
    we get it you're an ignorant christian troll that hates everyone but other like minded christians.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  14. sensor

    ANyone who takes up violence because someone said something or depicted your hero/god/religion in a bad way or way not in line with your beliefs, take their life in their own hands.
    Hopefully, they will unleash the guard and if another nut crosses the fence, bang, weed them out. I'd say the same if it were any other religious nut.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  15. Jim

    Truth – You have a little too much time on your hands.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  16. CW

    When the Muslims start treating other religions as well as they want to be treated, I might care. Until then, they can continue to llive in their 7th century dreamworld while the rest of the world passes them by.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  17. Muslim

    Have People here writing so much against prophet Muhammad ever read his sayings?? I bet not!!! Just try to find out unbiased information about him and am sure you too would love him.....if not as a prophet then at least as a man......

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

      II don't respect anyone who sleeps with 9 year-olds. In the modern world we call that pedophilia.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Amniculi

      And I don't believe anyone who says they rode a flying horse.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • none

      But you believe it when Moses parted the Red Sea or Jesus walked on water. You believe that.

      I believe in all three – Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (May God's Peace and Blessings Be Apon All of Them)

      September 13, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • Tacitus Talks

      And if we don't love him, what of it? I have read everything about him and despise him and everything he stands for. So what do we do now? Tolerate each other or kill each other. In a free society, we have a right to be critical of EVERYTHING. Contrary to what Hillary and our idiot leaders say, criticizing Islam IS NOT abusing free speech. There is no such thing as "abusing free speech". There is slander and libel, but that is against a living individual and does not pertain to criticizing a religion. The problem with Muslims, is that Muslims only give this freedom to "their own believers". That is why you persecute Christians when you are in the majority, but whine about your rights when you are in the minority.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • T-Max73

      He married a nine year-old and consummated the marriage when she was eleven. That's all I need to know to judge the man's character and morality. Do you have something else to add?

      September 13, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  18. SOCA8587

    So, IF Muhammad was their Allah, then it would be OK to insult him? W

    September 13, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  19. noway

    CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.


    September 13, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  20. Big Cain

    I don't understand at all. So if someone disagrees with Allah then they must die? Would Allah kill innocent people who had nothing to do with the movie? I think some Muslims are confused. I doubt Allah approves of killing in HIS name. If they want to kill innocent people join the military.

    September 13, 2012 at 12:59 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.