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. Rob Roy the Braveheart


    bye bye cnn

    September 13, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  2. fryuujin

    if we didn't need oil so much we could ignore the ignorant that run this part of the world. until then I say nuke them. Don't waste one more solider unless it's one of Mitt's sons. That POS wants to talk tough, then let his kid serve front line infantry. Of course this will never happen, draft dodging dad wouldn't let them happen, not after giving them millions.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  3. Hayel Gharaibeh

    Robert: you are worse than those killers. They killed few but you want to kill millions, and then you call them "killers"???

    The core of the conflict here is that the west(I am a Muslim who lives in the west) believes that freedom of expression is above everything. in the middle east(generally a reference to Muslims) they consider beliefs above everything.
    The west is trying to dictate its view and at the same time their leaders (like Bush) claims that the Islamic world is trying to change the western world way of life… do you see the very big lie here???
    Yes you have the freedom of expression, but you cannot impose this “freedom” on others because you will never accept Muslims imposing their values on you. Don’t act or thing like the dictator of the world.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Poor Richard

      My question is that is someone were to paint an offensive picture of the prophet in the forest and no one was around to look at it, would it still be offensive.
      My suggestion is that if someone finds something offensive they should not look at it. Much simpler and holier than killing people.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • MPLS70

      What a stupid comment. The "very big lie" is that Islam is a religion of peace.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • pat

      impose freedom?

      September 13, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Guest

      We didn't impose that upon them. Some obscure Israeli or Egyptian-Coptic, depending on who you source, that may or may not even exist posted a terrible movie of horrible taste on YouTube that clerics decided to jump on to start some protests. Saying that we are imposing our freedoms on them is just plain false. We haven't taken over their TV stations and forced them to watch this movie. 99.9999999999999% of the world didn't even know it existed until the they started burning down embassies and killing diplomats that didn't have anything to do with it.
      Go back to the middle east! Telling us that we can't express ourselves because you get offended is purely against our values so stop imposing them on us.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Offended

      So by your logic if a crazy hillbilly shows up at your house, kills you, your family, and burns your house down that is okay because you offended him and are imposing your beliefs on him? Doesn't add up.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • Isaac

      You have a point, but the real point is that whether you believe in freedom of speech or respect of religion, the most important right, is right to life! I am an Orthodox Jew and I do not like when people insult or provoke anyone's religion. BUT, in the west, we value the right to express opinions even as we respect (from a society point of view) religious freedom. The trick for a free society is understanding their is a BALANCE between rights. What seems to escape you, is the degree of the response we are talking about in relation to the perceived trigger. Murdering innocent people, in the name of God and religion, because some idiot said something derogatory is the issue. We have seen this too many times in the Muslim world. While most Muslims would not do this, it is nevertheless generally accepted as a reasonable response in the Muslim world. Do you really think God is so weak (apparently he created the universe and is guiding history) that the only way His word will be accepted is by killing non-believers? Perhaps to some hard core Islamist, you are a non-believer; should you be killed? Is that how to make a believing world? That is why Islam has such a bad reputation among many westerners, there is little evidence of balance. The main conflict as I see it, is within Islam. Judaism, went through its growing pains; see early history in Israel, where the Kings would kill Prophet, etc they did not like. The Church also went through a murderous phase, such as the inquisition. As the youngest of the three Abrahamic religions, Islam still needs to go though its evolution. In the end, if you are a true believer, you must believe that God made all humans in His image. While I do not think it is respectful to try and hurt other people's beliefs (in Judaism we believe in responsibility of speech, not necessarily freedom of speech–but anyways...), it is time for Islam to turn inward and take responsibility for living in peace with the other children of God. That is not a sign of weakness but a sign of true inner strength! Everybody should do that. Like they say, there are two ways to have the tallest building; you can build the tallest, or smash everyone else's. Build!

      September 13, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  4. pat

    How do you know it is a picture of Muhammad if we don't know what he looks like?

    September 13, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  5. none

    The Holy Quran: Surah 19: Maryam (Mary).

    September 13, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  6. 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 I say.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  7. John Smith

    Sad at pathetic.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  8. Carlos

    The Torah, Bible, Quran/hadith, etc.apply only to those who believe in them There is no imperative in these books to kill any nonbeliever who does not follow their teachings. PERIOD.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  9. john

    This is another example of anti – Christianity by the media in the US. Christians do not want to see negative images of God or Jesus but we are told that those images are okay because of free speech. THe difference between Christians and Muslims is that we can forgive negative portrayals and we are not animals like the violent Muslims causing all of these problems. A picture/joke IS NO REASON for any member of any religion to become violent and they should be called out for it and we should not be apologizing for their violent and destructive actions

    September 13, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  10. observer1776

    "Ambassador's killing shines light on Muslim sensitivities around Prophet Mohammed" is the by-line for this piece of crap article attempting to justify violent, murderous, destructive Jihad actions.
    What &(^#^ "sensitivities"?? Mohammad was a self-serving, power-seeking child abuser who was seeking to counter the influence of Judaism and Christianity. His creation, the Quran, is, in fact, the "Satanic Verses".

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

    The depction of Prophet Mohammed in the film had nothing to do with the attacks on our embassy in Lybia or Egypt. This was a planned 9/11 attack.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  12. Patriot

    No matter what their religous beliefs are it is in no way justification for them to attack our territory and kill our citizens!

    September 13, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  13. nccltdave

    I will depect Mohommad images in any way I want....because I don't care who it offends and I am a US citizen.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  14. ggrieser

    It sure seems like the mullahs and imams envision themselves as more than men. The whole idea of these men "interpreting" gods word to dictate law is clearly blasphemy, by their own rules. (whatever they really are, since they regularly make up the word of god).

    I think every one of them, and people like bin laden, are wanna be prophets that Mohammed would have beheaded.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  15. Rob Roy the Braveheart


    September 13, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  16. palintwit

    Pretty cool. Now can you do Sarah Palin ?

    September 13, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  17. Randy

    But when you go bananas every time the image is depicted, you create a cult of personality around the guy. Exactly the opposite effect as intended.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  18. Chris

    I'm guessing none of you have Muslim or Arab friends, eh? Have you enjoyed gyros or hummus, or is that too Muslim for ya?

    Statistically, most Muslims aren't getting violent over that movie trailer. Think of how many Muslims are in the US, UK, Europe, Asia (Mayalsia!), Africa, Middle East etc– and they're not protesting or burning buildings. No sir, no m'am–most Muslims are just sitting at home doing nothing, maybe thinking 'What a stupid movie' or 'Sigh. This isn't going to help US-Middle East relations.' The men protesting and being violent were just waiting for a reason to fight.

    It's like the KKK– they are a relatively small group who hate others and engage in violence; their members are Christian but Christianity is not the reason they act violent. Religion is just their pretext; most Christians don't go out and act violently towards colored folks. (WWJD?) And so in this situation too, the people acting violent, yes they are Muslims, but they are a minority. Just like how skinheads and KKK groups are a minority in the US (thank God!)

    September 13, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Steve

      Then the Muslims sitting at home need to denounce these acts ... but alas ... nothing. And hummus and gyros ... ? really? Lots of Muslims in Athens ... WOW!

      September 13, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  19. 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 1:04 pm |
  20. none

    Jesus was Muslim. (May God's Peace and Blessings Be Apon Him)

    And Joseph married Mary (May God's Peace and Blessing Be Apon Them Both) married at age 12 – 14.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:03 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.