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. Pat F

    Dear Muslims:

    Bite me.

    Love, Pat F

    September 13, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  2. Segar

    Who gives a damn what their reasons are. It is no excuse for murdering a diplomat and his assistants. Actually, their violent, murderous actions indicate to me that Mohamed is some type of God to them, discuss his name disrepectfully and we will kill you. Man, if that isn't worship of a man, I don't know what is..

    September 13, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • Karl

      Wasn't it the Christ who gave the order to put the other cheek? You might be no Muslim, but certainly are no Christian, either. Your talk is that of a "Christian" radical, but your actions are likely to be those of a Christ-killer.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  3. Karl

    Isn't this like the ferocious criticism made by Evangelical Protestants upon the Catholic veneration of saints? Don't some Christian cults bitterly reject depiction of what is 'up there in Heaven' and prohibit images of any sort? Let's face it. Way too many people, regardless of where they live, live and behave pretty much like the Taliban.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • Segar


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

      Excellent rebuttal, Segar. Thanks for posting. I think I can speak for Karl, that anyone who sees the parallels between the fanatics of different faiths is just a hateful, prideful sinner that will roast in Hell while you spen eternity in heaven in prayer before your god. Bravo.

      Now to be serious: Segar, if you can't see the obvious parallels between fanatics of different faiths, then it's very possible that you might be one youself. I suggest not taking your beliefs so seriously so that you can't see any place for any other belief...just like those in the Middle East protesting a stupid video.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  4. Ellen

    Islam and muslims should be exterminated

    September 13, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • none

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

      The number of times Jesus mentioned in the Holy Quran: 25
      Muhammad : 4

      May God's Peace and Blessings Be Apon All of Them.

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

      There's some of that good ol' moral highground Christians go on and on about.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  5. asm_ith

    It is perfectly fine for Muslims to object to portrayals of the Prophet Mohammed. However, by resorting to violence, they reinforce the opinion that some have that Islam is a violent religion. It is unfortunate that a relatively small number of people can create the perception of a religion practiced by over 1 billion people, the vast majority of whom are regular, peaceful people. But if it's even 0.01%-0.1% that are violent, that is between over 100 thousand and 1 million. Moreover, mob mentality begins to take over in some cases so you only need a very small number of people to incite a large mob.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  6. Bill

    Part of the problem is that leaders from around the world, including Muslim, must make it clear that rioting because one person in the 5-6 billion people on earth posted a youtube video showing Muhammad is insane. Not, ridiculous, not poor judgement, just insane. The fact that Muslim leaders are afraid to do so just shows you how far fundamentalism in those countries has gone. Anyone can do this, and there will be people continuing to do so because they believe it proves their own points when Muslims begin to riot. I am pretty sure that the person who made this movie does not follow Islam, so I am not sure why they feel the need to dictate their rules on a non-believer anyway.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • Commonsense

      This is the inevitable result of religious fanaticism. Get ready to see the Christian variety of it come to full power in the US. As long as people of faith become more and more convinced that they are the only ones that are "right" then we all face a future filled with fear, loss of liberty, violence, and death.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  7. none

    The angel that told Mary that she was carrying a child: Gabriel.

    The angel that told Muhammad in a cave that he was God's final messenger: Gabriel.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • MPLS70

      ... during his epileptic seizure.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • none

      Chapter 19 of the Holy Quran: Surah Maryam (Mary).

      The number of times Jesus mentioned in the Holy Quran: 25
      Muhammad : 4

      May God's Peace and Blessing Be Apon Them Both.

      I assume you went to high school and have a diploma and went to college and have a degree and beyond. Make use of them some time.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • MPLS70

      I did. That's why I was able to correctly diagnose Mohammed as an epileptic.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  8. skytech

    Resident of the US. I think that everyone should stand up and call the White House and Congress, call for the closing of our embassies in Egypt and Libya. We need to put a stop to this and not apologizes for it. The protesters killed four of ours. We have all seen this type of portest go on for years, and seen them kill people over a book and behead people that went against them and drag our people through the streets,so on. Then they start this protest calling for a movie to be banned, and because it was filmed here, it is the US fault. So of course we are the one that must be attack. Anyone that tries to take away our freedom of speech and tell us what to do are wrong. Then Mr. Obama, say: "We reject all efforts to degraded the religious beliefs of others." He apologizes to them, for burning our embassies and killing our people. Don't you think there is some thing wrong here?

    September 13, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  9. littletingod

    As far as I'm concerned, Muslims are nothing more than animals. They continue to prove that over and over and over again.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  10. Chris

    Drop the largest nuclear bomb we have on Mecca when they have their yearly pilgrimage..... problem solved.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  11. zenfire

    Why is it that people can poke fun of every religion except Islam? Sheesh, every religion is riduculed by someone. But, why do they have to kill because of it??

    September 13, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • lostisland

      Because religious followers are ALL insane! The only question is the degree to which it's expressed. And what's your stand on evolution by the way? Personally, I believe it, and the record shows we're a new species, and we're quite uncivilized in geologic time. If you'd like a civilized conversation then have one with a shark. They've been around long enough to have figured out a niche for awhile and earned the right to be called civilized. Humans? Balderdash.....

      September 13, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  12. Michael

    It is disgusting to see Americans display such a lack of respect for other cultures. Kinda reminds me of the Nazis and how they viewed the Jews.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • MPLS70

      The only NAZIs are the muslims and people like you who justify murder over a cheap film.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  13. pat

    I think I will start worshiping Muhammad, the man, instead of Allah.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  14. SOCA8587

    Dear khan Alam Afridi – HARMONY, begins first with your religion HARMONIZING with others religions who believe differently. And we do not go about killing others.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  15. none

    The number of times Muhammad mentioned in the Holy Quran: 4

    The number of times Jesus mentioned in the Holy Quran: 25

    May God's Peace and Blessings Be Apon Them Both.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  16. Amniculi

    Everybody, report abuse on Truth's posts so the idiot will be forced to stop annoying us. It's difficult to make snarky comments when you have to scroll through so many pages.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  17. Bob

    II see the these fools beleive in freedom of religion (only theres of course) but they do NOT believe in freedom of speech.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  18. Rob Roy the Braveheart

    ,,..`,..`,`..`…,,`.“..`,..`,`..“.`,`..`▒▒▒▒▓▒▒▒▒▒▒▒▒▒*.“…`..`,`..`…“..`…`,..`,`.`,`.`,`.`,`..`…,,..`,`..`…,,…`…“..,,…this was

    typed-in originally in pakistan- attack attack, lol

    September 13, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  19. CNN Sucks

    Who cares what someone thinks when he kills unarmed and defenseless people in the name of God? Is a religion of killers really something that people want to know about (exceot for employees of CNN who will do anything to carry favor with our Muslim president)?

    September 13, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • east


      September 13, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  20. lostisland

    Why do they decry this? Doh...because they've been brainwashed by religion, all of which suck the big one. Militant Atheism is the new world order, we've had it with the religious having their say extend into science and politics. So now we're speaking out and calling people and their craziness out in public. And for every denigrating image of the prophet I'd like to see one for the pope, and I'd vote for sidelining Fred Phelps first.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • pat

      Sign me up, please.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:13 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.