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. rim

    Did you read your Quran? OK you do, did you understand it? Ok you do, do you agree that this movie saying the same verses as in your Quran, you agree, why you are offended.

    Who married a girl in 9 years? Mohamed! how we know ….. Quran.

    Who say kill Jews and Christian? Mohamed! how we know ….. Quran

    Who married his son wife? Mohamed! how we know ….. Quran

    Who said pray at street as you do in New York until you take any city you immigrate too? Mohamed! how we know ….. Quran (Caw chapter)

    Who said kill your wife if she betrayed you? Mohamed! how we know ….. Quran (Caw chapter)
    And more and more we can read and tell you don’t be offended from the move, just be offended because it paid only $5 million.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • sayed

      Wow what a jerk are you , stop your copy and paste of words read full verse not pick the words you like

      September 13, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  2. David

    How weird these people are!
    No matter what religion it is...............you worship stuff that you have never even seen & probably doesn't even exist!
    That said the Muslims are a misguided bunch of fanatics that just seem to enjoy killing people (even their own families) over silly nonsense like a film of cartoon!
    How weird 😀

    September 13, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  3. Mr. Hand

    "Why Muslims decry prophet images" – small under-developed brains and no sense of logic.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  4. O1


    September 13, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  5. mzh

    Dear Brothers and Sisters in Islam,

    Please educate yourself with the life of prophet Muhammad ASW... doing this action is not going to make you as a follower of Islam but it is other way around...

    There is an authentic saying of prophet Muhammad that those are not part of my ummah for whose action his neighbor regardless of faiths is scared...

    So where do you fall in this teaching of Muhammad ASW...?

    And do not be brained washed by so called some scholars and perform this actions which making the humanity to hate Islam rather than coming to Islam...

    Where Quran teaches one of the commands that do you take a soul where you have not created one... killing one human as you are killing the entire humanity and save a soul as you are saving the entire humanity...

    Look around what is happening to the earth... you are the initiation of this violance.... if someone does anything wrong let Allah be the judge and not you...

    At the same time my humble request to myself and others (non muslims) that lets learn to respect each others faith... as Quran teaches 'there is no compulsion in religion', 'you do your religion and I do mine'.... so we can live in a same society with peace....

    I am really hurt seeing this is taking place on the face of earth....

    Also don't you muslim know that prophet asw never said anything the jews lady who used to put trash on his way and he actually went to visit her on the day there was no trash.... and while he was in taif city and children were stoning on him and what doua/prayer he asw made... don't you read this? do not create any violance which may cause you to be displeasing Allah even though you are thinking that is pleasing Allah which is not correct....

    I pray for you all to be educated with the real education with the will of Allah....


    September 13, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  6. .

    Americans already did that to Iraq.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  7. Ellen

    How anyone can be a muslim and still follow these fraudulent teachings is beyond me. Muslims are so ignorant.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • Commonsense

      I feel the same way about all unverifiable and unobservable belief systems.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  8. NCT

    Who the heck cares. The guys is DEAD. Jesus is the ONLY true God who came to save even the Muslims.

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

      Jesus was a Muslim and he was sent to the people of Israel as a prophet and not as a God... as per Quran... but eventually human made him what he is now.... which is why we still see there are group of people in Christianity that they do not believe that he is having any devine power...


      September 13, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • NCT

      Jesus never claimed to be a prophet. He claimed to be God by his own words and actions. You had better learn your real history. The Muslim community has completely passed over this by NOT reading truth. The old testament writings proclaimed the coming of Jesus and all the acts that he would do proving he was the one who created all things. The Jews put him to death on the cross because in their words (HE CLAIMED TO BE GOD). He even said he and the father were one.
      Therefore, he came to save everyone that will accept it. Even though there are many that will NOT accept a FREE gift from God. Their ego will get in the way and they will never see the light. He will return one day and then the end will come. Praise the Lord.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • Commonsense

      It's statements like this and only further increase the divide between people. I don't give a rat's filthy backside about anyone's religion. People can worship what or whoever they want, but when they go into the realm of fantacism: people die. We've seen it time and time and time again from just about EVERY religion on the planet. Christianity has a bloody history, Judaism has a bloody history. Islam has a bloody history. Hiduism has a bloody history. The ONLY way to peace is to quit putting up walls between each other and respect everyone as human beings. Telling fanatics to shove off is the first, important step.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  9. Nate

    For the same reason hardline Christians bomb abortion clinics and hold protests thanking God for dead soldiers: stupidity.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  10. Mike

    I've been about as tolerant towards fundamentalist Muslims as any American could be.

    After reading this article, this is the first time I've been fuming mad. I always thought the issue of protesting, fatwas and whatever had to do with a religious law against it. Nope, it turns out, the law is to protect MUSLIMS from WORSHIPPING Muhammad. As reprehesible as Sam Bacile's video is, I don't think the visual depiction of Mohammad is going to start getting Muslims to start worshipping him.

    This is no different than Christians getting huffy when Jesus is depicted in wildly inappropriate ways. It's about descrating an idolized person, just to the highest degree. In the end, it's not about religion as much as it's about people mocking what other people care about ... and if that's the case, that's one of the things we suffer with in a country of free speech.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  11. Svenghooli

    I've had it...kill them all......enough is enough....

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

      There's an intelligent response...

      (That was sarcasm.)

      September 13, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  12. Al Fahdi

    And this post is only for people who have some ethics toward religions and also respecting people who we love and value. You have to be real Christian or Jew to know if this reactions are overstated or not. Any Muslim will not accept any offends against Christ and I like a Muslim I didn’t saw Male Gibson movie about Christ and I bet that most of the Muslim did the same because it did, in part what we believe in, insulted him. You don’t have to search too much to exam what I am talking about know Just stand up in front of any Muslim and insult any prophet and just accept the result as it is. If I insault your father or your mother or anyone you love in front of you of course you will have some reaction and that reaction depends on how man you are or how coward or fool you are. You have to believe that we, as Muslims, love Prophets more than ourselves and that will do such things to defend them.
    I don’t like to sea innocent people die because of such things but on the other hand we have to send a clear message to all countries to stop making or supporting such things.

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

      There's a difference between having laws allowing free speech NEVER to be abridged by a government, and supporting the trash that was produced about Mohammad.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  13. Sy2502

    Newsflash to the Muslims:
    1) I understand your religion tells Muslims not to depict the Prophet. I'd like to inform you that the rules of Islam do NOT apply to non Muslims. I know you wish they did, but they don't.
    2) If the rule against depicting your prophet is to stop you from worshiping him as an idol then... don't worship him as an idol! Seriously, it's pretty simple, don't play that video over and over while bowing down and praying to the computer.

    Wow these people are dumb!

    September 13, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  14. O1


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

      Nice try, but this has nothing to do with Obama.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  15. rim

    Jesus was Muslim? Did you read your book? OK you do, did you understand it? Ok you do, do you agree that this movie saying the same verses as in your book, you agree, why you are offended.

    Who married a girl in 9 years? Mohamed! how we know ….. Quran.
    Who say kill Jews and Christian? Mohamed! how we know ….. Quran
    Who married his son wife? Mohamed! how we know ….. Quran
    Who said pray at street as you do in New York until you take any city you immigrate too? Mohamed! how we know ….. Quran (Caw chapter)
    How said kill your wife if she betrayed you? Mohamed! how we know ….. Quran (Caw chapter)
    And more and more we can read and tell you don’t be offended from the move, just be offended because it paid only $5 millions.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  16. O!

    The country is in BIG trouble. The next thing would be stimulus package like giving lolly pops to people.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  17. Mr. Hand

    The guy in the main page photo link to this story is a straight up caveman!

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

      Your a prejudice ignorant person, get an education.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • tuvia suks

      Hey 'dot.' Bite me.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  18. Obi Wan

    It seems to me the violent reaction from a small group of Muslims is due solely to the NEGATIVE depiction of Mohammed. Were he depicted in a positive manner, would the reaction have been the same? If not, don't the emotional and violent reactions of the protestors suggest that they do in fact worship Mohammed?

    When I read about the ongoing violence of the extremists, I can't help but draw parallels to the actions of Christians during the crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. The extremist Christians were evil people then and the extremist Muslims are evil people now. Just because somebody doesn't share your beliefs doesn't give you the moral right to kill them.

    I think the real cause for the extremism is economic deprivation. Fix that and most of this goes away, all your left with is the lunatics. Unfortunately, this will never happen, the ba$tards in power will see to that.

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

    There are only two kinds of people in the world good and bad. There are two kinds of religions in the world believers and non-believers; everyone else is a lost soul. Most teaching talks about higher power and being peaceful. The books of Genesis, Torah, Old testament, Bible, Koran are guides on how to live your life, except most of us claim to be expert of the others book, yet we know nothing about ours. In this case I guess before we do something to offend others beliefs (not religion) we should know the consequence, and if we are reacting to an offensive action against our belief practice peace and let the higher power do what he will, I am sure he doesn't need assistance from you.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  20. UncleM

    We already did that in Iraq.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:11 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.