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. OTOH

    Dunno, but this graphic sure is a FAILURE. Get back to class, kid.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  2. Kyle

    This is why I can't get behind religion. It seriously does more harm then good, for every one person it helps it makes 2 more nuts. Why can't people take the Bible, Koran, and other religious scriptures for what they are, a book of fables that teach lessons. The scripture isn't meant to be taken literally, but used to give guidance. Snakes don't talk to people, guys don't build arks, and women aren't made from rib bones. If you believe this then why not believe in unicorns, leprechauns, and Godzilla, because it's just as crazy. If religion gives you hope and makes you want to be a better person that's fine, but don't force it on anyone else or you get what is going on in Egypt and all over the world. Basically a 5 year old telling another 5 year old that my god can beat up your god.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Rob

      You dont know what youre talking about Kyle, move on to another subject. You know NOTHING about faith or religion.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Commonsense

      Bingo. You hit the nail on the head.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • KB

      Tell it, Kyle!

      September 13, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • CathEngineer-2

      It all boils down to Kyle's last sentence: "Basically a 5 year old telling another 5 year old that my god can beat up your god."

      That's exactly right. Couldn't have said it better myself. - Excellent post.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  3. Mike


    September 13, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  4. Matt

    I have no idea what you were attempting to show and I fail to see how this in any way relates to Obama. Come, we shall go back under the bridge together.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  5. Armin

    The Jews have a similar prohibition against idolatry but they don't go around murdering people to enforce their beliefs or to force their beliefs on others.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  6. rim

    Read first

    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)
    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 million.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  7. .

    It's a terrible image, seek help for your low self esteem issues.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  8. Joel

    If Muslims agree that Mohammad was a man rather than a deity, it makes no sense not to allow people to explore his imperfections as a man. By refusing to allow anyone to question or criticize Mohammad, they have raised him to the level of a deity – exactly the thing they say they'll kill you for doing.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • CathEngineer-2

      Joel, you make PERFECT sense. This is the truth about these zealots who are manipulated by Al Qaeda.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  9. Gary, Oklahoma

    I can't believe so many people think these attacks had anything to do with this amature YouTube vid. "Sorry hun, can't do dinner tonight I need to go protest some nobodies clip on YouTube, seen my rocket launcher?" This was planned months ago and is designed to test our response to such attacks. Obama's reaction is exactly what they are looking for.

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

      Doesn't matter if it was orchestrated by a terrorist organization as has been said or not. Point is THEY ARE STILL PROTESTING TODAY and they are not all terrorists they are everyday people showing their true Middle East ignorant backwards colors.

      So who cares how it started. Let's focus instead on what it shows us about muslim mentality and ignorance.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  10. Jim

    This has nothing to do with Obama

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

    The Catholic priests have him beat hands down on pedophiles.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  12. M. Meric

    Judaism has the same prohibition against graven images and for the same reason – so that you won't worship them instead of G-d. But you have to look long and hard before you find a Jew willing to kill and destroy because a non-Jew – or EVEN a Jew – creates a graven image of a prophet like Moses.There are endless satiric and straight images of Moses without consequences greater than perhaps annoyance, I think the violent behavior is really about, at least in part, anger and frustration about political and social impotence some feel in the face of a world they can no longer control. Pehaps they should start by looking for solutions in their own back yards.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  13. Matt

    Religion has no purpose

    September 13, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Jim

      Religion will be the death of us yet!

      September 13, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  14. Run A Mok

    OK children, you can stop your bickering now. I have just run a computer simulation pitting Jesus against Mohammed. It was a long and bloody battle. They fought to the death and ultimately destroyed each other. So hopefully we can all move on now. Find another prophet if you must, but please stop the fighting.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  15. Corkpuller

    An American Fall is Better than any Arab Spring..... Across our Nation Muslim, Jewish,Christian, Asian, Black, Mexican and White Kids are back in school playing and studying together. (Except in Chicago) The Baseball playoffs are about to begin. Football season is finally here. And NY City just banned large sodas. Refills are still legal. The wine crush is going on in California and the fall TV season of new shows is about to begin. Survivor starts in a week. HD flatscreens are just about affordable. The ocean is warm. Blue Whales are feeding off the Cali coast Ski season is about to begin (so get your legs in shape). Ribeye steaks are on sale. Octoberfest is about to begin....Its good....no GREAT.... to an American living in America.

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

      Here! Here!

      September 13, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • YEsnYes

      Eloquently stated. USA!!!

      September 13, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • GoodOlUS

      It is indeed great to be living in the US. We have our faults and are often fractious about them, but it could be a lot worse folks! Give me an American Fall any day v/s the Arab Spring 🙂

      September 13, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • CathEngineer-2


      September 13, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  16. Stan

    Sensitivities??!! What an outstanding job of excusing, and pandering to, violent muslim extremists. It's no their fault, eh? They're "sensitive" to portrayals of Mohammed. What a joke of an article and "writer."

    September 13, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  17. redsled

    stupid movie.but the muslims can go to hell.this is our country and you people need to leave and go back to your third world camel sucking sand box.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  18. NCT

    And they continue to claim Islam is a PEACEFUL Religion. Blasphemy.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  19. none

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

    September 13, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  20. pat

    The face on the moon is that of Muhammad.Let us worship it.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:16 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.