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)


    September 13, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  2. KEvin

    do you think 2 billion people follow a stupid religion? you are the minority brother.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  3. Elizabeth Bennett

    Who cares???????

    September 13, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  4. none

    Holy Quran Chapter 19: Maryam (Mary)

    Times Jesus mentioned in the Holy Quran: 25

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

    September 13, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  5. Commonsense

    Kyle hit the nail on the head. Rob, instead of leveling insults, why not discuss the issue?

    September 13, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  6. Luke

    LOL to the comment about Jesus, over here in the USA dumb!@# we have something called freedom of speech and don't get upset about comments like you idiots do. And we certainly don't commit murder. Idiots.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  7. Robert

    Next CNN article: "Why Muslims must defend their faith against all non-believers, and why you should understand the need for mass killings"

    September 13, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  8. .

    Your ignorance and stupidity is showing, keep showing the world what a bunch of dumb people live in America.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  9. Doc Vestibule

    ASCII stupid question, get a stupid ANSI.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:26 pm |

    Acts 20:28-35 (NET)

    20:28 Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. 29 I know that after I am gone fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Even from among your own group men will arise, teaching perversions of the truth to draw the

    September 13, 2012 at 1:25 pm |


      September 13, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  11. none

    Jesus' (May God's Peace and Blessings Be Apon HIm) burial location on Earth (after he returns)??????:

    Prophet's Muhammad's Green Dome Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  12. BobL

    ENOUGH with the Muslims! Only sensitive about themselves and to hell with everyone else! Strength is all these people understand. I ahte to break the news, but they do not want to be our friends!!!

    September 13, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  13. lolwut

    Too bad. Nobody likes being offended, that's the price of free expression. Other religions seem to be able to handle it without behaving like violent animals.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Commonsense

      Yes, be civilized and game the political system to make anything offensive to your faith illegal.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  14. atheists are buch of cowards and gutless jerks

    Unless, there is an atheist's billboard that depicts Mohammed (the way atheists are bashing him in this board) erected, all they have been spouting here on this anonymous board are utter non-sense.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Horus

      Actually American Atheists have put up a billboard calling both Islam and Christianity myths. Sam Harris, and Hitchens (before his untimely death) both speak out about the negative impact of all religions, including Islam.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • atheists are buch of cowards and gutless jerks


      I said and I say it again, 'atheist's billboard that depicts Mohammed (the way atheists are bashing him in this board)". Not a lame one-lined statement in general.

      Got it? Or, do I need to spell it out to you?

      September 13, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  15. .


    September 13, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  16. *


    September 13, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  17. Disbelief

    Killing in self-defense is justified in the Quran. There seems to be a low bar/threshold for what justifies self defense and how generically it can be applied. Christopher Stevens wasn't trying to oppress or hurt anyone.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  18. retired sailor

    Obama is an idiot and willing to cower before muslims. If christians acted like muslims, how would he react? Libs/Dems are destroying this country from within.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  19. Geeeez

    No one cares how Muslims feel anymore. We're sick of hearing about them whine and riot and murder each other and nonmuslims.

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

      Right there with ya... it's like OK, you had your piece... pretty soon we should just leave you in pieces and the world would be a better place!

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

      Totally agree, they are their own worst enemy. The rest of the world (non-muslims) are past caring and when we all finally grow a pair and stop sending them aid they will self implode - as they should and would have done 100 years ago.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • MelanieO

      Gee then i wonder what would happen to the price of gas and oil if the aid stopped. im guessing it would skyrocket which would lead to the fall of the stock market. then it would be back to the great depression. dont u think its funny how allah put all the oil and gas in the middle east!

      September 13, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • GoodOlUS

      The disconcerting thing that strikes the most is that the so called rational and peaceful Muslim majority don't seem to have any influence within their communities/nations. Like Edmund Burke famously said "All it takes for Evil to triumph is for Good Men to do nothing", a very apt saying in this context.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  20. Drink my Kool-aid

    Actually your a failure.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:22 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.