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. dpq

    They were offended because pics of their profit lead to worshiping a man instead of Allah? You can spin it anyway you like, fact remains that radical islam is a bunch of cut throats and so called peaceful islam doesn't want to handle the situation. Therefore they are all cut throats.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • dpq

      Interesting that the spelling changed on my post.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  2. College Prof

    Christians threatened to kill producers of "The Last Temptation of Christ"

    September 13, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  3. Socrates

    I haven't see the movie and I will not see it because I don't watch trash. However, It doesn't make any sense this religious reaction that only show crazy people acting like crazies. It is about time that religious people look at themselves and see that they practically have no life at all. Religion is such a nonsense. Grow up, people from all religions.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:38 pm |

    Just start throwing neutron bombs at them. 48 hours of intense radiation with no damage to structures. Then the rest of the world can decide if the land is worth using, even though it has been a toilet for 2000 years.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Mike

      You are so smart, did you use your brain thinking about this? or did you use help

      September 13, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  5. remybklyn

    It's interesting that the practice of displaying placards and banners containing the image of muslim clerics and leaders, a common sight in the Arab world, is not also considered somewhat idolatrous.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  6. Knucklehead

    I get it. Mohammed's (can I even type his name?) image is sacred because he isn't sacred. Makes perfect sense.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Steve

      Seems to me we have a bunch more terrorists to take care of.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • TexasCentrist

      Welcome to the world of the believer. Not much in religion makes sense.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  7. Richard

    Byrd- you shouldn't have to join the marines to exercise free speech in the United States. Sad that you apparently believe that's necessary.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  8. .

    Take a history lesson. Seriously your religion has killed millions!

    September 13, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  9. D Palmer

    What a load of horse manure.

    If any of what you say is true then there would be no riots since none of these portrayals were presented to deify Mohammed.

    And even if they were, NOTHING about them is worthy of riots and attacks on innocent people that had nothing whatsoever to do with the creation or dissemination of the images.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  10. Jason

    "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."

    If this is the case, why aren't American Muslims rioting in the streets over the millions of images of Jesus? CNN is once again avoiding the real issue. These extremists use this "prohibition" as a guise for their real agenda, which is to kill as many Americans as possible.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Chat Pata

      Maybe because Jesus has already been elevated to the level of a false god alongwith Hercules, Krishna, Ra, and Baal, and his case is hopeless.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  11. TT

    Don't need CNN to equivocate ... just report what happened please.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  12. Richard

    If thousands of movies and pictures are made of Mohommed, the protests will stop. The reason they protest is they see it causes the West to espouse the virtues of Islam and beg them for forgiveness. I guarantee you if there was a new movie daily, they'd eventually lose steam. There's only so many embassies to burn before you get tired of it. Their outrage can only last so long before they tire of it. The more we tiptoe around it and try to prevent it from occurring, the more power it has.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • John Stockton

      It's called conditioning and I agree. It works famously on children and animals, both of which seem to comprise the majority of Islamis.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Michael


      September 13, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  13. Jim

    nice job!

    September 13, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  14. ORChuck

    "A central tenet of Islam is that the Prophet Mohammed was a man, not God, and that portraying him threatens to lead to worshiping a human instead of Allah."

    This is a valid concern. Many Christian churches are concerned about the use of images of Mary and the Saints and so forth. Some churches strongly discourage them. But we are secure enough in faith in God that we don't see the need to kill people and riot over such concerns.

    Personally, I wonder how many of these murderous rioters even understand why they're rioting.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  15. temp

    Actually it's more like... how low will the American media go? They are the ones who chose to cover this story this way.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  16. none

    (Correction it's not 25) The number of times Jesus mentioned in the Holy Quran: over 100

    Mary mentioned more in the Holy Quran than in the New Testament.

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

    September 13, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  17. Nick-o

    They can't draw his face because he was a white dude, and that would just be a travesty! LOL

    September 13, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  18. atheists are buch of cowards and gutless jerks

    Unless, all atheists who are bashing Mohammed and Islam go ouu and do it in the open and quit hiding inside the anonymity skirt of this board, they should stay chilling in a corner and STFU.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • Horus

      Atheists do debate and refute Islam just like all other man-made religions. In fact AA put up billboards targeting both Christians and Muslims recently. Sam Harris destroys Islam, just as he does Catholicism, Christianity, Judaism and many other "main stream" belief systems.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Steve

      If God gave them their free will, who are you to take it from them?

      September 13, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • MrHanson

      Well, quit dragging God's name through the mud. Muslims are only empowering atheists.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • World Without Religion

      STFU? Interesting...Spoken like a true believer of fairy tales and superstiion. Remember our "GOD Given" rights of freedom of religion and freedom of speach? I bet you wish you could talk the little man in the sky in to taking those two back. And, if you haven't noticed, Athiesm and Free Thinking is growing. Why? Because people are starting to wake up and realize that we've been controlled and manipulated for centuries by religion. I mean really, do you think believing in all that silliness really makes you look sane? And to your question about why Athiests don't come out in to the open more...becasue we will get shot by religious nut jobs like you. "God's soldiers". Just like the nut job muslims rioting and killing in the Middle East. Different religion, same fairy tale BS.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Chat Pata

      You are absolutely correct. Atheist are lacks the guts to annihilate entire civilizations like religious people have done (Hint hint ... North America, South America, Australia, much of Africa and India.)

      September 13, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • John Stockton

      Let's see... how to respond to this one... um... YOU'RE a towel! um... up yours! um... Make me! Oh wait... I'm not an Atheist anymore since I realized that I AM GOD!!! So there.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  19. rim

    PLEASE The movie after review is Ugly as a behavior, but the shame that everything they said we found in your Quran, so you should do anything to stop this massacre. Not the movie!

    September 13, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • none

      Jesus is mentioned over 100 times in the Holy Quran, and Mary is mentioned more in the Holy Quran than in the New Testament.

      May God Peace and Blessings Be Apon Both of Them.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • rim

      Thanks for your information, but I read the Quran too and KIll and Hate are mintioned 1000s of time

      September 13, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Chat Pata

      ... and I read the entire Bible too. Unlike Koran which told Mohammed to kill combatants, Bible tosh Joshua to kill all including babies. There is a reason all massacres were done by Christians followed by Jews and Muslims.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  20. Lori

    What is that? Super Mario Brothers?

    September 13, 2012 at 1:31 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.