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. paulm5545

    Quite a response to one's "sensitivities."

    September 13, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  2. Horus

    Religious doctrines are to be followed by those who believe in them. The rest of us are free to laugh at and mock them. If they respond with violence than that is on them. We owe no apologies for freedom. Freedom means putting up with things you disagree with. Take Westboro Church – they are disgusting, but the court found them to be within their rights. You no longer have freedom when you start limiting others based on your beliefs.

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

    I don't care if they "decry" depictions of Mohammed – I care that they do much more than decry – they murder and commit acts of terrorism because of depcitions of Mohammed. Hell, it'd be a relief if all these violent Muslims did was "decry" things they don't like or find offensive. What's really scary is that we who are not muslim are offensive to them as well – they'd just as easily see us dead as to see us at all.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  4. fsjunkie

    Come. Join the most murderous, beheading-ess, acid-throwing-ess, suicidal, intolerant, and peaceful religion on Earth! I'm all for coexisting, but not on bended knee and submission unto some psychopathic belief system. They don't want to coexist. They want your allegiance and sumbission to Allah. End of story. Sticks and stones you brain-dead idgits...find out what it means.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  5. eman sadaruddin

    being a muslim we are not suppose to critise OR any religion any culture. islam is the religion based on EQUALITY. no white has priority over black and no black has priority over white. the Religion and our last prophet Muhammad (PBUH) has the teachings to serve the humanity, helping the poors . and to respect all the religions and culture, as everyone is responsible for there own acts , so being a muslim our goal is to make Allah and our prophet (PBUH) happy by SERVING HUMANITY, praying 5 times a day and to fulfil the teachings of QURAN. I

    September 13, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • norman

      you forgot the part in the Quran where Muhammed beheads thousands of his enemies-did you skip that part?

      September 13, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  6. Friends

    CNN headlined this article: "Muslim sensitivities around Prophet Mohammed" – "SENSITIVITIES?!" They MURDER over it people. Murder. Kill. Destroy... over an image. Its nonsensical, brutish and inexcusable. That last one is key – inexcusable. This is a world problem and needs to be address with force.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  7. Lucy

    Allah = Satan

    September 13, 2012 at 1:41 pm |

      Bible god = Satan

      September 13, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  8. tcp

    In reply: Who cares WHY or even IF they are offended. My freedom of speech trumps your terrorism EVERY time! Stop the apologies and justifications.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  9. paulm5545

    So, that completely justifies killing & rioting. I see.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Jim

      No one said it justified it. CNN is merely trying to educate why some are so upset. Of course that does not justify it, but helps to understand it.

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

    Ahh Religion giving people stupid reasons to kill and opress because an invisable man in the sky told them to for thousands of years. Tell me again why I need to tolerate these idiots who still have an imaginary friend as adults?

    September 13, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  11. rock maker

    thereligionofpeace dot com

    September 13, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  12. Robert

    This is absurd. This is not about hurt feelings and theological technicalities. It is about rioting, wanton destruction, mayhem and cold-blooded murder. I am a Christian. If someone mocks, ridicules, defames or desecrates an image of Jesus or the Virgin Mary, I will not like it. I would be offended to the core of my sensibilities. But I would never attack people or property, and certainly not kill anyone for it. Christianity abhors and forbids gratuitous violence. Islam revels in it. That's the difference.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  13. Evolved One

    Would the dude posting the "mohammed" image grow up? You made your point several pages ago......

    September 13, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  14. Jason

    So it's the film maker's fault and not the people who brutally murdered 4 Americans? This is truly insane logic.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  15. from Akbar and Jeff

    lol I hear that stuff really works

    September 13, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  16. Duke One


    September 13, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • norman

      and you can also say Jesus never rose from the dead, religious kooks killed tens of thousands in his name and Jesus himself ordered the deaths of children if they curse their parents (Mathew)-ALL religion is silly and man made

      September 13, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • .

      Catholic priests are pedophiles and murders, let's guess you don't know why.....

      September 13, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Duke One


      September 13, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Duke One


      September 13, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Mike

      I bit you dont know anything about Islam, only what you hear from racists like you, go get education learn about them first, use your brain, dont let others think in your behalf like Fox news, and i am sure you will know whats right and whats wrong.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Duke One


      September 13, 2012 at 1:47 pm |


      September 13, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  17. James

    FINALLY!! Something I can hang on my wall and worship....THANK YOU SO MUCH!!

    September 13, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  18. rmb

    I know how these muslims must feel.
    There was someone in our neighborhood who had a statue of Mary in their front yard – a clear violation of idol worship. So we formed a mob and burned the house down, firing multiple RPGs into the residence and then we danced around the burning building firing AK-47s into the air. Seemed like a measured and appropriate response..........(!?!)

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

      There was someone in our neighborhood who we thought was a witch– a clear violation of our religion. So we formed a mob and burned her at the stake, we danced around her burning corpse while singing and praising our God. Seemed like a measured and appropriate response.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Mohammed

      Can anyone explain to me, if it is SO important not to "idolize" Mohammed, then WHY in the name of Allah, are there 50 million men named "Mohammed"? With a name Jesus; why don't we just NUKE all of Central America right off the planet! And; I'm now going to go hurl myself off a cliff and stone myself to death...

      September 13, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  19. MSL

    Muhammad’s weenie is teeny, his harem is sad.

    But his camels are happy, cause it don’t feel that bad.

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

      Feel sorry for you 🙂

      September 13, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • david

      ohoh sucks to be around you now.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  20. HamsterDancer

    When I was a kid in the 70's I read a science fiction story in a comic book that had the main characters discovering a secret lab made by aliens. In one room they see a hall of androids created by the aliens to watch over humanity over the centuries. Various historical figures were shown and named as they stood on pedestals. One of them was Mohammed. I didn't know much about Islam at the time but I did know that was supposed to be a no-no. As far as I know the comic book publisher or the artist never got in trouble.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:39 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.