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. Mich-a-el

    I'm growing REALLY tired of what offends the Muslim world. Their governments are a joke and hese demonstrators are sickening examples of stupid people, devoid of independent thought. The US needs to make an example to the world of the middle east. Why not just TELL the Egyptan military to stand-down (if they don't aquiesce then force them to ground) while we helo-insert a couple companies of Marines into the US embassy along with organic light artillery and use our own aviation assets for air cover. Pull out all the stops to make an example of US determination to protect OUR OWN!

    Some may call this provocative, warlike. Hell yes, it is. BTW, in case those folks hadn't noticed we ARE at war. The middle east mentality only knows one thing, force. It is, and has been for 3,000 years, a place where the "strong horse" and the willingness to exercise the power, is the only recognized authority.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  2. Joe

    We should reveal against these BS. We are being colonized by these people. Mosques being built everywhere, including two blocks north of Ground Zero. Muslims giving birth like rats too. This will be the same mess as the Netherlands soon!

    September 13, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Jim (not that Jim)

      You are one scarey dude. So, what do I tell my office mate, an American-born Muslim? Should I tell him he does not have the same rights you do because of his religion? There are millions of American-born Muslims. They are not all immigrants.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • Just call me Lucifer

      @ Jim...

      Since Allah is a supreme being, he can resurrect any and every muslim ever killed in His name. Funny how that never happens.
      Your co-worker believes in fairy tales, but you want us to be what... understanding and accepting of his delusions? Religion is a lie... everyone of them. For those thar are decieved by it... let them also suffer its consequences.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  3. Vivian

    My son just deployed to Afghanistan on Monday. Shame on any person that calls him or herself an American and puts our sons and daughters in danger by serving their own bigoted self interests such as this so called film maker did. The Muslim response to the film is EXACTLY what this film maker wanted. How much you want to bet neither the film maker or his children never served in the military? A pox on him and everyone else associated with this film.

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

      Go join the terrorists then. Your son is fighting for your right to say what you just said, and my right to call you a terrorist sympathizer. Who cares what response that film-maker wanted from the film's viewers? It was his right to make it and to expose the evil that is Islam and the pervert that was Mohammed. I am ashamed that you are an American!

      September 13, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Just call me Lucifer

      So a film insults a supposedly all-knowing all-powerful invisible deity and its followers go bat-sheeit crazy and start killing people, and you blame the people that made the film instead of the idiots that react with violence to it. So now because you're worried about the safety of your son the world should be more "sensitive" about these muslim psychotic relighious zealots. Look lady, you knew what this world was like when you had kids... deal with it.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  4. mario

    The was not t film by the U.S. goverment as reported by the the Daily Motion news organization. This was made by a Jewish Amercian businessmen. He is triying to start a war by using the American freedom of speech to spread his hatred of the moslem religion. Remember Sam Bacile does not represent all Americans. He shuld be held accountable for wha he's trying to do,as well as those who killed our diplimates. I saw the trailer it's stupid and offensive to every religion.

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

      How about Passion of the Christ......?

      September 13, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Juan

      There also was not evidence that the producer is in fact American or Jewish...it is reported...it might just be a Muslim in sheeps clothing enticing attacks on America AGAIN!

      September 13, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Just call me Lucifer

      Every religion is stupid and offensive to those of us who don't get down on our knees and worship NOTHING. So your sensitive how other people react to your imaginary god? Too phucking bad... let your all powerful god defend himself...
      which, of course he never will. Grow up.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  5. dao

    Egyptian state tv ran a 30 episode program on the Protocol of the Elder Zion...... Jews did not rush any embassies.
    Imams told Muslims to pillage and burn Coptic churches while the military watched. ...... Christians did not blowup any markets.
    The Taliban destroyed ancient Buddhist statues in Afghanistan...... Buddhist harmed no one.

    CNN..... Are you seeing a pattern here?

    September 13, 2012 at 1:45 pm |

    Islam, is a gutter religion directly form the bowels of hell.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:45 pm |

    The guy who made the film is an idiot. It is bad entertainment, and about as intelligent as the creationist museum. But we don't live by your rules, we live by ours, and he is free to say all the stupid 5h* t he wants to. The filthy animals who murdered those Americans are responsible. We don't have to respect your religion, and if you demand that we do, then I guess we have a fight on our hands...

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


      September 13, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  8. rim

    Hey, I'm American and Christian, Please it is over don't pass the limit of freedom

    September 13, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  9. RK

    The movie is very degrading at many levels, but the response to it is even more disturbing. People who follow Islam seems to be very violent in nature, they can peacefully protest to stop screening the movie...hopeless people...

    September 13, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  10. Alicia Townes

    You should't pick on any ones belief rather you believe it or not.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  11. Lucy

    Muslims must be weak-willed people that they can't seem to control their own sin - whether it's idolatry and so bans every image, or lust so they make women wear body bags. Clearly, it's weakness on their part. The rest of the world shouldn't have to suffer for their sins.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  12. Bill McG2

    This article's explanation of Islam makes little sense in many ways, To take a few: Why should they have any authority over what people or films may say? Why should anybody think that this film is of any significance? How does killing people amount to a form of cinematic criticism? Or, why would Muhammad ever have thought that if people saw what he looked like hey would worship him?.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  13. Joe

    These people are insane, period. And we are being colonized by them here and authorities have this overly open immigration policies doing nothing to prevent it. Once here they give birth like rats. It is just a matter of time before this is the same mess as it is France, the UK, Belgium and The Netherlands.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  14. aj

    So the people are doing exactly what the prophet didn't want. They worship him and kill in his name.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  15. Someone

    “The Prophet himself was aware that if people saw his face portrayed by people, they would soon start worshiping him,” does that mean ppl before his death were worshiping him ??

    Secondly: Why there was NOTHING in the GULF area countries ? don't they give a damn or is it the U.S. who wanted to divide the area – excluding GCC because of the oil – who started this ??

    September 13, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  16. palintwit

    I wish Sarah Palin would resume her bus tour. We could all use some of her sage advice right about now...

    September 13, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  17. Phil in Wisconsin

    I stipulate I personally don't think Islam an inherently violent religion. But one has to appreciate the irony that in the Muslim world attacks on the religion, including most ironically the charge that Islam IS an inherently violent religion, are notoriously answered with ... violence. Way to convince people!

    This dust-up over the movie is, at heart, a conflict between hillbillies and yahoos. The West has a tradition of allowing freedom of expression, so understandably non-Westerners don't understand why we don't police the expression of religious bigotry. But if there's Muslims who expect us to police and suppress attacks on Islam, why can't we in turn expect the political authorities in the Muslim world to police and suppress "clerics" who stir up the rubes about idiotic trash like this movie that most of us never heard of until they made a big deal about it?

    September 13, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  18. David

    So currently treating him different than all other men may lead to Allah's followers worshiping him as more than a man? Got it.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  19. Getreel

    Ugh! Dear CNN; Puff pieces about the 'sensitivies' of murderers of Islam is the same as saying "Adolf Hitler meant well and did a lot of good, but made some mistakes." They are murderers who hate the US, Israel, Christians and Jews. The same mindset as flying planes into buildings for a religious cause. Quit trying to 'educate the intolerant masses' in this country who call evil evil and grow a pair when reporting on Islamic murderers!

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


      September 13, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  20. biffy

    why? angry, nuts, nothing to live , for, ignorant, lied to, abused, taken advantage of, etc.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:42 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.