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. Sivick

    Although I respect the religion they're gonna have to friggin get over it.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  2. Nfidel

    Sorry, but no dice. The images that these Muslims are protesting certainly aren't meant to evoke worship of a man – they are meant to challenge the ideologies of that man. Big difference. I hope that most people are becoming tired of the PC attempts to rationalize evil behavior, somehow suggesting that to combat this senseless violence we should all just be more tolerant and understanding – taking special pains not to offend Islam. Ridiculous.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  3. Drink my Kool-aid

    Religion. Is. Stupid.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • old ben

      Amen to that. lol.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      You do know that Kool-Aid was invented by a Christian right?

      September 13, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  4. Gary

    Here is an intersting site or 13th century islamic images of Mohammed. One shows the great prophet riding atop a female centar, k1nky.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • Islam

      Interesting site.. thanks for sharing. It appears however that most of the paintings were depicted by non muslims, especially since it integrates non muslim ideals into the painting...such as a devil who "guards" hell...not really an islamic concept...there are other concepts that I can happily write an article about. Look fo rit on my blog, again thanks for sharing

      September 13, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  5. Christianity source of Christianfilthyracism.

    Only by Christianity absurdity of a Christian, Christian and pagan. Filthy Christian Captain Crunch dog. Filthy pagan islam pig dog. Filthy Randy Jackson dog. Filthy hebrew national pig dog. no dogs! who let them be out? Quran means nothing else but path of triple abdullah absolute quantified. please visit ahmadinebinpaid.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file. But turn virus protection off before.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  6. Tasso

    All this for a B movie that is badly made and does not represent any official film studio anywhere in the world. How can any religious person, I do not care which prophet you pray to, explain this type of behaviour from a so called minority or fanatic group.
    We as humans have created these different sects and we have divided ourselves into different groups so we can justify our time on earth but primarily because we are afraid of what happens after we die.
    The truth is that no one knows what happens.... that is fact.
    Furthermore no one really decides which group they belong to, we are born into it without having a choice, depending on the region of the world.
    It is pointless to argue about which of these groups is better then the other they all have the same thing in common, it is just manifested differently depending on the region or country you are in.

    No one knows what happens when we die, but the simplest answer and the one that has the biggest probability is that we simply end. Enjoy your time while you are alive, do what is right for your fellow man...
    Can't all of you see how hurtful and hateful all this is...

    Imagine there's no heaven, it's easy if try, no hell below us above only.
    And no religion too......

    September 13, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  7. Chrisitian

    Why do you have so much hatred?

    September 13, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Chrisitian

      This was in response to someone who was adding more fuel to the fire...wonder what happened to his post?

      September 13, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  8. lasereye

    OBSERVATION – SOMETHING TO PONDER: It seems to me – life is empty and meaningless – Life on planet Earth is life because it is. Anything beyond that are stories we create about what happened which is left to a world of interpretation and organization. We as human beings are meaning making machines – which does not require everyone to use logical reasoning’s derived from facts to arrive at a truthful answer which can be deduced from deductive reasoning. Many human beings find it easier to just believe what they are told from a preconceived higher authority – because it does not require them to use their brains to think outside a preconceived box to arrive at their own answer of what it is to be alive.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  9. John

    Looks like they have cleaned up the images that were being posted, where is the freedom of speech in that?

    September 13, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • blinky

      Also bibliographical references which contradict the CNN story.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • actually

      It's more like many people clicked the report abuse link which forces it into the review process.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  10. Atheism is Great for Kids and Grown-Ups Too!

    It's really best for all people including children to have an agnostic approach to god, and an atheistic approach to all religion. It keeps things simple for kids, and let's them be all that they can be. They just need to be taught that some things, like all religion, were just made up by salesmen and politicians from long ago**; and that other things, like god, we really don't know a damn thing about.

    Atheists have strong minds and don't need a religion. Sometimes, religious folk run and hide their misdeeds within their religion (and by doing so, they disserve society). Sometimes, religious folk are easily offended when someone mocks their make-believe characters – and, as we can see they can get really CRAZY!

    Religions are just big old evil clubs – each trying to out do each other and inspiring hate and division along the way (disguised as love).

    So instead of praying to make-believe people, get a good cup of tea and go on and sit down and collect your damn thoughts. My goodness.

    ** (yes, charlatan spam started long before the Bible; what would make your think it hadn't?)

    mama kindless

    September 13, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  11. from Akbar and Jeff

    The truth is a dangerous thing to ideologues. Get your facts together on history. The Prophet was indeed depicted, face and all, in Islamic art. Check out The Miraj Nameh calligraphed by Malik Bakhshi of Herat.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  12. Does Not Compute

    Thanks for clarifying but it still not compute. I went to a local Muslin Festival this past weekend to learn more about the faith and didn't see, hear or read any of this while there. I respect how they observe Mohammed as a mortal and God as eternal but why does a crass misrepresentation of Mohammed invoke days of violence in multiple countries? I try to be respectful but cannot reconcile all of this in the name of religion....

    September 13, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  13. Horus

    How many people have been murdered by Christians throughout the course of history for refusing to believe/convert?
    How many people have been murdered by Muslims for refusing to believe/convert?

    Now...how many people have been murdered by Atheists for refusing to give up belief in a God?

    So, which group would be best for humanity?

    Hmmm, tough choice.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • atheists are buch of cowards and gutless jerks


      Who would you like to answer your question? Stalin, Lennin, Pol, Mao, or HITLER,?

      September 13, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • Chrisitian

      Ummmm...lets post that question to people in China or the previous now defunct USSR.,.....!

      September 13, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • old ben

      @atheists are buch of cowards and gutless jerks

      Hitler was very Christian.
      But regardless – your argument is silly. The world's most ruthless rulers didn't commit crimes in the name of religion (as did many religions over much of history).

      September 13, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • Horus

      @atheist blah blah blah – several you mention, contrary to wishful thinking, held religious beliefs. Also, they did not kill in the "name of non-belief". They killed to control. There's a difference though I doubt your bias would allow you to see that.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Da Word

      Christians killed in the name of God in the Middle Ages. MOST of the world has become enlightened since then. Only fringe Christians do horrendous things like this any more and it is few and far between. On the other hand, "Extreme Islamists" seem to be a bigger and bigger group every day.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Sivick

      @atheists are buch of cowards and gutless jerks
      Hitler was a christian. He believed he was doing god's work by mass murdering people. Stick that up your pipe and smoke it.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • common sense

      Muslims protest being stereotyped by acting as their critics 'stereotypical' image of muslims.... hmmmmm..........

      September 13, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • atheists are bunch of cowards and gutless jerks

      @Horus and old ben

      So you were saying that Mao had burned churches just to drive away dengue/malaria mosquitoes?


      We might post the question in North Korea as well.


      I'm wearing tights with a brief and belt (w/ buckle) on it. And I'm telling everybody that I'm Batman. But you know what? (wisphering) I'm Penguin and it's our (dark) secret.


      September 13, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • fred

      Get real, misguided men use religion and God to rally their own evil intent. This is not a reflection on God rather a reflection on the evil in man. To exempt atheists because they claim to have no belief is rediculous.
      How is non belief any different than someone who claims to be a christian yet does not follow the model set by Christ.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • hitler

      I'm a werewolf in sheeps clothing. LOL!

      September 13, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Horus

      @atheist blah blah – my question was: how man have been killed FOR REFUSING TO GIVE UP THEIR BELIEF.

      Many of the deaths attributed to Mao were a result of the Great Famine, which he can't be completely held liable for. He also promoted the status of women, took land from the wealthy lords and divided them into communes, improved the literacy rate, doubled the school population, created universal housing, abolished unemployment, increased access to health care, and credited with increasing the life expectancy.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • hitler


      So you were saying that Mao didn't burn churches?

      September 13, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • Horus

      @Hitler – according to some yes. Burning a church (while wrong) is not the same as murdering someone in the name of some diety. Furthermore, Mao targeted particluar churches not because of their religious ideology, but because they supported his political enemies. I'm not claiming he was a good person. He did order the torture and murder of many – but for political reasons, not religious.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • Baal

      While the Pope had 'inquisitors', Mao had 'red guards'. And apparently they have different style, technique and strategy but basically have the same purpose.

      September 13, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • atheists are bunch of cowards and gutless jerks

      The difference between religious killing and irreligious killings is that. Religious strongly believe that what they do is for (just) cause. That's why they had the courage to reveal their true motives and intent out in the open.

      On the other hand, irreligious are either have lack of belief about their cause or just plain coward and gutless jerks to stand for it and cloaked their true aspects instead.

      September 13, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  14. Rudy Ortiz

    To Hate4None: I perceive you are a good man. While it is not good manners, Yes, freedom does mean one can do those sort of things but they have to be willing to suffer the consequences of their actions. While very few Americans thing that these sorts movies, pictures etc are a good idea, in our minds, there is no comparison between insulting pictures and movies to the taking of life. In your honest opinion, do you think God/Allah thinks those 2 things are of the same gravity? Drawing insulting pictures vs killing people? I hope not because if a good person like you thinks God/Allah believes those two things are the same, then we are all in trouble.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  15. Karl

    Oh my, just watched the trailer to this movie. Apparently it cost $5M to produce... now that is a scam! If people really have that much money to throw away on trash I can easily help with taking that money of their hands. Sad to think that people lost their lives over this ridiculous waste of money. Tragedy to say the least.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  16. Da Word

    As if the Muslims in this attack were doing so because Mohammed was simply portrayed as a man. They did it because he was portrayed IN A BAD LIGHT and everyone knows that. To think or write otherwise is either ignorance at it's finest or blatant lies.

    Oh, and my Lord & Savior does not need His children fighting His battles whenever He is ridiculed or mocked. He is more than capable of securing eternal justice when the time comes.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:48 pm |

      Your WORD is just as DA-Dumb as the Koran...

      September 13, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Da Word

      ^^^Brilliant rebuttal.

      September 13, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  17. Juan

    Afraid that a picture of him would cause people to worship a man...isn't that what these Muslim dictators do anyway..want you to worship them? If your religion beliefs are that weak that a picture of him as a man would sway...then perhaps your religion is not all that strong afterall?

    September 13, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  18. Joe

    If you think about it carefully... the video is not that far off... Muslims are insane.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  19. zandhcats

    Romney can't provide any substantial plan about how to create 12 million jobs. In fact he is tax evader, his business pattern iwas leverage buying out first, stole the employees' pension funds, and filing bankruptcy, got the aids from the government to make himself a multimillionaire. He also like to inflame other countries, the first thing he'll do after taking office is to start another in Middle East, which will put more national debt in our broken country, you may find a job in military, Bush signed a great deal to vet to ensure them get the better benefits than you can find from private sectors.

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

    You people dont understand. They value, look forward to, long for, and prepare for death the way we do life. When you mix that mindset with war, this creates a reasoning that we as americans will never be able to wrap our minds around and understand. They have created and I dont use that term loosely, the perfect soldier. Absolutely no fear of death and fighting for a cause that will land you in paradise upon your death. Your surviving family will be respected and honored and cared for. Killing non-believers in the name of Allah in the face of death is not only welcomed but desired. That is a war that never ever ends. We will be fighting is war forever. We are their number one enemies because of our freedoms and our unwaivering support and protection of Israel. Kayle said in an earlier post that if the world leave Muslims alone they will leave you alone...not true. The coran states that their goal is to make the entire world Muslim so they wont leave us alone. They come in mass numbers because they want to show their loyalty to Allah and if they happen to die in the process, thats a plus for them. Every war needs an enemy..and we (the west) is theirs.

    September 13, 2012 at 1:47 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.