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. suncoinc

    The film did not inspire the violence. What inspired the violence was the expectation of immunity from criticism and ridicule prevalent in religious cultures, which is why we cannot let that expectation of immunity from ridicule and criticism continue unabated.

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

      Thank you suncoinc. That and our government who won't defend our citizens and territories because they are afraid of killing "civilians" and "noncombatents". BS. We didn't worry about that in World War II when we fire bombed Hamburg and the Nazis.

      Also people say a nation cannot be evil, tell that to 1939 Germany.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • Nika

      PERFECT POST, thank you

      September 13, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • Phil in Wisconsin

      I not only agree, but will tell you this is one leftie who cringed at even the one sentence in Obama's statement on the killing of the ambassador which criticized the stupid film. Even to mention that piece of trash in the same breath with this violence tends to elevate its significance and leave the impression, however slight, that the violence may have been legitimately provoked. Besides, what genius thought that Obama saying that one sentence would do any good whatsoever to chill out the Muslim hillbillies whose ignorance has been exploited by malevolent clerics?

      September 13, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  2. Matthew

    I don't care how horrible and insensitive the depictions of Muhammad are, the fact is we have the freedom of speech. The muslims and our current government would rather people shut up. Freedom of Speech doesn't mean much to some in the modern media network (see the Chick Fil-A crap for instance).

    All I know is that Islamic terrorists got together, entered US soil, and attacked a US embassy. Why not shoot at these mobs? They are all young men who are probably in the Taliban in the case of Afghanistan or another Terrorist group in the case of Egypt and Libya. The enemy is coming out into the streets and show us who they are. Let them protest but as soon as they get violent, shoot at them until they disperse. They will think twice the next time they put on a violent protest.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  3. sonnyofthemeek

    Majority of Muslim’s Pray as Extremists Prey

    Why is it acceptable to their majority to also being the victims of attack by extremists killing in the name of their God? The bombs meant to harm the west have taken countless innocent lives of their own believers of Islam, the same God they worship together many times a day.
    In America they reside in both peace and safety, protected by the same people being targeted and killed by extremists across the globe. If America, and it’s people had not acted in the past to end the horror of Hitler and others, what language would any of the few survivors speak, where would they hide from eradication, who would insure their survival from genocide?
    America has given hope and proof that people can coexist safely within our shores, and as many must admit, across the globe. Freedom has seldom been given in any land to all the people of this planet other than in America, proved by the numbers we are composed of. All lands represented by the makeup of our society, our people, your fellow citizen’s now here in the land of the free. The dream becomes reality upon reaching our shores, as our deaths become nightmares on your own soil, and our own as evident on 9-11.
    We mourn our lose and never turn you away for the sins of a few. This new attack killing an ambassador and others their helping your brethren, fellow Islamist’s to live without a leader as horrific as you had for lifetimes, cut short.
    Under the pretext of some unseen internet film in lands without access to basic necessities, never the less internet access. I ask of the majority, why?
    Does the same God you worship and love forgive those that take the lives of his people, his followers, his children? Are your deaths acceptable in the killing of others by these extremists? Is the harboring of killers allowed? Is it his will that you die also? Is it his will that any must die for the sins of a few misguided, soulless denizens? Why is hatred of another’s skin color, language or beliefs acceptable? Why is the calling for the eradication of any human being, race or nation permitted, and praised?
    I am but one citizen of this most wonderful planet, and proud to call myself an American. No other land exists this day or in the past that accepts you and your beliefs. In your land those differences are death sentences, or worse for fellow human beings, and possibly you. Why do you hate the freedom to exist peacefully, side by side helping each other to live?
    Please explain before our world is destroyed, while you have the time, before the death count rises and you still exist. Please translate for all to read, carefully, unedited as our Views not Fact Checked news and yours does, thank you.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  4. cultbuster

    Watch on u tube and see how Saudi children aren't shown cartoons in the same manner ours are, they are shown cartoons teaching them about Muhammad and Islam. Those kids are brainwashed and I am not convinced Islam is any more than a mind control cult. I think Ron Paul was right and it's time to withdraw from these nutbag countries and leave them on their own to kill each other. Let's shore up home for a few years and see who comes crying for our help next. Let's get our finances right, control our border and rebuild America while the world burns, they all hate us so let's see how long they can hang without us dumping our money into all these worthless causes.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Matthew

      Even if we left, they still wouldn't leave us alone. They are always trying to expand. Look at Turkey over a Century ago, it was apart of a Greek Christian Empire. Now it is Islamic. Another two centuries ago and all the ME was Roman and Christian. Muslims drove all them out and they keep expanding. Ask Zorastrians in Iran who saw their Empire destroyed or Greeks that use to live in Ephesus, Antioch, Iconium, etc. and were driven out.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  5. obsthetimes

    Because of the idiocy of COPTIC Christians, the united states has suffered another death, another bloody nose.
    COPTIC Christians, i despise you.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Matthew

      No because of the idiocy of a Government who won't defend its territory and citizens because they are afraid of killing other nations Civilians. Load of crap. American citizens should have the write to make films, write books, and make speeches about anything in our nation and shouldn't fear that our embassys are attacked abroad. If we would shoot these crowds until they disperse or bomb them, they would think twice before they did this again.

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

      Are you even aware how the Coptic Christians are treated in Egypt? Muslims can't handle the truth about their prophet. Image or not, he is already their idol.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  6. mark

    Who cares why? The only thing to take into consideration is the acts themselves. These people are evil. Period. They should be wiped off the planet.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  7. Horus

    Here's a thought: Let's let them have what they want. Let's pack up and leave every unstable region in the world. Let's stop all aid, funding, support, and communications with these regions. If private oil companies want stability let them buy it with their obscene profits. We can monitor regions without being there. Let nature take it's course when famine, disease, and civil war occurs. Get out, stay out. Yes, innocent people and children will die. No, it's not on me, or my country, or the world. It's on them. Period.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Nika

      Great idea, but the liberals will never go for it. We have to feed the evil monster its bribe money lest it behead us too.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  8. Azmond

    Mulims only riot when thier Imam's tell them too . Muhammid Al'Zawahiri incited this riot intentionally . he may also be behind the Libya murders .

    September 13, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  9. drinnc

    Akbar Ahmed, who chairs the Islamic Studies department at American University, has come up with the most lame excuse of the year to explain the mindless murdering Islamic mind. Good grief.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • tuvia suks

      Islamic studies? Oxymoron

      September 13, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Avalon

      Seriously, like it somehow gives reason to the actions of those who are getting violent. The muslims in question are acting out *because* the prophet is their idol. Doesn't need to be an image of gold, paper or film....it's an idea first, with the action as fruit.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  10. Don N

    Your attempted apologetic for these extremists is as transparent as it is weak. The fact that his followers regard the "prophet" as nearly divine leads them to glorify any action however heinous to attack those who do anything to question his demigod status.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Robert

      Islam is an evil religion.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • old ben

      All religion is evil. Some have become more adept at giving theirs a loving, glossy finish.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • .

      "Islam is an evil religion"

      No all religions are evil

      September 13, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Munkar and Nakir

      Jesus was Muslim. May God's Peace and Blessings Be Apon HIm.

      Sorry to dissapoint you.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Avalon

      Jesus was Jewish, dear.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Nika

      Munky and Nakir, JOKE IS ON YOUR SORRY SELF as Jesus was a JEW, READ a little please before playing with your mommys keyboard.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • derp

      "Jesus was Muslim."

      "Jesus was a jew"

      The awesome thing about believing fairy tales is that you can make it anything you want to.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Christianity is older than Islam...
      The assertion that Christ was a Muslim is as ridiculous as saying that Mohammed was a Mormon.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • old ben

      Doc: " . . . as ridiculous as saying that Mohammed was a Mormon."

      Well they may have posthumously baptized him already. lol.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Bizarre

      Yes, Doc V, Muslims claim that everyone was born Muslim, and Mormons will get everyone after death and baptize them as Mormons. It's a helluva battle out there in fantasyland...

      September 13, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
  11. Robert

    The question isn't why Muslim's decry prophet images. The question is why rage and terror and blood-thirsty murder is critical part of their religion. To remove murder from Islam would be like removing the heart of a man. Murder is at Islam's very core and without it the Islam would cease to exist. Islam is an evil religion and to be honest, it is recorded history that Muhammad, when heaving his revelations, would roll on the ground and foam at the mouth. And guess what? That condition is used, in the Bible, to describe demon possessed individuals. That would make perfect sense because the Bible says that the devil was a murderer from the beginning, and so was Muhammad, his son.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Robert

      In the end we're going to have a choice. We're either going to have to destroy Islam and all of its followers, or we are all going to follow history and either convert to Islam or be slaughtered.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • ZFairplay

      What is the difference between your thoughts i.e. killing more than a billion people on earth, and that of the fools who murdered the ambassador? I see no difference. Maybe we let the likes of you fight the likes of them and then the rest of us, moderates of all religions and agnostics live in peace.

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

      Idiot I don't know what rock you crawled from under. But what proof do you have that Mohammed foamed at the mouth? What recorded history where you reading? Please before you spew your hatred do your research.

      "It is recorded history that Muhammad, when heaving his revelations, would roll on the ground and foam at the mouth."

      Islam and radical Muslims are not the same thing.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  12. Wayne

    SoI heard this is where the free pizza is. There is pizza right?

    September 13, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Drink my Kool-aid

      Pizza your azz

      September 13, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • tuvia suks

      Yes. Pizza with sausage, pepperoni and bacon

      September 13, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  13. MacinBlack

    Why do they get upset? Because whenever someone draws Muhammed he's got a Bomb sitting on top of his turbin, which sorry to say is what pops into SOME peoples minds especially during high suicide bomber runs all up and down the gaza strip and in Isreal .

    September 13, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  14. MacinBlack

    Why do they get upset? Because whenever someone draws Muhammed he's got a Bomb sitting on top of his turbin, which sorry to say is what pops into SOME peoples minds especially during high suicide bomber runs all up and down the gaza strip and in Isreal . Fools gotta learn to co-exist together! Muslims lost the holy war and they've been p1ssed off ever since. Sounds kinda like the GOP in the states 😀 I don't hate Islamists, just the extremists of any religion.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  15. palintwit

    Muslims are the teabaggers of the middle east. They even have trailer parks

    September 13, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • derp

      They just swat the NASCAR hats for turbans.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  16. Don F.

    What you say makes sense but only up to a point. The ban on images especially of prophets is to keep BELIEVERS from placing too much veneration towards the prophet to the point that the prophet approach GOD.

    Now in the recent cases of note during the last few years the issue has been so called infidel creation and publication of images, images which if anything have highlighting the humanity (i.e. fallen nature - to use a Christian term) of Mohamed. In such instances there seems very little danger of undue deification.

    So while the explanation given sounds plausible it does not, in fact, stand up to scrutiny ending up as so much sophistry.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  17. flip saunders

    In the words of Akbar Ahmed, "It's a trap".

    September 13, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  18. AceGirlsHusband

    Okay, Muslims are mad because someone named Bacille depicted the Prophet, poked fun at their religion, and condemned it as a fantasy. But if you forgive them or rationalize them killing over it, you'd have to allow Mormons to fire-bomb Times Square over the production, "The Book of Mormon." And they don't. And they won't... because they're rational and sensible people. And that is one of the huge differences between Islam and other major religions.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Howard

      The biased, partisan, main stream media has consistently promoted and sold Obama to the American public ... while trashing and demonizing his opponents. Along with the brain washed Obama zombies, they have catapulted Obama into the role of 'Fuhrer' ... and of 'Dear Leader'. The Obama Stooges love Obama more than they love America. Obama is destroying America. America is more important than Obama. Obama is expendable and replaceable ... America is not. Save America ... Elect Romney and Ryan in November !!!

      September 13, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • old ben

      Maybe not killing, but all religions have twisted, divisive tenets and stunt the human intellect.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • Don F.

      Who is forgiving anyone for using this as a pretext for murder and mayhem. Debasing (not disagreeing with) the religious beliefs of other is regrettable, using it a an excuse to kill, pillage, and plunder is reprehensible.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  19. Fredo

    As usualy, the "devout" followers don't have a clue. Killing just seems to be part of the ritual for a lot of people – particularly some Islamists.

    They can go scr3w themselves.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • old ben

      Killing, disenfranchisement, etc. etc. Applies to all religions – really, there are no exceptions.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • spudu4uwr

      old ben - you're wrong. "Killing, disenfranchisement, etc. etc. Applies to all religions" ... You should have said applies to all mankind. Many an atheist and agnostic have killed and disenfranchised. Read a history book and you'll see.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • old ben

      Sorry spud. I've heard that one before. Before you even go there – Hitler was Christian, etc. etc. The important point is that ruthless rulers who denounced religion who murdered did not commit their crimes in the name of atheism; it was always a political motive. But religion on the other hand is has been used as a primary basis for countless murders, etc. throughout history. You're the one who needs to pick up the history book.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      He didn't say that non-believers commit atrocities becauue they are atheists. He said they commit them because they are human.

      September 13, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  20. IslamIsEvil

    I encourage every American to draw a funny or nasty or insulting picture of Mohammed and upload it to FB, or have it made into a bumper sticker, or a poster. Make a short movie of yourself burning a Koran and post it on the net. Kind of like saturation bombing: maybe if the whole world gets in on the act instead of just a few courageous filmmakers and journalists, these violent ragheads will get the idea that no one really gives a crap about their sensitivities.

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

      I was telling the same thing to my friends. As you have suggested, just make a cartoon or home video and post it online. Let us see what they can do. Stone age living radical fanatics...

      September 13, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • old ben

      Good idea about the cartoons. But I will play fair and give equal "canvas" to all major religions.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • mzh

      you sounds your intention is to spread more violance in this country... my humble request/advice to you is to try to learn how to love your neighbor regardless of faiths and do not do what other evil minded human does....

      I hope it will help...

      September 13, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Don F.

      Nasty, funny, no, No, NO. Just a well executed bust of Mohamed in the classical Greek "herms/herma" sculptural format.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • GAW

      And of course all of this will lead to more deaths of Americans and non-Muslims overseas.

      September 13, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Islam

      Why are you filled with so much rage, hatred and intolerance.....I know that you view muslims as "evil"...but for your consideration, through out history: Who started anf fought WW I?
      Who started and fought WW II (I know you like to blame it on Hitler but the church in Germany flew the Nazi flag)?
      Who dropped atomic bomb?
      Who cleansed the abroginals of Australia?
      Who started the colonization of the world and killing people of now deemed "third world"?...I can go on but I don't have enough space....and by the way, what they have of their head is not a rag...

      September 13, 2012 at 3:01 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.