Ambassador's killing shines light on Muslim sensitivities around Prophet
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 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.
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.
Culture clash between U.S. freedoms, Muslim beliefs underlies embassy riots
in Middle East
CAIRO � Stepping from the cloud of tear gas in front of the U.S.
Embassy here, Khaled Ali repeated the urgent question that he said
justified last week′s violent protests at U.S. outposts around the
“We never insult any prophet � not Moses, not Jesus � so why can′t we demand
that Muhammad be respected?” Ali, a 39-year-old textile worker,
When the protests against a U.S.-made online video mocking the
prophet Muhammad exploded in
about 20 countries, the source of the rage was more than just religious
sensitivity, political demagogy or resentment of Washington,
protesters and their sympathizers here said.
It was also a demand that many of them described with the word “freedom,”
although in a context very different from the term′s use in the
individualistic West: the right of a community, whether Muslim,
Christian or Jewish, to be free from grave insult to its identity
That demand, in turn, was swept up in the colliding crosscurrents of
regional politics. From one side came the gale of anger at America′s
decade-old war against terrorism, which in the eyes of many Muslims
in the region often looks like a war against them. And from the
other, the new winds blowing through the region in the aftermath of
the Arab Spring, which to many here means most of all a right to
demand respect for the popular will.
“We want these countries to understand that they need to take into
consideration the people, and not just the governments,” said Ismail
Mohamed, 42, a religious scholar who once was an imam in Germany.
“We don′t think that depictions of the prophets are freedom of expression. We
think it is an offense against our rights,” he said, adding, “The
West has to understand the ideology of the people.”
Even during the protests, some stone throwers stressed that the
clash was not Muslim against Christian. Instead, they suggested that
the traditionalism of people of both faiths in the region conflicted
with Western individualism and secularism.
Youssef Sidhom, editor of the Coptic Christian newspaper Watani,
said he objected only to the violence of the protests.
“This reaction is expected,” Sidhom said of last week′s protests,
“and if it had stayed peaceful I would have said I supported it and
In a context where insults to religion are crimes and the state has
tightly controlled almost all media, many in Egypt, like other Arab
countries, sometimes find it hard to understand that the U.S.
government feels limited by its free speech rules from silencing
even the most noxious religious bigot.
In his statement after protesters breached the walls of the U.S.
Embassy last Tuesday, the spiritual leader of Egypt′s mainstream
Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, declared that “the West” had
imposed laws against “those who deny or express dissident views on
the Holocaust or question the number of Jews killed by Hitler, a
topic which is purely historical, not a sacred doctrine.”
In fact, denying the Holocaust is also protected as free speech in the United
States, although it is prohibited in Germany and a few other
European countries. But the belief that it is illegal in the U.S. is
widespread in Egypt, and the Brotherhood′s spiritual leader, Mohamed
Badie, called for the “criminalizing of assaults on the sanctities
of all heavenly religions.”
In the West, many may express astonishment that the murder of
Muslims in hate crimes does not provoke the same level of global
outrage as the video did. But even a day after the clashes in Cairo
many Egyptians argued that a slur against their faith was a greater offense
than any attack on a living person.
“When you hurt someone, you are just hurting one person,” said Ahmed
Shobaky, 42, a jeweler.
“But when you insult a faith like that, you are insulting a whole nation that
feels the pain.”
Mohamed, the religious scholar, justified it this way:
“Our prophet is more dear to us than our family and our nation.”
Others said that the outpouring of outrage against the video had
built up over a long period of perceived denigrations of Muslims and
their faith by the U.S. or its military, which are detailed
extensively in the Arab news media: the invasion of Iraq on a
discredited pretext; the images of abuse from Abu Ghraib prison; the
burning or desecrations of the Quran by troops in Afghanistan and a
pastor in Florida; detentions without trial at Guantanamo Bay; the
deaths of Muslim civilians as collateral damage in drone strikes;
even political campaigns against the specter of Islamic law inside
“This is not the first time that Muslim beliefs are being insulted or Muslims
humiliated,” said Emad Shahin, a political scientist at American
University in Cairo.
While he stressed that no one should ever condone violence against
diplomats or embassies because of even the most offensive film,
Shahin said it was easy to see why the protesters focused on the
U.S. government′s outposts.
“The message here is we don′t care about your beliefs � that because
of our freedom of expression we can demean them and degrade them any
time, and we do not care about your feelings.”
David D. Kirkpatrick,
The New York Times
Muslims respects Jesus as a great Prophet, but in the west sometimes, there
is little respect to Jesus, Here are just a few examples: