An image of the Prophet Muhammad ignites an academic storm

An instructor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, showed a 14th-century painting of Muhammad. A Muslim student objected. The instructor was let go.

Old Main at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Eoin/Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

(RNS) — A Minnesota university art history instructor who showed a treasured 14th-century painting depicting the Prophet Muhammad’s call to prophesy was dismissed amid a roiling controversy over Islamic representational art, academic freedom and campus speech debates.

The controversy first broke in October at Hamline University, a United Methodist-affiliated school in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the instructor, whose name has not been publicly shared, was teaching an online global art history class.

The instructor gave students both written and verbal notifications that the image would be shown and allowed students not to participate if they didn’t want to, according to a video recording of the class obtained by the student newspaper, The Oracle.

However, one of the students, who is also president of the Muslim Student Association, complained to the administration, saying it was offensive and disrespectful to Muslims, many of whom believe Islam prohibits figural representations of the Prophet Muhammad.

A month later, the school responded in an email to students condemning the instructor’s decision as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.,” according to an email from the dean of students. 

The instructor’s contract was not renewed, and a spring semester class the instructor was supposed to teach was canceled. Meanwhile, the university, with an undergraduate enrollment of about 1,800 students, has been embroiled in a simmering skirmish over academic freedom and a debate about acceptable content in the classroom. A petition calling for the reinstatement of the instructor has collected some 2,000 signatures. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression has called on Hamline to reinstate the instructor. 

A university spokesperson did not respond to emails or phone messages.

The painting in question, a prized medieval painting included in a manuscript written by a 14th-century Muslim statesman and scholar, illustrates Muhammad’s call to prophecy by the Angel Gabriel. It shows Gabriel pointing to Muhammad, instructing him to recite God’s words.

Muslim scholars have rushed to defend the painting, which is owned by the Edinburgh University Library, saying it was intended to extol Muhammad, not to denigrate him.

“To make blanket statements that this is prohibited, especially the image in question, is absolutely wrong,” said Ali Asani, professor of Islamic religion and culture at Harvard. “It shows illiteracy about religion.”

That was the point Mark Berkson, professor and chair of the religion department at Hamline University, tried to make in a letter to the student newspaper. Berkson’s letter was taken down by student journalists who said the letter was “furthering harm to members of our community.”

While acknowledging that many Muslims today believe that visually representing the Prophet Muhammad is forbidden, Berkson wrote in his letter, “Muslims have created and enjoyed figural representations of Muhammad throughout much of the history of Islam in some parts of the Islamic world.”

Reached by Religion News Service, several Muslim scholars said pictorial representations of Muhammad are not typically controversial in an academic study.

“I tell students we’re going to be looking at Muslim devotional art,” said Omid Safi, professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies at Duke University. “I know some students may not have seen these before, and some may have even been told it’s not done, but it’s a historic part of the tradition.”

Safi said he doesn’t give students the choice to opt out, as the Hamline instructor did.

The aversion to any representation may in part be due to the offensive cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015. In that instance, two Muslims marched into the offices of the magazine and killed of 12 Charlie Hebdo employees.

But there is a long tradition of devotional Muslim art, created by Muslims to be viewed as expressions of piety.

Christiane Gruber, a professor of Islamic art at the University of Michigan, wrote that historic representations of the Prophet Muhammad — his face sometimes veiled, sometimes not — can be viewed at the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

“Through conflation or confusion, Hamline has privileged an ultraconservative Muslim view on the subject that happens to coincide with the age-old Western cliche that Muslims are banned from viewing images of the prophet,” wrote Gruber. She also started a petition to reinstate the instructor.

University administrators, however, have defended their actions, suggesting that showing the image was hurtful to Muslim students. In a Dec 9 letter, Hamline President Fayneese Miller wrote:

“It is not our intent to place blame; rather, it is our intent to note that in the classroom incident—where an image forbidden for Muslims to look upon was projected on a screen and left for many minutes—respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.”

Berkson, the religion professor at Hamline, said, the university was not modeling critical thinking.

“These students, like many religious people, do not know about some aspects of their own tradition,” he said. “In this case, they do not realize how these images have been used in other parts of the Muslim world and are still used today. They have a particular perspective, and I honor that. But as an academic institution, one group’s prohibition cannot be extended to everyone else.”

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