A Hamline University instructor’s classroom use of ancient Islamic art depicting the Prophet Muhammad has sparked a controversy over Islamophobia and academic freedom.
For many Muslims, any depiction of the Prophet, the founder of Islam, is deeply offensive.
The instructor’s defenders say students were warned that the images would come up in class and were not required to engage with them.
According to The Oracle, Hamline’s student newspaper, the offending art was shared Oct. 6 during an online lecture in an art history class. Before showing them, the instructor spent over two minutes giving context for the images, explaining that “while many Islamic cultures do strongly frown on (depicting the Prophet) … there is no one, monothetic Islamic culture.”
One of the students in the class was the president of the Muslim Student Association, Aram Wedatalla.
“I’m like, ‘This can’t be real,’” Wedatalla told the student newspaper. “As a Muslim, and a Black person, I don’t feel like I belong, and I don’t think I’ll ever belong in a community where they don’t value me as a member, and they don’t show the same respect that I show them.”
Wedatalla received an apology from the instructor but pressed the matter with Hamline administrators. A month later, the school sent an email to students condemning the instructor’s decision as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.”
The instructor, an adjunct professor, was told she would not have her contract renewed for the spring semester, the Oracle reported.
Earlier this month, Hamline brought in Jaylani Hussein, executive director of Minnesota’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to lead a “community conversation” about Islamophobia.
“Many of the Muslim students on campus, after they heard of this incident, it impacted them. It impacted their grades, it impacted them finishing off the semester. They obviously were hurt. At the same time, they’re appreciative of the institution doing the right thing,” Hussein told the Pioneer Press.
“For us Muslims, it is blasphemy,” Hussein said. “We don’t have any of those images, we don’t share those images, regardless of who drew it … it doesn’t matter. Any depictions of Prophet Muhammad is frowned upon. It is an act of insult.”
Hussein said the instructor apparently “chose the most Islamophobic pictures (from) an ocean of Islamic art.”
A leading art scholar disputes that. Christiane Gruber, professor of Islamic art at the University of Michigan, called one of the pieces, a 14th-century painting of Muhammad receiving his first Quranic revelation from the angel Gabriel, an “irreplaceable work of art” that is used widely in global survey classes on art history.
At the same time, Gruber said the piece is “far from unique” in depicting Muhammad. Some works between the 14th and 20th centuries show the Prophet’s face, while others cover it with a veil, which was the case with the other piece shown to Hamline students.
“Hamline administrators have labeled this corpus of Islamic depictions of Muhammad, along with their teaching, as hateful, intolerant and Islamophobic. And yet the visual evidence proves contrary,” Gruber wrote for New Lines Magazine.
“The images were made, almost without exception, by Muslim artists for Muslim patrons in respect for, and in exaltation of, Muhammad and the Quran. They are, by definition, Islamophilic from their inception to their reception,” she wrote.
Academics push back
Gruber, whose online petition in support of the instructor has garnered around 1,100 signatures, is one of many academics and free speech advocates who have come to the instructor’s defense.
Amna Khalid, an associate history professor at Carleton College, said Hamline’s labeling the art as Islamophobic “privileged a most extreme and conservative Muslim point of view.”
Khalid, who is Muslim, says Hamline’s actions will have a chilling effect on academic freedom.
“Barring a professor of art history from showing this painting, lest it harm observant Muslims in class, is just as absurd as asking a biology professor not to teach evolution because it may offend evangelical Protestants in the course,” she wrote in a letter published Thursday in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
PEN America, a New York-based nonprofit that advocates for free expression, called Hamline’s decision “one of the most egregious violations of academic freedom in recent memory.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE, this week called on Hamline to reinstate the lecturer, writing that “blanket bans on displaying pedagogically relevant material are not acceptable at a university that commits to academic freedom.”
The Oracle published a recent letter from Mark Berkson, professor and chair of Hamline’s religion department, which disputed Hamline’s characterization of the instructor’s decision as Islamophobic.
“I believe that, in the context of an art history classroom, showing an Islamic representation of the Prophet Muhammad, a painting that was done to honor Muhammad and depict an important historical moment, is not an example of Islamophobia,” Berkson wrote. “Labeling it this way is not only inaccurate but also takes our attention off of real examples of bigotry and hate.”
The Oracle’s student staff removed Berkson’s letter soon after they published it, explaining, “Those in our community have expressed that a letter we published has caused them harm.”
Berkson said in an interview Thursday that it’s important to recognize such images can be problematic for students wary of idolatry. But it’s also important to challenge students and open their minds about uncomfortable topics, he said.
“Religions are all incredibly diverse, so there are going to be disputes within religions about all kinds of issues, including this issue of representational art,” he said. “The problem is, the university, the administration, cannot take sides in a religious debate.”
A Hamline spokesman did not respond to an interview request.