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Free Speech

Hamline University Lecturer "Is Fired Over a Medieval Painting of the Prophet Muhammad"


The painting that appears to be at the center of the controversy (from Rashid al-Din Ṭabib, Jami' al-Tawarikh, in the University of Edinburgh Library)


Michigan art history Prof. Christiane Gruber reported on this four days ago in New Lines Magazine; as readers of the blog might gather, I think that Hamline's behavior, as she describes it (and as is described in Prof. Berkson's essay, see below) is improper; see here for my thoughts on a related controversy at the University of Minnesota in 2015. But in this post I'd just like to lay out the facts as I understand them.

[1.] First, from Prof. Gruber's article:

On Nov. 18, Hamline University's student newspaper, The Oracle, published an article [link -EV] notifying its community members of two recent incidents on its campus in Saint Paul, Minnesota, one indubitably homophobic and the other supposedly Islamophobic. Both occurrences were placed under the same rubric as "incidents of hate and discrimination." …

The "Islamophobic incident" catalyzed plenty of administrative commentary and media coverage at the university. Among others, it formed the subject of a second Oracle article [link -EV], which noted that a faculty member had included in their global survey of art history a session on Islamic art, which offered an optional visual analysis and discussion of a famous medieval Islamic painting of the Prophet Muhammad. A student complained about the image's inclusion in the course and led efforts to press administrators for a response. After that, the university's associate vice president of inclusive excellence (AVPIE) declared the classroom exercise "undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic."

Neither before nor after these declarations was the faculty member given a public platform or forum to explain the classroom lecture and activity. To fill in the gap, on Dec. 6, an essay written by a Hamline professor of religion who teaches Islam explaining the incident along with the historical context and aesthetic value of Islamic images of Muhammad was published on The Oracle's website. The essay was taken down two days later. One day after that, Hamline's president and AVPIE sent a message to all employees stating that "respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom." The essay's censorship and the subsequent email by two top university administrators raise serious concerns about freedom of speech and academic freedom at the university.

The instructor was released from their spring term teaching at Hamline, and its AVPIE went on the record as stating: "It was decided it was best that this faculty member was no longer part of the Hamline community." In other words, an instructor who showed an Islamic painting during a visual analysis — a basic exercise for art history training — was publicly impugned for hate speech and dismissed thereafter, without access to due process.

These incidents, statements and actions at Hamline will be for others to investigate further. As a scholar specializing in Islamic representations of Muhammad, however, it is my duty to share accurate information about the painting at the heart of the controversy. I will provide a visual analysis and historical explanation of the image in question, in essence reconstituting the Hamline instructor's classroom activity. I will then explore these types of depictions over the course of six centuries, with the aim to answer one basic question: Is the Islamic painting at the heart of the Hamline controversy truly Islamophobic? …

Prof. Gruber has also posted a petition addressed to the Hamline Board of Trustees; PEN America has condemned Hamline's actions (though understandably noting that this was conditional on Prof. Gruber's account being accurate), and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is investigating.

[2.] I have gotten a copy of the essay that The Oracle posted and then removed (I will give some more information about the removal in another post); the author is Prof. Mark Berkson, Chair of Hamline's Religion department:

Dear Editor,

A controversy has erupted at Hamline over the showing of an image of the Prophet Muhammad in an online Art History class. It is important that we take this opportunity to look closely at this issue so that we gain a deeper understanding of Islamic views of figural representation over the centuries, the reasons why this issue can have an emotional impact, and how to work through the tensions that can arise between academic inquiry and religious sensibility.

The Incident

I was not present in the classroom where a historical Islamic image of the Prophet Muhammad was shown, so I cannot speak to all of the details of that particular situation. What I do know is that the image in question is a 14th century painting included in a manuscript commissioned by a Sunni Muslim king in Iran and that it forms part of a cycle of illustrations narrating and commemorating Muhammad's prophecy that is considered by art historians to be "a global artistic masterpiece." The professor gave students both written and verbal notifications that the image would be shown. I don't know the nature of the conversations that followed, so I am only reflecting on one key question—Is the showing of an image of the Prophet Muhammad in an academic context necessarily an instance of Islamophobia, as has been claimed by some members of the administration?

Islamophobia is a serious and ongoing threat in this nation, and it has numerous ugly manifestations, including the vandalism of mosques, the harassment of and violent attacks on Muslims, and hate speech across social media and, at times, at the highest levels of political power. One reason that I have given numerous public lectures about Islam in churches, synagogues, and meeting rooms around the country is to combat ignorance, stereotyping, and Islamophobia. But 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. Labeling it this way is not only inaccurate but also takes our attention off of real examples of bigotry and hate. What happened in this classroom might be an example of miscommunication, a misunderstanding that resulted in significant grief for some students and the faculty member. The distress caused to some students is significant and regrettable. We must recognize this and figure out the best way to avoid this in the future.

Since some Hamline administrators labeled the showing of the painting "Islamophobic" (in one case, the phrase "undeniably Islamophobic" was used), my question for those who use that word is – Exactly where does the Islamophobia lie? Islamophobia is often defined as fear, hatred, hostility, or prejudice against Muslims. The intention or motivation behind the act would seem to be essential here. In this case, the professor was motivated only to educate students about the history of Islamic art. The professor tried to ensure that Muslim students who have objections would be able to avoid seeing the images. So, when we look at intention, we can conclude that this was not Islamophobic.

Another possibility is that the very act of displaying an image of Muhammad is itself Islamophobic. But if this were the case, there are a number of very disturbing implications. First, it would mean that anybody who showed these images in a classroom, a book, or on their wall, would be an Islamophobe. Any scholar who wrote a book about Islamic art and included these images for discussion or analysis would be an Islamophobe. Even Muslims (and, as we will see, many Muslims throughout history have created and enjoyed these images) would be Islamophobic if they did this. Second, it would mean that these images could never be seen by, or shown to, anybody. In effect, it would require an erasure of an entire genre of Islamic art.

Should no student be able to see this art? And what would it mean for a liberal arts institution to deem an entire subject of study prohibited?

Finally, it seems that the interpretation of the administrators means that if an act is prohibited to members of a particular religion, then everyone has to incorporate that prohibition into their own lives. Let's quickly consider an analogy. Eating pork is forbidden to observant Muslims and Jews. Clearly, it would be an act of Islamophobia or antisemitism if someone were to intentionally sneak pork into a dish that was going to be eaten by someone for whom it is forbidden. But does this mean that Aramark can no longer serve any dish with pork? Must everyone consider pork forbidden? Most of us would agree that as long as there are plenty of alternatives for Muslims and Jews, then the mere offering of a pork dish is not Islamophobic or antisemitic. In the case of images, does the fact that many (not all) Muslims consider images forbidden mean that all of us have to incorporate this prohibition into our lives? Giving students the opportunity to see the images as part of an education in Islamic art (since using images is an essential part of the pedagogy of art historians) is not Islamophobic as long as Muslim students are not required to see them and steps are taken to ensure that no student sees them unintentionally.

We must recognize that distress can be caused to Muslims (or Jews, or anyone) without the act that did so being Islamophobic, antisemitic, etc. In the food example, if a server mixed up items and accidentally served a pork dish to a Muslim or Jewish student, we would not call that person Islamophobic or antisemitic. It would be a deeply unfortunate situation, and the student would experience distress that must be recognized and addressed. Steps would have to be taken to avoid that in the future. But it would not be an instance of bigotry or hostility.

This incident is about balancing academic freedom and religious commitments, not about Islamophobia. The situation is not helped by making accusations against a faculty member who is simply trying to share and teach the history of Islamic art with students. It is especially disturbing that some administrators who used the word "Islamophobia" never even spoke with the faculty member to get their perspective. When, as in the case here at Hamline, everyone involved has good intentions (intention is a key concept in Islam, and the Prophet Muhammad himself said that people will receive consequences for actions depending on their intentions) and is doing their best to honor principles (religious and academic) that are important to them, we can find our way forward in open conversation and mutual respect. In what follows, I hope to provide some background so that we can understand the larger context and explain more fully why this incident is not an example of Islamophobia.

The Background

First, a majority of the world's Muslims today believe that visually representing the prophet Muhammad is forbidden. Many observant Muslims would never create an image of Muhammad and will strive to avoid seeing one. So professors must not require Muslim students who believe that representation is forbidden to look at these images, and they must give students fair warning if such images are going to appear anywhere in class—in a book, a slide show, a video, etc. It is my understanding that, in the Hamline class, the professor gave students advance notice that the image would be shown (both in the syllabus and verbally), allowed students to turn off the screen if they wished, and did not require them to visually engage with the painting. The intent was to educate, not to offend or show disrespect.

Why might representation be forbidden in some interpretations of Islam (and other religions as well)? It is worth noting that in all forms of Judaism and Islam, images of God are strictly forbidden (and there is a history of iconoclasm in Christianity). For Jews and Muslims, attempts to represent God limit what is infinite and inevitably lead to the kind of idolatry that worships the representation rather than God. In some Islamic spheres, the concern about representation is extended to prophets, particularly the Prophet Muhammad, because he is so central in the lives of Muslims. Muslims believe that Muhammad, like Jewish and Christian prophets before him, was a human being, not a divine being or a being who should be worshipped. He is, however, a uniquely significant person, because he was chosen by God to be the perfect carrier for the final, complete revelation. Muhammad himself, and Muslims ever since, have been aware of the dangers of people worshipping Muhammad, and Muhammad emphasized that God alone is worthy of worship. The danger of idolatry in regard to prophets is one reason why visual representation of them is problematic.

And yet here is another fact—Muslims have created and enjoyed figural representations of Muhammad throughout much of the history of Islam in some parts of the Islamic world. There exist numerous images of Muhammad created by Persian and Turkish artists from the 13th century until today, many of which were miniatures or illustrations in book manuscripts. Some images depict Muhammad with his face obscured with a veil or a halo, but some images show his face. Many artists based their images on detailed descriptions of Muhammad's appearance given in the Hadith and early biographies.

Over the past few centuries, Shia Muslims, notably in Iran, have been far more accepting of visual representation in general than many Sunnis. But from the 13th-16th centuries, Islamic images were also made in Sunni contexts, as is the case with the 14th century painting that was taught in the Hamline classroom. Furthermore, in recent years, there have been Muslim jurists and legal scholars who have issued fatwas—legal opinions—arguing that certain representations of Muhammad are permitted. One of the most respected leaders and legal authorities in Shia Islam, Ayatollah al-Sistani, stated that representations of the Prophet Muhammad are permissible as long as they are respectful. It is clearly forbidden to make any images that are disrespectful or that are designed to elicit worship. Representations that are permitted in these fatwas are those that honor Muhammad or give historical knowledge to Muslims about their prophet.

One of the most recent fatwas regarding figural representation concerns an image of Muhammad present in a section of a frieze in the US Supreme Court building in Washington DC. This frieze depicts great lawgivers of history, including Moses and Solomon. A leading scholar of Islam and former Chair of the Fiqh (Law) Council of North America, Taha Jaber al- Alwani, issued a fatwa discussing whether or not the image of Muhammad is forbidden. After surveying the debates over representation and imagery in Islam (these usually depend on interpretations of passages in the Hadith), and emphasizing the importance of intention, al- Alwani concludes that, despite reservations, "I have a great deal of gratitude and appreciation for those who insisted on including an image of our Prophet, Muhammad, in that highly regarded site…in order to remind the whole world of the important contributions of the Prophet." He noted that "we must remember that those who carved the frieze and placed it in the Supreme Court are not Muslims…As the Prophet himself respected freedom of conscience in his own dealings, so should we."

One of the leading scholars of Islamic Art is Christiane Gruber at the University of Michigan. She has written scholarly articles and a book on Islamic paintings of the Prophet as well as widely read Newsweek essays dedicated to her subject. She writes, "Muslims of more moderate or secular Sunni or Shi'i leanings do not consider figural representations of the Prophet necessarily problematic as long as Muhammad is depicted respectfully…Over the past seven centuries, a variety of historical and poetic texts largely produced in Turkish and Persian spheres…include depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. These many images praised and commemorated the Prophet…As a result, the visual evidence clearly undermines the premise that images of Muhammad are strictly banned in Islamic law and practice."

There are Muslims today who possess and value Islamic images of Muhammad. One person who has written about how much he values a figural representation of Muhammad displayed in his home is a leading scholar of Islam, Omid Safi, who teaches at Duke University. Safi writes, "The image is a lovely depiction of a kind, gentle, yet resolute Prophet, holding on to the Qur'an and looking straight at the viewer with deep and penetrating eyes…There are millions of such depictions in Iran and elsewhere, and that for many of us it was not a distraction from God but rather a reminder of God to focus on the Messenger of God." So, the very debates that are happening in academic contexts are also happening within parts of the Muslim community, as they have for centuries.

Concluding Thoughts

Ultimately, Islamic images of the Prophet Muhammad are part of the historical record, and an academic art historian who teaches Islamic art must acknowledge and discuss this in some way. Students would be deprived of an illuminating part of Islamic art history if they were not taught about this material, which, according to Dr. Gruber, "is considered by many individuals—including Muslim believers, artists, curators, scholars, collectors, and philanthropists—a global artistic patrimony that is increasingly at risk today." Furthermore, if an art historian were to conclude that images of Muhammad are forbidden, they would be privileging the interpretation of some Muslims over others. It is not up to academics to make judgments about which forms of a religion are correct and which artworks must be purged from the historical record. We must present a religious tradition and its artistic heritage in all of its richness and diversity. While some Muslims believe that figural representations of the Prophet Muhammad are forbidden, others in the past and present do not. It is thus incumbent on a professor to teach the material and convey the full range of artistic expression, as the Hamline faculty member seems to have done.

This incident reminds us that the study of religion is not only fascinating and thought-provoking but is also essential to understanding and skillfully navigating the challenges of living together in a multifaith society. This includes engaging with diversity within faith traditions and not labeling the teaching of an Islamic artistic masterpiece an incident of "hate and discrimination."

Mark Berkson, Ph.D.
Professor and Chair
Department of Religion

[3.] Here is the initial e-mail about the incident from Hamline Associate Vice President for Inclusive Excellence David Everett:

Several weeks ago, Hamline administration was made aware of an incident that occurred in an online class. Certain actions taken in that class were undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic. While the intent behind those actions may not have been to cause harm, it came at the expense of Hamline's Muslim community members. While much work has been done to address the issue in question since it occurred, the act itself was unacceptable.

Hamline administration has met with leadership of the Muslim Student Association (MSA) and devised a plan of action to address Islamophobia and other acts of intolerance on campus. I write to you to outline this plan. In future:

  • Bias and hate incidents, including those related to diversity, equity and inclusion, will be coordinated through the Office of Inclusive Excellence.
  • A new reporting form for incidents of campus bias is being drawn up. When complete, it will be posted to the Inclusive Excellence, Student Resources and Services and Hamline Public Safety Forms websites. All community members will be encouraged to use this form to report any incidents to ensure that response is coordinated holistically through appropriate offices.
  • CLA leadership will continue to hold conversations with MSA members to discuss their experiences in the classroom and on campus, and will meet with other affected groups as circumstances warrant.
  • The Office of Inclusive Excellence, as part of Hamline's 'Community Conversation' series, will host an open forum on the subject of Islamophobia. Details will be announced as planning and logistics are confirmed.

I want to make clear: isolated incidents such as we have seen define neither Hamline nor its ethos. They clearly do not meet community standards or expectations for behavior. We will utilize all means at our disposal, up to and including the conduct process, to ensure the emotional health, security and well-being of all members of our community. Thank you for the support, care and partnership.

Yours in community,

David L. Everett, PhD

[4.] And here is the follow-up e-mail from Hamline President Fayneese Miller and VP Everett:

To the Hamline University Community:

Hamline University is composed of people with diverse views, expectations, and interactions. This community generates different lived experiences that must all be acknowledged and respected. We understand and appreciate that tough, but important questions will arise in our community and we need to address them head-on.

Yet, because we are human, no matter how hard we try to educate on tough issues, we will make mistakes. While some are borne of ignorance, that is never an acceptable excuse. We must always try to do better, be better. We must also take responsibility for our actions, especially when others find them offensive.

It is never our intention to deliberately harm others. Yet, this harm is real and, when we harm, we should listen rather than debate the merits of or extent of that harm. We must always strive to do better, to listen more, and to not knowingly offend.

Our Muslim students, staff, and faculty are hurting. The classroom incident is only one of several instances in which their religious beliefs have been challenged. There are other instances that have occurred on our campus where they have been verbally attacked. This is not okay.

Dr. David Everett, who oversees our Office of Inclusive Excellence, and I join today to share our thoughts, hopes, and expectations for our community. We base our thoughts on two key concepts: respect and responsibility. Ideally, each one of us should respect the lived experiences of others, and take appropriate responsibility, as leaders do, when those experiences fall short of expectations.

Hamline is a shared space for all of us. As administrators, it is our responsibility to ensure that this shared space is supportive and welcoming of all. We fully understand that the quality of the lived experience for Muslim students at Hamline has varied from time to time, and it is our job to address those realities, educate the community and do our best to ensure that Hamline reflects its mission and values in its deeds.

As a caring community, there are times when a healthy examination of expression is not only prudent, but necessary. This is particularly the case when we know that our expression has potential to cause harm. When that happens, we must care enough to find other ways to make our voices and viewpoints heard.

Perspectives should be informed, mindful and critical, as befits an education steeped in the tenets of a liberal arts education. We believe in academic freedom, but it should not and cannot be used to excuse away behavior that harms others.

We have learned, over many years, that knowledge can be shared in a multitude of responsible, thoughtful, and respectful ways. Our response to the classroom event does not disregard or minimize the importance of academic freedom. It does state that respect, decency, and appreciation of religious and other differences should supersede when we know that what we teach will cause harm.

Given the complexity of our various histories, it is imperative that we find ways to teach difficult material. In the spirit of academic freedom, we do not suggest that some material be stricken from our classrooms and not shared with students. This does not generate new knowledge. We do suggest that the indefensible can be taught as well as material that offends – but how we teach it, and how we share images and content, matters.

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. Many disciplines have embedded within them difficult and controversial theories and material, but as with virtually all subjects, they can be discussed without causing harm. Academic freedom is very important, but it does not have to come at the expense of care and decency toward others.

We can be better at Hamline University. While we appreciate that some will find our comments as an attack on academic freedom, nothing could be further from the truth. We have a duty of care for those who trust us to educate them—our students.

We thank the members of the Muslim Student Association for their patience. We thank all the students of our community for believing in us, for trusting our faculty and staff to share their knowledge and experiences with you and you with us. It is often important, as Robert Frost opined, to "take the road less traveled," the road that is "just as fair," because that often makes "all the difference."


Fayneese Miller, PhD

David Everett, PhD
Associate Vice President for Inclusive Excellence