This story is unbelievable but is true. The summary piece in New Lines Magazine describes how a professor at Hamline University, a private liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota, was fired for showing an image of Muhammad’s face to their [the prof apparently uses plural pronouns) class. The professor and class are unnamed. This all makes sense only when you read in the Wikipedia article that “Hamline is known for its emphasis on experiential learning, service, and social justice.”
So here’s what they mean by “social justice” at Hamline.
You’ll get angry when you read the piece, not only because depictions of Muhammad with a face were common in the Islamic world, but because the professor warned the students in advance what they were going to show them and let them opt out if they wanted to. Nevertheless, Muslim students watched, saw the images, and then complained to the Hamline administration, which deemed the incident Islamophobic and summarily fired the professor without giving him a chance to defend himself.
The article below is written by Christiane Gruber, professor of Islamic Art in the Department of History of Art at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and she, unlike the reprehensible and faux-offended students, knows something about the history of depictions of Muhammad:
Her primary field of research is Islamic book arts, paintings of the Prophet Muhammad, and Islamic ascension texts and images, about which she has written three books and edited several volumes of articles. She also pursues research in Islamic book arts and codicology, having authored the online catalogue of Islamic calligraphies in the Library of Congress as well as edited the volume of articles entitled The Islamic Manuscript Tradition. Her third field of specialization is modern Islamic visual and material culture, about which she has written half a dozen articles. She also has co-edited two volumes on Islamic and cross-cultural visual cultures. Her most recent publications include her book The Praiseworthy One: The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Texts and Images and her edited volume The Image Debate: Figural Representation in Islam and Across the World, both published in 2019.
She takes the University and its administration to task, and also gives us a good lesson on depicting Muhammad, which is not, contrary to some Muslims’ assertions, invariably an act of blasphemy. Click below to read and be enlightened:
From her piece. The “Oracle” is the Hamline student newspaper, and I’ve put below two articles from it about the incident (also click to read). From Gruber (bolding is mine):
On Nov. 18, Hamline University’s student newspaper, The Oracle, published an article 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.”
Islamophobia — which involves hate speech against Islam and Muslims and/or physical violence or discrimination against Muslims — has indeed proven a blight in the United States, especially after 9/11, the rise of the militant far right and the recent political empowerment of white supremacy.
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, 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?
This is absolutely unbelievable, and I’m going to write to Hamline’s Dean objecting to the firing. It’s not though the pictures, innocuous though they were, were sprung on unprepared students. Gruber goes on to discuss the history of depiction of images of Muhammad, and it’s a good and edifying read. She concludes that the students, given the history of Islamic art, had absolutely no reason to consider showing the paintings in class as an “Islamophobic” incident. That is, she says, an “ultraconservative Muslim view on the subject.”
Nevertheless, the student newspaper The Oracle, in its article below, and also in the op-ed below that, sees showing the paintings as a direct attack on Islam. The administration, of course, launched a six-alarm attack, damning the incident, deeming it as a hate incident, and even calling for education in “Islamophobia.” All I can say is that everyone involved in this sorry incident, save the professor himself, is a blithering idiot.
Click to read the student newspaper report.
An excerpt from the article (my bolding):
Hamline undergraduate students received an email from the Dean of Students on Nov. 7, condemning an unnamed classroom incident as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.” In the month since, the email and the event it references have reignited discussions about the persistence of such incidents at Hamline.
The email, signed by Dr. David Everett, Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence at Hamline, did not identify the nature or date of the incident.
The Oracle has since learned that the event in question occurred on Oct. 6, when a professor shared two depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in class, while discussing Islamic art. One was a 14th century depiction of the Prophet and the other was a 16th century depiction of the Prophet with veil and halo.
Within Islam, there are varying beliefs regarding whether the representation of the Prophet Muhammad is acceptable. The majority of those practicing Islam today believe it is forbidden to see and create representations of Prophet Muhammad.
Aram Wedatalla, a Hamline senior and the president of Muslim Student Association (MSA), was in the class at the time the photos were shared.
“I’m like, ‘this can’t be real,’” Wedatalla told the Oracle. “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.”
Deangela Huddleston, a Hamline senior and MSA member, also shared her thoughts with the Oracle.
“Hamline teaches us it doesn’t matter the intent, the impact is what matters,” Huddleston said.
“Hamline teaches us”, she parrots. Why doesn’t Huddleston think for herself? Of course intent matters, and it did in this situation. Then the punishment occurred:
After class, Wedatalla spoke to the professor but did not feel that the conversation was productive.
Wedatalla emailed MSA’s leadership team and members of the Hamline administration on Oct. 7, the day after the incident. On this same day, she met with President Fayneese Miller. Dean of Students Patti Kersten also called Wedatalla and apologized for her experience.
And yes, the professor apologized, though they shouldn’t have (after all, they gave a “trigger warning”):
The professor of the class emailed Wedatalla that Saturday, Oct. 8.
“I would like to apologize that the image I showed in class on [Oct. 6] made you uncomfortable and caused you emotional agitation. It is never my intention to upset or disrespect students in my classroom,” the professor wrote in the email to Wedatalla, who shared it with the Oracle.
. . .In the Oct. 8 email to Wedatalla, the professor stated that they “[let] the class know ahead of time” what would be shown and to give students time to turn off their video.
“I did not try to surprise students with this image, and I did my best to provide students with an ‘out,’” the professor wrote in the email.
“I also described every subsequent slide I showed with language to indicate when I was no longer showing an image of the Prophet Muhammad. I am sorry that despite my attempt to prevent a negative reaction, you still viewed and were troubled by this image.”
So what were the offensive works of art? You want to see them, right? Here’s how the paper identifies them:
The Oracle was able to identify these two images using video of the lecture. The first was a 14th century depiction of the Prophet receiving his first revelation from the archangel Gabriel, created by Rashīd al-Dīn, a Persian Muslim scholar and historian.
The other depicts the Prophet with a veil and halo. It was created by Mustafa ibn Vali in the 16th century as part of an illustration of the Siyer-i Nebi (the Life of the Prophet), an earlier, Ottomon Turkish epic work on the life of Muhammad.
And here’s what I think is the second one, also from Wikipedia commons. Here Muhammad is veiled.
Wow, those would certainly harm you as a Muslim, wouldn’t they? I refuse to believe that this outrage is genuine: it is a manufactured sentiment ginned up by those taught (wrongly) that it’s an insult to Islam to depict the Prophet’s face.
But the Staff of the Oracle, like Hamline’s administration, also sees it as hate speech:
November 18, 2022
In the past year, members of our community have experienced hate speech incidents and microaggressions that have resulted in much-needed conversation.
Recently this year, The Oracle has been made aware of two such incidents. One of which included an Islamophobic incident that happened a few weeks ago and the Dean of Students office informed Hamline about via email on Nov. 14.
. . .Already these two incidents have occurred and communities have been harmed and traumatized. While historically The Oracle’s coverage of hate speech and incidents of discrimination have not always been present, we hope that any and all coverage we do now and moving forward can be a means of platforming voices and experiences and informing readers of steps to move forward and ways of supporting their peers.
We hope that our coverage and our means of communication and publishing can be a resource to our community at all times and in no way do we want to further the impacts and harm of these situations.
This is, to put it mildly, a crock. What a horrible, oppressive, and joyless place Hamline University must be! I wish somebody would snap up the fired professor.
In the meantime, I’ll write an email to Dr. David Everett, Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence at Hamline. This incident is neither inclusive not demonstrative of excellence. It’s divisive, shows the students and administration to be hateful as well as ignorant, and is as far from “excellent” as you can get.