Erika López Prater, an adjunct professor at Hamline University, in St. Paul, Minnesota, said she knew that many Muslims have deeply held religious beliefs that prohibit depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. So, last semester for a global art history class, she took many precautions before showing a 14th-century painting of Islam’s founder.
In the syllabus, she warned that images of holy figures, including Muhammad and the Buddha, would be shown in the course. She asked students to contact her with any concerns, and she said no one did.
In class, she prepped students, telling them that in a few minutes, the painting would be displayed, in case anyone wanted to leave.
Then López Prater showed the image — and lost her teaching gig.
Officials at the small private university, with about 1,800 undergraduates, had tried to douse what they feared would become a runaway fire. Instead they ended up with what they had tried to avoid: a national controversy, which pitted advocates of academic liberty and free speech against Muslims who believe that showing the image of Muhammad is always sacrilegious.
After López Prater showed the image, a senior in the class complained to the administration. Other Muslim students, not in the course, supported the student, saying the class was an attack on their religion. They demanded that officials take action.
Officials told López Prater that her services next semester were no longer needed. In emails to students and faculty, they said the incident was clearly Islamophobic. Hamline’s president, Fayneese Miller, co-signed an email that said respect for the Muslim students “should have superseded academic freedom.” At a town hall, an invited Muslim speaker compared showing the images to teaching that Adolf Hitler was good.
Free-speech supporters started their own campaign. An Islamic art historian wrote an essay defending López Prater and started a petition demanding the university’s board investigate the matter. It had more than 2,800 signatures. Free-speech groups and publications issued blistering critiques; PEN America called it “one of the most egregious violations of academic freedom in recent memory.” And Muslims themselves debated whether the action was Islamophobic.
Arguments over academic freedom have been fought on campuses for years, but they can be especially fraught at small private colleges such as Hamline, which are facing shrinking enrollment and growing financial pressures. To attract applicants, many of these colleges have diversified their curriculums and tried to be more welcoming to students who have been historically shut out of higher education.
Meanwhile, professors everywhere often face pushback for their academic decisions from activist students or conservative lawmakers.
López Prater’s situation was especially precarious. She is an adjunct, one of higher education’s underclass of teachers, working for little pay and receiving few of the workplace protections enjoyed by tenured faculty members.
University officials and administrators all declined interviews. But Miller defended the decision in a statement.
“To look upon an image of the Prophet Muhammad, for many Muslims, is against their faith,” Miller’s statement said, adding, “It was important that our Muslim students, as well as all other students, feel safe, supported and respected both in and out of our classrooms.”
In a December interview with the school newspaper, the student who complained to the administration, Aram Wedatalla, described being blindsided by the image.
“I’m like, ‘This can’t be real,’” said Wedatalla, who in a public forum described herself as Sudanese. “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.”
Todd Green, who has written books about Islamophobia, said the conflict at Hamline was “tragic” because administrators pitted natural allies — those concerned about stereotypes of Muslims and Islam — against one another.
The administration, he said, “closed down conversation when they should have opened it up.”
The image in question
The painting shown in López Prater’s class is in one of the earliest Islamic illustrated histories of the world, “A Compendium of Chronicles,” written during the 14th century by Rashid-al-Din (1247-1318).
Shown regularly in art history classes, the painting shows the winged and crowned angel Gabriel pointing at Muhammad and delivering to him the first Quranic revelation. Muslims believe that the Quran is composed of the words of Allah dictated to Muhammad through Gabriel.
The image is “a masterpiece of Persian manuscript painting,” said Christiane Gruber, a professor of Islamic art at the University of Michigan. It is housed at the University of Edinburgh; similar paintings have been on display at places such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And a sculpture of the prophet is at the Supreme Court.
Gruber said that showing Islamic art and depictions of Muhammad have become more common in academia, because of a push to “decolonize the canon” — that is, expand curriculum beyond a Western model.
Gruber, who wrote the essay in New Lines Magazine defending López Prater, said that studying Islamic art without the Compendium of Chronicles image “would be like not teaching Michaelangelo’s David.”
Yet, most Muslims believe that visual representations of Muhammad should not be viewed, even if the Quran does not prohibit them. The prohibition stems from the belief that an image of Muhammad could lead to worshipping the prophet rather than the God he served.
There are, however, a range of beliefs. Some Muslims distinguish between respectful depictions and mocking caricatures, while others do not subscribe to the restriction at all.
Omid Safi, a professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, said he regularly shows images of Muhammad in class and without López Prater’s opt-out mechanisms. He explains to his students that these images were works of devotion created by pious artists at the behest of devout rulers.
“That’s the part I want my students to grapple with,” Safi said. “How does something that comes from the very middle of the tradition end up being received later on as something marginal or forbidden?”
A warning is given
López Prater, a self-described art nerd, said she knew about the potential for conflict on Oct. 6, when she began her online lecture with 30 or so students.
She said she spent a few minutes explaining why she was showing the image, how different religions have depicted the divine and how standards change over time.
“I do not want to present the art of Islam as something that is monolithic,” she said in an interview, adding that she had been shown the image as a graduate student. She also showed a second image, from the 16th century, which depicted Muhammad wearing a veil.
López Prater said that no one in class raised concerns, and there was no disrespectful commentary.
After the class ended, Wedatalla, a business major and president of the university’s Muslim Student Association, stuck around to voice her discomfort.
Immediately afterward, López Prater sent an email to her department head, Allison Baker, about the encounter; she thought that Wedatalla might complain.
Baker, chair of the digital and studio art department, responded to the email 4 minutes later.
“It sounded like you did everything right,” Baker said. “I believe in academic freedom so you have my support.”
As López Prater predicted, Wedatalla reached out to administrators. López Prater, with Baker’s help, wrote an apology, explaining that sometimes “diversity involves bringing contradicting, uncomfortable and coexisting truths into conversation with each other.”
Wedatalla declined an interview request, and did not explain why she had not raised concerns before the image was shown. But in an email statement, she said images of Muhammad should never be displayed and that López Prater gave a trigger warning precisely because she knew such images were offensive to many Muslims. The lecture was so disturbing, she said, that she could no longer see herself in that course.
Four days after the class, López Prater was summoned to a video meeting with the dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Marcela Kostihova.
Kostihova compared showing the image to using a racial epithet for Black people, according to López Prater.
“It was very clear to me that she had not talked to any art historians,” López Prater said.
A couple of weeks later, the university rescinded its offer to López Prater to teach next semester.
López Prater said she was ready to move on. She had teaching jobs at other schools. But on Nov. 7, David Everett, vice president for inclusive excellence, sent an email to all university employees, saying that certain actions taken in an online class were “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.”
The administration, after meeting with the school’s Muslim Student Association, would host an open forum “on the subject of Islamophobia,” he wrote.
López Prater, who had only begun teaching at Hamline in the fall, said she felt as if a bucket of ice water had been dumped over her head, but the shock soon gave way to “blistering anger at being characterized in those terms by somebody who I have never even met or spoken with.” She reached out to Gruber, who ended up writing the essay and starting the petition.
An emotional forum
At the Dec. 8 forum, which was attended by several dozen students, faculty and administrators, Wedatalla described, often through tears, how she felt seeing the image.
“Who do I call at 8 a.m.,” she asked, when “you see someone disrespecting and offending your religion?”
Other Muslim students on the panel, all Black women, also spoke tearfully about struggling to fit in at Hamline. Students of color in recent years had protested what they called racist incidents; the university, they said, paid lip service to diversity and did not support students with institutional resources.
The main speaker was Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group.
The instructor’s actions, he said, hurt Muslim students and students of color and had “absolutely no benefit.”
“If this institution wants to value those students,” he added, “it cannot have incidents like this happen. If somebody wants to teach some controversial stuff about Islam, go teach it at the local library.”
Mark Berkson, a religion professor at Hamline, raised his hand.
“When you say, ‘Trust Muslims on Islamophobia,’” Berkson asked, “what does one do when the Islamic community itself is divided on an issue? Because there are many Muslim scholars and experts and art historians who do not believe that this was Islamophobic.”
Hussein responded that there were marginal and extremist voices on any issue. “You can teach a whole class about why Hitler was good,” Hussein said.
During the exchange, Baker, the department head, and Everett, the administrator, separately walked up to the religion professor, put their hands on his shoulders and said this was not the time to raise these concerns, Berkson said in an interview.
But Berkson, who said he was a strong supporter of campus diversity, said he felt compelled to speak up.
“We were being asked to accept, without questioning, that what our colleague did — teaching an Islamic art masterpiece in a class on art history after having given multiple warnings — was somehow equivalent to mosque vandalism and violence against Muslims and hate speech,” Berkson said. “That is what I could not stand.”
In interviews, several Islamic art scholars took issue with the idea that López Prater’s intent was to disrespect the prophet, and said that it was nothing like the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine that had reprinted mocking cartoons of Muhammad. That led to the deadly 2015 attack at the magazine’s offices, which the scholars also denounced.
Edward Ahmed Mitchell, deputy executive director of the national chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he did not have enough information to comment on the Hamline dispute. But while his group discourages visual depictions of the prophet, he said there was a difference between an act that was un-Islamic and one that was Islamophobic.
“If you drink a beer in front of me, you’re doing something that is un-Islamic, but it’s not Islamophobic,” he said. “If you drink a beer in front of me because you’re deliberately trying to offend me, well, then, maybe that has an intent factor.”
“Intent and circumstances matter,” he said, “especially in a university setting, where academic freedom is critical and professors often address sensitive and controversial topics.”
Safi, the Duke professor, said Hamline had effectively taken sides in a debate among Muslims. Students “don’t have to give up their values,” he added. “But some part of the educational process does call for stepping beyond each one of our vantage points enough to know that none of us have the monopoly on truth.”
Safi has his own personal image of the prophet. When he was 14, his family fled to the United States from Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war. He packed an image of Muhammad holding a Quran into one of the family’s few suitcases.
That image now hangs on his wall at home.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.