It is with great concern that the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) views the firing of an art professor, Erika López Prater, from Hamline University on the grounds of showing a fourteenth-century painting depicting the Prophet Muḥammad. We issue this statement of support for the professor and urge the university to reverse its decision and to take compensatory action to ameliorate the situation.
News sources report that the matter reached the university administration after a Muslim student complained to them about the professor showing the image in class. Subsequently, undergraduate students at the university received an email from the administration declaring the incident to be “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.” Because the professor was hired as an adjunct, her contract was not renewed and she was effectively fired.
As a Muslim organization, we recognize the validity and ubiquity of an Islamic viewpoint that discourages or forbids any depictions of the Prophet, especially if done in a distasteful or disrespectful manner. However, we also recognize the historical reality that other viewpoints have existed and that there have been some Muslims, including and especially Shīʿī Muslims, who have felt no qualms in pictorially representing the Prophet (although often veiling his face out of respect). All this is a testament to the great internal diversity within the Islamic tradition, which should be celebrated.
This, it seems, was the exact point that Dr. Prater was trying to convey to her students. She empathetically prepared them in advance for the image, which was part of an optional exercise and prefaced with a content warning. “I am showing you this image for a reason,” stressed the professor:
There is this common thinking that Islam completely forbids, outright, any figurative depictions or any depictions of holy personages. While many Islamic cultures do strongly frown on this practice, I would like to remind you there is no one, monothetic Islamic culture.
The painting was not Islamophobic. In fact, it was commissioned by a fourteenth-century Muslim king in order to honor the Prophet, depicting the first Quranic revelation from the angel Gabriel.
Even if it is the case that many Muslims feel uncomfortable with such depictions, Dr. Prater was trying to emphasize a key principle of religious literacy: religions are not monolithic in nature, but rather, internally diverse. This principle should be appreciated in order to combat Islamophobia, which is often premised on flattening out Islam and viewing the Islamic tradition in an essentialist and reductionist manner. The professor should be thanked for her role in educating students, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, and for doing so in a critically empathetic manner.
In a time of rampant Islamophobia, highly offensive and racialized images of the Prophet Muḥammad abound on the internet and on social media. We consider these images to be inappropriate and not dissimilar to “black face” or Anti-Semitic cartoons; even if such images and their makers are protected by law, social opprobrium is due to them by all those who are reasonable and decent. As Muslims, of course, we must respond in a calm and graceful manner as befits our religion:
The servants of the Compassionate are those who walk humbly upon the earth, and when the ignorant address them [with insulting words], they respond, ‘peace.’(Q 25:63)
Given the ubiquity of Islamophobic depictions of the Prophet Muḥammad, it hardly makes sense to target an art professor trying to combat narrow understandings of Islam. There is an unmistakable irony in the situation, which should be appreciated. Additionally, misusing the label “Islamophobia” has the negative effect of watering down the term and rendering it less effective in calling out actual acts of bigotry.
Finally, we stress the importance of education in the Islamic tradition. On the basis of our shared Islamic and universal values, we affirm the need to instill a spirit of free inquiry, critical thinking, and viewpoint diversity in the university setting.