The centuries-old artworks appeared on Hamline University students’ computer screens during an art history class early one October morning.
The first showed the Prophet Muhammad — including his face — as he received a revelation from the Angel Gabriel that would later form the basis of the Qur’an. The second showed a similar moment, but with the prophet’s face veiled and his image surrounded by a halo.
Adjunct instructor Erika López Prater thought she had gone above and beyond to help students avoid seeing the artworks if their religious views prohibited it. “I thought this would be a great opportunity to, among other things, speak to Islamic art with a little bit more nuance,” she said.
Aram Wedatalla, president of the Muslim Student Association, saw the warning as further proof the instructor shouldn’t have shown the images. She didn’t expect a teacher to “disrespect and offend my religion like that.”
Now López Prater no longer teaches at Hamline and the St. Paul private college is at the center of a painful national debate over academic freedom, religious tolerance and Islamophobia. Instructors are rallying around López Prater, saying the university’s decision not to renew her contract could have a chilling effect on higher education.
“This is a really unusual and uniquely bad case,” said Jeremy Young, senior manager for free expression and education for PEN America. “This is a textbook violation of academic freedom of the kind that you rarely actually see.”
Some local Muslim organizations say the issue isn’t so simple and the university had to protect students if it wants to make good on a promise to promote diversity and inclusion.
“Academic freedom can violate students’ safety,” said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “The idea here is that those two things can still be true. The question is: Which will the school value more, the academic freedom of the professor for her students, or to safeguard students from Islamophobia and hurt?”
Debate over centuries
Throughout history, scholars and religious leaders have sometimes disagreed over whether Islam permits images of the Prophet Muhammad.
Imam Yusuf Abdulle, executive director of the Islamic Association of North America, said Islam prohibits Muslims from drawing or painting images of prophets and angels, in part to avoid idolizing someone other than Allah.
“From a religious perspective, it is forbidden,” he said. He said Muslims who view such images should politely reject them “and raise their voices that this is disrespect for the prophets and for the Muslims as well.”
Ali Asani, professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures at Harvard University, said strict prohibitions on images of the Prophet Muhammad are most common in ultraconservative movements, such as those found in the Arab world. Elsewhere, including in parts of Asia, there is “a vibrant tradition of representing religious figures through images.”
“That still continues today,” Asani said. “It’s not something in the …….