Hamline University, a private liberal arts institution in Minnesota, let an adjunct art history professor go in the month of November. The lecturer had presented pictures of the Prophet Muhammad at a lecture on Islamic art the previous month, which is banned by many practicing Muslims.
Devotional paintings of Muhammad created by Muslim painters in the 14th and 16th centuries were brought up in a classroom setting with careful consideration given to the sensitivity of the subject matter, despite Hamline’s determination that the activity constituted a fireable Islamophobic offence.
All things considered, the firing is an example of the insecurity inherent in a higher education system that relies on at-will, contingent labor and reflects an encroachment on the instructor’s academic freedom by the administration, ostensibly for the benefit of the students.
An observant Muslim student who was offended by the images complained to Hamline’s administration the day following the presentation. The following day, the professor emailed the student an apology.
However, the situation became more heated, and on November 7, Dr. David Everett, Hamline’s Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence (AVPIE), sent an email to the Hamline community labeling the lecture as “undeniably rude, disrespectful, and Islamophobic.”
Christiane Gruber, a historian of Islamic art at the University of Michigan who has studied figural depictions of the prophet extensively, published an essay in New Lines Magazine on December 22 in which she argued against the AVPIE’s definition.
According to Gruber, the images at issue are covered in “Islamic art history seminars at universities across the world,” and Hamline was wrong to characterize this extensive historical “corpus of Islamic portrayals of Muhammad, together with their instruction” as Islamophobic.
Dr. Mark Berkson, chair of the religion department at Hamline University, wrote a letter to the editor of The Oracle, the university’s student newspaper, on December 6 in support of the professor’s right to free speech. The newspaper’s employees removed the letter shortly thereafter out of concern that it “further[ed] harm to members of our community.”
Berkson gave the Daily Beast a letter he had written. “Academic art historians who teach Islamic art must recognise and discuss this in some way,” it adds, or else students “would be robbed of an illuminating portion of Islamic art history…”
He argued that “anyone who presented these images in a classroom, a book, or on their wall” would be guilty of Islamophobia, including teachers and the Muslim artists and scholars who had traditionally “produced and cherished” such depictions of Muhammad.
The repercussions “for a liberal arts university” would be disastrous if such a rule demanded the “erasure of an entire genre of Islamic art” and field of study. The president and AVPIE of Hamline University wrote in an email to all faculty and staff that they do not believe “the indefensible” or “material that offends” should be “stricken from our classrooms and not shared with students,” but that “how we teach it, and how we share images and content, matters.”
Some important details are being ignored here, such how the teacher went out of her way to accommodate the students’ religious practises. The professor is quoted in The Oracle as explaining the point of the exercise before showing the image: “I am showing you this image for a reason.”
That instance, it is commonly believed that portrayals of holy figures or other figures in Islamic art are forbidden by the religion. It’s true that many Islamic societies have strong negative views on this, but I’d want to remind you that there is no single, unified interpretation of Islam.
A two-minute introduction and content warning preceded the visuals in the lecture, and they were also noted in the outline for the unit. She claims to have “described every subsequent slide…with language to indicate when I was no longer showing an image of the Prophet Muhammad” in her email of apology to the offended student, and she also offers time for students of religious faith to turn off the video portion of the online lecture.
However, the AVPIE reported to The Oracle on November 11 that the instructor “was no longer part of the Hamline community” after administrators “determined it was best.”
According to Berkson‘s statement to The Daily Beast, the professor had “no communication whatsoever” from the moment the AVPIE called the lecture “undeniably… Islamophobic” until the time an interview with The Oracle confirmed that the professor had been fired. The Daily Beast’s request for response from Hamline University went unanswered.
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