Hamline University, a private liberal arts school in St. Paul, Minnesota, has reportedly declined to renew the contract of a professor who showed their students a Medieval Islamic depiction of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. On October 6, 2022, the adjunct professor, who has been identified as Erika López Prater, displayed the image during an online lecture. The incident gained traction after a student in attendance, Aram Wedatalla, president of the university’s Muslim Student Association (MSA), raised the issue with university administrators following a conversation with the professor.
As reported by Hamline University’s student newspaper The Oracle on December 6, a video recording of the lecture, alongside shared email correspondence between the professor and Wedatalla, indicated that the professor issued a two-minute content warning. This warning was meant to allow students who were uncomfortable with viewing the images to exit the call or shut off the video component of the Google Meet room prior to proceeding with the Powerpoint slides.
“I am showing you this image for a reason,” the professor said in the video, according to The Oracle. “And that is that 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 artwork was identified as a depiction of the Prophet receiving the first revelation from the archangel Gabriel in the Compendium of Chronicles, written by Rashīd al-Dīn in the 14th century. (According to the Oracle and the New York Times, there was also a second work shown, portraying the Prophet with a veil and halo and created by Mustafa ibn Vali in the 16th century.)
The news of the professor’s dismissal was first reported by Christiane Gruber, a professor of Islamic art at the University of Michigan, in New Lines Magazine, a publication of the New Lines Institute nonprofit think tank. Gruber cites Hamline’s associate vice president of inclusive excellence, David Everett, saying “it was decided it was best that this faculty member was no longer part of the Hamline community.”
Hamline University did not respond to Hyperallergic’s repeated requests for comment, and Wedatalla could not be reached for comment. The news of the professor’s dismissal has yielded criticism from academics and literary activist groups such as PEN America and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), which denounced the incident as a violation of academic freedom.
Although there is no specific mention in the Quran, it’s broadly accepted that most Muslims do not create or intentionally view figurative imagery of Prophet Muhammad and other Islamic prophets per the belief that Allah is the sole creator of living forms, coupled with the notion that imagery is a portal to idol worship and polytheism. According to the Hadiths, or detailed records of Muhammad’s life and teachings, those who paint pictures would be punished on the Day of Resurrection, and be challenged to “breathe life soul into what [they] have created.” However, the prohibition of figurative representation of the prophet, or humans in general, varies across sects and traditions.
The renditions of Muhammad dating back to the 14the century were, according to Professor Mona Siddiqui at Edinburgh University, made out of devotion. Professor Christiane Gruber notes in New Lines that the work shown by Prater “was produced to extol Muhammad’s prophecy and Quranic revelations, making it an Islamophilic artistic endeavor for its painter and viewers.”
“In sum, this medieval Islamic painting depicts the beginning of Islam’s holy book and the onset of Muhammad’s divinely ordained apostleship — two themes that the manuscript’s royal Muslim patron and other members of his elite entourage would have been keen to learn about and commemorate during the yearly Ramadan celebrations of the ‘Night of Power’ (‘Laylat al-Qadr’), itself considered the holiest day in the Muslim ritual calendar,” Gruber writes in New Lines.
Regardless, Wedatalla found her instructor’s inclusion of the image inappropriate. “I’m like, ‘this can’t be real,’” she 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.”
After speaking with the professor, Wedatalla raised the issue with the university administration, yielding several conversations between the administration and the MSA on how to address the situation. Everett then sent an email to the undergraduate student body condemning the “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic” incident.
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Mark Berkson, the chair of Hamline University’s Department of Religion and a friend of the dismissed adjunct, said the latter was not given an opportunity to clear the air.
“Of all of the conversations that were held between the MSA and the administration about what to do about the situation, the faculty member was excluded and not a single scholarly voice was ever included,” Berkson said, corroborating the professor’s statement to The Oracle that the university hadn’t afforded them due process. “So nobody in the room actually knew anything about these images. But these images are Islamic. They were painted by Muslims for Muslims for the sake of showing honor to the prophets.”
“This is a part of Islam,” Berkson continued. “If specific students don’t want to look at it, that is an important right. I think we should have a protocol to ensure that no student’s religious prohibitions are violated. But their prohibition cannot be imposed on everyone else. These images are a part of Islamic artistic tradition, and it is very important for us to appreciate and study. That’s what art historians do.”
Earlier in December, The Oracle published an essay by Berkson elaborating on the event and rationalizing the lecture’s contents through the lens of Islamic history. But after receiving negative feedback from community members, The Oracle removed the piece from its website two days later, stating its intention to “minimize harm” and adding that “trauma and lived experiences are not open for debate.” The full text of both Berkson’s letter to The Oracle and Everett’s email were published on Reason (also contains said images), a publication that describes itself as “the nation’s leading libertarian magazine.”
“Through conflation or confusion, Hamline has privileged an ultraconservative Muslim view on the subject that happens to coincide with the age-old Western cliche that Muslims are banned from viewing images of the prophet,” Gruber wrote in her article for New Lines. A petition led by Gruber to reinstate the instructor has secured over 2,000 signatures on Change.org.
Editor’s note 1/9/2023 11:30am EDT: This article has been updated to include the reported name of the dismissed adjunct professor, Erika López Prater, which had not yet been disclosed at the time of our story’s publication. We have also added a more extensive quote from Christiane Gruber’s article in New Lines Magazine.