Erika López Prater has filed a lawsuit against Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota after the school accused her of Islamophobia for showing a famous Medieval Islamic painting of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad in one of her lectures. In late 2022, the school decided not to renew López Prater’s undergraduate adjunct position contract in what some viewed as a breach of academic freedom. The university has since reneged on its use of the word “Islamophobic,” calling it “flawed” in a statement released yesterday, January 17, but the former adjunct’s lawsuit alleges that she has suffered damages including the “loss of income, mental anguish, emotional distress, [and] loss of reputation.”
The incident in question took place on October 6, when López Prater issued a content warning before showing two figurative depictions of the Prophet Muhammad during a virtual lecture for her World Art course that was recorded and anonymously shared with The Oracle, Hamline University’s student newspaper. The Oracle’s initial coverage of the incident includes the response of one Muslim student in attendance, Aram Wedatalla, who was deeply offended by López Prater’s use of the images.
An attorney for Fabian May & Anderson, PLLP, the firm representing López Prater, confirmed that a lawsuit seeking $50,000 in damages from the university was served on Tuesday, January 17. López Prater has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
According to the complaint, López Prater issued a two-minute content warning before displaying the images. Additionally, her course syllabus for World Art mentioned that both representational and non-representational imagery of the Prophet Muhammad would be incorporated during presentations and afforded students the opportunity to miss the lecture or sign off in anticipation of religious observances.
The lawsuit cites the conversation that ensued between Wedatalla and the professor, during which Wedatalla was allegedly “enraged that López Prater showed the images at all, to anyone.” Hyperallergic has made several attempts to reach Wedatalla but has not been able to get in touch with the student for comment.
A number of practicing Muslims across a variety of sects do not create or intentionally view figurative imagery of Muhammad as it is outlined in the Hadiths that Allah is the sole creator of living forms and that Prophet imagery encouraged idol worship. However, the images showcased by López Prater date back to the 14th and 16th centuries, during which many figurative depictions of the Prophet Muhammad were made for veneration and devotion, not idolatry, as scholars have noted. University of Michigan professor and Islamic Art historian Christiane Gruber wrote that one of the paintings, a depiction of the Angel Gabriel giving the first Quranic revelation to the Prophet included in a text by the 14th-century Ilkhanid statesman Rashid al-Din, was “produced to extol Muhammad’s prophecy and Quranic revelations, making it an Islamophilic artistic endeavor for its painter and viewers.” Gruber first broke the news of López Prater’s contract nonrenewal in New Lines Magazine and argued that the university violated the premise of academic freedom.
“I am showing you this image for a reason,” López Prater said in the lecture recording transcribed by 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.”
After Wedatalla confronted López Prater when the lecture was finished, she raised the issue with the university’s Dean of Liberal Arts. Despite López Prater’s emailed apology to Wedatalla and class-wide invitation to further discuss the premise of her decision to show the images, the professor received notice on or around October 24 that the course she was set to teach in the spring semester was canceled and that her contract would not be renewed. By November 7, Hamline University’s associate vice president of inclusive excellence, David Everett, sent out a statement to the student body and faculty characterizing López Prater’s actions as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic,” though he did not name her in the email.
After multiple news sources including Hyperallergic reported on the story, a follow-up statement by Hamline University President Fayneese Miller on January 11 sought to clarify that López Prater was not “dismissed,” “fired,” or “let go,” and that she taught her World Art course for the remainder of the semester.
“The decision not to offer her another class was made at the unit level and in no way reflects on her ability to adequately teach the class,” Miller’s statement read in regard to Dr. López Prater’s absence from the faculty roster for the spring semester.
By then, Hamline University had been criticized by several scholars as well as PEN America and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression for alleged violations of academic freedom. Some also accused the school of painting Islam with a broad and conservative brush through prioritizing the beliefs of a singular Muslim student who, as the filing says, “wanted to impose her specific religious views on López Prater, non-Muslim students, and Muslim students who did not object to images for the Prophet Muhammad.”
The university intends to host two major conversations centered on academic freedom, student well-being, and religion in the coming months in an attempt to reconcile with the situation at hand, according to a press release. Hamline University declined to comment on the lawsuit.