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Hamline University case shows a failure to appreciate the diversity of Islam

Rather than immediately fire the adjunct professor, the university could have used this incident to open up the space for a more nuanced and balanced understanding of Islam
Jaylani Hussein (centre), executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Minnesota chapter, speaks at a news conference in support of Hamline University student Aram Wedatalla (left) on 11 January 2023 (Screengrab)

Early last month, there was a news story that resurrected some very old motifs in the long and winding history of Islam in the United States. "A lecturer showed a painting of the Prophet Muhammad. She lost her job," The New York Times reported.

We learn that in December, Erika Lopez Prater, an adjunct professor, was fired "after an outcry over the art history class by Muslim students". It continues with a twist: "Hamline University officials said the incident was Islamophobic. But many scholars say the work is a masterpiece."  

But how can a piece of Islamic art be Islamophobic? 

So, was the work a masterpiece of Islamic art, and if so, how could showing it to a class be an act of Islamophobia

The New York Times piece does not tell. It leaves the question hanging on the borderline between proverbial academic freedom on one side and presumed Muslim fanaticism on the other. 

But how can a piece of Islamic art be Islamophobic? 

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For the majority of Muslims, visual representations of the Prophet Muhammad - or any of the other prophets - are prohibited. Their belief is to be respected, and to the best of a teacher’s ability, accommodated.

But other Muslims, both now and throughout history, have held a different opinion. Rather than immediately fire the adjunct professor, the university could have used this incident to open up the space for a more nuanced and balanced understanding of Islam.

The artwork in question

What was the work of art that offended the Muslim students? The New York Times article informs its readers: "The painting shown in Dr. López Prater’s class is in one of the earliest Islamic illustrated histories of the world, ‘A Compendium of Chronicles’, written during the 14th century by Rashid-al-Din (1247-1318)."  

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To add a few more sentences to this sparse and sorely insufficient description, Jam’e a-Tawarikh (Compendium of Histories) was composed in 1300-1310 by Rashid al-Din Fazlollah Hamadani, a towering physician, statesman, scientist and historian who was born to a prominent Iranian Jewish family in Hamadan and who later converted to Islam.  

What the article fails to mention is that scholars of Islamic history consider Rashid al-Din’s work to be among the first books of world history for its sections on the long histories of Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Jews, Indians, Egyptians, Europeans, Chinese, and any other known civilisation at the time.  

Lavishly illustrated manuscripts of the book were produced during al-Din’s lifetime and continued for generations.

Islamic civilisation is vast, transcontinental, and multifaceted with varied and at times contradictory perceptions of what constitutes doctrinal principles. 

Muslim philosophers, mystics, theologians and jurists have been debating the most sacrosanct aspects of their faith for more than a millennium and, at times, in the most vigorous and intolerant ways. But all of those theological, philosophical, juridical, mystical, and aesthetic debates still remain Islamic.  

A narrow view of Islam 

If we were to pull away from the incident and look at it from a bit of distance, the student and the university administration appear to be operating within an exceedingly impoverished and narrow conception of Islam. 

The incident demonstrates a profound lack of understanding of the rich and diverse history of Muslim cultures around the world throughout the last 1400 years. Hence, academic settings should serve to train young minds to be critical and nuanced in their thinking, allowing for multiple viewpoints to be explored. 

Hamline University
Old Main at Hamline University, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, on 14 February 2008 (Creative Commons)

When it comes to public discourse in the US on Islam in particular, a woefully jaundiced conception of the faith prevails. 

This impoverished version is the result of a long and persistent European and American Orientalism that gave rise to politically motivated fields of “Area Studies” of the Cold War era, and the butchery of the faith under the fanatical gaze of Islamophobic public figures who have found their ways to the White House and the presidency of the US.  

Impeding the Muslim imagination

The securitisation of Muslims and the repression of their communities in the US have further resulted in some Muslim youths feeling marginalised and under constant attack, while others have internalised Islamophobia, agreeing with anti-Muslim tropes and supporting government policies that restrict Muslim rights, according to a 2019 poll.   

Given the age of the student complainant who has only ever known Islam in the context of a post-9/11 world order, it is unsurprising that her actions would be driven by her experience of being targeted and subjected to Islamophobic attacks both at the structural and individual levels. 

One cannot divorce this case from global Muslim outrage over the Charlie Hebdo caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Critics have accused the satirical magazine of racism and Islamophobia. 

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However, some may argue that an early 14th century painting by a celebrated Muslim historian - even with some objection to depictions of the Prophet - must not be taken with the same offence.  

Ultimately, the student’s protestations, or "hurt" as she described, demonstrate a limited understanding of the plurality within her religious tradition.

This may be attributed in part to US policies over the last few decades that have supported repressive Arab regimes, promoted a narrow understanding of the faith, and inflamed sectarian divisions across the Muslim world. 

One must begin to dismantle the very structural racism and Islamophobia that has caused the Sudanese-American Muslim student to feel attacked by a painting and reject it as foreign to her religious tradition, rather than seeing it as a prominent historical artefact. 

The US also deserves to be liberated from its bigoted conception of Muslims and their civilization, so that a work of art can be seen as a glorious achievement of pluralistic culture that today needs to be revived, rather than demonised.  

Re-educating Americans

In contrast to the local Muslim community in Minnesota, several mainstream Muslim American organisations released statements in support of the professor, explaining that while they generally discourage the display of images of the Prophet, "the academic study of ancient paintings depicting him does not, by itself, constitute Islamophobia". 

Thus, in understanding the anxieties of the students at Hamline, what cannot be overlooked is the fact they are mostly Black Muslims of immigrant backgrounds whose experiences have been shaped by the converging forces of racism and Islamophobia.

The flawed perception of Islam in the US still suffers from the Orientalist casting of the faith in terms conducive to European colonialism

Black Muslims have been at the receiving end of racist characterisations throughout their history in the US. A college setting must therefore be a safe and protected space for issues of race, religious belief, and the prolonged calamities of Islamophobia, antisemitism, homophobia, xenophobia, and any other kind of prejudiced fanaticism exposed and dismantled.  

Mapping out the historic calamities of racism and xenophobia in the US has always been absolutely necessary, but never sufficient. The task of re-educating Americans, including Muslim Americans, about the rich and diversified history of a world religion has just begun.  

The history of Black Muslims itself must be better incorporated into the global history of Islam. Both the institutional foundation of the Nation of Islam in the US, and the towering figure of Malcolm X, must be brought to bear on the rest of Islamic history. 

The flawed perception of Islam in the US still suffers from the Orientalist casting of the faith in terms conducive to European colonialism and US imperialism. That is the main cause of this controversy that cannot be resolved by firing a weak member of the faculty and acceding to the students.  

The text of this significant historical document itself, Rashid al-Din’s Compendium of Histories, must become the cornerstone of recasting America’s perception of Islamic history, the agonistic pluralism (to use the eminent French political theorist Chantal Mouffe’s phrase) of its doctrines, institutional bases of doctrinal authority, schools of theological and philosophical debates, the rise of Islamic mysticism in multiple languages, with each turn enriching a far superior understanding of Islam beyond its contemporary abuses by professional Islamophobes and authoritarian regimes promoting religious fundamentalism.  

This is not an easy task particularly as universities face continual threats to funding. To boost his presidential campaign rhetoric, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced last week his plan "to block state colleges from having programs on diversity, equity and inclusion, and critical race theory". 

The historic mission of American colleges and universities is to resist and overcome such institutional prejudices, not to facilitate them.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in the City of New York, where he teaches Comparative Literature, World Cinema, and Postcolonial Theory. His latest books include The Future of Two Illusions: Islam after the West (2022); The Last Muslim Intellectual: The Life and Legacy of Jalal Al-e Ahmad (2021); Reversing the Colonial Gaze: Persian Travelers Abroad (2020), and The Emperor is Naked: On the Inevitable Demise of the Nation-State (2020). His books and essays have been translated into many languages.
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