Professor L. Ali Khan of Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas, explains why the recent incident where a professor at Minnesota's Hamline University brought paintings of the Prophet Muhammad to class isn't Islamophobic and argues that courteous discussion is central to academic freedom and good education...
Hamline University in Minnesota has fired adjunct art professor Erika Lopez Prater for showing 14th-century paintings of the Prophet Muhammad in class. The University asserts that the professor's act is Islamophobic and that bringing the artwork to the classroom with Muslim students breached the limits of academic freedom. The facts do not suggest that Professor Prater is hostile to Islam or that she blatantly ignored the religious sensitivities of Muslim students in the class. Several writers have rightfully come to defend Professor Prater. This commentary furnishes a framework of background concepts for understanding the Hamline-Prater controversy, an understanding needed in the present and future cases so that Islamophobia is not inflated to punish instructors for using teaching materials they, in good faith, deem appropriate.
A broad argument that academic freedom allows instructors to use religiously offensive materials in class is contrary to the policies and practices of most US educational institutions. Any expansive view of free speech dismisses the complexity of issues, which requires a sophisticated balance between several competing rights, including the student's right to education, the dignity of religion, the instructor's academic freedom in the classroom, and the institution's obligation to empower students to learn without discrimination and hostility.
The core of the Hamline-Prater controversy is two paintings of the Prophet Muhammad that the instructor brought to the class to show that Islamic art is "not monolithic." The instructor knew Muslims do not make, sell, or see the Prophet's images and told the students in advance that she would bring the paintings to the class. Professor Prater was perhaps making a teaching point that the prohibition on showing the Prophet's images is not across all Muslim denominations since Muslim artists made these paintings.
Distinguish these paintings from the Prophet's cartoons, published in a Danish newspaper, which provoked widespread protests and violence. Muslim artists reverentially made the paintings, whereas the cartoons are derogatory. For many Muslims, and perhaps for Prater's Muslim students, the fact that Muslim artists made these paintings is as good as saying that a Muslim wrote Satanic Verses. These paintings sketched hundreds of years after the Prophet's death are imaginary because what the Prophet looked like is conjecture.
Like Judaism, Islam prohibits idolatry or image worship. The strictest version of Islamic aniconism prohibits the drawing of any living being, humans, animals, or birds. The Prophet's Sunnah states that "angels do not enter a house in which there is an image of an animate being" and that the image makers will face punishment on the Day of Judgment. Building on these sayings, some Muslim jurists opposed photography as incompatible with aniconism. However, videography, television, YouTube, and various other platforms carrying animate and inanimate images flow through the Muslim world without any opposition and with much appreciation. Islamic law on image-making has indeed evolved.
However, the redline on making the Prophet's images in any medium, including paintings and statues, remains intact and may have become firmer under the inertial weight of centuries. All major Muslim denominations believe that the image of any prophet, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad, be it a painting or a sculpture, should not be made, shared, exhibited, or published. This shared belief is operational in all Muslim populations in the Middle East, South Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. Forbidding the prophets' images deters Muslims from worshipping any icon so that the believers focus on the prophets' teachings rather than their physical bodies. Islamic jurisprudence comes hard on the human inclination to divinify prophets the Qur'an portrays as humans. Nevertheless, Islamic law does not compel the followers of other faiths to practice similar aniconism.
Classroom Academic Freedom
Academic freedom is a valuable concept critical for good teaching. In 1967, Justice Brennan wrote: The classroom is peculiarly the marketplace of ideas. The Nation's future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth "out of a multitude of tongues, [rather] than through any kind of authoritative selection." This more than fifty-year-old statement is still valid and inspiring in truth-searching, even though free speech has undergone a restraining influence under the hate speech laws, not there in 1967, and other sensitivities, such as anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
Educational institutions are increasingly protecting students rather than instructors. New York University fired an organic chemistry professor when students complained that his class was too hard. The University of Central Florida terminated a professor for tweeting that Black students receive special treatment in academic matters; however, an arbitrator restored the professor's employment. Johns Hopkins University fired a professor whose conduct was "motivated by racially discriminatory animus." The Univesity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fired a professor after finding his tweets "uncivil" if not anti-Semitic.
Interweaving sensitivities into free speech, for example, Colorado State University makes a clear distinction between classroom and plaza: Classroom speech is different; the speech allowed in the plaza is not allowed in classrooms. An instructor must create "an inclusive learning environment, prohibiting "words or actions that are intended to shame, embarrass, humiliate, degrade, demean, intimidate, and/or threaten an individual or group." This distinction between the plaza and the classroom is standard across most colleges and universities, including Hamline University.
No educational institution will endorse a free speech jungle where every speech act is protected. An instructor's academic freedom as a scholar and originator of ideas is much more extensive, and the First Amendment protects it with the fewest possible restrictions. However, institutions may lawfully restrain instructors in the classroom from exercising a raw version of free speech that degrades students personally, insults their beliefs, or singles out, intentionally or through negligence, ethnic or religious students for harassment. An instructor is off-track if they teach an abstract classroom devoid of sensitivities. The effective instructor labors in good faith to respect various sensitivities and conducts the class in an environment conducive to learning for all students, regardless of their faith traditions, race, or gender.
Professor Prater knew some students were Muslims. She had a hunch, if not the knowledge, that the paintings could be offensive to the Muslim students and disclosed her intentions to bring copies of the paintings to the classroom. She did not hear from any students that they would be offended. It appears that the professor made a good faith attempt to exercise academic freedom with due regard to Muslim aniconism. The University might argue that, regardless of her good intentions, Professor Prater engaged in an Islamophobic activity, and bringing paintings to the classroom vitiated an environment conducive to learning for Muslim students.
What is Not Islamophobia?
Much like anti-Semitism, Islamophobia is hatred and bigotry. In 2020, a Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief recommended a working definition of Islamophobia for adoption at the United Nations. Accordingly, Islamophobia is "a fear, prejudice and hatred of Muslims that leads to provocation, hostility and intolerance by means of threatening, harassment, abuse, incitement and intimidation of Muslims . . . online or offline."
The University could argue, though the argument must fail, that Professor Prater engaged in Islamophobia through intimidation. She brought the Prophet's paintings to the classroom, knowing that Muslim students would likely feel embarrassed and defensive of their creed in the presence of classmates who might think that the Islamic faith "illogically" prohibits the images. Thus, the Muslim students came under awkward pressure to defend why Islamic jurisprudence prohibits the images of the Prophet. The Muslim students did not contract this burden when they signed up for Prater's class.
According to Professor Prater, she wanted to show that some Muslims, at least in the prior centuries, were not averse to drawing the Prophet's images, though the dominant belief remains that image-making is forbidden. This historical exception raises the question for students why some Muslims would draw the Prophet, inviting them to research the matter further if they are intrigued by the controversy. By no stretch of the imagination, Professor Prater's conduct was Islamophobic; If anything, it looks Islamophilic.
It is essential to understand what Islamophobia is not. Any scholarly, academic, or popular criticism of Islam, Islamic law, Islamic customs, and traditions is not Islamophobia. Even a discourse challenging Islamic jurisprudence that prohibits drawing the Prophet's images is not Islamophobia. Islam itself challenges a core Christian belief that Jesus is the Son of God, a challenge that may offend millions of Christians. Even interfaith discussions will foster a vigorous debate over the fundamental ideas of any religion. Muslims cannot expect that the followers of other religions will quietly accept Islamic beliefs under the threat of Islamophobia without applying their reason. Such an expectation has no place in the classroom.
In a classroom with diverse students, such as in US colleges and universities, functioning under robust free speech not available in many other countries, Islamophobia cannot be defined as blind submission to Muslim beliefs and practices. Islam does not impose its teachings on non-Muslims. A courteous, academic discussion in the classroom that offers multidimensionality of Islamic architecture and art, even if controversial, as are the paintings, is within the boundaries of good teaching. By bringing historical evidence, an instructor highlighting the Islamic variety of art in good faith must not be terminated under an inflated version of Islamophobia.
L. Ali Khan is the founder of Legal Scholar Academy and an Emeritus Professor of Law at the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas. He has written numerous books, scholarly articles and commentaries on law. In addition, he has regularly contributed to JURIST since 2001. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
Suggested citation: L. Ali Khan, Showing the Prophet Muhammad's Paintings in a Classroom is Not Islamophobic, JURIST – Academic Commentary, January 17, 2023, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2023/01/showing-the-prophet-muhammads-paintings-in-a-classroom-is-not-islamophobic.