Letter to the Editor on Islamophobia Accusations

Editor’s note: This letter was originally published by The Oracle on Dec. 6, 2022. The newspaper’s editorial board removed the letter on Dec. 8, 2022, and republished on Jan. 10, 2023. The Oracle is a forum for diverse voices and viewpoints at Hamline University, and its editorial section must live up to that standard.
The Oracle invites anyone to please share their thoughts through a letter of commentary or letter to the editor at oracle@hamline.edu. 


Dear Editor,

A controversy has erupted at Hamline over the showing of an image of the Prophet Muhammad in an online Art History class.  It is important that we take this opportunity to look closely at this issue so that we gain a deeper understanding of Islamic views of figural representation over the centuries, the reasons why this issue can have an emotional impact, and how to work through the tensions that can arise between academic inquiry and religious sensibility.  

The Incident

I was not present in the classroom where a historical Islamic image of the Prophet Muhammad was shown, so I cannot speak to all of the details of that particular situation.  What I do know is that the image in question is a 14th century painting included in a manuscript commissioned by a Sunni Muslim king in Iran and that it forms part of a cycle of illustrations narrating and commemorating Muhammad’s prophecy that is considered by art historians to be “a global artistic masterpiece.”  The professor gave students both written and verbal notifications that the image would be shown.  I don’t know the nature of the conversations that followed, so I am only reflecting on one key question – Is the showing of an image of the Prophet Muhammad in an academic context necessarily an instance of Islamophobia, as has been claimed by some members of the administration?

Islamophobia is a serious and ongoing threat in this nation, and it has numerous ugly manifestations, including the vandalism of mosques, the harassment of and violent attacks on Muslims, and hate speech across social media and, at times, at the highest levels of political power.  One reason that I have given numerous public lectures about Islam in churches, synagogues and meeting rooms around the country is to combat ignorance, stereotyping and Islamophobia.  But I believe that, in the context of an art history classroom, showing an Islamic representation of the Prophet Muhammad, a painting that was done to honor Muhammad and depict an important historical moment, is not an example of Islamophobia.  Labeling it this way is not only inaccurate but also takes our attention off of real examples of bigotry and hate.  What happened in this classroom might be an example of miscommunication, a misunderstanding that resulted in significant grief for some students and the faculty member.  The distress caused to some students is significant and regrettable.  We must recognize this and figure out the best way to avoid this in the future.   

Since some Hamline administrators labeled the showing of the painting “Islamophobic” (in one case, the phrase “undeniably Islamophobic” was used), my question for those who use that word is – Exactly where does the Islamophobia lie? Islamophobia is often defined as fear, hatred, hostility or prejudice against Muslims. The intention or motivation behind the act would seem to be essential here. In this case, the professor was motivated only to educate students about the history of Islamic art. The professor tried to ensure that Muslim students who have objections would be able to avoid seeing the images. So, when we look at intention, we can conclude that this was not Islamophobic.

Another possibility is that the very act of displaying an image of Muhammad is itself Islamophobic. But if this were the case, there are a number of very disturbing implications. First, it would mean that anybody who showed these images in a classroom, a book, or on their wall, would be an Islamophobe. Any scholar who wrote a book about Islamic art and included these images for discussion or analysis would be an Islamophobe. Even Muslims (and, as we will see, many Muslims throughout history have created and enjoyed these images) would be Islamophobic if they did this. Second, it would mean that these images could never be seen by, or shown to, anybody. In effect, it would require an erasure of an entire genre of Islamic art. Should no student be able to see this art? And what would it mean for a liberal arts institution to deem an entire subject of study prohibited?

Finally, it seems that the interpretation of the administrators means that if an act is prohibited to members of a particular religion, then everyone has to incorporate that prohibition into their own lives. Let’s quickly consider an analogy. Eating pork is forbidden to observant Muslims and Jews. Clearly, it would be an act of Islamophobia or antisemitism if someone were to intentionally sneak pork into a dish that was going to be eaten by someone for whom it is forbidden. But does this mean that Aramark can no longer serve any dish with pork? Must everyone consider pork forbidden? Most of us would agree that as long as there are plenty of alternatives for Muslims and Jews, then the mere offering of a pork dish is not Islamophobic or antisemitic. In the case of images, does the fact that many (not all) Muslims consider images forbidden mean that all of us have to incorporate this prohibition into our lives? Giving students the opportunity to see the images as part of an education in Islamic art (since using images is an essential part of the pedagogy of art historians) is not Islamophobic as long as Muslim students are not required to see them and steps are taken to ensure that no student sees them unintentionally.

We must recognize that distress can be caused to Muslims (or Jews, or anyone) without the act that did so being Islamophobic, antisemitic, etc. In the food example, if a server mixed up items and accidentally served a pork dish to a Muslim or Jewish student, we would not call that person Islamophobic or antisemitic. It would be a deeply unfortunate situation, and the student would experience distress that must be recognized and addressed. Steps would have to be taken to avoid that in the future. But it would not be an instance of bigotry or hostility.

This incident is about balancing academic freedom and religious commitments, not about Islamophobia. The situation is not helped by making accusations against a faculty member who is simply trying to share and teach the history of Islamic art with students.  It is especially disturbing that some administrators who used the word “Islamophobia” never even spoke with the faculty member to get their perspective.  When, as in the case here at Hamline, everyone involved has good intentions (intention is a key concept in Islam, and the Prophet Muhammad himself said that people will receive consequences for actions depending on their intentions) and is doing their best to honor principles (religious and academic) that are important to them, we can find our way forward in open conversation and mutual respect.  In what follows, I hope to provide some background so that we can understand the larger context and explain more fully why this incident is not an example of Islamophobia.

The Background

First, a majority of the world’s Muslims today believe that visually representing the prophet Muhammad is forbidden.  Many observant Muslims would never create an image of Muhammad and will strive to avoid seeing one. So professors must not require Muslim students who believe that representation is forbidden to look at these images, and they must give students fair warning if such images are going to appear anywhere in class – in a book, a slide show, a video, etc.  It is my understanding that, in the Hamline class, the professor gave students advance notice that the image would be shown (both in the syllabus and verbally), allowed students to turn off the screen if they wished, and did not require them to visually engage with the painting. The intent was to educate, not to offend or show disrespect.

Why might representation be forbidden in some interpretations of Islam (and other religions as well)?  It is worth noting that in all forms of Judaism and Islam, images of God are strictly forbidden (and there is a history of iconoclasm in Christianity). For Jews and Muslims, attempts to represent God limit what is infinite and inevitably lead to the kind of idolatry that worships the representation rather than God.  In some Islamic spheres, the concern about representation is extended to prophets, particularly the Prophet Muhammad, because he is so central in the lives of Muslims.  Muslims believe that Muhammad, like Jewish and Christian prophets before him, was a human being, not a divine being or a being who should be worshipped.  He is, however, a uniquely significant person, because he was chosen by God to be the perfect carrier for the final, complete revelation.  Muhammad himself, and Muslims ever since, have been aware of the dangers of people worshipping Muhammad, and Muhammad emphasized that God alone is worthy of worship. The danger of idolatry in regard to prophets is one reason why visual representation of them is problematic.  

And yet here is another fact – Muslims have created and enjoyed figural representations of Muhammad throughout much of the history of Islam in some parts of the Islamic world.  There exist numerous images of Muhammad created by Persian and Turkish artists from the 13th century until today, many of which were miniatures or illustrations in book manuscripts.  Some images depict Muhammad with his face obscured with a veil or a halo, but some images show his face.  Many artists based their images on detailed descriptions of Muhammad’s appearance given in the Hadith and early biographies.  

Over the past few centuries, Shia Muslims, notably in Iran, have been far more accepting of visual representation in general than many Sunnis.  But from the 13th-16th centuries, Islamic images were also made in Sunni contexts, as is the case with the 14th century painting that was taught in the Hamline classroom.  Furthermore, in recent years, there have been Muslim jurists and legal scholars who have issued fatwas – legal opinions – arguing that certain representations of Muhammad are permitted.  One of the most respected leaders and legal authorities in Shia Islam, Ayatollah al-Sistani, stated that representations of the Prophet Muhammad are permissible as long as they are respectful. It is clearly forbidden to make any images that are disrespectful or that are designed to elicit worship.  Representations that are permitted in these fatwas are those that honor Muhammad or give historical knowledge to Muslims about their prophet.   

One of the most recent fatwas regarding figural representation concerns an image of Muhammad present in a section of a frieze in the US Supreme Court building in Washington D.C.  This frieze depicts great lawgivers of history, including Moses and Solomon. A leading scholar of Islam and former Chair of the Fiqh (Law) Council of North America, Taha Jaber al-Alwani, issued a fatwa discussing whether or not the image of Muhammad is forbidden. After surveying the debates over representation and imagery in Islam (these usually depend on interpretations of passages in the Hadith), and emphasizing the importance of intention, al-Alwani concludes that, despite reservations, “I have a great deal of gratitude and appreciation for those who insisted on including an image of our Prophet, Muhammad, in that highly regarded site…in order to remind the whole world of the important contributions of the Prophet.”  He noted that “we must remember that those who carved the frieze and placed it in the Supreme Court are not Muslims…As the Prophet himself respected freedom of conscience in his own dealings, so should we.”

One of the leading scholars of Islamic Art is Christiane Gruber at the University of Michigan.  She has written scholarly articles and a book on Islamic paintings of the Prophet as well as widely read Newsweek essays dedicated to her subject.  She writes, “Muslims of more moderate or secular Sunni or Shi‘i leanings do not consider figural representations of the Prophet necessarily problematic as long as Muhammad is depicted respectfully…Over the past seven centuries, a variety of historical and poetic texts largely produced in Turkish and Persian spheres…include depictions of the Prophet Muhammad.  These many images praised and commemorated the Prophet…As a result, the visual evidence clearly undermines the premise that images of Muhammad are strictly banned in Islamic law and practice.”

There are Muslims today who possess and value Islamic images of Muhammad.  One person who has written about how much he values a figural representation of Muhammad displayed in his home is a leading scholar of Islam, Omid Safi, who teaches at Duke University.  Safi writes, “The image is a lovely depiction of a kind, gentle, yet resolute Prophet, holding on to the Qur’an and looking straight at the viewer with deep and penetrating eyes…There are millions of such depictions in Iran and elsewhere, and that for many of us it was not a distraction from God but rather a reminder of God to focus on the Messenger of God.”  So, the very debates that are happening in academic contexts are also happening within parts of the Muslim community, as they have for centuries.  

Concluding Thoughts

Ultimately, Islamic images of the Prophet Muhammad are part of the historical record, and an academic art historian who teaches Islamic art must acknowledge and discuss this in some way.  Students would be deprived of an illuminating part of Islamic art history if they were not taught about this material, which, according to Dr. Gruber, “is considered by many individuals – including Muslim believers, artists, curators, scholars, collectors, and philanthropists – a global artistic patrimony that is increasingly at risk today.”  Furthermore, if an art historian were to conclude that images of Muhammad are forbidden, they would be privileging the interpretation of some Muslims over others.  It is not up to academics to make judgments about which forms of a religion are correct and which artworks must be purged from the historical record.  We must present a religious tradition and its artistic heritage in all of its richness and diversity.  While some Muslims believe that figural representations of the Prophet Muhammad are forbidden, others in the past and present do not.  It is thus incumbent on a professor to teach the material and convey the full range of artistic expression, as the Hamline faculty member seems to have done.  

This incident reminds us that the study of religion is not only fascinating and thought-provoking but is also essential to understanding and skillfully navigating the challenges of living together in a multifaith society.  This includes engaging with diversity within faith traditions and not labeling the teaching of an Islamic artistic masterpiece an incident of “hate and discrimination.”

Mark Berkson, Ph.D.

Professor and Chair

Department of Religion