Classroom incident and administrative response raise questions for Muslim students.

  • After a professor shared depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in a class, Muslim community members at Hamline were left feeling shocked and unsupported.

  • Conversations and action have ensued, with a community conversation planned for two months after the initial incident, on Dec. 8. 

  • Administration and faculty remain hopeful for a more nuanced approach to future conversations; while many students are less optimistic. 

Student and community’s response to classroom incident

Hamline undergraduate students received an email from the Dean of Students on Nov. 7, condemning an unnamed classroom incident as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.” In the month since, the email and the event it references have reignited discussions about the persistence of such incidents at Hamline.

The email, signed by Dr. David Everett, Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence at Hamline, did not identify the nature or date of the incident.

The Oracle has since learned that the event in question occurred on Oct. 6, when a professor shared two depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in class, while discussing Islamic art. One was a 14th century depiction of the Prophet and the other was a 16th century depiction of the Prophet with veil and halo. 

Within Islam, there are varying beliefs regarding whether the representation of the Prophet Muhammad is acceptable. The majority of those practicing Islam today believe it is forbidden to see and create representations of Prophet Muhammad.

Aram Wedatalla, a Hamline senior and the president of Muslim Student Association (MSA), was in the class at the time the photos were shared.

“I’m like, ‘this can’t be real,’” Wedatalla 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.” 

Deangela Huddleston, a Hamline senior and MSA member, also shared her thoughts with the Oracle.

“Hamline teaches us it doesn’t matter the intent, the impact is what matters,” Huddleston said.

After class, Wedatalla spoke to the professor but did not feel that the conversation was productive.

Wedatalla emailed MSA’s leadership team and members of the Hamline administration on Oct. 7, the day after the incident. On this same day, she met with President Fayneese Miller. Dean of Students Patti Kersten also called Wedatalla and apologized for her experience.


The event and initial response 

The professor of the class emailed Wedatalla that Saturday, Oct. 8. 

“I would like to apologize that the image I showed in class on [Oct. 6] made you uncomfortable and caused you emotional agitation. It is never my intention to upset or disrespect students in my classroom,” the professor wrote in the email to Wedatalla, who shared it with the Oracle.

The professor shared the depictions over a Powerpoint through a Google Meet online class. The Oracle has acquired this recording through a student in the course who wishes to stay anonymous. 

In the video of the class, the professor gives a content warning and describes the nature of the depictions to be shown and reflects on their controversial nature for more than two minutes before advancing to the slides in question.

The Oracle was able to identify these two images using video of the lecture. The first was a 14th century depiction of the Prophet receiving his first revelation from the archangel Gabriel, created by Rashīd al-Dīn, a Persian Muslim scholar and historian. 

The other depicts the Prophet with a veil and halo. It was created by Mustafa ibn Vali in the 16th century as part of an illustration of the Siyer-i Nebi (the Life of the Prophet), an earlier, Ottomon Turkish epic work on the life of Muhammad.

“I am showing you this image for a reason. 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 professor said before changing to the slide that included these depictions. 

In the Oct. 8 email to Wedatalla, the professor stated that they “[let] the class know ahead of time” what would be shown and to give students time to turn off their video. 

“I did not try to surprise students with this image, and I did my best to provide students with an ‘out,’” the professor wrote in the email. 

“I also described every subsequent slide I showed with language to indicate when I was no longer showing an image of the Prophet Muhammad. I am sorry that despite my attempt to prevent a negative reaction, you still viewed and were troubled by this image.”

MSA students and their advisor Nur Mood, Assistant Director of Social Justice Programs and Strategic Relations, met with members of the administration on Oct. 10 to discuss the incident and how to move forward. 

“This [incident is] much deeper and it’s something that in a million years, I never expected that it would happen here at Hamline. I hope this is the last time I see something similar to this,” Mood said in a Dec. 2 interview with the Oracle. “There’s a lot of apologies all happening, but the harm’s done. I think we should have started more focused about the healing process.”

After initial response, Muslim students report patterns of administrative delays and silence

The Nov. 7 email from the Dean of Students also outlined a plan to address Islamophobia, with steps including an in-progress forum on Islamophobia and a reporting form. In the future, the responses to “bias and hate incidents” will come from the Office of Inclusive Excellence, Everett wrote.

Wedatalla and other MSA members had hoped that the email would include reference to past Islamophobic incidents on campus and include resources for students, which she mentioned to Everett and Kostihova in a Nov. 3 email.

Hamda Osman and Ubah Omar, both Hamline seniors and MSA members, told the Oracle that they were disappointed that the email didn’t include resources, as other recent incident response emails have.

MSA held a meeting on Nov. 10 to discuss the incident and the institutional response. The 33 attendees included Everett, Dean of Students Patti Kersten, Interim Provost Andy Rundquist, Chaplain Kelly Figueroa-Ray and Assistant Director of Social Justice Programs Nur Mood and students.

Multiple students at the meeting expressed frustration at repeated incidents of intolerance and hate speech in recent years, and asked about new forms of intervention.

Kersten noted that Hamline is in the process of rolling out a “diversity component” for new students beyond orientation. Mood suggested that all faculty could be required to take a training on Islamophobia.

Attendees also discussed the delayed email from the Dean of Students. Kersten clarified that the official determination of the recent incident was that it was an act of intolerance, it would not be classified as a hate crime, which the university is required to send emails about. 

In an interview with the Oracle on Nov. 11, Everett stated that the email delay was impacted by a need to establish follow-up for faculty and steps moving forward, areas the administration had to fill in gaps as they collected input from the “collective MSA.” 

“All of those things needed to take place and so that was more of a contributing factor to the timing of when the email went out, versus whether it was deemed a hate crime or not,” Everett said. ​“In lieu of this incident, it was decided it was best that this faculty member was no longer part of the Hamline community.” 

As of Dec. 6, it is unclear what process the professor was afforded to respond to allegations.

Faculty received an email on Nov. 29 from the Office of Inclusive Excellence regarding this semester’s final Community Conversation which will focus on Islamophobia. This event will be led by Jaylani Hussein, the Executive Director of Minnesota’s chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations.

Mood recognizes that this is only another step in the process of making the campus more inclusive. 

“I work with the leadership team, to make Hamline a place that Muslims – faculty, staff or students – are proud of and I want to be part of that. I’m very optimistic about this and hopefully we’ll get to that place,” Mood said. 


A multifaceted discussion

The professor was unable to conduct a full interview with the Oracle at this time but gave a statement and shared academic resources about depictions of Islamic art. 

“My perspective and actions have been lamentably mischaracterized, my opportunities for due process have been thwarted, and Dr. Everett’s all-employee email accusation that ‘undeniably… Islamophobic’ actions undertaken in my class on Oc. 6 have been misapplied,” they wrote.

During their Oct. 6 lecture, they outline how this restriction of showing depictions of holy beings in Abrahamic religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam is based in the Second Commandment, which in Abrahamic traditions has been understood by some as an injunction against idolatry and even representational religious imagery.

Other disciplines share these depictions for academic purposes, such as Hamline Professor of Religion Mark Berkson, whose teaching and research specializes in Asian religions, Islam and comparative religion. [A commentary from Berkson about this topic can be read here.] 

”I think a situation like this with this amount of complexity calls for a thoughtful conversation before any conclusion is reached, where all sides have a chance to weigh in. And where administrators would seek the knowledge and counsel of people with expertise in this area before taking steps that would impact anybody,” Berkson said. “I think there were problems with the response, but I really believe in my heart, everyone was well-intentioned in this.” 

Members of MSA, while initially expressing frustration and hesitation towards reporting future incidents to the administration, say they will continue to bring up the issues they see on campus. 

Corrections: The print edition of this article included an infographic which misidentified the date of the Community Conversation; the Community Conversation will be held Dec. 8 at 3 p.m.
An earlier version mischaracterized an MSA student’s current opinion.

On Jan. 23, Hamline Oracle staff learned of inaccuracies in their reporting about how the depictions were shown in class.  In its initial coverage of the incident, The Oracle describes that López Prater gave a content warning for more than two minutes prior to showing images of the Prophet Muhammad. The Oracle has issued this correction as the depictions were already visible on screen in thumbnails.