Why the latest controversy over depictions of Mohammed was completely unnecessary.
It is evidence of the strange contemporary culture of higher education in the United States that a private university recently declared that the showing of an image of Prophet Mohammed, contained in a treasured Persian manuscript from the 14th century, painted by a Muslim scholar for a Muslim ruler and celebrating the birth of Islam, is “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.”
Erika López Prater, an adjunct professor at Hamline University, the oldest in Minnesota, who committed this alleged academic atrocity, was fired after Muslim students on campus made the dubious claim that the professor insulted their faith by violating a tenet in Islam that forbids showing images of religious and holy figures. But they were aided in their efforts by the university’s own administrators and an outside professional Muslim activist who cooperated to manufacture a narrative of Islamophobia while waging an outrageous assault on academic freedom.
López Prater informed the students in her art history class in the class syllabus that she would show images of religious figures such as the Prophet Mohammed and the Buddha and asked them to contact her if they had any reservations. None did. Before revealing the painting, she gave the students a last chance to opt out of class. More importantly, she told them, “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, monolithic Islamic culture.” She then showed two images of Mohammed, one from the 16th-century Ottoman era showing Mohammed with his face veiled and a halo over his head, and the Persian painting, which caused the uproar.
The painting depicts a standing winged and crowned Archangel Gabriel delivering to a seated Mohammed God’s first revelation to be included in the Quran. Nothing could be more devotional to Mohammed than depicting him at the very moment of the birth of the religion of Islam. The understated colors, the juxtaposition of the two figures, and the streamlined strokes creating the surrounding mountains make the painting one of the most sublime expressions of high Persian art. One is hard-pressed to understand how students and academics in a U.S. institute of higher education—where learning, reason, academic freedom, open debates, and the questioning of dogmas and taboos are to be practiced and celebrated—could claim that they have been assaulted by the mere revelation of sublime art.
For centuries, Islam was seen by many Western scholars—and, unfortunately, by the overwhelming majority of Muslims themselves—as a static, immovable, undifferentiated, and immutable corpus. The Muslim world has always been as diverse politically and culturally—if not more so—than Christendom at any time. Let’s start with the bogus claim that Islam forbids the drawing or painting of religious or holy figures.