When showing classical Islamic art is a firing offense | WORLD
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When showing classical Islamic art is a firing offense

One university’s shameful treatment of an art history professor sets a dangerous pattern

Entrance to the campus of Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. iStock

When showing classical Islamic art is a firing offense
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For some Muslims in the West, freedom of speech and expression is fine just as long as Islam, its teachings, and its figures are exempted. Ironically, many of these same Muslims fled their oppressive societies seeking a better life in the West, where freedom is cherished, expressed, and protected. Once in the West, however, they begin to demand a different set of rules for the treatment of their religion.

This bizarre reality is evident in how an adjunct professor of art history at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., lost her job after showing her class a medieval painting of Muhammad. This is a university, by the way, that was founded by American Methodists. There doesn’t appear to be much evidence of Methodism at the university now, but deference to Islam seems to be at the top of the university’s agenda.

The New York Times reports that art history lecturer Erika López Prater “took many precautions before showing a 14th-century painting of Islam’s founder” to her class.

“In the syllabus, she warned that images of holy figures, including the Prophet Muhammad and the Buddha, would be shown in the course. She asked students to contact her with any concerns, and she said no one did.” Then, in the class session, she prepared the students, telling them that Muhammad’s painting would be displayed “in case anyone wanted to leave.” No one left or voiced concern.

Then she showed the painting: a 14th-century masterpiece showing Angel Gabriel instructing Muhammad to recite the Quran. The art is part of a Persian manuscript of one of the earliest extant Muslim illustrated histories, commissioned by a Sunni Muslim ruler and illustrated by a Muslim historian. Highly esteemed and well preserved, the manuscript resides at Edinburgh University Library, and it is available for the public to see and can also be viewed online. It is not hidden.

After López Prater’s class, one of her students, Ms. Aram Wedatalla, wrote an official complaint to the administration: “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.” According to the Times, Wedatalla is Sudanese and serves as president of the university’s Muslim Student Association. Wedatalla was joined by other Muslim students not in the course—all declaring the class was an attack on their religion.

Then the teacher was fired.

The unfortunate decision to fire López Prater has elevated a strict Muslim view over the pursuit of knowledge and freedom of expression and speech. The Times is to be commended for reporting the story and highlighting its various sides, especially how Muslims themselves disagree on the matter of showing Muhammad’s image in classrooms.

Muslims themselves disagree on the matter of showing Muhammad’s image in classrooms.

Indeed, some Muslim social activists—like those from CAIR—immediately rushed to use buzzwords like Islamophobia and bigotry. Still, reasonable Muslim professors in other universities rightly insisted that López Prater’s action was completely acceptable and inoffensive. After all, the painting is one of numerous works of art created by Muslim artists throughout history and in many parts of the Islamic world. This is why Duke University Muslim scholar Omid Safi, in commenting on the incident, said he frequently shows Muhammad’s images in class without following all the precautions López Prater took. Safi will never be identified as Islamophobic simply because he is Muslim.

Unlike the commendable position of Safi, the statements of Hamline’s president and vice president are unfortunate and lamentable. President Fayneese Miller stated that respect for Muslim students “should have superseded academic freedom.” Vice President David Everett referred to the teacher’s action as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Islamophobic.”

These two statements show the tragic death of Western academia in some places. In their attempt to appease a culture of political correctness, they violated their duty to safeguard freedom of expression and critical thinking.

But look at the facts: This teacher provided written and verbal warnings before presenting Muhammad’s image as part of a college course in art history. Wedatalla never showed concern or voiced hesitancy. Instead, she waited until the painting was shown and then formally complained.

If the reporting is accurate, she sought to make a huge scene in which she could employ buzzwords that would make headlines—minority, black, Muslim, and Islamophobia. This appears to be an event spun up for media attention, not really about an assault on Islam.

Contradictions abound. She was given a status and a role by the traditionally Christian university to have a voice as a Muslim leading an association for Muslim students—a position hardly achievable in her home country of Sudan. The very existence of this association reflects the cherished values in the West of religious freedom and free speech.

The professor’s firing is truly a tragic day for freedom—and especially for academic freedom. The university should reverse its decision. The pattern set by Hamline University represents an ominous threat to higher education in America.

A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.

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