Professor’s Termination for Showing Paintings of Prophet Muhammad Spurs Debate Around Academic Freedom

In October, an adjunct professor at Hamline University displayed an image of the Prophet Muhammad to a class. The move ignited a firestorm on campus after students reported the incident and then, late last month, the university said that it had declined to renew the professor’s teaching contract, spurring debate about on-campus academic freedom.

The incident took place during a virtual art history class at the Saint Paul, Minnesota-based private liberal arts college. According to school news outlet The Oracle, which first reported on the incident in early December, the unnamed professor showed images of two paintings of the Prophet Muhammad from the 14th and 16th centuries. The medieval works are considered canonical and have been previously published.

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As reported by The Oracle, who obtained a video recording of the class, the professor provided a two-minute warning to the class before its display, acknowledging that observant Muslim students may opt not to view the material for religious reasons. Varying beliefs within Islam consider visual representations of the Prophet Muhammad as forbidden. The professor provided explanation before showing the material, The Oracle reported.

“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,” the professor said. “While many Islamic cultures do strongly frown on this practice, I would like to remind you there is no one, monothetic Islamic culture.”

The incident was reported by a student present in the classroom and a member of the University’s Muslim Student Association, who raised concerns about the display to administrators. The university’s associate vice president of inclusive excellence subsequently described the incident as “undeniably disrespectful” and “Islamophobic” in an email to university staff. In public and internal statements, university officials have defended the move as prioritizing student safety over academic freedom. Students have in the past discussed Hamline’s facilitation of those practicing Islam.

“Our response to the classroom event does not disregard or minimize the importance of academic freedom,” said Hamline University President Fayneese Miller in a statement. “It does state that respect, decency, and appreciation of religious and other differences should supersede when we know that what we teach will cause harm.”

It is not the first time a controversy over the treatment of religious imagery has surfaced on a college campus. In 2015, the University of Minnesota drew criticism following a panel organized in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings after it circulated a promotional poster using the magazine’s satirized caricature of the Prophet Muhammed. Petitioners and students deemed the poster offensive.

Scholars based in the U.S. specializing in Islamic art and academic advocacy groups have condemned the university’s move to terminate the professor’s contract as a transgression against academic freedom.

In a statement, the Academic Freedom Alliance called the dismissal an “an egregious violation,” of academic principles. In an article for New Lines Magazine, historian Christina Guber described the outlet’s subsequent removal of an essay by a religion professor at Hamline around the historical context of image of the Prophet as “censorship.” Guber continued saying it raises “serious concerns about freedom of speech,” at the university. A non-profit, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, filed a complaint Wednesday over the professor’s termination, taking aim at Hamline’s accreditation. That followed an open letter to the university last week urging the university to reinstate the professor.


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