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Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > India: Should Respect for ‘an Islam’ Supersede Academic Freedom?

India: Should Respect for ‘an Islam’ Supersede Academic Freedom?

A professor in the US gets fired for showing a Muhammad painting

Tuesday 17 January 2023, by siawi3


Should Respect for ‘an Islam’ Supersede Academic Freedom?

A professor in the US gets fired for showing a Muhammad painting

Arshad Alam

16 Jan 2023

A professor in the US gets fired for showing a Muhammad paintingIImage: Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images and Wikimedia Commons

Hamline University in Minnesota, USA, recently fired a professor for showing a painting of Muhammad during his lecture. The course was about global art history wherein the professor had included a section on Islamic art. It was within this module that he showed a particular painting of the prophet Muhammad. To his credit, he had already asked Muslim students that if they found it offensive or hurtful, they had the option of leaving the class. But as it so happened, the Muslim Students Association (MSA) accused the professor of Islamophobia because he included that particular painting. It should be pointed out that the MSA, which has many offshoots, is known for its fondness of Islamism. Some studies have argued that the group is infested with the ideas of Hassan al- Banna and Abu ala al-Maududi, both ideological wellsprings of Islamism.

The university, in a very hurried decision, without even giving a chance to the professor to explain himself, relieved him from the job. According to the university, it did so because, ‘it was decided that it was best that this faculty member was no longer part of the Hamline community’. The University, explaining the decision to all employees further said, ‘respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom’. Coming from a university, this is really worrying and points to a larger issue about engaging with Islamic sentiments without giving up the core values of freedom that define academic life.

But first let us see the painting in question. The painting depicts Muhammad receiving the first revelation of the Quran brought by Angel Gibreel. This moment has been celebrated all over the Muslim world as Laylat ul Qadr (The Night of Power) and is generally ritualized as a night of prayer and gratitude. Far from being Islamophobic, the painting announces and extols the prophecy of Muhammad and Quranic revelation. Moreover, the original painting was part of the illustrated book written by the famous 14th century scholar, Rashid al Din Hamdani. It is important to recall that Rashid al Din was a historian, illustrator, calligrapher and a high-ranking administrator of the Ilkhanate/Mongol empire. Thus far from being Islamophobic, the painting witnesses the call to prophecy of Muhammad and was commissioned by a practicing Muslim himself. It is rather intriguing, how the mere showing of this painting by a professor constitutes any kind of Islamophobia.

Had the university done its homework before taking a decision, it would have known that the said painting has been increasingly used in history of art classes throughout the western world. Partly because of the aesthetics of the art work and partly in an effort to decolonize art; the academic world has been using this particular painting for long now.

Moreover, the university has completely missed the nuanced debate within the Muslim world regarding visual depictions of Muhammad. The art historian Christiane Gruber informs us that visual representations of Muhammad had been commonplace till recently, particularly in places of Shiite influences. One finds depictions of Muhammad with the face veiled throughout the Muslim world. The Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals commissioned such paintings and included them in texts. This was a time of ascendancy of Sufism and the paintings depicted the “luminous” character of the prophet or his many attributes. But it was not the case that the face of Muhammad was veiled in all paintings or hidden by a luminous light. In fact, naturalist and abstract depictions of the prophet went hand in hand and with the coming of print in the 19-20th centuries, there was a veritable explosion in the production and consumption of such images. Gruber tells us that especially in Iran, pictorial greetings with Muhammad images were commonly found in the market place.

These mass-produced images were mostly made and consumed by Muslims themselves. It is ironic therefore that Hamline University considered the particular image as being hurtful to Muslims. Even outside Iran, there is historical evidence that such images were used (though discreetly) by Muslims as aid to remembrance and meditation. In trying to exclude these pictures from the domain of Muslim aesthetics, the Hamline University seems to have sided with the neo-conservatives and Islamists within Muslims who argue that such depictions have always been forbidden in Islam. Throughout Muslim history and even today, there has never been a singular way of experiencing Islam. Consequently, one cannot say that Sunni way is better than the Shia simply because the latter uses pictures. In siding with one interpretation of Islam, Hamline University seems to be oblivious to such debates within the Islamic world. And this is not surprising in the least if the University authorizes a sectarian organization like the MSA to become the sole representative of Muslims. In the name of being inclusive, the University is in fact empowering a version of Islam which is inherently exclusivist.

Universities are expected to create spaces for dialogue, dissent and pluralism. It might be possible that some Muslim students would have objected to the inclusion of a particular painting depicting Muhammad. But the answer to that shouldn’t be a knee jerk reaction like firing the professor; the better way for the University was to engage with such students. It is entirely possible that given the current state of the Muslim world, these Muslim students would themselves be unaware of their own iconic history. The University should have also asked the logical question as how a professor can teach a course of the history of art without using the visual medium as an aid to pedagogy.

But then if a university itself privileges religious sensitivities over academic freedom, then there is nothing much left to argue. If this ill-informed attitude continues, then the decay of the university system seems imminent.

Arshad Alam is a New Delhi-based independent researcher.