The centuries-old artworks appeared on Hamline University students' computer screens during an art history class early one October morning.
The first showed the Prophet Muhammad — including his face — as he received a revelation from the Angel Gabriel that would later form the basis of the Qur'an. The second showed a similar moment, but with the prophet's face veiled and his image surrounded by a halo.
Adjunct instructor Erika López Prater thought she had gone above and beyond to help students avoid seeing the artworks if their religious views prohibited it. "I thought this would be a great opportunity to, among other things, speak to Islamic art with a little bit more nuance," she said.
Aram Wedatalla, president of the Muslim Student Association, saw the warning as further proof the instructor shouldn't have shown the images. She didn't expect a teacher to "disrespect and offend my religion like that."
Now López Prater no longer teaches at Hamline and the St. Paul private college is at the center of a painful national debate over academic freedom, religious tolerance and Islamophobia. Instructors are rallying around López Prater, saying the university's decision not to renew her contract could have a chilling effect on higher education.
"This is a really unusual and uniquely bad case," said Jeremy Young, senior manager for free expression and education for PEN America. "This is a textbook violation of academic freedom of the kind that you rarely actually see."
Some local Muslim organizations say the issue isn't so simple and the university had to protect students if it wants to make good on a promise to promote diversity and inclusion.
"Academic freedom can violate students' safety," said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "The idea here is that those two things can still be true. The question is: which will the school value more, the academic freedom of the professor for her students, or to safeguard students from Islamophobia and hurt?"
Throughout history, scholars and religious leaders have sometimes disagreed over whether Islam permits images of the Prophet Muhammad.
Imam Yusuf Abdulle, executive director of the Islamic Association of North America, said Islam prohibits Muslims from drawing or painting images of prophets and angels, in part to avoid idolizing someone other than Allah.
"From religious perspective, it is forbidden," he said. He said Muslims who view such images should politely reject them "and raise their voices that this is disrespect for the prophets and for the Muslims as well."
Ali Asani, professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures at Harvard University, said strict prohibitions on images of the Prophet Muhammad are most common in ultraconservative movements, such as those found in the Arab world. Elsewhere, including in parts of Asia, there is "a vibrant tradition of representing religious figures through images."
"That still continues today," Asani said. "It's not something in the past, it is still there today."
López Prater, who has taught for nearly a decade but was in her first semester at Hamline, said that diversity is exactly what she hoped to capture in the presentation to her class. The first image she showed was part of a text produced in the 1300s by Rashid al-Din Hamadani, a Muslim, and showed the prophet's face. The second artwork, produced about two centuries later, showed his face veiled.
"These are all reverential images, and you can see different cultures and different times really working through in a visual fashion how they deemed depictions of the Prophet Muhammad to be most appropriate for them," she said.
Wedatalla enrolled in the world art class because it met diversity and fine arts requirements she needs to graduate and because it sounded interesting.
On the syllabus, López Prater noted she would show images of religious figures — listing the Prophet Muhammad, Jesus Christ and the Buddha as examples — and encouraged students to reach out to her with concerns. She said none did.
The discussion on Islamic art was originally scheduled for Oct. 4, but was postponed two days and moved online as López Prater's family recovered from COVID-19.
López Prater said she spent "at least a couple minutes" preparing students for the images, explaining why she felt the artworks were significant. She said she tried to provide audio narration for students who didn't want to look.
Wedatalla said she heard the professor give a "trigger warning," wondered what it was for "and then I looked and it was the prophet."
She said she was offended and the warning wasn't adequate. Noting she pays the same tuition and has to meet the same graduation requirements as other students, she asked: "Why do I have to look away?"
The day after the class, Wedatalla said she contacted Hamline administrators, who were "very supportive, very understanding, very respectful of all my needs."
López Prater, meanwhile, said she alerted her department chair and initially felt she had support. A few weeks later, she received an email informing her that the university would no longer offer the spring semester online art history class she'd been in discussions about teaching.
In early November, the university's Office of Inclusive Excellence sent an email saying it had been informed of an "incident" that occurred in an online class several weeks earlier.
"Certain actions taken in that class were undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic," the email said. "While the intent behind those actions may not have been to cause harm, it came at the expense of Hamline's Muslim community members."
López Prater felt unsafe. She began to worry how this would impact her career.
A colleague from another university suggested López Prater should reach out to Christiane Gruber, a leading expert on Islamic art, who had used the images in her own classes.
López Prater had shown "much more caution and care than I ever have," Gruber said in an interview. "I was incredibly impressed by her skills and her nuance."
Gruber wrote an online essay defending López Prater and the artworks. PEN America, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression and the Academic Freedom Alliance decried the university's handling of the situation.
In an email to students, faculty and others, Hamline President Fayneese Miller acknowledged the furor and defended administrators' handling of the situation. She said questions about how to best discuss Islamic art were "certainly an issue worthy of debate and discussion" but "students do not relinquish their faith in the classroom" and administrators wanted to be sensitive to that.
She also acknowledged that some campus community members had received "violent anti-Islamic statements."
Wedatalla never returned to López Prater's class and is instead taking the same course with a different instructor. She took a week off social media and returned to find a message calling her a killer. Strangers blamed her for the decision not to renew López Prater's contract.
Wedatalla said the university did ask if she had an opinion on the issue. She said she told them she wished López Prater the best and that her faith told her to forgive "and to move on."
"I would never wish any bad thing to happen to anyone."
(Staff writer Erica Pearson contributed to this report.)
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