An Academic Is Fired Over a Medieval Painting of the Prophet Muhammad

The dismissal of an instructor at Hamline University on baseless charges of 'Islamophobia' raises concerns about freedom on campus

An Academic Is Fired Over a Medieval Painting of the Prophet Muhammad
The figure at the center of this painting is the Prophet Muhammad, his face hidden behind a veil. Depicting Muhammad is considered by many Muslims forbidden today. (Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Gift of George Hopper Fitch, B87D17. Photograph © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.)

On Nov. 18, Hamline University’s student newspaper, The Oracle, published an article notifying its community members of two recent incidents on its campus in Saint Paul, Minnesota, one indubitably homophobic and the other supposedly Islamophobic. Both occurrences were placed under the same rubric as “incidents of hate and discrimination.”

Islamophobia — which involves hate speech against Islam and Muslims and/or physical violence or discrimination against Muslims — has indeed proven a blight in the United States, especially after 9/11, the rise of the militant far right and the recent political empowerment of white supremacy.

The “Islamophobic incident” catalyzed plenty of administrative commentary and media coverage at the university. Among others, it formed the subject of a second Oracle article, which noted that a faculty member had included in their global survey of art history a session on Islamic art, which offered an optional visual analysis and discussion of a famous medieval Islamic painting of the Prophet Muhammad. A student complained about the image’s inclusion in the course and led efforts to press administrators for a response. After that, the university’s associate vice president of inclusive excellence (AVPIE) declared the classroom exercise “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.”

Neither before nor after these declarations was the faculty member given a public platform or forum to explain the classroom lecture and activity. To fill in the gap, on Dec. 6, an essay written by a Hamline professor of religion who teaches Islam explaining the incident along with the historical context and aesthetic value of Islamic images of Muhammad was published on The Oracle’s website. The essay was taken down two days later. One day after that, Hamline’s president and AVPIE sent a message to all employees stating that “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.” The essay’s censorship and the subsequent email by two top university administrators raise serious concerns about freedom of speech and academic freedom at the university.

The instructor was released from their spring term teaching at Hamline, and its AVPIE went on the record as stating: “It was decided it was best that this faculty member was no longer part of the Hamline community.” In other words, an instructor who showed an Islamic painting during a visual analysis — a basic exercise for art history training — was publicly impugned for hate speech and dismissed thereafter, without access to due process.

These incidents, statements and actions at Hamline will be for others to investigate further. As a scholar specializing in Islamic representations of Muhammad, however, it is my duty to share accurate information about the painting at the heart of the controversy. I will provide a visual analysis and historical explanation of the image in question, in essence reconstituting the Hamline instructor’s classroom activity. I will then explore these types of depictions over the course of six centuries, with the aim to answer one basic question: Is the Islamic painting at the heart of the Hamline controversy truly Islamophobic?

This painting is one of the images at the center of the discussion in the Hamline classroom. It is included in a historical text written by Rashid al-Din, a famous 14th-century Muslim vizier and historian. (Edinburgh University Library, Or. Ms. 20)

The Islamic painting that was the focus of discussion in the Hamline classroom depicts Muhammad receiving his first Quranic revelation through the Angel Gabriel. It is considered by scholars, curators and art collectors a masterpiece of Persian manuscript painting. It is often taught in Islamic art history classes at universities across the world, including in the U.S., Europe, the Arab world, Turkey and Iran. Additionally, because of widespread efforts to diversify and “decolonize” global surveys of art history, scholars of European, American and Asian art are increasingly including this and other Islamic artworks in their university classes.

The painting is an authentic and irreplaceable work of art. It is included in one of the earliest Islamic illustrated histories, which often describe the biography of Muhammad and other historical events. The Edinburgh University Library, where the early 14th-century manuscript is preserved, considers the item a masterpiece of Persian book painting and its “greatest oriental treasure.” Scholars of Islamic history and art, as well as interested public audiences, can easily browse through its folios online. A second illustrated copy is held in the Khalili Collections in London. Both manuscripts have been studied and published, the latter forming the subject of a book written by Sheila Blair, a leading scholar of Islamic art.

More specifically, the painting is included in a text written by the famous 14th-century Ilkhanid statesman and scholar Rashid al-Din. The chapter that it illustrates describes the beginnings of Quranic revelation to Muhammad as well as his call to prophecy. In the surrounding lines, Rashid al-Din is concerned with determining the exact time and location of the first “descent” of God’s divine word and the circumstances surrounding the appointment of Muhammad as the “messenger of God” (“rasul Allah”). He concludes, like other scholars before and after him, that the first Quranic verse was revealed during the month of Ramadan in the Hira cave, located on the Mountain of Light (Jabal Nur) near Mecca.

The artist who drew the painting illustrates the event, while also following details offered by the text that encircles it. Painted in brown and gray pigments, Mecca’s mountainous landscape includes the Hira cave, most likely the rocky sweep framing Muhammad’s body and head. The Angel Gabriel (Jibreel) accompanies Muhammad, and indeed its physical manifestation is mentioned in the surrounding text as well. The crowned angel takes human form with its ethereal nature denoted by large plumed wings sprouting from its arms. Gabriel is also shown pointing its index finger to Muhammad, a command gesture instructing him to “recite in the name of your Lord,” a Quranic verse (96:1) considered to mark the Quran’s phonic launch on Earth.

In sum, this medieval Islamic painting depicts the beginning of Islam’s holy book and the onset of Muhammad’s divinely ordained apostleship — two themes that the manuscript’s royal Muslim patron and other members of his elite entourage would have been keen to learn about and commemorate during the yearly Ramadan celebrations of the “Night of Power” (“Laylat al-Qadr”), itself considered the holiest day in the Muslim ritual calendar. The painting no doubt was produced to extol Muhammad’s prophecy and Quranic revelations, making it an Islamophilic artistic endeavor for its painter and viewers. The painting thus falls on the other side of the Islamophobia coin, in both intent and impact.

The painting is far from unique within the history of Islamic art. On the contrary, it belongs to a corpus of depictions produced mostly in Persian, Turkish and Indian lands between the 14th and 20th centuries. Beside other illustrated manuscripts and single-sheet paintings, posters and postcards have extended this particular iconographic tradition into the modern era through technological innovations.

The appointment of Muhammad as a prophet and the revelation of the Quran proved a staple theme in other illustrated Islamic histories. For example, the 15th-century Timurid historian Hafiz-i Abru described these events in his “Quintessence of Histories,” a universal history covering pre-Islamic prophets, Muhammad and subsequent Islamic dynasties up to the early 15th century. Updating and expanding Rashid al-Din’s original text, an illustrated manuscript was produced around 1425. It, too, included a textual description and visual depiction of the same event. Now preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the painting not only resembles its precursor but also displays some intriguing changes, such as a more vivid color palette and a flattening of the mountainous background. More interestingly, the painter has decided to depict both Muhammad and the Angel Gabriel with flaming gold halos. This iconographic device can be found across artistic traditions — including Christian depictions of a haloed Jesus — where it conveys a prophet’s divine substance (Christ) or a human’s proximity to the sacred (Muhammad).

By the 16th century, Islamic depictions of Muhammad placed an increased emphasis on his luminous nature — known as the “light of Muhammad” — and his special attributes. These pictorial developments, which include a small veil to hide his facial features, reflect to a certain degree the growth of Sufism, which takes a more spiritualized approach to Muhammad and his ontological origins in God’s sacred realm. Artists working for the Sunni Ottoman ruler Murad III, who commissioned a multivolume biography of the prophet, incorporated these two iconographic devices in the manuscript’s many paintings, including a depiction of Muhammad receiving the revelation of the Quran’s eighth chapter (or sura). Now held in the Louvre Museum, this composition shows the Angel Gabriel sweeping down dynamically from the sky to hand over the sura to Muhammad, who kneels in a prayerful position with his face covered by a white veil while his entire body is surrounded by a flaming aureole. These two pictorial strategies — that is, the facial veil and gold nimbus — were used by many Muslim artists, as can be seen in another depiction of Muhammad in the Hira cave. This painting, now in the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, formed part of an illustrated manuscript made in north India around 1725. In these types of depictions, artists labored to render Muhammad’s primordial beauty as secreted away and too brilliant to behold, reverentially elevating his status beyond the mortal realm.

After the 16th century, however, not all Islamic depictions of the prophet included the veil and aureole. Images painted and printed during the 19th and 20th centuries reveal that both naturalistic and abstract devices could thrive at the same time. This is especially the case in Iran, where numerous “prophetic products” mix and match motifs, with wide-ranging artistic freedom and creativity. Among them, pictorial greeting cards were common only two decades ago; I myself purchased one in a Tehran market. It shows the prophet, face unveiled and bathed in radiant light, as he points his finger toward the Islamic proclamation of the faith (shahada) inscribed above him while holding a copy of the Quran brimming with the glimmers of divine revelation. Although it is a mass-produced artifact for exchange among Muslim Iranians, other 19th-century Persian Shiite depictions of Muhammad and his family include inscriptions identifying them specifically as “sacred icons” (“shamail-i mubarak”). In both their manufacture and use, therefore, they craft and contribute to a pious Muslim life.

Hamline administrators have labeled this corpus of Islamic depictions of Muhammad, along with their teaching, as hateful, intolerant and Islamophobic. And yet the visual evidence proves contrary: The images were made, almost without exception, by Muslim artists for Muslim patrons in respect for, and in exaltation of, Muhammad and the Quran. They are, by definition, Islamophilic from their inception to their reception. How did Hamline arrive at such a flawed conclusion, what are its implications, and where do we go from here?

The first problem is a presupposition — by many individuals — that Islam does not have, or that it prohibits, figural representations of the prophet. While anxieties about images in many faiths have long existed, Islam has been largely defined, in contrast with Christianity, as a religious tradition that is largely aniconic, or lacking in figural images. The administrators at Hamline reiterated this inaccuracy with zeal, believing that such historical Islamic images were equivalent to offensive Euro-American cartoons and hence caused “harm” to the Muslims in their midst. Through conflation or confusion, Hamline has privileged an ultraconservative Muslim view on the subject that happens to coincide with the age-old Western cliche that Muslims are banned from viewing images of the prophet. This Muslim traditionalist and American Orientalist “echo chamber” is not just simplistic and counterfactual; it also muzzles all other voices while potentially endangering rare and precious works of Islamic art.

Beyond the Hamline interdictions, Muslim artists continue to practice their craft in tandem with universities. One particularly dazzling example is the 2016 permanent site-specific mosaic of Muhammad’s celestial ascension (“miraj”) made by Shahzia Sikander for Princeton University. Titled “Ecstasy as Sublime, Heart as Vector,” this monumental artwork measures 66 feet in height and depicts Muhammad riding his flying steed al-Buraq, both contoured in a sterling radiance. When asked about her choice to show Muhammad in this manner, Sikander responded: “By rendering a canonical painterly motif as a silhouette of reflective white gold, the miraj image seems to come to life, literally popping out of the composition as it reflects the light in the space throughout the day and at night.” Her work’s title describing Muhammad as a sublime and ecstatic “vector of the heart” offers the latest contribution to the genre, expanding Islamic art and depictions of the prophet to a U.S. college campus. Hamline could learn much from this case of granting choice — or license — when it comes to Islamic images of Muhammad, in which a collaborative undertaking in creative celebration of Islam will surely better withstand the test of time.

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