Hamline University Apparently Fires Professor Over Medieval Muhammad Paintings

Many Muslims believe depictions of Muhammad are forbidden.
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 2003: Muhammad and the Archangel Gabriel, miniature from miniature from Jami' al-Tavarikh (The Universal History or Compendium of Chronicles), by Rashid Al-Din (1247-1318), manuscript or 20, folio 45, verso, vellum, ca 1307. 14th century. Edinburgh, University Library (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
One of the Muhammad paintings reportedly at the center of the controversy. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

A Hamline University professor has apparently been fired because students complained about medieval paintings of Muhammad in an online art history class.

During an October 6 class on Islamic art, the professor showed two paintings, a famous 14th-century painting depicting Muhammad and the archangel Gabriel and a 16th-century painting of Muhammad with a veil and halo.

One student, Aram Wedatalla, a senior at Hamline and the president of the Minnesota school’s Muslim Student Association, happened to be in class when the images were shown and took issue with them. Many Muslims believe it is forbidden to create or even look at visual representations of Muhammad.

Wedatalla complained to the professor and pressured administrators to address the situation.

“I’m like, ‘this can’t be real,’” Wedatalla told The Oracle, Hamline’s student newspaper. “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.”

Hamline appears to have acquiesced to the student’s demands and swiftly cut ties with the professor.

“In lieu of this incident, it was decided it was best that this faculty member was no longer part of the Hamline community,” David Everett, Hamline’s associate vice president for inclusive excellence, told The Oracle.

Before being forced out, the professor apologized and attempted to smooth things over with Wedatalla but to no avail.

“I would like to apologize that the image I showed in class on [Oct. 6] made you uncomfortable and caused you emotional agitation. It is never my intention to upset or disrespect students in my classroom,” the professor wrote in an October 8 email to Wedatalla.

“I did not try to surprise students with this image, and I did my best to provide students with an ‘out,’” the professor added. “I also described every subsequent slide I showed with language to indicate when I was no longer showing an image of the Prophet Muhammad. I am sorry that despite my attempt to prevent a negative reaction, you still viewed and were troubled by this image.”

Nevertheless, Hamline excoriated the professor’s actions as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.”

“While the intent behind those actions may not have been to cause harm, it came at the expense of Hamline’s Muslim community members. While much work has been done to address the issue in question since it occurred, the act itself was unacceptable,” Everett, the associate vice president for inclusive excellence, said in an email to students, according to Reason.

Everett said the Hamline administration teamed up with the Muslim Student Association to come up with a plan to address Islamophobia on campus. The plan includes a new bias reporting form and an open forum on Islamophobia.

Respect for the Muslim students should have “superseded academic freedom,” Hamline President Fayneese Miller and Everett said in another follow-up email to students, according to Reason.

“It is not our intent to place blame; rather, it is our intent to note that in the classroom incident — where an image forbidden for Muslims to look upon was projected on a screen and left for many minutes — respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom,” the email stated.

The chairman of Hamline’s religion department, Professor Mark Berkson, wrote a letter to the editor of The Oracle, criticizing the university’s decision. Berkson’s letter was published but then reportedly taken down.

“In the context of an art history classroom, showing an Islamic representation of the Prophet Muhammad, a painting that was done to honor Muhammad and depict an important historical moment, is not an example of Islamophobia,” Berkson wrote.

An Islamic art professor at a different university also weighed in.

Hamline administrators inaccurately equated “historical Islamic images” with “offensive Euro-American cartoons” that cause harm to the Muslims in their midst, wrote Professor Christiane Gruber, who teaches Islamic art at the University of Michigan.

Gruber also started a petition Hamline Board of Trustees demanding an outside investigation that has garnered more than 900 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.

In addition, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is investigating the incident. PEN America, a free expression organization, also condemned Hamline’s move, saying it appears to be an “egregious violation” of the professor’s academic freedom.

Hamline University did not respond to a request for comment.

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