Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Muslim Activists Misunderstand Islam

Why the latest controversy over depictions of Mohammed was completely unnecessary.

By , the Washington correspondent of Radio Monte Carlo, Paris.
A visitor looks at an 18th century painting of Karim Khan Zand at the 'Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum - Masterpieces of Islamic Art' exhibition at Martin-Gropius-Bau on March 16, 2010 in Berlin, Germany.
A visitor looks at an 18th century painting of Karim Khan Zand at the 'Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum - Masterpieces of Islamic Art' exhibition at Martin-Gropius-Bau on March 16, 2010 in Berlin, Germany.
A visitor looks at an 18th century painting of Karim Khan Zand at the 'Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum - Masterpieces of Islamic Art' exhibition at Martin-Gropius-Bau on March 16, 2010 in Berlin, Germany. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

It is evidence of the strange contemporary culture of higher education in the United States that a private university recently declared that the showing of an image of Prophet Mohammed, contained in a treasured Persian manuscript from the 14th century, painted by a Muslim scholar for a Muslim ruler and celebrating the birth of Islam, is “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.”

Erika López Prater, an adjunct professor at Hamline University, the oldest in Minnesota, who committed this alleged academic atrocity, was fired after Muslim students on campus made the dubious claim that the professor insulted their faith by violating a tenet in Islam that forbids showing images of religious and holy figures. But they were aided in their efforts by the university’s own administrators and an outside professional Muslim activist who cooperated to manufacture a narrative of Islamophobia while waging an outrageous assault on academic freedom.

López Prater informed the students in her art history class in the class syllabus that she would show images of religious figures such as the Prophet Mohammed and the Buddha and asked them to contact her if they had any reservations. None did. Before revealing the painting, she gave the students a last chance to opt out of class. More importantly, she told them, “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. While many Islamic cultures do strongly frown on this practice, I would like to remind you there is no one, monolithic Islamic culture.” She then showed two images of Mohammed, one from the 16th-century Ottoman era showing Mohammed with his face veiled and a halo over his head, and the Persian painting, which caused the uproar.

It is evidence of the strange contemporary culture of higher education in the United States that a private university recently declared that the showing of an image of Prophet Mohammed, contained in a treasured Persian manuscript from the 14th century, painted by a Muslim scholar for a Muslim ruler and celebrating the birth of Islam, is “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.”

Erika López Prater, an adjunct professor at Hamline University, the oldest in Minnesota, who committed this alleged academic atrocity, was fired after Muslim students on campus made the dubious claim that the professor insulted their faith by violating a tenet in Islam that forbids showing images of religious and holy figures. But they were aided in their efforts by the university’s own administrators and an outside professional Muslim activist who cooperated to manufacture a narrative of Islamophobia while waging an outrageous assault on academic freedom.

López Prater informed the students in her art history class in the class syllabus that she would show images of religious figures such as the Prophet Mohammed and the Buddha and asked them to contact her if they had any reservations. None did. Before revealing the painting, she gave the students a last chance to opt out of class. More importantly, she told them, “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. While many Islamic cultures do strongly frown on this practice, I would like to remind you there is no one, monolithic Islamic culture.” She then showed two images of Mohammed, one from the 16th-century Ottoman era showing Mohammed with his face veiled and a halo over his head, and the Persian painting, which caused the uproar.

The painting depicts a standing winged and crowned Archangel Gabriel delivering to a seated Mohammed God’s first revelation to be included in the Quran. Nothing could be more devotional to Mohammed than depicting him at the very moment of the birth of the religion of Islam. The understated colors, the juxtaposition of the two figures, and the streamlined strokes creating the surrounding mountains make the painting one of the most sublime expressions of high Persian art. One is hard-pressed to understand how students and academics in a U.S. institute of higher education—where learning, reason, academic freedom, open debates, and the questioning of dogmas and taboos are to be practiced and celebrated—could claim that they have been assaulted by the mere revelation of sublime art.

For centuries, Islam was seen by many Western scholars—and, unfortunately, by the overwhelming majority of Muslims themselves—as a static, immovable, undifferentiated, and immutable corpus. The Muslim world has always been as diverse politically and culturally—if not more so—than Christendom at any time. Let’s start with the bogus claim that Islam forbids the drawing or painting of religious or holy figures.

There is absolutely no such injunction in the Quran, and the Persian and Ottoman empires, as well as various Muslim realms in India, have left us a stunningly rich inheritance of drawings and paintings depicting the mundane of the terrestrial and the sublime of the celestial. In these drawings and paintings, we see Mohammed leading his men to battle; ascending to heaven on his horse, alone or with the Archangel Gabriel; talking to his companions in Medina; flying with Gabriel over the valleys of hell, observing immoral women hung by their tongues or breasts and being consumed by eternal fire; or in heaven, which is rendered a lush landscape packed with flowering trees, colorful birds, camels, and horses. In one painting of Mohammed in heaven, he is in the center, surrounded by believers while addressing a woman, probably one of his wives, since her head, like Mohammed’s, is surrounded by the sacred flaming aureole.

Political and religious strife in Islam are as old as the religion itself. From the dawn of Islam, religious sects claiming to exclusively own the keys to the essence of the faith flourished and clashed. Radical and violent political movements sprouted, along with various mystical schools such as Sufism and other forms of spiritual asceticism. Since the early division between the Sunnis and Shiites, Islam ceased to be a monolithic religion.

Islam developed and expanded in very different ways in the numerous geographical areas penetrated by Muslim armies and the civilians that accompanied them, and later on by traders with their caravans traversing known ancient trading routes while cutting new paths into unknown regions in the fast-expanding realm of Islam. The early Muslim Arabs were greatly influenced politically, culturally, and administratively by the more sophisticated Byzantine and Persian empires they fought during the reign of the Umayyads, the first dynasty in Islam. Muslims, whether in Spain or in India, adapted themselves to the local cultures and incorporated local artisans, bureaucrats, and elites into their own rising political structures.

Islamic architecture tells the story of these local influences better than any narrator. Just as the Gothic cathedral in Christendom was the repository of Western civilization (architecture, paintings, sculpture, music), the mosque is the repository of various Muslim cultures (architecture, arabesque, splendid motifs, geometric patterns, and tile paintings). In Africa, some mosques are brick and mud buildings supported by wooden beams in total harmony with their environment and surroundings. The grand mosques of North Africa, with their distinctive large and square minarets, are different from Egypt’s embarrassment of riches when it comes to mosque architecture. Persian mosques, with their relatively short, richly designed blue minarets and entrances and their dazzling turquoise patterned domes, are different from the Ottoman mosques with their slender and tall minarets, as if they are the disguised arms of the believers trying to touch the face of God. The large, graceful domes and arches of Ottoman mosques—particularly how the main domes give way to the secondary domes—make for an ingenious work of art. The majesty of the Ottoman mosque could not have been achieved without the Greek Orthodox Church, exemplified by the mother of all such churches, the Haghia Sophia, which has stood in the heart of Istanbul for almost 1,700 years. In terms of style and locale, there is virtually nothing in common between the great Umayyad mosque in Córdoba, with its double arches and forest of columns and stunning mihrab, and Iraq’s Great Mosque of Samarra, with its magnificent, spiraling Malwiya tower and minaret.

Mughal Islam in South Asia, heavily influenced by Persian language, art, and architecture, developed culturally and religiously in ways that were different from the ways Muslims developed their kingdoms in sub-Sahara Africa. In Iran, Islam evolved politically, doctrinally, and culturally in complex and rich ways that are totally alien to the austere, rigid ways of the Sunnis in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, particularly under the atavistic, intolerant Wahhabi movement. The Ottoman Empire, even at its zenith, oscillated between embracing and recoiling at the influence of the Byzantine Empire that it vanquished.

The Islam that the Umayyads established in Al-Andalus, in modern-day Spain, particularly in its first centuries, is arguably the most enlightened politically and socially, and the most dazzling culturally and artistically in medieval times. In the 9th and 10th centuries, Córdoba was Europe’s most sophisticated and cosmopolitan city, where Muslims, Jews, and Christians all practiced their faiths and lived in relative peace. Beginning in 1009 and ending in 1031, this jewel of a city labeled the “Ornament of the World” was sacked by waves of marauding Muslim Berbers who were offended by the worldly splendor of the palaces, libraries, and public baths of the city, thus bringing to an end Córdoba’s age of enlightenment. In Córdoba, before intellectual desertification set in, as in other centers of learning such as Baghdad, Cairo, and other cities in Persia and Asia, scholars would occasionally engage in open and risky debates about theological issues, political power, and legitimacy. Some would not hesitate to challenge prevailing dogmas, even when they knew there would be a price to pay.

The sacking of Córdoba by radical reactionary Muslims is emblematic of a larger Muslim malady. Established Muslim polity has always been plagued by atavism and belligerent puritanism, with the occasional rise of a self-proclaimed Mahdi claiming the mantel of the prophet to put the Muslim ummah, or community, once again on the righteous path. This was true of the Kharijites who violently rebelled against the caliphs that succeeded Mohammed, just as it was true in the case of the hordes that sacked Córdoba, just as it was true in the case of the al-Mahdiyyah political and religious movement in Sudan in the late 19th century. The Wahhabi movement that emerged in the 18th century in central Arabia—and became a chief ideological pillar upon which the modern state of Saudi Arabia was built—had an enduring influence on most Sunni reactionary movements that infected the modern Middle East, including the so-called Islamic State that continues to this day to gnaw on the body politics of Iraq and Syria.

This is, in a sense, the eternal struggle between the austere, harsh, inhospitable desert and the Muslim city (especially when a river runs through it, such as in Córdoba and Baghdad), with its fabulous palaces, rich libraries, crowded public baths, and loud taverns where poetry and music were sung and wine flowed merrily and hedonistically all night long. Great Arab poets before and after Islam have developed a whole splendid literary genre called khamriyyat—derived from khamr, Arabic for wine—celebrating the art of making and enjoying wine. In my youthful years in cosmopolitan Beirut, my rowdy friends and I would drink wine and sing whole medieval and modern Arab poems extolling the pleasures and virtues of wine.

This is the complex, multifaceted, refined, and tortured world Muslims have inhabited for more than 14 centuries. It is decidedly not one-dimensional and certainly not monolithic in doctrine, polity, or culture. This is precisely the world the administration of Hamline University, and the community of aggrieved Muslims on campus and beyond, refused to acknowledge when it denied López Prater the right to explain what she said and did in her class. The university held a public forum on the controversy but declined to invite López Prater to the meeting.

The staggering blunder of Hamline University was in equating the display of reverential images of the Prophet Mohammed for specifically pedagogical purposes with the infamous cartoons mocking Mohammed that the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published in 2012 and 2013, an act that prompted a deadly attack against the magazine staff.

The president of Hamline University, Fayneese S. Miller, had the temerity to co-sign an email to the students claiming that respecting the sensibilities of Muslim students “should have superseded academic freedom.” It is troubling that a president of an American university in 2022 would choose not to defend the principle of academic freedom. Sadder still is that she  apparently does not understand that such freedom doesn’t contradict the spirit of the religion  she claims to be defending.

This week’s vague and reluctant admission by Hamline University that it committed some “missteps” in handling the controversy does not deserve to be taken seriously. The University’s vague mea culpa came only after López Prater sued the University seeking damages for “religious discrimination” and “defamation”, and after a torrent of protests from civil society and the world of academia. This lame confession does not mitigate the original sin.

Hisham Melhem is the Washington correspondent of Radio Monte Carlo, Paris, and writes a weekly column for Alhurra television’s website.

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