Resource Roundup: Controversy over Depictions of Prophet Muḥammad – Religion and Free Speech

By Intisar Rabb & Staff Editors

In response to the controversy at Hamline University, a private liberal arts university in Minnesota on depictions of the Prophet Muḥammad and associated questions of free speech and academic freedom, this resource roundup provides references for understanding the current and recent / recurring controversies in this vein, and it provides context for understanding controversies surrounding negative depictions of the Prophet as well as for the historical practices among Muslims globally, art historians and other scholars, and varied American institutional actors of positive depictions of the Prophet.  The resources also points to images with actual depictions, prior court cases involving such depictions,

                     by Lonnie Millsap for the New Yorker

and scholarly commentary on both negative and positive practices of depicting the Prophet Muhammad. At base, the controversies are about the ways in which law, history and academic freedom intersect with non-uniform religious and cultural sensibilities. Most recently, Dr. Erika López Prater, an adjunct professor at Hamline University, was not renewed to a teaching role after she showed students depictions of the Prophet Muḥammad in a 2022 course on global art history. In the ensuing controversy, a wide array of opinions emerged from a diverse set of commentators emerged—including scholars of Islam and Islamic law, scholars of free speech and academic freedom, professors of religion and related fields, university administrators, Muslim community leaders, as well as the lay public. In an effort to contextualize and shed light on the historical origins of the current debate, we at the Islamic Law Blog have curated a set of thematically-grouped resources on depictions of the Prophet, and related questions of law and religion.

I. The Current Controversy at Hamline University

While controversies involving depictions of the Prophet cannot be confined to the present controversy at Hamline University (see “Previous Controversies,” below, Section II), the issue of figurative representations of the Prophet have, once again, come to the fore there due to the university’s decision not to renew Dr. López Prater’s contract. The following sources are intended to inform readers and observers of some of the facts presented by various parties, as well as commentaries of academics observing and contextualizing the controversy.

  • Erika López Prater, who was at the center of the controversy in which Hamline University failed to renew her adjunct teaching contract after she showed a depiction of the Prophet Muḥammad in her global art history class, said she was aware that many Muslims held deeply held beliefs that prohibit such depictions, but also stated that she took necessary precautions so as not to offend anyone. Those precautions include a warning in the class syllabus that such images were going to be shown and that students could approach her with any concerns as well as a warning immediately before showing a depiction of the Prophet.
  • In “Hamline University Lecturer ‘Is Fired Over a Medieval Painting of the Prophet Muhammad’” (The Volokh Conspiracy, December 26, 2022), Eugene Volokh, professor of law at UCLA Law School, laid out some facts relating to the controversy and commented: “I think that Hamline’s behavior, as she describes it [and as is described in Prof. Berkson’s essay, below] is improper….”
  • In “Most of All, I am Offended as a Muslim” (Banished, December 29, 2022), Amna Khalid (Carleton College), notes many of her qualms with Hamline University’s decision to not renew  López Prater’s contract, and states: “In choosing to label this image of Muhammad as Islamophobic, in endorsing the view that figurative representations of the Prophet are prohibited in Islam, Hamline has privileged a most extreme and conservative Muslim point of view.”
  • In an opinion piece entitled “The staggering mistake Hamline University made is no isolated incident” (CNN Opinion, January 9, 2023), David M. Perry, professor and university administrator at the University of Minnesota, comments that: “Academic freedom encompasses the right to teach controversial material and the right for students to complain about it.” Perry also noted how López Prater’s status as adjunct professor made her dismissal more convenient for the university, drawing attention to university hiring practices more generally.
  • Christiane Gruber, professor of Islamic art at the University of Michigan, in an opinion piece entitled “Islamic paintings of the Prophet Muhammad are an important piece of history – here’s why art historians teach them” (The Conversation, January 9, 2023), argues that “[w]hile many Muslims today believe it is inappropriate to depict Muhammad, it was not always so in the past.” She added that there are ongoing debates within the Muslim community today relating to the permissibility of such depictions.
  • Commenting on the Hamline controversy in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper (YouTube, January 9, 2023), Omid Safi, professor at Duke University, said: “The fact of the matter is that these kinds of images have been an important part of the Islamic tradition.”
  • In an opinion piece by Professors Kayla Renee Wheeler of Xavier University and Edward E. Curtis IV of Indiana University entitled “The role of Blackness in the Hamline Islamic art controversy” (Religion News Service, January 12, 2023), the authors note, first and foremost, how little attention has been paid by the media to the grievances of the complaining students. The authors draw attention to “the context missing from the current conversation about López Prater’s firing,” which they take to be “institutional Islamophobia” and “an overworked and underpaid contingent faculty member and marginalized students.”
  • Commenting on both the Hamline and the Harvard controversy, the latter involving Harvard Kennedy School’s initial rejection of a fellowship grant to Human Rights Watch’s former director for his allegedly “anti-Israel bias,” Robin Acarian (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 28, 2023) writes that: “It’s sad that it took national outcries for Harvard and Hamline to reverse terrible decisions.”
  • In “When liberal institutions fail us: ‘Envious reversal’ and the Hamline University debacle” (Salon, March 4, 2023), Paul Rosenberg (Random Lengths News / Al Jazeera English) argues that Hamline University’s reaction to label showing depictions of the Prophet as “Islamophobic” failed Hamline’s Muslim students and community, as it “clouded people’s understanding of actual Islamophobia, making it more difficult to combat, and well before the incident in question, it created conditions where Muslims didn’t feel included.”
  • In “Hamline, Stanford, etc.” (Balkinization, March 11, 2023), Jason Mazzone (Illinois College of Law), while finding “outrageous Hamline University’s decision earlier this year to terminate Erika López Prater’s contract,” makes the additional point that Dr. López Prater’s disclaimer in her syllabus and her warning immediately before showing a depiction of the Prophet reinforce the notion that education should take steps to ensure students are not offended – a notion that he believes “is inconsistent with responsible pedagogy and the truth-seeking function of universities (in part because (as López Prater herself discovered) it eschews any sense of proportion and it has no end point).”

II. Previous Controversies

Similar controversies involving figurative representations of the Prophet have arisen in the past. Three relatively recent ones are the following:

  • In 1997, commentators protested a Supreme Court frieze installed in 1935 that depicts the Prophet Muḥammad, among other historical figures, social concepts, and major law-givers—including King Louis IX of France, King John of England, Charlemagne,  Justinian, and the ideals of Equity, Liberty, and Peace: “A petition signed by 16 groups across the country [had] asked that the larger-than-life frieze of great lawgivers be altered ‘in the spirit of religious tolerance and pluralism’ because Islamic tradition discourages artistic renderings of people, and showing the face of Muhammad is considered particularly offensive.” The petition was dismissed, many believe correctly, and the frieze depicting the Prophet remains at the Supreme Court as recognition and tribute to his role as a major lawgiver.
  • Between 2005-2006, what some pundits now refer to as the “Muhammad Cartoon Crisis of 2005 and 2006” erupted, following the publication by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten of a dozen cartoons under the headline “The Face of Muhammad:” “Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist whose 2005 caricature of the Prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban touched off violent protests by Muslims, prompted a massacre that left 12 people dead at the offices of a French satirical magazine and made him a target of assassins for the rest of his life, died [in 2021] in Copenhagen.”
  • In 2015, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo‘s published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, sparking controversy and at the center of deadly attacks. In 2020, the magazine republished the same cartoons that prompted outrage and the deadly attacks of 2015.

III. Scholarship on the Permissibility of Depictions of the Prophet

Scholars of law and religion have analyzed depictions of the Prophet in scholarship from various angles, including freedom of speech laws (and how it manifests differently in the American and European contexts), Islamic law and history, as well as contemporaneous controversies involving depictions of the Prophet and their international reverberations.

  • In “Religion and Freedom of Speech: Portraits of Muhammad” (Constellations 14, no. 1 (2007)), then-Dean and now Professor Robert Post of Yale Law School, responded to the question: “How should the law mediate between the demands of religious sanctity and freedom of speech?” His answer emphasizes America’s First Amendment protections for free speech, while also noting how regulation of free speech is more widespread and acceptable in European contexts.
  • In “On the Pope, Cartoons, and Apostates: Shari‘a 2006” (Journal of Law & Religion 22 (2007)), Anver M. Emon of the University of Toronto situates news reports on Islamic law in 2006 within a broader framework in which Islamic law was discussed by, among others, the Pope at the time, during a speech “in which he referred to the prophet Muhammad and an early Muslim jurist in order to define Europe as Christian and contrary to all that is Islamic.”
  • In “The Muhammad cartoons controversy in comparative perspective” (Ethnicities 9, no. 3 (2009)), Lasse Lindekilde (Aarhus University, Denmark) and others analyze the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten‘s publication of cartoons of the Prophet from an international relations and domestic politics angle, arguing that the controversy manifested itself in four separate phases: (1) initial responses to the controversy (including meetings with Muslim community leaders); (2) internationalization of the controversy; (3) violent escalation of the controversy; and (4) re-domestication of the controversy as a specifically Danish controversy.
  • In “Between Logos (Kalima) and Light (Nūr): Representations of the Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Paintings” (Muqarnas 26 (2009)), Professor Christiane Gruber of the University of Michigan notes the existence of “a notable corpus of images of Muhammad” in Islamic tradition (produced, typically, by Muslims). She further notes, however, that some of these images have been mutilated and censored in recent years by Muslims. In “How the ‘Ban’ on Images of Muhammad Came to Be” (Newsweek, January 19, 2015), Professor Gruber concludes that “stretching back to the 12th century, scholars of Islamic law, among them famous Sunni luminaries, did not expressly forbid images, including representations of Muhammad. So the notion of a long-standing and immutable Islamic ‘ban’ on images of the Prophet is nothing if not a contemporary innovation, catalyzed by the mass media, accelerated by insulting cartoons, and propelled throughout the world via the seismic influence of Saudi petrodollars.” In “The Koran does not Forbid Images of the Mohammad” (Steal This Hijab, February 2, 2015), Professor Gruber describes arguments to ban depictions of the Prophet Muḥammad as “a very contemporary urge to erase various forms of devotion to the Prophet within discourses emanating from extremist and Salafi spheres.”
  • In “OPINION :: The Question of Sharīʿa in Denmark” (Islamic Law Blog, August 3, 2016), Niels V. Vinding of the University of Copenhagen questions the premises and objectivity of a series of documentaries relating to Islam that were produced in the wake of the various crises that ensued following depictions of the Prophet Muḥammad in European magazines. He describes these documentaries as “a misguided attempt to pin the difficulty surrounding Muslim integration into liberal Danish society on the moral preaching of conservative Muslim clerics.”
  • In “Five Thoughts About the Repeal of Denmark’s Blasphemy Ban” (SSRN, February 18, 2020), Robert Kahn of the University St. Thomas School of Law discusses the 2017 repeal of the Danish criminal code’s blasphemy ban that “came after a Danish prosecutor sought to charge a 42-year-old man under the blasphemy law for burning the Quran.”

IV. Primary Sources; Images of the Prophet

At the root of current and historical discussions and controversies relating to images of the Prophet lie primary sources that (1) depict figurative representations of the Prophet, (2) other primary sources of Islamic law and tradition that discuss, analyze, and take various positions on the permissibility of such representations, as well as (3) court cases litigated based on these controversies.

  • For full depictions of the Prophet Muḥammad in Islamic sources, consult the “Mohammed Image Archive” (full depiction section). For depictions of the Prophet with his face hidden, also consult “Mohammed Image Archive” (hidden face section).
  • In “Five Surprising Places To Find Islamic History In The United States” (CAIR New York, September 20, 2016), Furqan Shaikh lists five physical locations sites in the United States, including the Supreme Court and the U.S. Capitol building, that feature images or statues that depict Islam and important figures within Islamic history, among other historical concepts and figures.
  • In Balk v. New York Inst. of Tech (E.D.N.Y. 2013), a case that concerned alleged discrimination at a university’s Middle East campus, a plaintiff “alleged that he was fired from his position after a daily Bahrain newspaper, Al-Ayyam, published an article stating that he had posted to his class website a controversial cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad in rags.”
  • In a fatwā by the Indonesian Council of Ulama on Playing the Prophet/Messenger and Holy Persons in Film, Indonesian scholars “forb[id] any depiction of the Prophet/Messenger and his family in film. [They] also clarif[y] that in order to avoid any misunderstanding surrounding the meaning of ‘Nur Muhammad’, it is inappropriate to use light to depict the Prophet.”

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