Overview:

Last year an art history professor was fired from Hamline University for showing an image of Muhammad.

The university over-reacted and she should be re-instated.

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When art history instructor Erika López Prater wanted to show a painting of Muhammad in her class at Hamline University last semester, she took every precaution. It was a 14th-century work by a Muslim for a Muslim audience honoring the last prophet of Islam. She repeatedly warned students that she would show the picture, both on the syllabus and on the day, and asked about any concerns every step of the way.

Afterward, a student complained. The university fired Prater.

Westerners often regard it as monolithic, but Muslims have wildly divergent interpretations about every aspect of Islam. Some Muslims distinguish between images “mocking or ridiculing of the Prophet” and educational images. The Muslim Public Affairs Council urged Hamline University to “reverse its decision”. However, the majority of Muslims believe that images of Muhammad are upsetting de facto. A few even believe it’s upsetting enough to murder those who promulgate such images. 

Early images of Muhammad

There are no contemporary accounts of what Muhammad looked like. All modern depictions of his face will therefore be wrong. As with Jesus, no depiction will ever be accurate. 

Before 1500, there were many depictions of Muhammad’s face. There are even unremarkable descriptions of portraits of Muhammad in the hadiths, indicating that early Muslims had no problem with them. The horror of the image is a relatively new development in Islam. Similarly, the darabat al-hijab is nowhere in the Koran applicable to all Muslim women. It was ironically a pagan custom that in the Koran only applied to Muhammad’s wives.

The horror of the image is a relatively new development in Islam.

There is nothing in the Koran specifically banning images of Muhammad. There is a ban on shirk (idolatry or polytheism) but is poorly defined, perhaps intentionally. The problem with shirk is pagans do it. This is the stated reason for many seemingly nonsensical instructions in Islam. It could be argued that apotheosizing someone so much that you have to kill anyone who draws them is itself a pernicious form of shirk

Moreover, the prohibition is on idolatry rather than the supernatural power of images of Muhammad. This would itself be shirk. It could therefore be that any images of Muhammad which are explicitly not for the purposes of worship are by definition not subject to the ban. If you are a Muslim, it might be a problem for you but you should have no problem if others who have no intention of worshipping Muhammad produce such an image.

If an image ban were defensible on religious grounds

Muslims are entitled to avoid making or looking at images of Muhammad if they find it upsetting. They are not entitled to demand that I should also be upset at images of Muhammad. I’m not a Muslim. I don’t care.

Muslims are free to be upset when someone creates an image of Muhammad. They are free to complain about it. They are free to write letters and start campaigns and encourage others to avoid those creations and their creators. If they feel it’s a reasonable response, they are free to make insulting images and bad-taste jokes of their own.

Muslims are not free to do anything illegal no matter how upset they are. They are not free to kill or injure anyone. It is objectively worse to kill someone than it is to draw a picture. There is no context that can change this and if there were, it would not be religious. 

Why upset Muslims (or anyone)? 

Religious censorship institutionalized as “blasphemy” is an attempt to control the public discourse. It is the civic duty of anyone interested in democracy and freedom of speech to challenge this control.

Religious censorship removes the ability to critically analyze the subjects of that censorship. A ban on images of Muhammad will influence any attempt to critically analyze his actions, behavior and legacy. 

Whatever begins with a conclusion and works backwards is not critical engagement; it’s justification.

People want to be confident that their beliefs are justified but critical engagement can mean a slow, painful death for religion. For this reason, many religions (including Islam) explicitly encourage believers to educate themselves within certain hard limits. Debates can be very heated and lively as long as they stay within this narrow corridor.

Similarly, Islam encourages believers to examine their faith as long as they come to the correct conclusion. Whatever begins with a conclusion and works backward is not critical engagement; it’s justification.

It is important for anyone who subscribes to a religious ideology to understand that while religion may hold power over believers, it cannot and should not hold power over anyone else. 

Why be childish and unkind?

Biting mockery is sometimes childish or unkind but it is always a form of criticism. Censorship of all mockery makes it impossible to have a conversation about how valid or productive that criticism is.

Childish and unkind images of Muhammad can promote the related ideas that no beliefs are above criticism and that people who have strongly-held beliefs do not get to control how those beliefs are criticized by others. As Salman Rushdie said: “The moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.”

If your religion has conditioned you to believe that your opinions should be immune to criticism, this will appear to be abusive. It’s not. If your religion has conditioned you to regard any mockery of your religious opinions as a personal attack, this will appear to be hurtful. It’s not. We are all so much more than our opinions.

Transgressive art has a purpose. Artists often use shock to test the boundaries of taste and confront an audience with their own beliefs about what is or is not acceptable. This alone has value. Whether or not you agree is irrelevant to the intention behind a shock art piece.

Of course, some virulent anti-Muslim bigots (like Pamela Geller) have jumped on this to demonize Muslims. In the same way, some virulent antisemites have jumped on valid criticisms of Israel to demonize Jews. However, if we refuse to allow blasphemy to silence criticism, we should also refuse to allow hateful extremists to silence criticism.

There are better ways to challenge religious censorship than needling Muslims.

Sensible people do not want to be abusive. However, if societies ban certain demonstrably harmless forms of expression either through legislation or intimidation, sensible people who care about freedom, often against their own better judgment, will want to test those limits by writing or saying or drawing things they would not otherwise write or say or draw.

What now?

Muslims may find it offensive to see mocking images of their prophet but I find it offensive that anyone should murder someone for drawing a cartoon. I would like everyone to agree that murdering people is worse than drawing cartoons, regardless of context. Muslims who spend time and effort protesting against cartoons might consider deflecting some of their outrage against the execution of apostates in many Muslim-majority countries.

In Ireland, there are plenty of pressing issues that are objectively more important than drawing blasphemous cartoons. Special mention here goes to the Muslim Sisters of Eire who spend a lot of time feeding and giving comfort to the many homeless people in Irish cities who are victims of my government’s housing policy.

However, there are better ways to challenge religious censorship than needling Muslims. Drawing insulting pictures of Muhammad does nothing to challenge blasphemy laws anywhere. Furthermore, it needlessly antagonises our natural allies: Muslims who agree that murder is not a reasonable response to mockery.

A better way might be to organise locally and nationally to pressure our governments to remove any and all blasphemy laws and educate our communities that violence is never a justified response to any opinion. If you feel that’s a cop-out or unrealistic, that’s what we did in Ireland and we repealed our blasphemy laws in 2018.

Until then, “an international group of scholars and students, Muslim and non-Muslim” have set up a petition to reverse the decision of Hamline University and reinstate Prater.

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Barry Purcell lives in Ireland and writes about religion, philosophy, psychology, politics and language for a variety of paper and online publications. He has been involved in campaigns to counteract the...