Religious Representation in Academics: Why Context Matters

Religious Representation in Academics: Why Context Matters

Marouane El Bahraoui, Contributing Writer

When a professor who caused a nationwide controversy gets hired by Macalester College, it is surprising to see that no context was given as to why they were hired. I was both intrigued and captivated by the recent events at Hamline University when Professor Erika López Prater’s contract was not renewed because of an incident involving the showing of Islamic paintings of the prophet Muhamad. 

A few months prior to the incident, Macalester College hired López Prater to teach a different class, Introduction to Art History II: From Renaissance to Modern, for this semester. Within Western higher education, it is crucial to publicly address an incident that violated students’ identities and religious freedom. As an international student, I am continuously critically analyzing the way my culture and non-Western societies are studied in Western academic institutions. Macalester is Eurocentric, especially in the humanities, which leads to students’ misunderstanding about the topic, as this incident can serve as an educational opportunity for everyone. 

Going back to the incident at Hamline University, the issue arose when López Prater showed a medieval painting of the prophet Muhamad to students, one of whom was the head of the Muslim Student Association. The student leader found those paintings insulting to the prophet, the religion and herself. After confronting López Prater, the student was unable to get a productive answer which led her to take the matter to the administration. Although the professor gave a warning in the syllabus and before class began, we only know that the student expressed frustration after the fact. However we do not know if the student had contacted her before showing the painting. Western media surrounding the incident focuses more on the time that the student’s complaints were publicized, but the fact remains that we do not know if she had voiced her frustrations throughout the course. 

For her, this act of academic freedom and inquiry has infringed upon her right to education and proper representation. The Hamline University President co-signed an email calling López Prater’s actions “Islamophobic” and announced that her services were no longer needed in the Hamline community. While no scholarly voice was heard in Hamline’s initial deliberations and public announcements, according to the chair of the department, students offered support to their schoolmate’s traumatic experience, which they also did not want to debate. 

The details of the exchange between the students remains unknown, and leaves us with questions as we try to fill in the gaps. Did the student communicate their discomfort to the professor after the warning and before the showing of the painting? How did the professor approach the student’s complaints? Is the student aware that there are Muslims who respect and value those paintings? There are a lot of questions I could not find an answer to. However, what I want to address is the context of Islam being studied in Western schools.

To provide historical context: in the year 632, the prophet Muhamad died, leaving no male heir to rule the newly founded Ummah in the Arabian Peninsula. Two elite groups emerged while deciding who would rule the Caliphate: first, the Sunnis who preferred the title of Caliph be given to the closest and oldest companion of the prophet Abu-Bakar-Assidiq, and second, the Shi’ites who owed their allegiance to Ali, the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. Abu-Bakar would be the first caliph, while Ali is the fourth one. 

The schism produced after the disagreement about who should rule the Ummah would follow the Muslims 14 centuries after, dividing them mainly into the Sunni Muslims who are 70-80% of the global Muslim population, and the Shi’ia Muslims who are the minority. These differences take many forms and aspects, notably making portraits of the prophet Muhamad.  When choosing to discuss such controversies in Islam in a Western college, more context should be given while giving careful attention to the safety of Muslim students on campus. 

When discussing Islam, whether portraits are shown in a classroom or not, it is necessary to at least take into consideration the global state of Islam today. It would not be an exaggeration to assess that Islam and Muslims have been continuously humiliated and misunderstood under Western global hegemony. In his book “Humiliation in the era of mega-imperialism,” the Moroccan political scientist and futurologist Mehdi El Manjra predicted that “it is difficult, even with the best will in the world, to envisage a political and socio-economic situation in the Muslim world worse than the one we live. We are bathed in the humiliation that stems from flagrant cowardice on the international level vis-à-vis the great powers.” This was in 2008. Of all the things the professor predicted right, this one is wrong because the state of the Muslim world in particular, and the global south in general, is more and more humiliated than ever. 

When Western academic institutions attempt to decolonize academic fields by including different examples from various cultures or civilizations, those examples need to be adequately explained rather than unfairly misrepresented. When an Islamic or non-Islamic painting of the prophet is the subject of the class, the professor needs to explain that this painting would be completely forbidden in most Sunni Muslim circles, partially prohibited in some, and permitted in Shi’ite and Sufi traditions. There is no one way Islam is practiced. I believe if that differentiation is emphasized and a warning content has been shared,  there is ambiguity in characterizing it as “Islamophobia” when showing these paintings for educational purposes.

I am speaking as a Muslim who has always seen the prophet as a sacred person who should not be insulted, portrayed or worshiped. According to the Maliki school of thought in Sunni Islam, the prophet Muhamad explains in a hadith (a statement made by the prophet) that he does not desire any painting or statue to be made of him out of the fear that people will worship that object or him rather than Allah. I was taught that the problem is not looking, but believing in what I am looking at. Showing Islamic paintings is a crucial tenet in understanding Islam, its history and the cultures and traditions it gave birth to, as long as the specific difference between Islamic traditions and schools of thought have been clarified by using specific terms rather than “some Muslims do this and others do that.” Sunni and Shi’a differences have to be explicitly displayed as well. There is no humiliation in showing those paintings as long as a clarification of the subject studied is provided. However, when there is no context about why those paintings are being shown, the confusion created for non-Muslims and the insult to certain Muslims is unacceptable.

For example, in an African Studies class at Macalester, one professor prepared slides on the introduction of religions in West Africa. During the part on Christianity, a portrait of Jesus was shown, which is a non-problem for the majority of the world’s Christians. When the professor moved to Islam, they followed the same process and showed a portrait of the prophet Muhamad without mentioning that some Sunni Muslims see that as blasphemy and some Shi’ite Muslims see that as an act of devotion to Allah. Offering this image without a prior discussion, and without a warning to those Muslim students who would find the image shocking, was a mistake. A professor lecturing on this subject at a worldly college should be better informed on this matter. 

Decolonizing the art history field doesn’t mean just adding examples; at its worst, that’s tokenization. Decolonizing the canon means offering full context and opt-out opportunity, for all students, regardless of faith and regardless of sect within a broad faith. If Hamline’s decision to fire López Prater is inconsiderate of the diversity in Islam, Macalester’s decision to not only hire the same professor without context but to showcase anti-Islam art at Janet Wallace is inconsiderate to Islam and Muslims as a whole.