Muhammad receiving his first Quranic revelation from Rashid al-Din Ṭabib’s Jami’ al-Tawarikh (“Compendium of Chronicles”), Edinburgh University Library

This essay, on a controversy over an image depicting Muhammad,, was my Observer column this week. It was published 8 January 2023, under the headline “An art treasure long cherished by Muslims is deemed offensive. But to whom?”

It is a beautiful painting found in a 14th-century Persian manuscript, the “Compendium of Chronicles”, a history of Islam. It shows the Prophet Muhammad receiving his first Quranic revelations from the angel Gabriel. Christine Gruber, professor of Islamic art at the University of Michigan, describes it as “a masterpiece of Persian manuscript painting”.

Last October, an instructor at Hamline University, Minnesota, displayed the painting during an online class on Islamic art. The instructor (who has not been named) had warned of what she was about to do in case anyone found the image offensive and did not wish to view it. No matter, a student complained to the university authorities.

David Everett, Hamline’s associate vice-president of inclusive excellence, condemned the classroom exercise as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic”. A letter written by Mark Berkson, chair of the department of religion, defending the instructor and providing historical and religious context for her actions, was published on the website of The Oracle, the university’s student newspaper, and then taken down because it “caused harm”. The instructor was “released” from further teaching duties.

It is a depressing but all too familiar story. From The Satanic Verses to the Danish cartoons to Charlie Hebdo, the last decades have spawned a succession of often murderous controversies over depictions of Islam deemed blasphemous or racist.

What is striking about the Hamline incident, though, is that the image at the heart of the row cannot even in the most elastic of definitions be described as Islamophobic. It is an artistic treasure that exalts Islam and has long been cherished by Muslims.

Yet, to show it is now condemned as Islamophobic because… a student says so. Even to question that claim is to cause “harm”. As Berkson asked in another (unpublished) letter he sent to The Oracle, after his first had been removed: “Are you saying that disagreement with an argument is a form of ‘harm’?”

That is precisely what the university is saying. “Respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom,” wrote Fayneese Miller, the university’s president, and Everett in a letter to staff and students. In what way was showing the painting “disrespecting” Muslims? Those who did not wish to view it did not have to. But others, including Muslims who desired to view the image, had every right to engage with a discussion of Islamic history.

Universities should defend all students’ right to practise their faith. They should not allow that faith to dictate the curriculum. That is to introduce blasphemy taboos into the classroom.

Hamline has effectively declared whole areas of Islamic history beyond scholarly purview because they may cause offence. And not just Islamic history. As Audrey Truschke, associate professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University, observed, Hamline’s action “endangers… professors who show things in class, from premodern Islamic art to Hindu images with swastikas to Piss Christ”.

One can only wonder that the university bureaucrats who declared representations of Muhammad to be proscribed by Islam did not ask themselves why, if this was true, there were figurative Islamic paintings to show the class in the first place? There has developed a historical amnesia about the many Islamic traditions, especially Persian, Turkish and Indian, which have celebrated portrayals of Muhammad; portrayals found in manuscripts, paintings, postcards, even in mosques.

While there have always been debates on this issue within Islam, the strict prohibition on picturing Muhammad is primarily Sunni and relatively recent. The growth of Wahhabism, a fundamentalist strand of Islam that developed in the 18th century and came eventually to be the ideological cement of modern Saudi Arabia, has been particularly important. Saudi petrodollars have allowed the fanatically austere character of Wahhabism to find greater global purchase.

Even so, Gruber observes, as late as 2000, a senior Saudi-based legal scholar recognised certain portrayals of Muhammad as both “permissible and laudable”. Only in the wake of 9/11, and the emergence of more fundamentalist forms of Islam, did the absolute prohibition of images of Muhammad become more widely accepted.

The actions of Hamline University are a threat not just to academic freedom but to religious freedom, too. They implicitly disavow the variety of traditions that constitute Islam and condemn those traditions as in some sense so bigoted that they cannot be shown in a class on Islamic art history. University bureaucrats are, as non-Muslims, taking part in a theological debate within Islam and siding with the extremists.

That is why, the historian Amna Khalid observes, it is as a Muslim she is most offended by Hamline’s actions that have “flattened the rich history and diversity of Islamic thought” and “privileged a most extreme and conservative Muslim point of view”. In an age in which there are demands for the syllabus to be “decolonised”, she adds, “Hamline’s position is a kind of arch-imperialism, reinforcing a monolithic image of Muslims propounded by the cult of authentic Islam”.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of Hamline’s action is the use of the language of diversity to eviscerate the very meaning of diversity. This is an issue not confined to Hamline. Too many people today demand that we respect the diversity of society, but fail to see the diversity of minority communities in those societies. As a result, progressive voices often get dismissed as not being authentic, while the most conservative figures become celebrated as the true embodiment of their communities.

Here, liberal “anti-racism” meets rightwing anti-Muslim bigotry. For bigots, all Muslims are reactionary and their values incompatible with those of liberal societies. For too many liberals, opposing bigotry means accepting reactionary ideas as authentically Muslim; that to be Muslim is to find the Danish cartoons offensive and the depiction of Muhammed “harmful”. Both bigots and liberals erase the richness and variety of Muslim communities.

The Hamline controversy shows how the concepts of diversity and tolerance have become turned on their head. Diversity used to mean the creation of a space for dissent and disagreement and tolerance the willingness to live with things that one might find offensive or distasteful. Now, diversity too often describes a space in which dissent and disagreement have to be expunged in the name of “respect” and tolerance requires one to refrain from saying or doing things that might be deemed offensive. It is time we re-grasped both diversity and tolerance in their original sense.

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