The “Muhammad Painting” Case: An Update

Someone asked me last night for an update on the Hamline “Muhammad Painting” case. I’m happy to report that public opinion, in the US at least, seems largely to be going against Hamline, and in López Prater’s direction. Here’s a sample, focused mostly on the American reaction to the case. 

In the original post, I’d said that The New York Times article “tells you what you need to know.” That’s almost, but not entirely, true. Eugene Volokh at Reason magazine has reproduced the full texts of many relevant university communications on the controversy, not otherwise reported elsewhere in their entirety–memos, statements, scuttlebutt, etc. Some of the details matter, but none of them really alter anything I said in the original post.

Hamline University Lecturer “Is Fired Over a Medieval Painting of the Prophet Muhammad”

Though López Prater was not “fired” in the stereotypical sense of being terminated without notice in the middle of the semester, I think the communications in Volokh’s post make clear that it’s perfectly appropriate to say that she was fired, whether or not her termination fits the stereotypical description. To be precise: her contract to teach the spring 2023 semester was not renewed, based specifically on the university’s criticisms of her handling of the “Muhammad painting” case. It seems clear that López Prater had a justified expectation of renewal: her department wanted her to teach, but that desire was vetoed by admin. In other words, López Prater was not renewed only because Hamline’s administration took issue with her handling of the painting case, and felt the need to distance themselves from her, whether for reasons of PR, liability, sincere moral conviction, or some combination of the three.

University administrators do not regard non-renewals as “firings” or “terminations,” because as with the fiction of “zero-balance budgeting,” they like to pretend that academic departments somehow wipe the hiring slate clean every semester, with no expectation that any adjunct who taught last semester will be retained next semester.

But this is a deception. Adjunct hiring decisions are, for obvious reasons, made mid-semester, not at the end of the semester; an adjunct teaching during the fall semester will typically get a verbal assurance around October (if not earlier) about whether the department intends to have her back or not in the spring. And if an adjunct is competent, there’s always a strong departmental incentive to keep her on board in a continuous fashion, fall, spring, and summer: every department chair wants an assurance, well ahead of the semester, that next semester’s classes will be covered, so that the schedule can finally be sent for final approval to the registrar. Glitches, interruptions, cancellations, and uncertainty are the bane of a scheduler’s existence. The ideal case is the one in which you invite the adjunct around the end of September to teach a class or two this coming spring; she immediately agrees to do so; and everything happens according to plan. Administrators who interfere with that process have, from the department chair’s perspective, fucked everything up–the one and often the only thing they do well.

It is not plausible to imagine that university departments defer their adjunct hiring decisions for spring until after the fall semester is over, as though spring 2023’s hiring decisions were all being made after Christmas, two weeks before the spring semester was to begin. If that’s your mental picture of adjunct hiring decisions, delete it. If an academic department tells an adjunct that they want her to teach–and it’s clear that López Prater’s department did that–but admin then spends a semester demonizing her, and then announces in December or January that she won’t be coming back, she’s been fired, and any administrator who says otherwise is bullshitting you. If we want absolute Cartesian certainty here, the question to ask is whether López Prater is now eligible for hire at the department’s discretion, not the administration’s. If the answer is “no,” as I’m sure it is, she’s been fired. I only wish someone would put Hamline’s president on the spot, directly ask this question of her, and demand a yes/no answer. That’s the only way to deal with these overpaid bullshit artists.

Universities play these sorts of semantic games all the time: they’ll demonize a faculty member during the term but decline to fire her on the premise that doing so would create too much logistical chaos; they’ll then harvest the instructor’s grades at the end of the term, and terminate the instructor’s employment once they’ve gotten what they need from her. Since everyone without tenure works at will, such terminations give the sweetly innocent impression of a mere “decision not to renew,” which is how administrators often describe them. But that is not, de facto, what they are. They are often (perhaps usually) full-fledged terminations of faculty who have (and have been given) an expectation of continuous employment. I’ve seen far too many of these cases up close, and for far too long, to be fooled by the administrative rationalizations offered for them. The administrators who rely on such rationalizations–“We never fired her; we just happened to exercise our prerogative not to renew her contract after spending a semester demonizing her”–are deceiving the public, and ought to be called out for it. Really, this is a topic of its own that deserves separate treatment, yet another I’ll have to put on my ever-expanding “to-write” list.

Reason’s coverage, as you might expect, has been consistently pro-Prater and anti-Hamline. In a particularly juicy story, Reason reports that Hamline’s accreditation is being called into question.

However, one free speech group has found a way to penalize Hamline: filing a complaint with the school’s accreditor, which explicitly requires that colleges receiving accreditation protect academic freedom.

I wish this gambit had a chance of success, but I highly doubt it. I can say from hard personal experience that accreditors tend to talk a great game about academic freedom, but do not, in the end, give much of a damn about it. My own former institution, Felician University, had been under AAUP censure since 2015 for its violations of academic freedom; when the Middle States accreditation agency visited Felician in 2020 for its once-a-decade site visit, the university pretended not to know that it was under AAUP censure, and Middle States’ accreditors actively facilitated the deception by playing dumb as well. Amazingly, nowhere is it mentioned in the university’s so-called “Self-Study“–not even in its chapter on academic freedom!–that, prior to the site visit, Felician had been under AAUP censure for five years.

It’s a paradox, but playing dumb is one thing university administrators do well. In fact, the connection between university malfeasance and accreditation is another “topic of its own” that deserves separate treatment, one that I hope to discuss at some point in the future, and on which I have an abundance of first-hand experience. Suffice it to say, the accreditation process in American higher education is a scam and a sham of its own.

Back to the good news. As has widely been reported, PEN America has come out in support of Prater:

https://pen.org/press-release/pen-america-cites-egregious-violation-of-academic-freedom-by-hamline-university/

So has FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:

https://www.thefire.org/news/fire-attorney-breaks-down-hamline-university-controversy-british-audiences

So has the mainstream press. A typical editorial from the Los Angeles Daily News:

https://www.dailynews.com/2023/01/11/the-absurd-firing-of-erika-lopez-prater/

A few specialized scholarly societies have weighed in on Prater’s side, as well. Two examples below.

The Medieval Academy of America goes medieval on Hamline:

Medieval Academy of America Statement on the Case of Hamline University and Dr. Erika López Prater

Here’s the Middle East Studies Association, which has a reputation (whether warranted or not) for being an institution of The Academic Left:

https://mesana.org/advocacy/committee-on-academic-freedom/2023/01/10/letter-regarding-hamline-university-professor-erika-lopez-prater

I’m glad to report that despite some Muslim organizations’ attempt to play the Islamophobia card, that has not been the universal or even the average reaction among American Muslims. The Muslim Public Affairs Council has come out strongly defending Prater:

Statement of Support for Art Professor Fired from Hamline University

So have some prominent Muslim scholars. Omid Safi is quoted in the Times article in the original post. Amna Khalid, a historian at Carleton, has this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

https://www.chronicle.com/article/most-of-all-i-am-offended-as-a-muslim?cid=gen_sign_in

I’m sure there are others I’ve missed. The Muslim reaction is particularly heartening because it provides visible counter-examples to the right-wing dogma that American Muslims are, en masse, a reactionary, anti-Semitic, proto-Wahhabi mob awaiting orders from ISIS and the Taliban. That’s hard to square with the reaction we’ve seen.

It’s also heartening because the specifically religious arguments against Prater are frankly idiotic, even from an orthodox Muslim perspective: they’re less an expression of Islam than of ignorance and immaturity. Secular readers might not care about that one way or the other, but one needn’t be a Muslim, or have any sympathy for pro-Muslim apologetics, to want the better argument to prevail over the worse. To accept the anti-Prater arguments as representative of Islam is to accept a totalitarian, dogmatically iconophobic form of Islam as representative of Islam as such. There’s no a priori reason to do that, but that hasn’t stopped a certain brand of right-wing polemicist from fast-forwarding to the desired anti-Islamic conclusion.

This, too–Islamic iconophobia–is a topic that deserves separate treatment. As many scholars have pointed out, there is no clear textual warrant in the Qur’an for a ban on painting, or on producing images of the Prophet. There’s no undeniably authoritative argument in the Islamic tradition to that conclusion, either. The arguments against mimetic imagery, and specifically against creating images of the Prophet, involve highly contestable (and highly contested) inferences from premises themselves drawn from  contestable/contested interpretations of the canonical texts. They’re not “obviously true of Islam as such.” I realize that many Muslims adamantly and sincerely believe that Islam prohibits images of the Prophet–I grew up with the dogma myself–but adamance and sincerity are not necessarily truth-tracking attitudes, and don’t by themselves tell us anything about the subject at hand.

Iconophobia is a recurring theme in Islamic history, as it is in the history of Christendom, and in the Western tradition generally. Occasionally, it’s become the dominant strain of Islam or Christendom; at other times, it’s given way to periods of great productivity in the visual arts, both Christian and Islamic. Some of the clearest arguments for iconophobia go back to Plato’s arguments against mimesis in the Republic. Though I’m far from an expert in the subject, by my reading, virtually every argument for iconophobia in the Western religious traditions is in some way a variant on Plato’s arguments, whether influenced by them or not. So iconophobia is no more foreign to “us,” or distinctive to Islam, than Plato is.

And we have our own homegrown versions of it: think, for instance of feminist arguments against pornography, or the now-conventional American taboo on showing the casualties, foreign or domestic, of American military actions abroad. The social media trend of covering up “disturbing” images is an instance of the same phenomenon. In the 1980s, Henry Kissinger famously advised that the first step toward dealing with the Palestinian intifada was to ban journalists (especially journalists with cameras) from entering the occupied territories, so that people would stop seeing what the Israeli government was going to its victims. The problem for Kissinger was not the occupation per se, but the “optics” associated with it; change the optics, and all would be fine. 

Here’s another: When I worked in a hospital OR, we did second trimester abortions, i.e., D&Es, or “dilations and evacuations.” As a member of the Environmental Services staff, I was tasked with cleaning up after such procedures. The clinical staff would, after doing a D&E, ritualistically conceal the containers containing the products of conception behind a curtain, as though the sight of the dead fetus represented a taboo of some sort, a contamination of visual space. The ritual made little sense: the cleaning staff had to go behind the curtain to collect the containers and take them to the decontamination room just as surely as we had to take any unconcealed container containing any other bodily fluid. With all due respect, the products of conception do not look any different from the remains of any other surgical procedure: just about every surgical procedure is a bloody mess, and every such mess requires cleaning and sterilization, which is what we did. From whom, then, were the containers being concealed? From everyone and no one. Concealment was an end-in-itself. The sheer sight of containers-containing-the-products-of-conception was “offensive,” and required concealment. That’s all there was to it.

In any case, iconophobia is anything but a straightforward matter. Anyone who wants to discuss it owes us arguments that show some familiarity with the relevant background issues. Whining, crying, race-baiting, and defamations aren’t going to cut it.

This is just a sampling of press pieces and blog posts I managed to canvass in a short search. I’m sure I’ve missed some. This piece in artnet news provides a nice summary, with lavish illustrations to boot, but there’s doubtless more out there.

A Minnesota University Is Under Fire for Dismissing an Art History Professor Who Showed Medieval Paintings of the Prophet Muhammad

While this isn’t precisely an “all’s well that ends well story,” the reaction to the incident has been largely heartening, at least so far. Time will tell how it ends. Or rather, we will, in time.


Thanks to Hilary Persky for the question and discussion that prompted this post. 

21 thoughts on “The “Muhammad Painting” Case: An Update

  1. For some reason, these last two lines were cut off in the version of this post visible on handheld devices:

    While this isn’t precisely an “all’s well that ends well story,” the reaction to the incident has been largely heartening, at least so far. Time will tell how it ends. Or rather, we will, in time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is such a well argued post. It’s interesting to know that some Islamic associations and public figures have come out in support of the fired academic. Really, though, I despair of people, literally, quite often. They…we…can be so idiotic. It’s disheartening. And then… somebody sensible pops their head up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I think there’s a story to be told about the progress of the Muslim American community over the last two decades. I wonder if anyone has told it. When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, and right up to 9/11, institutionalized Islam in the US was funded by the Saudis, and driven by a Saudi agenda. My family was a nominal member of ISNA, the Islamic Society of North America, which very clearly fit that description.

      In the decade after 9/11, I spent a great deal of polemical energy criticizing the Muslim-American community, and got some (minor) recognition for it from non-Muslims who liked hearing a nominal Muslim attack Islam. I was interviewed in local newspapers and on the local radio, quoted in books on the subject, given some admiring attention by the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, etc. And I made myself something of a pariah among Muslims themselves. Though this is a very broad statement with many exceptions, there was some Islamophobia in the US, but it was not particularly intense before 9/11. There was a brief backlash after 9/11, but after that, Islamophobia went into a kind of remission for about a decade.

      The political atmosphere began to change maybe a decade after 9/11; it’s a little arbitrary, but call it 2011. Gradually, the two tendencies reversed themselves. Muslim Americans began to put distance between themselves and their Saudi sponsors, and started to create independent organizations of their own, more progressive, more articulate, and more politically sophisticated than the old ones. A concerted effort was made to deal with the anti-Semitism and retrograde attitudes of the old guard. Many Muslims went into higher education, and some stayed to become academics.

      In short, a newer generation made American Islam more “woke.” All of that was a huge change for the better. And that’s what we’re seeing in this case. The institutional Muslim reaction to this event has in general been the right one. But that reaction was not happenstance. It’s the result of at least a decade of concerted activism by a very brave, dedicated cadre of activists within mosques, community centers, etc. It required taking the old guard of imams to task, and questioning the people who had so thoughtlessly funded them. It required applying concepts formulated in the academy, and translating them into a language that people outside of higher education could understand and put into practice. And many other things besides. Had the younger generation of Muslims simply obeyed their elders and sat complacently on their asses, nothing would have changed: 2023 would have been no different from 2003, 1993, 1983, or 1973. Those activists are unsung heroes, and we all owe them a great deal.

      Meanwhile, by a strange quirk, Islamophobia began to intensify in the general population. By the time Trump started campaigning for his first presidential term in 2015-2016, we had reached a kind of fever pitch of Islamophobia in this country. That’s why his revival of the 9/11 celebration rumors (that American Muslims celebrated 9/11), and his anti-Muslim travel ban both met a receptive audience. Biden’s election has shoved this tendency somewhat into the background, but that’s just a temporary expedient. If we get a Republican president in 2024, I expect an accelerated descent into fascism, with undocumented aliens as the first target, and Muslims as the second.

      So don’t stop despairing just yet.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’d be interesting to know if there’s a similar movement in Australia towards a more modern version of Islam. There’s some feeling here against Moslem immigration, because of cultural clashes that occur especially in working class areas, and a lot of people don’t like to see women wearing niqab. Politicians here generally avoid open dog whistling though, apart from some slightly loony exceptions. The trouble is that a debate about national values can’t be held without raising hackles on all sides. Anyway… maybe you should write that history of American Islam over the last twenty years.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I don’t know the Australian scene very well. I suspect that there is a modernizing movement in Australia, but there are pitfalls at every turn for such movements, in Australia or anywhere else. There’s a delicate balance to found between being critical enough to provoke change, and being critical in ways that are justifiably perceived as attempts to grandstand for the white majority. The whole thing is very hard to pull off, and inevitably gets thrown off track by this or that event–a racist incident, a terrorist attack, a new war to fight, etc. But it has to be done.

          Niqab is a very good example. I have a very large extended family, with several dozen female relatives alone–mostly in Pakistan, many in the US, some in Canada, some in Britain, some in South Africa, some in the Arab Gulf countries. With maybe one exception out of several dozen, I don’t think there’s a single woman in my family, however devout, who approves of niqab. And the one exception doesn’t actually wear a niqab. I certainly wouldn’t ban or restrict the wearing of niqab, and where it’s worn voluntarily, wouldn’t put it at the top of my list of Things to Criticize. But it’s certainly on the list. If that becomes unsayable, progress becomes impossible. I think that means that there have to be people willing to take the heat for saying things otherwise deemed “unsayable.” Once something is said, it isn’t unsayable. It’s not a pleasant role, but someone has to play it.

          Many of my female cousins are feminist activists. Unfortunately, none of them lives in Australia, and most of them write/film in Urdu, so that’s not much help here.

          Liked by 1 person

          • You’re in a very interesting position…to me…of being able to have an informed perspective as a person with extensive Moslem connections but also a somewhat western outlook? Would that be going too far? I do think… but would be willing to change my view .. that Islam and, say, Australian culture as it’s understood and liked by white Australians, are not very compatible. We’re pretty sexist but we do like to get around in as few clothes as possible. We drink. We treasure the theoretical right to hit our men over the head with a beer bottle. Australian husbands often refer to their wives as ‘the boss’. We’re mostly irreligious. We don’t approve of violent punishment off the football field. Being too serious is a capital offence. The niqab, along with long messy beards, is a visible sign of a set of values we don’t much like, much as the hussy in shorts might be in Qatar, say. But as you say, those things are a reflection of a particular brand of Islam, and there are others. I agree with the point you make about the unsayable. The problem being, perhaps, that once someone says it, permission is granted for other people to take it much further. We have a politician, a ridiculously stupid woman called Pauline Hanson, who voices what many particularly working class Australians think about ethnic minorities and indigenous people. She once turned up to Parliament in a niqab to demonstrate how contrary the garment is to Australian values, and got hustled out (if she had been Moslem I’m not sure how that would have gone). To have one Pauline is possibly cathartic: to have a yelling herd of them would be awful.

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            • You’re in a very interesting position…to me…of being able to have an informed perspective as a person with extensive Moslem connections but also a somewhat western outlook? Would that be going too far?

              That’s perfectly correct, though I think I’m very far from unique in that respect.

              On this:

              I do think… but would be willing to change my view .. that Islam and, say, Australian culture as it’s understood and liked by white Australians, are not very compatible. We’re pretty sexist but we do like to get around in as few clothes as possible. We drink. We treasure the theoretical right to hit our men over the head with a beer bottle. Australian husbands often refer to their wives as ‘the boss’. We’re mostly irreligious. We don’t approve of violent punishment off the football field. Being too serious is a capital offence. The niqab, along with long messy beards, is a visible sign of a set of values we don’t much like, much as the hussy in shorts might be in Qatar, say. But as you say, those things are a reflection of a particular brand of Islam, and there are others.

              I’m not sure whether Australian Islam is more conservative than the American version, or whether you just happen to have encountered a more conservative version of Australian Islam than exists elsewhere.

              Either way, I guess I’d say that there are more orthodox and more heterodox versions of Islam, and more stringently observant and less stringently observant Muslims. The culture you’re describing is certainly incompatible with a the orthodox Islam of the stringently devout. But it’s compatible with plenty of other things.

              It would be trivial to say that Aussie culture is compatible with the “Islam” of a totally non-observant pseudo-Muslim. Anything would be compatible with that. But I think Australian culture is mostly compatible with the brand of Islam I think of as “modern orthodox.” (Technically, “Modern Orthodox” is a category within Judaism, but it fits Islam just as well.) In fact, I have a particular example in mind, an old friend of mine.

              The woman I have in mind regards herself as an orthodox, devout Muslim. She believes in God, believes in the line of prophecy culminating in Muhammad, prays five times a day, keeps the Ramadan fasts, gives alms, and has performed the pilgrimage to Mecca. She believes that the Qur’an is the word of God, but manages to interpret it skillfully enough not to oblige her to do anything all that unconventional or crazy. She doesn’t drink alcohol. Obviously, one couldn’t call her irreligious. She’s very committed to modesty in the way she dresses, but precisely because she’s well off, and can afford to dress elegantly, this commitment isn’t all that conspicuous. One can dress modestly, and still insist on being well-dressed. She wouldn’t dream of wearing a niqab, or even necessarily hijab of any kind. She insists on wearing long pants in hot weather, but then, there are non-Muslim feminists who do the same thing.

              She’s unquestionably the boss of her household, subject only to contradiction by her eight-year-old daughter, whose authority occasionally (very occasionally) trumps hers. She neither approves of violent punishment nor of violent sports (she’s a physician). She has a “live and let live” attitude toward others. There’s no obvious incompatibility between her lifestyle and American culture, and I doubt there would be very much incompatibility between that lifestyle and Australian culture.

              As I said, my friend regards herself as an orthodox, devout Muslim. When she travels to Muslim countries, however, she is regarded as an irreligious hussy. (That may be an over-statement. What I really mean is: that’s how she was regarded in Saudi Arabia.) But I don’t think it’s obvious that Muslims-from-Muslim-countries are always right about Islam. They’re often just prisoners of dogmas they’ve inherited from their culture. The “no images of Muhammad” dogma is a perfect example. When I taught in Palestine, I sometimes had to get aggressive with such dogmatists, and challenge their dogmas. Many of them–often men–were very accustomed to talking utter nonsense “in the name of Islam.” They often had no idea what they were talking about. They just happened to know what to say to maintain their hold on power.

              But set orthodoxy aside. Most Muslims are not orthodox by any standard. When I taught in the university (in the US), a sizable fraction of my students were Muslim, and because the university had a 7:3 ratio of women to men, most of the Muslim students ended up being women. Some were devout, but many were not. If you asked their religious affiliation, they would proudly declare their allegiance to Islam. But that didn’t stop them from flouncing into class dressed like someone who just walked out of the Victoria’s Secret catalog. And they could drink and dance with the best of us. Granted, many of my Muslim students at this particular university were of Bosnian ethnicity. European Islam is very different from Islam in, say, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. But I’ve encountered much the same phenomenon elsewhere, including Palestine and Pakistan.

              To be honest, I was a little shocked myself when I sat down at a Ramadan iftar in Palestine, and my (Muslim) hosts decided to break the fast… with a bottle of champagne! This was Ramallah; it wouldn’t have happened in Hebron. But I also remember attending parties in Palestine that were fully as racy and racuous as parties anywhere else. When I expressed surprise at Muslims carrying on in this way (I don’t think they realized I was joking), everyone adopted a guilty air, admitted that it was all deeply contrary to God’s law, and then carried on. (My favorite excuse: “But we’re under occupation!” as though the revelry would come to an abrupt end if only the Israelis would just withdraw their tanks and troops.)

              The point of all this is that a non-orthodox, scantily clad, champagne-drinking, hip gyrating Muslim remains a Muslim. She may not be a devout Muslim. She may guiltily confess to being a terrible, terrible sinner. But if she really believes in God, and believes that God speaks to humanity through the Qur’an, it’s hard to call her anything else. She can believe that, and still be great at parties, or in bed. And that, I would say, is compatible with any culture worth living in.

              I would say more, but I think I’ve probably said enough, and have to catch the train anyway.

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              • I’d like to know more about what it was like to be in Ramallah, and about the Palestinian culture generally. When I think about it I find it shocking that Israel can plonk itself down in a country that doesn’t belong to it, take people’s land and turn them into second class citizens, and yet be treated as a civilised nation… unlike Russia. Of course, the British did exactly that in Australia…all the excuse we have is that a few centuries have passed since. Anyway, I find your perspective fascinating, having led a sheltered life😁

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                • Well, thank you. I’m going to Palestine this spring, hoping to blog directly from there. If I can find the discipline, I’ll write a little post each night. I guess I’ll have to find the WiFi, too, since I’ll be spending most of the trip among Bedouins in a tent in the middle of the desert.

                  The truth is that I’ve mostly led a sheltered life, too. I had to wreck mine before I had the freedom to live it differently. On the plus side, now I am.

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  3. The official reason usually given for the ban on images of Muhammad is that it’s to prevent Muslims from worshipping Muhammad the way most Christians worship Jesus. But the feel of the objection usually seems the opposite of the official reason — namely that Muhammad is too holy, too sacred, to depict. So a policy that’s defended as a way to prevent Muhmmad’s deification seems in practice to be rather more in aid of such deification. Thoughts?

    On a more minor note: you’ve misspelled “Wahhabi.” I always knew you were a fake Mozlam.

    Liked by 2 people

    • “On a more minor note: you’ve misspelled “Wahhabi.” I always knew you were a fake Mozlam.”

      Hmm. So you’ve suddenly become very particular about the proper spelling of “Wahhabi,” you’ve issued a takfiri fatwa declaring me a fake Muslim, and “coincidentally,” your institution, Auburn University, has just banned TikTok.

      Do I see a pattern here? In retaliation for your outing me as a fake Muslim, I’m now outing you as a real Wahhabi. How about that, Smarty Pants?

      Liked by 1 person

    • (Responding to Roderick)
      I agree with you. There’s a tension between saying, “Images of Muhammad are prohibited because images of Muhammad tend to encourage worship of Muhammad,” and “Images are prohibited because Muhammad is too holy to be captured in images.” And both reasons are commonly invoked. But I think the problem is worse than that.

      Let’s step back and ask: what exactly is the prohibition in the first place? Though I won’t pursue it here, we might also want to ask where it is.

      Is the prohibition one on images of Muhammad, or on images of any of the prophets, or on anything whatsoever? Is it specificallly a prohibition on visual images, or does it apply to all of the senses?

      Suppose that it’s a prohibition specifically on visual images of the Prophet Muhammad. Then it seems arbitrarily narrow. If images tend to encourage worship, and only God is worthy of worship, then all images will tend to encourage worship of non-divine objects. So the prohibition has to be broadened.

      You might think to broaden it to include images of the other prophets, but that seems arbitrary, too. Prophets are not the only worldly objects that might be worshipped. Any object can in principle become an idol, hence an illicit object of worship. So if worship of visual images of worship-conducive objects is the issue, the ban should be one on visual images as such. All visual images should be branded as anti-Islamic. This yields a ridiculously broad prohibition, one impossible to follow, and one driven by a psychologically ridiculous motivation: since images could become objects of worship, they should, by the theological equivalent of the precautionary principle, be treated as though they always inevitably became objects of worship.

      I can’t help wondering: are the Muslims who are so perturbed by these images of Muhammad similarly perturbed by the images they constantly see of other prophets? Maybe they aren’t, but the exclusion seems ad hoc to me. And if they are perturbed by images of non-Muhammadan prophets, then one has to admit that it’s hard to make it through American life without seeing images of Jesus, and occasionally of Mary or even Moses. Are they similarly traumatized by those images? Because if so, hard-hearted as it sounds, I would suggest finding another place to live. You can’t realistically live your life in dread that at any moment, you might see an image of Jesus, and that doing so will put your soul in immortal peril. If a person sincerely believes that, they ought to find a place to live where they will never, ever run the risk of seeing an image of Jesus. But that just seems quixotic and stupid. Where would you go? To an Islamic country that prohibits the very presence of Christians? Or perhaps one that imposes a form of apartheid on Christians, so that Muslims never see the illicit images associated with them. Not even the Prophet himself lived in such a society or demanded it. The absurd nature of the conclusion would induce a thoughtful person to re-think the premise that got them there. Evidently, we live in a world where we’re to make excuses for absurdities lest we encourage people to re-think the premises that gave rise to them.

      Construed in a non-ad hoc way, the prohibition on images doesn’t just apply to images of Muhammad, or images of the other prophets, or even images found in painting, but any visual image that could in principle be worshipped. That includes anything that is visually appealing: a nicely designed artifact could fit that description. Someone could after all worship their iPhone, their Maserati, the skyline of Dubai, or the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. Should all of these things be banned? Should Muslims not use iPhones, and not get nice cars? Should the skyline of Dubai be reduced to rubble? How about the Prophet’s Mosque at Medina, widely regarded as an impressive aesthetic achievement? Or the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem? Or any of a thousand beautiful mosques around the world? Consistency seems to demand that all of these artifacts be destroyed, lest the objects in question become objects of worship. Yet no one holds this view, not even the most reactionary Saudi preachers. It’s too absurd even for them. And that’s saying something.

      Some Muslims get around this reductio by insisting that art is OK, but only if it takes a non-representative, purely abstract form. That obviously doesn’t solve the problem. For one, it doesn’t deal with some of the counter-examples I just gave. And anyway, if you can worship a representational image, you can worship an abstract visual form. Apparently, none of these people have heard of Rothko, or the cult that surrounds him.

      But of course, even the preceding view is too narrow. Music is the functional equivalent of an aural image. So, for that matter, are voices as such. So are all pleasant sounds. Does the prohibition then require us to walk through life with our ears plugged, for fear that we might worship the aural images we encounter?

      Certainly, some very reactionary imams have tried their best to fashion a parallel prohibition here: they’ve wanted to ban music (even religious music), they’ve wanted women (whose voices are deemed more pleasant than men’s) to shut up, they’re very disturbed by the ASMR trend, etc. But this fails to come to grips with the fact that if perceptual images are what encourage worship, anything that takes imagistic form could become an object of worship. The only way to prevent this would be to make everyone deaf.

      There are competitions throughout the Muslim world for who can do the best job of chanting the Qur’an, or issuing the call to prayer, etc. Likewise, there is an aesthetic dimension to religious rhetoric. Imams who deliver the Friday khutbah (sermon) take a pride in doing so in an artful way. If images are so dangerous, then all of this is dangerous. Instead of worshipping God, someone might come to worship the art of Qur’anic chant, or of giving the aza’an, or delivering the khutbah–or deify the artist himself engaging in these activities. Consistency would require doing away with all of these things. But not even ISIS or the Taliban have managed to go that far.

      And likewise for all of the other sensory modalities: fragrances, pleasant tactile experiences, etc. If any image can become an object of worship, then danger lurks in every one of these experiences. If the danger of idolatry is sufficient for a ban, then virtually all sensory experience would have to be banned. Not even Helen Keller would be safe from sin.

      Obviously, images aren’t the only thing that can encourage idolatry. So can physical objects themselves. The Qur’an derides pagans who worshipped physical objects, like rocks, mountains, the moon, etc. as deities. It says nothing comparable about pagans who worshiped images in painting. But if these physical objects have habitually been worshipped by generations of pagans, and are explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an as illicit objects of pagan worship, they seem more obvious sources of danger than painting. Should we make efforts to get rid of them, too? If that seems too absurd, should we at least avert our eyes and attention from them? The moon was a pagan Arabic deity. Should we avert our eyes from it? How do you live your faith by a lunar calendar while averting your eyes from the moon? Not a rhetorical question.

      For that matter, what about self-worship? Self-worship is at least as common a form of idolatry as worship of the Prophet. So should introspection be subject to the same kind of ban as images of the Prophet? Following out the logic of the ban on images of Muhammad, you’d think it should be, except that God explicitly commands introspection. For that matter, God commands an appreciation for the wonders of nature, on the premise that reflection on nature will bring the viewer back to God. (This is one of the themes of Sari Nusseibeh’s The Story of Reason in Islam, which I highly recommend.) Surely the human capacity for painting is part of nature. So if reflection on nature will bring the viewer back to God, shouldn’t reflection on the human capacity for painting–and its actualization, namely painting itself–do the same thing? Imam Irfan thinks so, but he seems to be in a minority on this subject.

      Finally, it’s a matter of consternation to me that Muslims habitually (zealously, adamantly, angrily) insist that when you invoke the name of the Prophet Muhammad, you add the standard benediction: sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, peace be upon him. But there is no comparable requirement to add a benediction after invoking the name of God. Common occurrence: something bad happens; you sigh, and say, “Ya, Allah!” (Oh, God). There’s no requirement that you append your outburst with a list of God’s attributes. (My grandmother used to do that, but at a certain point, I began to wonder whether God himself found it tiresome to hear a recitation of his attributes every time she had trouble threading a needle while sewing.) “Ya, Allah” is sufficient. Doesn’t the double standard tend to imply that Muhammad is unique, even beyond God himself, and tend to encourage the view that he’s worthy of worship? I think so, but few agree with me.

      Having ranted at such length, I don’t want to imply that no one could possibly come up with a semi-consistent explanation for the prohibition on images of Muhammad. There could, on some conceivable theological or psychological premises, be an argument suggesting a particular liability to idolatry in images of the Prophet Muhammad, something that makes images of him unique, and rules out the sorts of reductios I’ve been conjuring up here. Fine. But it’s certainly not obvious.

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