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As a Muslim, I’m not offended by prophetic caricatures

Dismissed Hamline professor Erika Lopez Prater, who showed her ‎class a caricature of Prophet Mohammed, took precautionary measures to ensure that her intention was ‎educational and not comical.

Abdulrahman Bindamnan: “From an Islamic perspective, [Hamline professor Erika Lopez Prater’s] behavior ‎should be judged according to her educational intention.”
Abdulrahman Bindamnan: “From an Islamic perspective, [Hamline professor Erika Lopez Prater’s] behavior ‎should be judged according to her educational intention.”

Hamline University dismissed an art historian adjunct for ‎showing a caricature of Prophet Mohammed receiving Islamic ‎instructions from the angel Gabriel. The dismissal was a ‎response to Muslim students who were offended by the image, proclaiming that the professor committed the unforgivable sin of ‎Islamophobia. The story garnered attention and spurred a debate on the ‎conundrum between academic freedom and religious rights. ‎

But as a Muslim who studied Islam ‎traditionally in Yemen and Saudi Arabia and academically at the University of Miami and University of Pennsylvania, I’m ‎not offended by caricatures of Prophet Mohammed or any holy figure for that matter.

The prophet of Islam said that “deeds are judged by ‎their intention,” a classical principle in the reasoning of Islamic law. ‎Professor Erika Lopez Prater, who showed the image to her ‎class, took precautionary measures to ensure that her intention was ‎educational and not comical. For example, in the course’s syllabus, she warned students that prophetic images will be displayed in class, and no ‎student raised any objections. ‎From an Islamic perspective, her behavior ‎should be judged according to her educational intention.

There is a debate within the Islamic tradition itself about whether prophetic images are permitted or prohibited. ‎Regardless of the debate, however, classroom discussions should not be regulated according to a particular strand in the religion because it behooves students to have a full discussion of Islam in the classroom. In many topics ‎in Islamic law, Muslim scholars have argued for competing ‎positions, ranging from liberal to the conservative, the ‎beautiful to the ugly, the tolerant to the intolerant.

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For example, Omid Safi, an Islamic studies professor at Duke ‎University, takes no objections in showing images of the prophet ‎Mohammed. He regularly shows such images in his classes at ‎Duke, even without taking the precautionary measures that Dr. Prater took. ‎However, other scholars and leaders may inherently oppose prophetic drawings, regardless of the intention.

Dr. Safi fled Iran to the United ‎States when he was 14 and such a personal history perhaps impacts how students interpret whether his behavior is Islamophobic or not. However, Dr. Prater has a different background that ‎perhaps led students to interpret her behavior within a hostile ‎framework. In other words, scholars who hail from Islamic ‎cultures are less likely to suffer from accusations of ‎Islamophobia; therefore, a white Christian scholar from ‎Boston or Minnesota is more likely to suffer the charge than for ‎a Muslim scholar teaching in Cairo or Morocco. This is confusing at best. ‎

U.S. colleges and universities treat foreign and local students differently. In particular, there is a difference between foreign and American Muslims. Foreign Muslims tend to have a different engagement with Islam, viewing the religion from a theological perspective. But American Muslims may view Islam from an identity perspective, primarily concerning themselves with the politics of representation. Unfortunately, many U.S. colleges and universities lump those two groups together and often ignore the voices of foreign Muslims.

Many Americans don’t know much about religions in general and Islam in particular. Shunning a professor who showed an image about Prophet Mohammed will even discourage Americans from learning the tradition of Islam, as they will be afraid to expose themselves to unwarranted controversy. Yet as a Muslim, I would like more people to explore the history of Islam. So a better way of handling the controversy at Hamline is to arrange a discussion on the question of prophetic caricatures. That will have been a better learning experience for students.

When I fled to the United States from Yemen, I sought a liberal education in which to reconsider the retrograde views that I learned as a child. I came here to learn how to become a scholar who independently investigates subjects fraught with moral ambiguity – and to learn how to become an effective human being in the modern world, a scholar whose sensibilities can’t be provoked by a mere caricature. In other words, I was ready to receive an education – not an indoctrination. Alas, the recent trend in U.S. higher education seems to emphasize political correctness over critical inquiry. It seems to silence intellectual curiosity as we enter the age when religious conformity trumps academic freedom.

Abdulrahman Bindamnan is an author at Psychology Today, with degrees from the University of Miami and the University of Pennsylvania. He is a PhD student and a scholar Fellow at the University of Minnesota.