Hamline University professor let go from job after showing painting of Muhammad

An incident at Hamline University last semester is sparking conversations all over the country about how to discuss Islamic art.

The national debate centers around whether it's considered inappropriate for a professor to show pictures of the Prophet Muhammad in class. For many Muslims, it's against their faith to look upon the images of Muhammad.

The incident in question happened in an art history class last semester when an adjunct professor showed paintings of the Prophet Muhammad.

The student newspaper, the Oracle, says the president of the Muslim Student Association was in the class at the time and was shocked to see the paintings displaying Muhammad during a class discussion, so she brought her concerns to university leadership.

University officials said it was the lecturer’s first-semester teaching at Hamline and she did finish out the end of the semester.

FOX 9 has learned the faculty member was supposed to teach again in the spring semester, but following the incident, the course was taken from her.

Thousands of people have since argued against this decision. A Change.org petition created by University of Michigan professor Christiane Gruber, an expert in Islamic book arts and paintings of the Prophet Muhammad, has garnered thousands of signatures.

The Oracle says the lecturer gave a content warning and described what the class would see for more than two minutes before showing the images of Muhammad. The professor also reportedly let students know ahead of time what would be shown and gave them time to sign off on the online class.

Professor Mark Berkson, the chair of Hamline's Department of Religion, has also come out in support of the lecturer and said he strongly disagrees with the decision to let her go.

Berkson told FOX 9 he "absolutely" believes there is value in showing images of Muhammad while teaching about religious traditions. He feels the lecturer did everything she could to avoid violating her students' religious beliefs including mentioning in the syllabus that the images would be shown.

Hamline officials declined FOX 9’s request for interviews, but a spokesperson said the university has released two statements publicly. 

In the first statement, a letter to the Hamline University community on Dec. 9, President Fayneese Miller and Associate Vice President for Inclusive Excellence David Everett said Muslim students, staff, and faculty are hurting.

"It is not our intent to place blame; rather, it is our intent to note that in the classroom incident—where an image forbidden for Muslims to look upon was projected on a screen and left for many minutes—respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom," the statement said in part.

The statement went on to say, "Academic freedom is very important, but it does not have to come at the expense of care and decency toward others. We can be better at Hamline University. While we appreciate that some will find our comments as an attack on academic freedom, nothing could be further from the truth. We have a duty of care for those who trust us to educate them—our students. We thank the members of the Muslim Student Association for their patience. We thank all the students of our community for believing in us, for trusting our faculty and staff to share their knowledge and experiences with you and you with us."

The university’s second statement, dated Dec. 31, came after the incident began sparking national conversations.

University officials said in part, "For those of us who have been entrusted with the responsibility of educating the next generation of leaders and engaged citizens, it was important that our Muslim students, as well as all other students, feel safe, supported, and respected both in and out of our classrooms. As we have stated, in the immediate aftermath of students’ expressed concerns, the University’s initial response and actions were to address our students’ concerns. And, contrary to what has been reported and become the story, it is important that this aspect be reported."

Berkson said he would like to see protocols in place to ensure students never have their religious beliefs violated, but he also feels that sometimes "learning is uncomfortable."

"The administrators wanted to say, ‘We care about you, and we’re with you.’ However, we owe the students something else, too," Berkson said. "We owe them an education, that we are an institution of higher learning. So I do not think that there should be an either/or between caring for them and educating them. And in fact, educating them is a way of caring for them."

The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations told FOX 9 it plans to hold a press conference Wednesday with community leaders about the incident.