Perhaps you remember the tragic murders of a dozen members of the staff of the French satiric magazine “Charlie Hebdo.” Knowing that Muslims oppose any visual detection of their Prophet Mohammed, the magazine printed an issue with several cartoons about Mohammed, all making fun of the taboo. Two brothers, who were Muslims and terrorists, burst into their offices and gunned down 23 people, murdering 12.

The story was widely reported but very few newspapers or magazines dared to reprint the offending images for fear of inspiring more terrorism.

Recently an adjunct professor at Hamline University in Minnesota, showed two respectful historical images of Mohammed. She warned her students in advance. One Muslim student complained, who happened to be president of the Muslim Students Association, and the professor was fired.

The story by Sarah Cascone in Artnet shows the two images, which are respectful, even devotional.

In a controversial move, an adjunct professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, has lost her job after showing her class Medieval paintings depicting the Prophet Muhammad, founder of the Islamic religion.

The school’s decision not to renew the professor’s contract for the current semester has sparked debates over free speech, including a Change.org petition in support of the teacher, signed by at least 2,500 scholars and students of Islamic studies and art history, and a condemnation from PEN America of the “egregious violation” of academic freedom.

But there is also a tradition of painting Muhammad, often in miniature, especially in Persia, Turkey, and India. Examples can be found in the collections of museums such as the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. It was a selection of two of those artworks shown to the class that cost the professor her job.

Though it is not mentioned in the Koran, many Muslims believe it is idolatrous to show Muhammad’s face. Most mosques instead are decorated with geometric designs and calligraphy featuring passages from the Koran, and Islamic figurative art is now rare.

The teacher, identified by the Art Newspaper as Erika Lopez Prater, is said to have displayed the images during on online lecture on October 6, 2022. There was a two-minute content warning prior to the artworks’ appearance, to allow students to opt out of viewing the potentially offensive imagery should they feel it was against their faith.

A day later, Vimeo Patel of The New York Times reported the controversy in greater detail. The story included the offending images, as well as one that belongs to Omar Safi, a Duke University Professor of Asians and Middle Eastern Studies, who said he regularly shows images of the Prophet in his classes.

Erika López Prater, an adjunct professor at Hamline University, said she knew many Muslims have deeply held religious beliefs that prohibit depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. So last semester for a global art history class, she took many precautions before showing a 14th-century painting of Islam’s founder.

In the syllabus, she warned that images of holy figures, including the Prophet Muhammad and the Buddha, would be shown in the course. She asked students to contact her with any concerns, and she said no one did.

In class, she prepped students, telling them that in a few minutes, the painting would be displayed, in case anyone wanted to leave.

Then Dr. López Prater showed the image — and lost her teaching gig.

Officials at Hamline, a small, private university in St. Paul, Minn., with about 1,800 undergraduates, had tried to douse what they feared would become a runaway fire. Instead they ended up with what they had tried to avoid: a national controversy, which pitted advocates of academic liberty and free speech against Muslims who believe that showing the image of Prophet Muhammad is always sacrilegious.

After Dr. López Prater showed the image, a senior in the class complained to the administration. Other Muslim students, not in the course, supported the student, saying the class was an attack on their religion. They demanded that officials take action.

Officials told Dr. López Prater that her services next semester were no longer needed. In emails to students and faculty, they said that the incident was clearly Islamophobic. Hamline’s president, Fayneese S. Miller, co-signed an email that said respect for the Muslim students “should have superseded academic freedom.” At a town hall, an invited Muslim speaker compared showing the images to teaching that Hitler was good.

Free speech supporters started their own campaign. An Islamic art historian wrote an essay defending Dr. López Prater and started a petition demanding the university’s board investigate the matter. It had more than 2,800 signatures. Free speech groups and publications issued blistering critiques; PEN America called it“one of the most egregious violations of academic freedom in recent memory.” And Muslims themselves debated whether the action was Islamophobic….

University officials and administrators all declined interviews. But Dr. Miller, the school’s president, defended the decision in a statement.

“To look upon an image of the Prophet Muhammad, for many Muslims, is against their faith,” Dr. Miller’s statement said, adding, “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…”

The painting shown in Dr. López Prater’s class is in one of the earliest Islamic illustrated histories of the world, “A Compendium of Chronicles,” written during the 14th century by Rashid-al-Din (1247-1318).

Shown regularly in art history classes, the painting shows a winged and crowned Angel Gabriel pointing at the Prophet Muhammad and delivering to him the first Quranic revelation. Muslims believe that the Quran comprises the words of Allah dictated to the Prophet Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel.

The image is “a masterpiece of Persian manuscript painting,” said Christiane Gruber, a professor of Islamic art at the University of Michigan. It is housed at the University of Edinburgh; similar paintings have been on display at places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And a sculpture of the prophet is at the Supreme Court.

Dr. Gruber said that showing Islamic art and depictions of the Prophet Muhammad have become more common in academia, because of a push to “decolonize the canon” — that is, expand curriculum beyond a Western model.

Dr. Gruber, who wrote the essay in New Lines Magazine defending Dr. López Prater, said that studying Islamic art without the Compendium of Chronicles image “would be like not teaching Michaelangelo’s David.”

What a shame that Dr. Prater does not have tenure. This unfortunate case demonstrates the value of tenure. Most professors in higher education work foe low wages as adjunct faculty. It saves their university money, but it deprives them of protection from marauding politicians like Ron DeSantis and over-zealous students, as is the situation at Hamline, a good small private university that has unnecessarily damaged its reputation by not protecting academic freedom.