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An embarrassing failure to understand Islam

An exhibition visitor admiring an 18th-century painting of Karim Khan Zan. Sean Gallup/Getty

It is a sign of the “strange contemporary culture” of American universities, says Hisham Melhem in Foreign Policy, that a college in Minnesota just sacked a professor for showing a picture of the prophet Mohammed. It didn’t matter, apparently, that art historian Erika López Prater had repeatedly warned students she was going to show them the image, nor that it came from a 14th-century Persian manuscript, painted “by a Muslim scholar for a Muslim ruler and celebrating the birth of Islam”. No: to the admin bods at Hamline University, and the “outside professional Muslim activists” who swooped in to cry Islamophobia, this was a cruel violation of a core tenet of Islam that forbids images of holy types.

This is not just an “outrageous assault on academic freedom” – it’s also plain wrong. “There is absolutely no such injunction in the Quran.” The Persian and Ottoman empires, as well as various Muslim realms in India, left a “stunningly rich inheritance” of drawings and paintings. The problem is the misconception by Western scholars – “and, unfortunately, by the overwhelming majority of Muslims themselves” – that Islam is one coherent entity. In reality, Persian-influenced Mughal Islam in South Asia, say, is “totally alien” to the “austere, rigid ways” of the Arab Sunnis. It’s hard to know what’s more embarrassing for the US academics: that they chose the imagined sensitivities of Muslims over intellectual freedom, or that they were too ignorant to realise intellectual freedom “doesn’t contradict the spirit” of the religion they claim to be defending.