The Customer is Always Right

I just read a distressing item by Christiane Gruber in New Lines about an adjunct instructor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, whose spring courses were cancelled after a student objected to the display of a medieval Islamic painting of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) on the grounds that such images were Islamophobic. To be clear, this was in an Islamic art class, and the image in question was produced by a Muslim. In other words, it was a far cry from, for example, the cartoon in Charlie Hebdo.

Gruber, who is a professor of Islamic art at the University of Michigan, points out very clearly that despite public perceptions to the contrary, there is a long history of depicting Muhammad in Islamic art.

“Muhammad’s Call to Prophecy and the First Revelation”, Folio from a Majma’ al-Tavarikh (Compendium of Histories), ca. 1425. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Cora Timken Burnett Collection of Persian Miniatures and Other Persian Art Objects, Bequest of Cora Timken Burnett, 1956.

Simply put, this is part of devout Islamic art. But neither the student nor the university was interested in learning this. Instead, the university effectively fired the instructor in question.

Initially I had simply chalked this up to the stupidity of the Hamline administration. After all, they clearly need an expert on Islamic art on the faculty, since they don’t know any about Islamic art. Then I suspected this decision was made by a PR person desperate to avoid even a whiff of racism. But then I realized the simple truth of the matter: the customer is always right. Sadly, in this case one customer got what he or she wanted, but many other customers have been negatively affected by the loss of the courses this instructor could teach and by the fact that this action by the university has demonstrated very publicly that Hamline degrees are worthless, since the university is more concerned with customer satisfaction than with education.

A New Literary Genre

One of the great pleasures of teaching this course for the Honors College at Hofstra is the opportunity to read some really great stuff, like Montaigne’s Essays. Another pleasure is seeing the invention of new literary genres, such as one a student of mine coined to describe Montaigne’s Essays:

I think it may be time for me to branch out into this genre myself!

Palmyra in Perspective

In a few days I depart for Copenhagen for the conference Palmyra in Perspective at the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters. I have just looked at the conference program, and I will be in esteemed company, including Jen Baird (whose Dura-Europos I highly recommend), Kevin Butcher (one of the finest archaeological numismatists out there), Maura Heyn (whose articles on Palmyrene art I regularly assign to my students) and Eivind Seland (whose scholarship on long-distance trade informs much of my own research), not to mention the conference organizer Rubina Raja, and many others of course. It should be fascinating, and with any luck I won’t make a fool of myself in front of all these archaeological luminaries.