Controversy over depictions of the prophet is routine, but the Hamline case may be unique in that it brings a kind of Islamic aniconism together with the logic of the neoliberal university and its attempts to manage diversity. Comparison with an important earlier dispute, which played out differently, reveals these dynamics.
A frieze on the north wall of the U.S. Supreme Court depicts Muhammad wielding a scimitar with his right hand and clutching a Quran in his left. Erected in 1931, the frieze became the subject of controversy in 1997, when a coalition of Muslim groups led by CAIR called for its removal.
The Supreme Court refused the request, noting that the sculpture of the prophet was “a well-intentioned attempt … to honor Muhammad.” His inclusion alongside other great “lawgivers” of history like Moses and Confucius had been intended as an inclusive gesture. Other American Muslims recognized this from the start; the executive director of the American Muslim Council called the depiction an honor and insisted that “you have to take it in historical context.”
Eventually, a fatwa on the matter was sought from the prominent Islamic scholar Taha Jabir al-Alwani. Al-Alwani held a doctorate in Islamic jurisprudence from Al-Azhar University, in Egypt, one of the world’s most highly regarded seats of Sunni Islamic learning, which al-Alwani taught for a decade at an Islamic university in Saudi Arabia.
A main principle within Islamic jurisprudence contends that acts ought to be judged by intentions (in Arabic, al-umur bi-maqasidiha), which is rooted in a well-known hadith or prophetic saying stating that “actions are according to intentions” (innama al-aʿmal bi-l-niyyat). Indeed, “intention” (niyya) is a significant concept in Islam. For example, proper intent precedes all acts of worship in Islam. It’s a fundamental marker distinguishing the performance of ritual ablutions, for example, from simply washing oneself.
Accordingly, al-Alwani considered not only the impact but also the context and the intent of the depiction. In his 28-page response, al-Alwani declared the depiction permissible, calling it a “positive gesture.” Alongside more technical justifications drawing from the Quran and hadith (the textual sources of Sunni Islamic law), he emphasized the positive value Western culture gives to pictorial expression and the importance of the inclusive message behind the frieze, concluding that it “deserves nothing but appreciation and gratitude from American Muslims.”
How did we get from judging actions by intentions to “it doesn’t matter the intent”?