The Asia Society Walks Back Its Decision to Blur Depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in an Online Exhibition Following Accusations of Censorship

The artworks are included in the current show, 'Comparative Hell: Arts of Asian Underworlds.'

“Comparative Hell: Arts of Asian Underworlds,” installation view at the Asia Society and Museum, New York. Photo by Bruce M. White, courtesy of the Asia Society and Museum, New York.

Scholars of Islamic art have accused New York’s Asia Society and Museum of censorship over a virtual tour of its exhibition that blurred out two artworks featuring depictions of Muhammad. The museum has called that decision a mistake, and announced a plan to restore the artworks to the online version of the show.

“The virtual tour was created by an outside contractor without sufficient oversight,” Asia Society interim vice president for global arts and culture Peggy Loar told the New York Times. “Our goal with this exhibition has always been to display these historic works fully while also including necessary context and information. The images should not have been blurred, and we take responsibility for this error, but this was not an active choice to censor and is being corrected.”

The society’s website now states that “the virtual tour is currently being updated and will be reposted soon.” The museum declined to comment further on the decision.

Many Muslims believe that to create a depiction of Muhammad is idolatrous—although there is no prohibition against doing so in the Koran. Though figurative Islamic art is quite rare today, there is also a well-documented tradition of devotional art featuring Muhammad, and many museums hold examples of this work in their collection.

“Day of Judgment,” a folio from a manuscript of the <em>Falnama</em> or <em>Book of Omens</em> (ca. 1555). Collection of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Day of Judgment,” a folio from a manuscript of the Falnama or Book of Omens (ca. 1555). Collection of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Two of those pieces are on loan to the Asia Society for “Comparative Hell: Arts of Asian Underworlds,” the first exhibition to offer a comprehensive view of depictions of hell in Buddhist, Jain, Hindu, and Islamic faiths.

One, from the David Collection in Copenhagen, shows Muhammad ascending into heaven, the gates of hell behind him filled with burning flames. The other, on loan from the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at the Harvard Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shows Muhammad on the Day of Judgement, kneeling to advocate for mercy for the deceased. His face is obscured with a white veil.

In the Asia Society galleries, there is wall text warning viewers ahead of time, in case they do not wish to see the artworks. The written descriptions contextualize these images, noting that “they were created at a time when such images were acceptable within the realms they were made,” and signs ask that visitors not photograph those pieces.

<em>The Prophet Muhammad at the Gates of Hell</em> from a manuscript copy of al-Sara’i’s <em>Nahj al-Faradis</em> or <em>Paths of Paradise</em> (ca. 1465). Collection of the David Collection, Copenhagen.

The Prophet Muhammad at the Gates of Hell from a manuscript copy of al-Sara’i’s Nahj al-Faradis or Paths of Paradise (ca. 1465). Collection of the David Collection, Copenhagen.

But such warnings are not always enough to prevent offense. In December, Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, declined to renew the contract of an adjunct professor who showed two images of Muhammad in an online art history class, describing the lesson in a university-wide email as “Islamophobic.” Students were told ahead of time and given the opportunity to turn off their display, but one still filed a complaint with the school.

The university’s decision made national news, attracting widespread censure as a breach of academic freedom. Its president, Fayneese Miller announced her retirement last month, and the professor, Erika López Prater, is suing the university for religious discrimination and defamation.

The Asia Society exhibition opened in February, in the wake of the Hamline controversy, so it makes sense that its organizers would be sensitive to the potentially offensive nature of the depictions of Muhammad on loan to the museum.

The David Collection director, Kjeld von Folsach, told the Times that his museum had not been told that the artwork would be blurred in the virtual tour, and that he was surprised by the decision. So was Christiane Gruber, a professor of Islamic art at the University of Michigan who was an advisor on the Asia Society show—and helped publicize the Hamline University incident.

She had told the Times that blurring the artworks was “a breach of ethics” but is glad the Asia Society is now changing course.

“Besides the fact that these paintings are freely available online, they also should be shown and taught in an integral and contextually accurate manner,” Gruber wrote in an email to Artnet News. “Additionally, since these paintings represent the creative output of Muslim patrons and artists in premodern Sunni Turkic Central Asia and Shi’i Iran, it is critical that they not be visually excised from the historical corpus, which cannot and must not be retroactively altered to fit the view of some individuals. If such artworks are omitted or censored, Islamic art—in all its richness and diversity—will be flattened into but a mere Colonialist-Orientalist cliché.”

“Comparative Hell: Arts of Asian Underworlds” is on view at the Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue, New York, February 28–May 7, 2023.


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