Nearly 500 years after the Scottish Reformation, Edinburgh Still Discriminates Based on Religion

The cover image for my forthcoming book, “What Every Christian Needs to Know About Islam,” unfortunately reveals that discrimination is alive and well in Scotland, not having changed much in several hundreds years.

My book is the first of a five-part series designed to educate, equip, and encourage Christians in America (and citizens in general) about Islamic ideology and the rich Christian history that existed in pre-Islamic Arabia. I uncovered a copy of Near Asian artwork c. AD 1307, which depicts Jesus’s baptism in the River Jordan.

The painting is from The Chronology of Ancient Nations, which the famous astronomer and polymath, Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni, compiled and completed in AD 1000. The Chronology contains a vast number of calendars, chronological systems, festivals, and liturgical practices of many cultural and religious people who lived during the late antique and medieval periods in the Hellenistic, Central Asian, and Near Eastern regions.

Part of an AD 1307 copy of the Chronology is held in the special collections division of my alma mater’s library, the University of Edinburgh. I requested permission, which was initially granted, to use the image. (Jesus’s appearance is markedly Near Asian (Persian/Indian) in style, as are other details, like the falcon (not a dove), Jesus’s shoes, and John the Baptist’s appearance and distinctive halo.)

The library staff sent me a link to download the high-res image for publication. Once I opened the link I scrolled through the document (text is in Arabic) and discovered other beautiful images. I asked permission to possibly use three others for my book, and was required to revise and submit a new form. These images depict the annunciation of Mary (Jesus’s mother), Muhammad and his family addressing Najrani Christians, and Muhammad installing Ali as his successor.

The paintings are extraordinary in color, scope, and preservation. I was ecstatic about the connection between my alma mater and artwork that I would use in my first book of a series. More than ten years ago I attended New College, the School of Divinity, at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. I spent most of my time on the Mound, a stone’s throw from the castle, and steps from where Scottish Reformer John Knox, is believed to have lived during the 1560-era Protestant Reformation.

Scotland’s history is rich with centuries of people quite literally giving their lives to ensure that freedom of conscience, speech, and religion could become a reality. Centuries after the Protestant Reformation, Edinburgh became the center of the Enlightenment—its literary giants are unrivaled; some of the greatest western authors, historians, and political leaders, lived and worked in the city where I earned my degree.

Which is why the anti-academic, unenlightened, and discriminatory response I received from the library’s special collections unit director was so disappointing. Dr. Joseph Marshall, Head of Special Collections, emailed that I did not have permission to use any of the Al-Biruni images. I asked him why not, and below are excerpts of our email correspondence.

The first reason he gave for rescinding permission was:

These images are only available for use in academic research publications, e.g. a scholarly history of Persian art.  The forthcoming publication you describe on the form does not appear to fall into this category.

In response, I clarified that my book has over 300 footnotes, it covers Aramaic, Arabic, old-Syriac, Hebrew, and transliterations of these languages into their English meanings. I added:

… my book has several sections that interweave various aspects of culture to describe pre-Islamic Arabia. In one chapter a sub section describes the magnificent artwork of the Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian, and Ugarit periods. Most of the images I use are from museums that have provided images of specific objects that are in the public domain. Some of the sculptures are of Egyptian gods, tablets, books, and the Persian artwork of religious leaders is part of this context. Another chapter addresses how Jesus and Muhammad and other prophets were portrayed in ancient artwork, especially within the context of the overview I provide about the Persian, Byzantine, Egyptian, and civilizations before them. All of the artwork I use as figures and exhibits in the book is integral to depicting the culture, religion, and society of direct importance to helping Christians in America understand a huge subject about which they are largely unfamiliar. Much of Christian history is rooted in Persian history, which includes artwork about historical and biblical accounts, especially from this specific book written by a famous astrologer who chronicled this history.

(Note: I inaccurately referred to Al-Baruni as an astrologer; he was an astronomer.)

Then Dr. Marshall gave a second reason for rescinding:

No-one is questioning your own scholarly credentials, it is the nature of the publication which is a concern.  The title “What every Christian needs to know about Islam” by Xulon Press clearly suggests a work of controversy which deals with the current truth claims of different religions.  We do not allow these images to be used in such a context, as that creates risk to both the original manuscripts and to the library staff who look after them.

To which I replied:

The image used for the cover is of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist. The second is of the annunciation, which is of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the angel Gabriel. The first image I was already granted permission to use. Otherwise I never would have been sent the link to download the image. I did not know that three other images existed.

The two images of Jesus and Mary respectively are more important to the book and do not contain any images of Muhammad. Are you now telling me that Jesus being baptized is too controversial to use when it wasn’t too controversial to use last week?

… But the underlying issue is not the historical work to be used to educate.

If the images were of Buddha would they be too controversial to use?

You are changing the terms first stated and still discriminating based on false information. The content is scholarly with over 300 footnotes.

Again, scholarly and Persian art is apparently not the criteria. You have an issue with a title of a book, which is discriminatory. Book 2 is what every American needs to know… does that mean you’d refuse because you think Americans are too controversial? If I told you I was an atheist would that make a difference? If I were a Muslim would I be refused permission?

Is the university afraid it will be sued because you are afraid of people finding out that images of Muhammad are historical and not available to the public?

One point of education is to clarify error that causes controversy. You work for an educational facility that educates about all religions, about which I discuss a minimum of 5, and received a degree from this university.

Then, yet another:

As I have indicated, on the basis of the evidence available, we do not feel that inclusion of our images in this this publication is necessary or appropriate.Therefore we are not willing for any restricted images owned by the University of Edinburgh to appear in this publication.

We do not accept the suggestion that there is any discrimination against any religion in this decision. 

If the criteria includes the title, the Christian publisher, the Christian author, and the potential Christian audience, then the official position of the university is that Jesus Christ, the reason for Christianity’s existence, is not “necessary or appropriate” for a book about Christianity and Islam.

Let that sink in.

In 2004-2005 the university had no problem charging me the second highest rate to earn a degree in theology. Now it is stating that my degree, my faith, and my interest in educating others about it, including using an ancient painting of Jesus, are neither “necessary” nor “appropriate.”

(When I attended the university, students from Asia and America paid more for the same tuition than students from the EU, African or other countries. Native Scots pay nothing. The University of Edinburgh primarily relies on foreign students to pay higher fees in order to keep its doors open. It began a policy of restricting Scottish students many years ago primarily because its socialized education system does not work. Less Scots have access to higher education as a result.)

Since the book discusses religion and uses an image of Jesus that Dr. Marshall states is neither “necessary” nor “appropriate” will the university refund my tuition?

Better yet, perhaps the university should eliminate New College altogether? There’s no point in getting a degree in religion if you can’t write about it or use a resource from the university’s library. The university can also avoid controversy by eliminating all books, images, audio-visual, and anything else that depicts Jesus.

Better still– eliminate the library, and all books related to Jesus and Christianity. If the library’s purpose is not to educate—through access to knowledge gained from books—then what purpose does it serve?

Sadly, in 2017 Dr. Marshall appears to have the same mindset as the Nazi bureaucrats who banned and burned books. He, and those like him, tarnishes the university’s reputation with such cowardice. A university, which used to cherish higher learning, advancement of knowledge, access to information, and collaboration among people who fearlessly seek to expose the truth—appears to no longer exist.

As a result, I decided to illustrate the cover image myself. I primarily used watercolor on parchment paper, incorporating pastels and ink. Al-Biruni’s images of Jesus and Muhammad represent only a handful of Near Asian artistic depictions left that are preserved at several museums. I plan to replicate many of them and make them accessible to the public, hoping that increased exposure will lead to greater understanding and awareness.