Sunday, June 7, 2009

International Museum of Muslim Cultures

This is the kind of piece that made me love Mississippi. When we printed this, the only (and I mean only) complaints we got were from two people from Alabama. One was a guy who logged on and fussed, sight unseen, about them "damn terrorists." The second was an Alabama girl who knew 'me' from some boards on IMDb and followed me on Planet's site. She couldn't believe we'd waste space on the Muslims and blasted on the site. I cut ties with her, but we left her comments up. That was the only bad feedback we got. Most of what we got was, "I've been there. It's pretty cool." It is. I'm not Muslim, and neither is about 98% of the people who go, but it's refreshing to see a place that takes the time to educate you about a people you should know more about - and about how positively they've affected the direction of the world.

Jackson has its fair share of good museums. The Old Capitol Museum is one. The Mississippi Museum of Art and the Smith Robertson Cultural Center are both well known far beyond the borders of our state. One of the most important ones sits less than a block from the Museum of Art and is, quite literally, unique in this country. There is no other like it.

That museum is the International Museum of Muslim Cultures (IMMC). The museum opened its doors in April 2001 with the exhibit, Islamic Moorish Spain: Its Legacy to Europe and the West. Developed by Okolo Rashid, the current executive director of the museum, and by Emad Al-Turk, the board chairman of the museum, the exhibit was conceived as a companion piece to the Majesty of Spain exhibit when the organizers, Mississippi Commission for International Cultural Exchange, Inc., decided not to include any pieces that reflected the nearly eight hundred years of Moorish influence in the exhibit. Islamic Moorish Spain received considerable local press in its first few weeks. The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience and the Catholic Diocese of Jackson both gave their blessings to it.

After the events of September 11, 2001, the museum was thrust briefly into the spotlight again when it was vandalized and a major fundraising event was nearly canceled due to guests worried about their public image. But people who had never visited the museum did just that, seeking a working understanding of Islam.

After the exhibit opened, scholars, members of the Islamic community, members of the African-American community, and supporters of the arts and museums prevailed upon the IMMC to stay open. According to Rashid, funding for the exhibit initially came from many different sources.

“A big bulk of the money came from the Islamic community,” she said. “But we got a lot of funding from the Mississippi Development Authority, the Mississippi Arts Commission, the Humanities Council, the Community Foundation of Greater Jackson, the Jackson Convention and Visitors’ Board, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the Arts Alliance, and the city of Jackson.” These groups saw the benefit of the museum and believed that it could only help the tourism industry. That has proven to be true, but perhaps not in a way originally intended.

The IMMC is the only museum of its kind in the United States. As such, it has become a destination for scholars of Islam or Islamic history, for scholars of world history, for individuals studying cultural differences, and for organizations striving for true cultural understanding. A quick glance at the guest book reveals as many visitors from New York, California, Nigeria, Russia, and Indonesia as it does of visitors from the greater Jackson area.

This is partly due to the international press, who has written about the museum in newspapers from Los Angeles to Asia. But in Jackson, the museum has almost completely dropped from the radar.

“We haven’t had a marketing budget since that first exhibit,” Rashid said. Without the budget to compete with the major exhibits and the ever-growing arts community, the museum has occasionally struggled. But the fundors who helped with the first exhibit have continued to show their financial goodwill to the museum.

“We’ve been getting funding from all of them on an ongoing basis,” Rashid said. “We’ve had some private donations, as well. We’ve had support from Entergy, Mississippi Valley Gas, law firms, people like that.”

The museum is located in a small space downtown and shows a limited number of pieces, but, “The whole purpose of the museum is that it was established as a research and educational institution,” said Rashid. “What we want to do is to be able to provide relevant information to the public about Islam and Islamic cultures. We knew that many of the people who come to the museum would be non-Muslim.” Somewhere between 85 and 90 percent of those who come are non-Muslims.

The museum focuses primarily on the influence that Islam had on Spain, but finds its voice with panels detailing the influence that Islamic culture had on the world as a whole. Muslims were responsible for many advances in industrial technology, including new techniques for weaving, making ceramics, and working metal. The famed Toledo steel was a Muslim creation. Muslims also had huge impacts on the fields of math and science. Algebra (from the Arabic al-jabr) was developed by Muslims and chemistry first became a science in the Muslim world. Scientists developed the concepts of systematic observation, controlled experimentation, and the “proof,” the idea that no discovery was valid until it could be reproduced. Muslim chemists divided the elements, created distilled water and alcohol, and discovered processes like calcination.
The science of optics was an Islamic creation. This allowed for the invention of eyeglasses, microscopes, and telescopes. Muslim astronomers, botanists, zoologists, and geologists also made great strides.

Arguably the most important developments and discoveries of the era concern medicine. In the Islamic world, pharmacies were created, the science of toxicology was created, the first illustrated medical texts were written, hollow needles were invented, hospitals and medical schools were combined for the first time, and the idea of patient notes was first utilized. Even the Muslim belief of links between diet, lifestyle, psychology, and wellness are reflected almost exactly in today’s holistic medicine.

But, as the IMMC points out, these advances occurred because the most important aspect of Islamic learning was learning itself. While most Europeans were still illiterate, almost every Muslim could read and had received at least an elementary education.

“There was no concept of public education before the coming of Islam,” Rashid said. “Islam established that. It was because of Muhammad’s first revelation and the importance given to it.” That revelation was simply ‘Read, in the name of thy Lord and Cherisher.’ Rashid points out that, at the time, Muhammad was a successful businessman, a trader, but at age 40, he was still unlettered – he could not read. He had to learn to read himself.

“Right from the start, he obligated his follower to learn those verses, to read and to teach others. That’s how they had all the schools.” Rashid is quick to mention that these were not large facilities, but that they were held in individual homes. “In Cordoba alone, they had 80 public schools. In Timbuktu, there were over 150.” Muslims believed in more than just public schools. Students from all across Europe traveled to Cordoba to study at The Academy, where they learned math, science, literature, history, and law. Universities were found in almost every major city in the Islamic world. Each became a center of learning and even non-Muslims considered them to be the finest places one could receive an education. Rashid says that the Muslim view of life creates a unique connection between religion and science.

“Islam is not a ‘religion’ in the terms that we see, but it is a worldview, a cultural philosophy that incorporates all the very different areas of culture. In the Quran you will find quotes and principles that address trade, government, religion yes, but also education.” She explains further. “The cultural philosophy that underpinned everything the Muslims did was the idea that there is no conflict between religion and science, between theology and rational thought.” Historically, this reached its zenith in Islamic Spain, the first multinational and multicultural population of its kind in history, with Muslims, Jews, and Christians all living together. In the late 15th century, this ended with the Inquisition.

The Islamic empire, which was nearly the size of the Roman Empire at its height and had lasted for far longer, began to fracture around the same time. Originally, Muslim rulers were bound by the laws of Islam as outlined in the Quran and by the practices of Muhammad. Conquered peoples, for instance, had to be treated justly and fairly. This had begun to change.

“The Islamic empire fell became of internal problems,” Rashid said. “The leaders began falling away from the practice of the prophet – the original teachings as practiced by him. This led to corruption and the divisiveness.” This divisiveness plagues Islam even today.

The next major exhibit that the IMMC will show is The Legacy of Timbuktu: Wonders of the Written Word. Scheduled to open next year, Timbuktu’s feature attraction will be a collection of rare African manuscripts that shows that literacy was prevalent and education was a part of life in Timbuktu for more than 700 years. These manuscripts are hand-lettered and –illustrated on homemade parchment and paper, bound in leather. These manuscripts are among a group of over one million documents discovered in the African country of Mali in recent years.
These manuscripts refute the common belief that African society was primitive with a strictly oral history.

“Scholars are coming here for this,” Rashid said. “It wasn’t known that Africa had a literate culture. They’re finding that there is an enormous amount of knowledge being preserved. They’re saying that there is evidence enough to rewrite African history.” Rashid lights up when discussing the Timbuktu collection and admits, “We’ve never had so much excitement here.”
The collection documents the political, religious, and social history of Africa before the coming of the colonial era. Most of these documents were hidden by their owners, protected by the families for generations. A majority of the ones to be exhibited will be loaned to the IMMC by the Mamma Haidara Memorial Library in Timbuktu. The Haidara family collection covers a multitude of topics: science, medicine, poetry, copies of the Quran, travel journals, legal documents, family histories, and even philosophical documents regarding marriage, women’s rights, and conflict resolution. All were written before the coming of slave trade to the West African coast.

Arrangements have been made, or are being made, to send the exhibit to both Chicago and New York from Jackson. A preview of the Timbuktu exhibit will begin to tour the U.S. the first week of December. Fundraisers will begin in November with a major event at Tougaloo College, who is partnered with the IMMC and the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation to bring the exhibit.

“If you don’t have a sense of the significance of the education and academics that your ancestors had, it affects your self-esteem and the pride you have in yourself,” said Rashid. “I think this is really going to impact the youth in our community. This is major for African-Americans, phenomenal.”

The International Museum of Muslim Cultures is located at 117 E. Pascagoula in Jackson. Current hours are 9:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday and 9:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. on Friday. Admission is $7 for adults and $4 for senior citizens and children. Special hours and rates are available to groups on request at 601-960-0440.

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