The making of a Muslim museum in Mississippi

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Photo by Intisar Seraaj. / Mississippi Today

The museum is located on the second floor of the Mississippi Arts Center on East Pascagoula Street in downtown Jackson. 

The co-founders of the International Muslim Museum of Cultures, Emad Al-Turk and Okolo Rashid, realized almost 17 years ago that they could not rely on others to tell the stories of their religion.

This became clear to them in the fall of 2000 when Rashid saw the publicity for The Majesty of Spain” exhibit at the former Mississippi Arts Pavilion (now a part of the Mississippi Museum of Art) in downtown Jackson in March 2001. The exhibit focused on Spain’s history from 1700 CE onward, excluding the earlier time period of Islamic rule and influence in Spain during the European Renaissance.

Rashid spoke with exhibit curators about including the Islamic influence in Spain, but he says they weren’t interested. So Rashid and Al-Turk took it upon themselves to create their own companion exhibit, the “Islamic Moorish Spain: Its Legacy to Europe and the West” at the Jackson Convention Complex in April 2001, which evolved into the nonprofit International Museum of Muslim Cultures in Jackson. It was the first of four Muslim-centric museums in the United States. 

Their exhibit was in close proximity to the “The Majesty of Spain,” and approximately 25,000 visitors came — profound for a start-up exhibition, Rashid said.

“Most people were amazed [and] overwhelmed,” Rashid said. “Most people had no knowledge of Islamic influence in Spain, and were saying that our exhibition was more substantive.”

After accomplishing their initial goal of representing Islam’s contributions to Spain, they planned to close the exhibit in October 2001. Sept. 11 arrived before they could. With Muslims being blamed for 9/11’s terrorist attacks, Rashid and Al-Turk thought they would have to close right away. Feeding into their fears, they received unfriendly phone calls and a brick was thrown into one of the exhibit’s windows. But soon after, they also had an influx of interest and support for the exhibit.

Power of Muslim museum extends far beyond Jackson

None of this support was surprising to Al-Turk. He has been in Jackson for almost 40 years, and the local Muslim community has been developing strong relationships here for a long time.

“Even in the beginning, we had very strong support from elected officials in the city of Jackson and Hinds county — emotional and financial support,” Al-Turk said. “We had strong support from the business community and excellent support from the interfaith community.”

Rashid says the Friday after 9/11, the religious studies department from Millsaps College brought an interfaith delegation and the press to the local mosque, Masjid Muhammad, to publicly broadcast their support of and willingness to protect Muslims.

The exhibit also received ministers and their congregations and educators and their students who wanted their cohorts “to learn in an educational environment rather than learn from what they were seeing on TV,” Rashid said.

Former Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. hosted a business luncheon to raise money to help the museum stay open, Rashid added.

“Those were things that motivated us to decide to go on and take it on as a museum rather than just an exhibit that was going to just come and go,” Rashid said.

With community support, the Moorish Spain exhibit officially became a museum in May 2002. There’s a fifth of this exhibit still in the museum alongside the current exhibit, “The Legacy of Timbuktu: Wonders of the Written Word.”

Photo by Intisar Seraaj. / Mississippi Today

Roysean T. Philson, who visited the museum for the first time in July 2017, advocates for educating yourself because sometimes institutions can mislead you.

Roysean Tuyrez Philson, who teaches 6th grade for Teach for America in Ferriday, La., was drawn to the museum after studying abroad in Spain. There he visited the Mosque of Córdoba, the Alhambra in Granada, Andalusia and other places that were touched by the Moors’ influence. That was his first introduction to African and Black Muslims in history, and he wanted to learn more.

Philson, who studied political science and African American studies at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, says one thing he has taken away from this museum specifically is the inclusiveness of Islam and Muslim culture.

“Specifically, in Europe when [the Moors] did their conquest through Northern Africa to Southern Spain, how even as they conquered they didn’t force you to convert to Islam,” Philson said. “That juxtaposes the modern image of Islam.”

Philson makes an analogy between how ISIL becoming the face of Islam to how the KKK used the Bible to “justify white supremacy and terrorism toward minorities.”

“You get into the whole ideology of Islam being exclusion and not inclusive and this taught me how really tolerant it was even in time periods before our civilizations were established,” Philson said. “History is what we make it. You can get lost in misrepresentations so you have to go out and research yourself and educate yourself on a lot of things that even accredited institutions may mislead you on.”