n 2000, Okolo Rashid was as excited as most other Mississippians at the prospect of the upcoming blockbuster exhibition “The Majesty of Spain: Royal Collections from the Museo del Prado and Patrimonio Nacional.” The third in a series of biannual international exhibitions hosted by Jackson’s Mississippi Arts Pavilion, “Majesty” was expected to attract half a million visitors—including King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia of Spain.
A devout and well-read Muslim, Rashid knew that one of Spain’s most illustrious periods had been the roughly 800 years of Muslim rule in Al-Andalus, the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula. It was a time of productive and mostly peaceful coexistence among Spain’s Muslims, Christians and Jews, as well as among the many mixes of nationalities. As a leader in one of Jackson’s two mosques, Rashid welcomed the Spanish exhibition as an opportunity for showcasing the positive legacy of her faith.
But she had a surprise coming. “I was looking at all the marketing materials,” Rashid remembers, “and I realized they were going to leave out the important contributions of Muslims.”
Rashid is well-known and well-connected in Jackson, having spent more than 20 years in inner-city community development, organizing and historic preservation. She contacted people in touch with the “Majesty” organizers and was told that she was correct: There would indeed be no mention of the Islamic centuries in the exhibition. “The emphasis was to be European,” she was told.
Rashid was not, she says, “a museum person.” But faced with this significant gap in the coming exhibition, she conceived the idea of a companion exhibit to “Majesty,” one that would focus on the omitted material. She approached her mosque, the Masjid Muhammad, with the idea. The mosque’s economic development board decided to take it on, led by Rashid and the committee chair, Emad Al-Turk. The problem was, they only had five months.
“Everyone we talked to said we were crazy, that it couldn’t be done, that these projects take a couple of years to develop,” says Al-Turk, whose roots are Palestinian.
But as a longtime local businessman, as chief operating officer of a large engineering firm, and with decades of experience with interfaith nonprofit organizations, Al-Turk knew how to transform drawings on paper napkins into multistory buildings. The mosque leased a squat, dank, dilapidated building the size of a small house strategically located a block away from the Arts Pavilion and spent $60,000 to transform it with a façade modeled on the Great Mosque in Cordoba, a mosaic-tile floor and a small theater where an introductory video could be shown. A Moroccan fountain was imported to infuse the space with the sound of flowing water.
To produce the exhibit, Rashid and Al-Turk hired CommArts, a local design studio whose principals put other jobs on hold to meet the idealistic deadline. CommArts recreated a period marketplace, or suq, and a diminutive mosque with a 200-year-old minbar (pulpit), a mihrab (prayer niche) and a lofty, 200-year-old door painted with calligraphic motifs. By the time the job was done, mounting the companion exhibition cost $250,000 —more than two-thirds of which came from the mosque community—as well as the same amount again in materials and other donations in kind from the congregation, other religious and cultural institutions, businesses, and local and state governments.
“The Majesty of Spain” opened on March 15, 2001; “Islamic Moorish Spain: Its Legacy to Europe and the West” opened exactly one month later.
“The focus of Muslim Spain is very germane to humanities studies because it’s a case study of a tolerant society of high achievement and reciprocal scholarship among Christians, Jews and Muslims,” says Steve Smith, a professor of religious studies at Millsaps College, one of the several educational institutions aligned with the museum.
More than 30,000 people visited “Islamic Moorish Spain” that year, and half of them were students. And then there came 9/11, which brought a dramatically heightened sense of the need for education about Muslim culture—and also brought a brick, delivered through the museum’s storefront window two nights after the attacks. Instead of discouraging the exhibition’s organizers, the incident elicited support for them from civic leaders and the community.
Rashid and Al-Turk decided then to make their onetime exhibit into a permanent part of Jackson’s cultural landscape. They purchased the exhibit from the mosque and transferred it to a new nonprofit organization, with Rashid as executive director and Al-Turk as chairman of the board. Thus was founded the International Museum of Muslim Cultures—the first of its kind anywhere in the United States—in Jackson, Mississippi, a city with a population of 180,000.
“It kind of breaks a stereotype,” says William Winter, who served as Mississippi’s governor from 1980 to 1984. Winter later chaired President Bill Clinton’s town meetings on race and founded the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. “It’s at odds with what the average American would think about Jackson, Mississippi. But the fact that [the museum] is located here says a lot about the old provincial stereotype: It’s not the same stereotype anymore.” Read more…