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International Museum of Muslim Cultures *

Okolo Rashid: The Woman Behind the Museum

 

By Taha Ghayyur

Writer

 

Okolo Rashid, who has helped launch the International Museum of Muslim Cultures (IMMC) in Jackson, Mississippi, US, was recently featured in The Face Behind the Veil: The Extraordinary Lives of Muslim Women in America, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Donna Gehrke-White.

A master of public policy and administration by education, Rashid spent more than 20 years in inner-city community development, organization, and historic preservation prior to establishing the museum.

A revert to Islam for 30 years, she has been a vocal and articulate advocate of social justice, multiculturalism, and anti-racism all her life. As I interviewed her, I was taken aback by her dynamism and positive energy.


The Idea

Taha Ghayyur: Why did you choose to establish this museum?

Okolo Rashid: The idea started back in November 2000. I was watching TV one morning and came across a promo of "The Majesty of Spain" exhibit, which was the third in a series of biannual international exhibits hosted by Jackson's Mississippi Arts Pavilion. It was expected to attract half a million visitors.

I was thrilled and began to look for components in the exhibit that would highlight the Muslim or Moorish Era in Spain. Interestingly, the exhibit only focused on history of Spain 1700 CE onward, skipping the whole story of Muslim contribution to Spain and European Renaissance. This inspired me to feature an exhibit on Islam's presence and contribution in Spain.

Ghayyur: With whom did you discuss the idea of the museum?

Rashid: The first person I discussed this idea with was Emad Al-Turk, who was at that time the Chairman of the Economic Development Team and a board member of our local mosque, Masjid Muhammad. He immediately got excited and started working on the plan.

Even though the majority of the mosque's board agreed to support and fund this groundbreaking project, they thought it was a "good idea" that would take a while to transform into something concrete. The mosque's community support was significant to bringing the project to its fruition: It contributed two thirds of the initial funding required.

From Dream to Action

Ghayyur: How did you accomplish such a daunting project in such a short period of time?

They thought it was a "good idea" that would take a while to transform into something concrete.

Rashid: Yes, time was the biggest challenge initially. "The Majesty of Spain" was set to open March 2001. We wanted to run our exhibit concurrently with theirs. We opened a month later, on April 15. We thought it was important to use this as an opportunity to introduce the local residents and international visitors to the city of Jackson, Mississippi, US, to Muslim Spain. We had five months only to do everything!

However, just at the time we went through a major strategic planning session and had restructured our board at the local mosque, Jackson's first. What started off as an all-black institution, Masjid Muhammad now includes people of various ethnic backgrounds on its board.

Had it not been for the contribution and work of this diverse group, including new immigrant and indigenous Muslims in Jackson, we would not have forged ahead.

It is this dynamic relationship and right mix of expertise that everyone brought full-heartedly to the building of this museum that did wonders. This is how, with Allah's blessing and help, we were able to establish this museum in five months, a project that would normally take two years to complete. We call it a Miracle Project.

Ghayyur: How has this museum contributed to enlightening the masses about the Muslim faith, history, and culture?

Rashid: First, the most important impact this museum as a venue had is its user-friendliness. The fact that it is not as "preachy" as a mosque makes the museum setting less intimidating.

People find a museum more educational and entertaining. There is no fear of "indoctrination." This makes a museum one of the most powerful tools to deliver your messages to the masses. You won't get thousands of non-Muslims in a mosque. This is why Muslims need to realize the importance of this museum.

Second, we have reached out to multitudes of people through the public educational system and universities. We have conducted workshops and training programs for teachers. Moreover, we are developing curriculum modules, based on our exhibits, to incorporate in public schools' history curriculums.

Obstacles

Ghayyur: Being a female and the cofounder and executive director of the first Muslim museum in America, what types of reactions did you receive from the community? Was it supportive?

Rashid: In the mainstream community, there were two types of reactions: First, I received more respect and encouragement; second, people were, and still are, surprised to see a vocal female Muslim pioneering such a project, because of our image in the West.

In the Muslim community, the reaction was quite interesting. I quickly discovered that if you go along with the stereotypes associated with women and their role in the traditional Muslim community, you will be ignored. But if you are assertive, coming from a background of civil rights, black nationalistic movement, and Islamic activism as I am, Muslim men are more receptive. I realized that Muslim women have to do things differently and should be confident.

Ghayyur: What kinds of challenges did you face in the Muslim community?

Rashid: Funding is an ongoing challenge. Muslims are ever-ready to write a check for a mosque or a school, but to get them to donate to a museum is difficult. Being a female in a leadership position is, of course, another issue. Perhaps the biggest challenge is to make Muslims see the museum as a tool of outreach (da`wah ) and education. Like other minorities in this country, Muslims do not consider a museum an immediate priority.

The Legacy of Timbuktu

Ghayyur: How do you get Muslims excited and galvanize them to visit the museum?

About one million manuscripts were hidden in Mali for over 500 years.

Rashid: Starting from November 2006, IMMC will launch an exhibit titled "The Legacy of Timbuktu: Wonders of the Written Word," which will reveal to the public that a sophisticated, literate culture flourished in the City of Timbuktu, Mali, of West Africa, beginning in the 14th century.

Ghayyur: What motivated you to do an exhibit on Timbuktu?

Rashid
: What got us started came from a larger vision for an exhibit on Africa and its contribution to America through the transatlantic slave trade. When we began talking about it to the sponsors, they advised that this subject was too broad to cover in one exhibit.

Just around that time, we heard about the rediscovery of ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu, Mali. Coincidently soon after, the Timbuktu Education Foundation contacted us about a trip they were organizing to Mali. My husband, Sababu Rashid, and I got excited and visited the place in January 2004.

It was indeed a moving and deeply spiritual trip for us. We visited the three famous ancient mosques: Sankore Masjid, Djinguereber Masjid (built by Mansa Musa and the largest mosque in Timbuktu,) and Sidi Yahya Masjid.

The highlight was our trip to the Ahmed Baba Centre, where we had the opportunity to see the recently rediscovered manuscripts. It certainly was like a revelation, as described by a historian. We had the honor of meeting Abdel Kader Haidara, the owner of some 9,000 manuscripts. Now he is also our partner in the Timbuktu Exhibit.

It is amazing to see these manuscripts so beautifully bound in leather with calligraphy and illustrations painted on them. About one million manuscripts were hidden in Mali for over 500 years. It is Allah's will that they survived, partly due to the arid environment.

Ghayyur: What opportunities does this discovery of manuscripts present for global educational reform?

Rashid: This is an excellent question. It is an amazing opportunity to tell the religious, political, social, and economic history of Africa to the world. Prior to the rediscovery of manuscripts, people thought Africa had no literacy and that it had a simple oral tradition. As a team of 25 scholars and historians study the newly uncovered global legacy of literacy in Africa, they believe it is enough evidence to rewrite the history of Africa. This discovery will allow us to look at the Muslim accomplishments in African history.

Take the concept of "global peace" as an example. In the manuscripts, there is a large body of knowledge developed around conflict resolution and mediation. This study will impact our global discourse on peace and justice. Through the writings of "scholars of peace" five centuries ago, we can learn from and adopt their unique model for local and global peace-keeping.

The Exhibit and African Culture

Ghayyur
: What stereotypes against the enslaved Africans and their cultures does this exhibit dispel?

Rashid:
1. It will definitely illuminate that many Africans brought to America were very
accomplished and educated individuals. They were not brought to be "civilized."

2. It will show that Muslim Africans were the first cultural group to bring a revealed religion to America.

3. The visitors to the Timbuktu Exhibit will realize that Timbuktu was not just another place of learning. It was the place for education at the time. The fact that the book trade was the most profitable business in Timbuktu shows how much the residents of this city valued literacy and scholarship.

4. Africans in Timbuktu were at the forefront of global Islamic knowledge industry at the time. They developed generations of local scholars who wrote books about nearly everything. These books were then bound and exported. It was a great socioeconomic model of the publication industry.

Ghayyur: What is the response to this groundbreaking exhibit from the African-American community, especially those who are descendants of enslaved Africans?

Rashid: The exhibit's impact is so, so phenomenal. We have two major higher education institutions from Mississippi on board as sponsors. One of them is Tougaloo College (one of the high-ranking colleges in America.) It is known as the cradle of the civil rights movement in Mississippi. We also have Jackson State University as an official sponsor. These partnerships speak to the educational value of the manuscripts.

Moreover, this exhibit may serve as a "missing link" between mainstream African-Americans and Islam. It will allow African-Americans to look at Islam and Muslims not as strangers anymore. This is the link that has been missing from our black and African studies in universities all this time.

Ghayyur: The fact that the forefathers of African-Americans were educated, socially established, and Muslims, helps to shed light on Islamic activism in this country and the African-Americans' struggle for freedom and social and economic justice. What lesson can be deducted activism-wise today?

Rashid: It gives us a renewed vision about our role in North America. If we continue to build on the rich legacy of our African forefathers, we cannot consider ourselves foreigners in America. A Caucasian professor from our scholar's team, from Millsaps College, Jackson, Mississippi, US, calls it "American history."

It is interesting to note that a few enslaved Africans, such as Lamin Kebe, was quoted in an American educational journal. He was acknowledged as an authority in education because of his scholarship and experience as a teacher back in Africa.

Also, there is new research that points to the fact that there is a Muslim root to American blues. Academic scholars have made a connection to the Muslim call to prayer (Adhan) and the blues music tradition. These new developments clearly position African-American Muslims in America and its history.

Ghayyur: Does the Timbuktu Exhibit tell us something about West Africa's role and influence during the Golden Age of Islam? And why do Muslims need to educate themselves about African history?

Rashid: Another very good question. Muslims have a lot to learn from Africa.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of prejudice against Africans in the Muslim community. Muslims are as ignorant about African culture and history as any fellow non-Muslim. The major reason for this prejudice in the Muslim community is colonialism. Colonialists were able to promote an idea of Africans being uncivilized and uneducated at a global level. Muslims were directly affected by this propaganda.
New studies and sources are showing that Muslims in Timbuktu were the models of theology development and were pioneers in tolerance, peaceful coexistence, and global peace-keeping. The Muslim world needs these ideals today.

Ibn Battuta, one of the most famous Muslim travelers, relates the following about his travels in West Africa:

1. West Africa was one of the safest places in the Muslim world.

2. If something was lost or forgotten somewhere, the owner would not have to worry about someone stealing it.

3. Men and women related to each other in a way he didn't see in other parts of the Muslim world.

4. Women were more independent than elsewhere.

Muslims' Role

Ghayyur: What can Muslims do to support and spread the word about this unique exhibit?

Academic scholars have made a connection to the Muslim call to prayer (Adhan) and the blues music tradition.

Rashid: The most significant support would be: Come and see the exhibit yourselves! Regardless of where you live in America or in the world, make an effort to visit us. The educational and enlightening experience of the museum, coupled with the warmth of Jackson city and its people, will definitely make your visit a memorable one. Also, please continue to contribute financially. We are still in the fundraising mode.

Ghayyur: How do you see the future of IMMC?

Rashid: We would like to continue doing our exhibits, teachers' trainings, and public forums, hopefully at greater frequency and at a larger scale. For instance, we are working with the Mississippi State Department of Education toward adopting the exhibits' curriculums and toward being extended nationally.

We aim to launch four more exhibits on different Muslim cultures over the next eight years.

 

* This interview first appeared on www.muslimmuseum.org. It is republished with kind permission

 

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