An Interview with Okolo Rashid, Founder and Executive Director of the International Museum of Muslim Cultures
By Taha Ghayyur
Okolo Rashid, who helped launch the International Museum of Muslim Cultures (IMMC) in Jackson, Mississippi, was recently featured in The Face Behind the Veil: The Extraordinary Lives of Muslim Women in America, written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author Donna Gehrke-White.
A Master of public policy and administration by education, Okolo Rashid spent more than 20 years in inner-city community development, organizing 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 interview her today, I am taken aback by her dynamism and positive energy.
Ghayyur: Why did you choose to establish this museum? And what inspired you to take this initiative?
Rashid: It was back in November 2000, I was watching TV one morning and came across a promo of “The Majesty of Spain” exhibition, which was the third in a series of biannual international exhibitions 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.
When you first discussed the idea of this museum with your friends and family, what was their reaction? Did they think it was practical?
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 Masjid’s board agreed to support and fund this ground-breaking project, they thought it was a “good idea” that would take a while to transform into something concrete. The Masjid community support was significant to bringing the project to its fruition, who contributed two thirds of the initial funding required.
How did you accomplish such a daunting project in such a short period of time?
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, April 15th. We thought it was important to use this as a window of opportunity to educate the local residents and international visitors to the city of Jackson, Mississippi, about Muslim Spain. We just had five months to do everything!
However, just at the time we went through a major strategic planning session and had re-structured our board at the local mosque, Jackson’s first Masjid. What started off as an all-Black institution, Masjid Muhammad now included 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’s this dynamic relationship and right mix of expertise that everyone brought to the building of this museum, full-heatedly, 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”.
In your view, how has this museum contributed to educating and enlightening the masses about the Muslim faith, history, and culture?
The most important impact this museum as a venue had is its “user-friendliness”. The fact that it’s not as “preachy” as a mosque makes museum setting less intimidating.
People find a museum more educational and entertaining. There is no fear of “indoctrination”. This makes museum the most powerful tool to educate 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.
Secondly, we have reached out to multitudes of people through the public education 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 the public school history curriculums.
Being a female and the co-founder and executive director of the first Muslim museum in America, what types of reactions did you receive from the community? Was the community supportive?
In the mainstream community, there were two types of reactions: (1) I received more respect and encouragement; (2) people were, and are still, surprised to see a vocal female Muslim pioneering such a project, due to 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 the 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 and 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.
What kinds of challenges did you face in the Muslim community?
Funding is an ongoing challenge. Muslims are ever-ready to write a check for a Masjid or a school. But to get them to donate to a museum is difficult.
Of course, being a female in a leadership position is another issue.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is to make Muslims see the museum as a tool of outreach, Dawa, and education. Like other minorities in this country, Muslim do not consider museum an immediate priority. How do you get Muslims excited and galvanize them to visit the museum?
Starting November 2006, IMMC will launch an exhibition titled, “The Legacy of Timbuktu: Wonders of the Written Word”, which will reveal to public that a sophisticated, literate culture flourished in the City of Timbuktu, Mali of West Africa, beginning in the 14th century. What motivated you to do an exhibit on Timbuktu?
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 this time, we heard about the re-discovery 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.
Please describe some highlights from your trip to Mali in January 2004. What amazed you the most?
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 re-discovered 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’s 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’s Allah’s Will that they survived, partly due to the arid environment.
What opportunities does this discovery of manuscripts present for global educational reform?
This is an excellent question.
It’s an amazing opportunity to tell the religious, political, social, and economic history of Africa to the world.
Prior to the re-discovery of manuscripts, people thought Africa had no literacy and that it was 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’s enough evidence to re-write the history of Africa.
This discovery will allow us to look at the Muslim accomplishments in African history.
For example, the concept of ‘global peace’. There is a large body of knowledge in the manuscripts 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.
What stereotypes against the enslaved Africans and their cultures does this exhibit dispel?
It will definitely now illuminate that many Africans brought to America were very established and educated individuals. They were not brought to be ‘civilized’.
In fact Muslim Africans were the first cultural group to bring a revealed religion to America.
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 trade of books was the most profitable business in Timbuktu shows how much the residents of this city valued literacy and scholarship.
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 everything. These books were then bound and exported. It was a great socio-economic model for publication industry.
What is the response to this groundbreaking exhibit from the African American community, especially those who are descendants of enslaved Africans?
Its impact is so, so phenomenal. We have two major higher education institutions from Mississippi on board as sponsors. One of them is Tougaloo College (which is 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 Muslim not as strangers anymore. This is the link that has been missing from our Black and African studies in universities all this time.
The fact that our forefathers in America were educated, socially established, and Muslims, help to shine new light on our Islamic activism in this country, and our struggle for freedom, and social and economic justice. What lesson we can learn for our activism today?
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 can’t consider ourselves foreigners in America. A Caucasian professor from our scholar’s team, from Millsaps College calls it “American history”.
It’s 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 Muslim root to American Blues. Scholars have made a connection to the Muslim call to prayer (Azan) and the blues music tradition. These new developments clearly position American Muslims in America and its history.
Does the Timbuktu exhibit tell us something about West African’s role and influence during the Golden Age of Islam? Why do Muslims need to educate themselves about the rich African history?
Very good question again. 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 bring uncivilized and uneducated at global level. Muslims were directly affected by this propaganda.
Now new studies and sources are showing that Muslims in Timbuktu were the models of theology development and were pioneers in tolerance, peaceful co-existence, and global peace-keeping. Muslim world needs these ideals today.
Ibn Batuta, one of the most famous travelers, relates the following about his travels to West Africa:
West Africa was one of the safest places in the Muslim world
If someone lost or left something, he would not to have to worry about someone stealing it
Men and women related to each other in a way he didn’t see in other parts of Muslim world
Women were more independent
What can Muslims do to support and spread the word about this unique exhibit?
Most significant support: come and see the exhibit yourself! 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.
Please continue to contribute financially. We are still in the fundraising mode.
What do you see as the future of IMMC?
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 to be extended nationally.
We aim to launch 4 more exhibits on different Muslim cultures over the next 8 years.