Pioneer of the International Museum of Muslim Cultures

An Interview with Emad Al-Turk, Founder and Chairman of the IMMC

By Taha Ghayyur

It was back in June 2005 as I was gearing up for MuslimFest 2005 (Toronto, Canada) as its chairperson, that I first had the honor of meeting Mr. Emad Al-Turk, a founding member and Chairman of the Board of International Museum of Muslim Cultures (IMMC). I was immediately struck by Mr. Al-Turk’s deep passion and clarity of vision for IMMC, the only museum showcasing the Muslim history and heritage in North America at the time. Today, I have the opportunity to interview him during the preparation of a groundbreaking exhibit that highlights the literate and scholastic culture that flourished in Timbuktu, Mali and other West African countries in 14th to 16th centuries.

Ghayyur: How long have you been involved with International Museum of Muslim Cultures (IMMC)? And what roles do you play in its operation?

Al-Turk: I have been involved with IMMC ever since its inception in April 2001. I am a co-founder of this museum and volunteer as the Chairman of the Board. As a self-employed professional, I have the flexibility to volunteer about 40% of my time every week for this project. My involvement in the museum has four components: Development of museum’s vision and expansion, policy making, fundraising (which takes up substantial amount of my time), and marketing.

Why did you choose to establish this museum? What was your inspiration behind this initiative?

 When we first started discussing the idea back in late 2000, we were thinking of doing a one-time exhibit. The idea of a “Muslim exhibit” all started with the “Majesty of Spain” art exhibit that was scheduled for April 2001, as part of Jackson, Mississippi’s bi-annual international exhibition of art and cultures. As the time for “Majesty of Spain” exhibit approached, we discovered the aspects of Moorish Spain, contribution of Muslims to Spain and the European renaissance were completely missing from this exhibit. This event inspired a few of us Muslims in Jackson, Mississippi, to launch the “Moorish Spain: Its Legacy to Europe and the West” exhibition, which aimed at exposing the Moorish Spain’s contribution to European renaissance. As we ran this exhibit from April 2001 to October 2001, as a sub-division of a local mosque, we received an overwhelmingly positive response from public! In this period we entertained 30,000 visitors. Then the unfortunate events of 9-11 compelled us to further our mission of educating masses about Islam, its culture and history. In 2002, with renewed determination we established this project as a museum, as an independent non-profit organization.   How many visitors has the Muslim museum served so far? What are their demographics?

Ever since we established the museum we had over 40,000 visitors from all walks of life and backgrounds. About 80% of our visitors are non-Muslims, mainly Christians, Jews and others. Out of which, a great proportion belongs to high school and college groups. We had several visitors from Muslim countries as well, including, Kazakhstan, Turkey, U.A.E., Egypt, Jordan, and Pakistan.

Being the chairman of the first museum in America featuring ancient artifacts from Islamic culture and civilization, what types of reactions did you receive from the community? Was the community supportive?

Yes, when we initiated this project we were surprised by the support from the local Muslim community. About 75% of our initial funding came from this community. However, as we decided to expand, we realized we can’t rely on a small community to fund and sustain an institution of this magnitude. Thus, since 2002 bulk of our finances (about 80%) came from the non-Muslim community, which includes government agencies, private foundations, corporation, and generous individuals.

What kinds of challenges did you face from the mainstream non-Muslim and Muslim community?

There are several obstacles we faced in the initial phase of idea and development, particularly in 2003 and 2004. But with Allah’s Mercy we were able to overcome them and continued building on our successes. However, there are a few challenges we still face on regular basis: Many Muslims don’t value and understand the need for bridge-building efforts with non-Muslim public. Sadly, most Muslims are solely focused on building and funding Masjids and relief organizations. It takes us a lot of time explaining to Muslims why they need to support this educational project. Often when we approach non-Muslim corporations and agencies, they debate why they should support building an institute in America promoting Islam and Muslim culture, while ‘their’ country is at war with the Muslim world.

Starting November 2006, the museum 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 will this exhibit feature exactly?

The idea of this exhibit began with a dozen of scholars researching on African culture and Islam’s influence in Africa. Since this topic is so broad and rich, we decided to focus on an era of Islam in African. Then we discovered these extraordinary manuscripts in Timbuktu, Mali and West Africa from the 14th century, that one researcher described as a “revelation”. Let me walk you through what we hope to feature in this exhibit: We begin the tour with a 10 minute video exploring the history of Mali and regions nearby and the glory days of Malian empire. Then we illustrate how Islam came to Africa, using interactive map and descriptive displays. Next, we make a connection between Africa and Islam using two narratives: – story of Bilal ibn Rabah, the first enslaved African who converted to Islam and called believers to prayer. – story of first migration (Hijrah) of Muslims to Abyssinia (Habashah). Highlights from the glorious Malian empire (200-300 years)- what were reasons for its success. Then we bring visitors to a large replica of Timbuktu tent, where the story of trade between Africa, Arabia and Europe is told. Using simulations we show how Timbuktu served as one of the commercial centers of the world at that time. Now visitors enter a re-created façade of Sankore Mosque and University (a major center of learning in Timbuktu), using an array of manuscripts and illustrations of how manuscripts were written and bound. Next, the decline of the Malian empire is discussed, highlighting the three causes: Moroccan invasion, transatlantic slave trade, and colonization by the French. In this presentation, a connection is made between transatlantic slave trade and America: Stories of 8 enslaved Africans across the US are told. This step explores Mali today, specially the types of trade in current Mali. The final part of the exhibit is a Learning Laboratory, primarily for school children. Here they get to play with calligraphy instruments, mud-houses, and musical instruments found in Timbuktu.

How many manuscripts have been rediscovered in Mali recently and what topics do they address? What genre of literature do they represent?

Over a million manuscripts were re-discovered in Mali and about 20 million more in West Africa. The variety of topics these manuscripts cover is phenomenal. It’s very rich in style and content, which illustrates the depth of knowledge and intellect of common people and scholars in 14th to 16th centuries in West Africa. Some of religious topics include: jurisprudence (Fiqh), human and women’s rights, and Quranic commentary (Tafseer). In science they cover everything from astronomy, to medicine, to mathematics.

What stereotypes against the enslaved African and their cultures does this exhibit dispel?

This exhibit is a proof that African culture was not a simplistic oral tradition, but a highly literate and sophisticated culture. It illustrates enslaved Africans brought literacy and values of education to America, much before we developed institutes of education. It shows that ancestors of African Americans were people of deep faith and principles, influenced by Islam. The fact that the trade of books in Mali was considered to be the most profitable business at that time shows how much enslaved West Africans valued literacy. Many think and are taught that enslaved African were poor, uncivilized savages before coming to America. This exhibit shatters this image and shows how much peace and material comfort they enjoyed back in Africa. Moreover, through this exhibit, visitors learn how people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds came to and peacefully co-existed in Mali for three centuries in West Africa.

 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 lessons do you think we can learn for our activism today?

35% to 40% of enslaved Africans brought from West Africa were Muslims. Later on, as the black civil rights movements gained momentum, their Islamic values of equality and justice had an impact on the direction and success of their struggle for freedom. Premise of Islam is equality of man- that no man is superior to another and no one can enslave another. It also means there can’t be discrimination based on color or ethnicity. This premise of equality, justice and tolerance is what West Africans believed in and practiced back home, which was grossly violated as they arrived in the ‘new land’. Today, we can learn from their struggle and strive to practice these noble values in our lives and movements.

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?

This is an excellent question. Sadly, many Muslims view Africa as a mysterious and distant place, with insignificant influence on Islamic civilization. Having grown up in the Middle East myself, I know the prejudices Muslims there hold against African Muslims. Most Muslims most likely wouldn’t even know where Timbuktu is located. The stereotypes about enslaved Africans that many Americans have are equally applicable to Muslims today. Muslims have more reasons to learn from African history than any other community. The fact that we have re-discovered over a million manuscripts, 85% of which are in Arabic, in Mali alone at the peak of Golden Age of Islam (in terms of scientific and cultural advancements), is enough of a proof of Africa’s rich contribution to Islam.

Why is this exhibit relevant to non-Muslims in America?

The Timbuktu exhibit re-ignites the pride of African American non-Muslims in their African heritage. It is critical for the self-worth of African American youth as they discover the contributions of their forefathers to the world community. This exhibit also helps us educate public, school children in particular, about Africa and its culture in general. Interestingly, in a class of 30 students when we asked, “Who wants to visit Africa”, only 1 student raised his hand. One student remarked, “What’s in Africa!?” For Caucasian Americans, especially who aren’t familiar with African culture, this exhibit can be an eye-opener. Many of them now feel guilty for what their forefathers did to the African American community. So they are now discovering the experiences of enslaved Africans and their civil rights movement. .For educators it’s extremely important.

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

Thank you for asking this critical question. First and foremost, I appeal to the Muslim community to understand the value of this museum. We are bombarded with negative images about Muslims and Islam in the media on daily basis. We are associated with violence, intolerance and ignorance. It is our responsibility to tell the world the true story! It’s critical for us to define who we are, instead of being defined by others. If we don’t, who will tell our story? Everyone needs to endorse and support this endeavor. We can do so by: visiting the museum signing up as members of the Muslim museum visiting our website at and forwarding it to your friends donating generously to the museum’s ongoing educational activities volunteering request our traveling exhibits at local city museums   Having said that, we thank everyone for all of their support since 2001 and we reiterate that we cannot continue without the sincere and generous support of the Muslim community.


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