Islamic Moorish Spain Exhibit

International Museum of Muslim Cultures

Jackson, MS

April 9, 2002

As usual, Laura and I catch the evening news on TV whenever possible. This particular evening the news was pretty bleak. Israel was in bloody conflict between Jews and Muslims. The commentaries were no real help. First one side would declare the other the aggressor, and then the blame would be passed back in turn. As always, Islam found itself a major player in the conflict. As we discussed our views as laymen, I had to remember a night long ago around a campfire when a group of close friends and I were discussing world events. Someone offered a show stopping question. Simply put, "What is Islam?". Try it some evening among friends if you want to see silence descend on a conversation. To me it was a strange and mystic belief shrouded in controversy for which very few of my acquaintance seemed to be able to speak with any understanding. It was these thoughts that were wandering through my mind, as I sat thumbing through one of the local guide books for Jackson, Mississippi, and came across an entry announcing that the International Museum of Muslim Cultures was having an Islamic Moorish Spain Exhibit. The Moors were a Muslim tribal people in northern Africa who crossed the Mediterranean in the 8th century A.D., to conquer what is now Spain. For  hundreds of years they ruled southern Spain before finally being pushed back into Africa by the Christians. During their stay in southern Europe, they brought many innovative ideas and artistic forms which are still prevalent today. When first seen, the museum is unimposing in an otherwise bleak neighborhood. Once inside, we were greeted by one of the bright spots of the exhibit, Okolo Rashid,  the Museum's Director. Okolo, an 8 year convert to Islam, was a wonderful source of information on the Moors and on Islam in general. As we wandered from exhibit to exhibit, she was a never ending flow of knowledge on 8th century Moors and the Islam they believed in. She talked about the old time "suk" or marketplace which lay near the center of a city that often surrounded the Mosque. It was a bustling hub of daily activity. Items for sale in the marketplace came from local suppliers, such as farmers, and craftsmen, as well as from faraway countries. Mules and donkeys came loaded with sacks of merchandise. Craftsmen practiced their trade in stalls and booths along the winding streets. Among other venders, belt-makers, coppersmiths, tailors, shoemakers, saddlers, basket-makers, armorists and silversmiths were present. Towns people shopped for spices, fruits, wheat and skins. Costly items like clothing, luxurious fabrics and perfumed oils were safeguarded in the innermost parts of the market. In this hub of economic activity, Muslims, Jews and Christians met in a peaceful environment, Philosophers, physicians and men of science gathered to share knowledge and ideas while jugglers, poets and minstrels entertained crowds. For the most part the Moorish culture was a tolerant one. Churches and Synagogues could be found beside Mosques. Many items offered in the marketplace came from Muslim countries throughout Africa and the Middle East. Although Spanish Muslims made many fine articles from silk and linen, they used cotton for most of their everyday clothing and utilitarian items made from fabric. Muslims introduced the cotton plant to Spain and the hospitable climate provided an abundant growing season. Muslims processed great quantities of this staple using tools of their own design long before the invention of the cotton gin. This was done by first separating the cotton from the plant and removing the seeds and impurities. The cotton was then divided into long fine strands by combing. To complete the process, they spun the strands to make fiber suitable for weaving fabric. They dyed the cloth many different colors in huge vats. Their techniques of cultivating cotton and making cloth spread to other parts of Europe and eventually to the United States. Among the best known contributions to literature by Muslims were folk tales and fables, often handed down in oral tradition. The best known is perhaps "The Thousand and one Nights", a story with Persian, Indian, and Egyptian elements, which was heavily influenced by English and French writers of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Muslims of this period are credited with the creation of the short poem which they called the "zajal" This poem was grouped in stanzas, each with a different rhyme or scheme. They also created the "muwashshah", a poem that most often dealt with the theme of love. In Islamic literature, the love poem focused on spirituality and beauty instead of sensuality. In keeping with Muslim restrictions of depicting the human form, the writer did not reveal his lover's physical appearance. Instead he described her with passionate words. Islam was an integral part of the daily life of the Moors. Islamic music is full of rhythm and velocity, with the vocal part dominant over the instrumental. The singer is encouraged to improvise. The highly regarded human voice is the only instrument heard inside the mosque. In Islamic Spain, music became a source of entertainment and pleasure, often adapting the existing folk music traditions. Islamic influence changed the character of Spanish music forever through Islamic instruments brought to Spain. For example, the Arab "Al'ud" was the four-stringed   popular instrument. Zitiab, a famous performer added a fifth string. As our talk moved beyond the museum and toward a basic understanding of this religion, Okolo explained many things in simple non-Islamic terms. She talked about the Muslims before Mohammed, and how they were a loose knit group of tribes without direction. The most recognized profit Mohammed (570-632 AD) brought them all together and guided them into present day Islam. This was done largely through the writings in the Quran which spelled out, often in great detail, the way of life for a believer. It sets what is acceptable in art, literature, and daily life. As an example, Okolo pointed out that one of the most obvious characteristic of Islamic art is the absence of living creatures, including the human form. Such imagery is discouraged because it implies the act of creation. 

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