Museum offers insight into Islam


By Ron Barham
Guest Columnist 

A special opportunity exists for people to learn about some people with whom we share a common spiritual origin. The International Museum of Muslim Culture in Jackson has an impressive exhibit available through December. 

“Islamic Moorish Spain: Its Legacy to Europe and The West” presents an often overlooked part of western culture. The contributions of Muslims to western culture has been minimalized in many history books, although Muslims (Moors) ruled Spain and influenced Europe for 1,000 years. A visitor will be surprised to learn of inventions, ideas and practices in our lives that came from Muslim culture. Frankly, the exhibit is a cheerful response to the absence of Moorish art in the The Majesty of Spain exhibit a few years ago in Jackson. 

No naiveté is needed about the contemporary and political implications of Christian and Muslims reaching toward each other. We still live in the shadow of Sept. 11. Most headlines and much of what we “know” about Muslims reflect the acts of Islamist extremists who seize selected parts of The Quran which support their agenda. They dismiss parts which proclaim the monotheistic origins shared with Jews and Christians in Abraham. Among other things they ignore: “Surely, God loves not the oppressor...” (Quran 2:190) 

Precisely because extremists have grabbed the center stage, we should avail ourselves of the opportunity to strengthen the voices of peace and brotherhood within the Muslim community and among our Christian brothers and sisters. The word Islam itself is derived from the Arabic word for peace, salaam. Devout Muslims practice a faith that recognizes Jews and Christians as “people of The Book.” The Quran affirms that both Torah and the gospel were revealed by God, although the Quran is held as a superior revelation and has clearly negative expressions about Jews and Christians.

When Jesus opened his ministry in the Nazareth synagogue, he brought up only two stories from his Hebrew scripture. Both were about foreigners, “non-Jews,” knowing about the Hebrew God’s help when the children of Israel did not: the widow of Zarephat in Sidon, who aided Elijah; and Naaman, the Syrian leper, healed at the hand of Elisha when “there was no lack of widows and lepers in Israel.” We should reflect deeply on Jesus’ message and how his good news offended his hometown people. 

When the apostle Paul proclaimed the great news to the people of Athens, he introduced our savior by entering their world specifically at the point of their culture. He noted their religious practices without hostility or condemnation. He quoted their Greek poets as indicators of the revelation of God. Only then did he give witness to the cross and resurrection, the central and unique message of the Gospel.  

The recent visit by Pope Benedict with Muslims and Orthodox Christians in Turkey is a witness to the importance and necessity of interfaith dialogue in these times. His determined trip was done under a cloud of warning and threat from zealous, religious people who foment separatism and oppose any dialogue and peace. What makes me different from such people if I also refuse to learn about and from the faith of others? My encounters with other faiths has helped clarify and strengthen my own faith in Christ and judged me in my devotion to The Way.   

As a Christian and as an American citizen, I feel a special responsibility to engage every contact available with persons of sincerity and devout practice of the highest principles of their faith. If people of faith cannot get to know each other and choose the path of peace, what hope is there for international peace?   

I hope that Christians will avail ourselves of this occasion to practice hospitality and accept the invitation from our Muslim neighbors. I would be doubly proud of my faith partners if many entries in the exhibit’s guest book’s “comments” section recorded: “A United Methodist friend.” 

An educational choice for school, senior adult and youth groups to gain understanding of our neighbors, the museum is adjacent to the Davis Planetarium, Mississippi Museum of Art and Thalia Mara Hall, and is purportedly the only Muslim museum in the United States. The web site is  

Barham is a clergy member of the Mississippi Conference and the Committee on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.