Ghazala Salam and Dr. Esam Alhadi on the International Museum of Muslim Cultures
The International Museum of Muslim Cultures (IMMC) is a pioneering center both in and outside its walls in downtown Jackson.
It is the nation's first Muslim museum to exist with the primary purpose of educating about the contributions of the Islamic world.
The museum's newest leaders, Museum Director Ghazala Salam and Director of Education and Curational Affairs, Dr. Esam Alhadi, bring years of experience and insight into how the American South and nation at large can find common ground with an ancient culture that's often misunderstood or stigmatized.
"This role really excited me, especially with the subject matter being so close to my heart, my faith, my culture, and my community," Salam says. "I have the opportunity to help preserve that heritage for future generations and help myself and others connect to where they came from."
One of the aspects Dr. Alhadi and Salam both want to expound on is educating Jackson's African-American communities about their heritage in a profound, engaging way respectful of other faiths and cultural backgrounds.
"Here in Jackson, there is a great population of African-Americans. And this museum is largely built on the notion of trying to connect those folks from an African-American background with their heritage in West Africa," Dr. Alhadi said. "I mean, the [current] exhibition here is mainly from West Africa. It's a very good way to start, to be connected. We want this museum to tell the story of an Islamic culture that existed in that region and what it's given to the world."
Salam wants current and future African-American museumgoers and students to see that their rich history precedes enslavement in the 18th and 19th centuries.
"The Western world learned so much from Muslim cultures, but much of that was lost due to generational and stereotypical gaps," Salam said. "Many of us in the Muslim community have personally lost touch with that heritage."
"Especially here in Mississippi, I think that data shows that thirty to forty percent of the slaves that were forced or kidnapped to come [to the United States] were Muslims," Salam said. "There are generations now that are probably only thinking of their heritage as slavery. We want to take that away and say, 'No, you actually have a beautiful lineage and history and culture that you came from.' We want to give that dignity and voice back."
One of the ways IMMC is accomplishing this is by being a space where community members can witness centuries-old artifacts and share their views, objectives, and ideas. Salam and Dr. Alhadi are also at the forefront of the newly approved Beloved Community Jackson Program, which will focus on helping the city's most vulnerable residents through interfaith dialogue and outreach.
"It will bring interfaith communities, businesses, individuals, social justice organizations, other nonprofits, everybody together to take a holistic approach to service work," Salam said. "It is faith-based because faith is very important to the folks here in Jackson, Mississippi, and the whole state and the South; it's at the core of our values here. For Muslims, as well, our faith is at the core of our values. And so we want to use faith as the core of building community."
The mentality of 'loving your neighbor' that exists across many faiths will drive the program's goals of improving housing, healthcare, and more, aiming to give dignity and security back to all lives in Jackson.
"Museums cannot proceed, they cannot succeed, if they don't create that kind of bond with the communities around them," Dr. Alhadi said.
Honoring both the city's start to Islamic Heritage Month in April and the 30-day sacred observance of Ramadan, IMMC is excited to be offering the public Islamic Heritage Festival event on May 7 at Smith Park in the heart of downtown Jackson. Featuring arts and crafts, a fashion show, music, spoken-word poetry, calligraphy, and more, the festival will close out a month of observance and celebration.
To learn more and be involved with future IMMC events, projects, and exhibits, visit muslimmuseum.org or follow along on social media at @immc_ms.