Presentation as Representation: An Exhibit Review of the Islamic Moorish
Spain as Opposed to Magisterial Spain
Islamic Moorish Spain: Its Legacy to Europe and the West. International
Museum of Muslim Cultures, Jackson, Mississippi. Permanent exhibition.
The Majesty of Spain: Royal Collections from the Museo del Prado and
Patrimonio Nacional. Mississippi Arts Pavilion, Jackson, Mississippi.
Temporary exhibition, April 1-September 6, 2001.
Jackson, Mississippi was the site of two contrasting
yet related public exhibits in 2001. Both exhibits were tied to state
ventures, and both celebrated a specific historical period while failing
to acknowledge what Adorno and Horkheimer call the real conditions of
existence. The Majesty of Spain exhibition reflected the 17th century
western emergence of the ideal self as owner of accumulated property,
which signals that the world is one’s own (Macpherson; Stewart).
The exhibit assumed that royalty have wealth without asking how they
came by the wealth that fostered such acquisitive behavior.1 Islamic
Moorish Spain highlighted a period when culture was measured in terms
of the capacity to deepen and widen experiences,2 and where knowledge “truly
and essentially” was the measure of a person (Addison). This flowering
in the Islamic world preceded a withering into religious law of the very
precepts that created the climate for revelatory cultural exchange. If
the exhibits are considered separately and then in conjunction, they
can be seen as emblematic, if not prescient, of what is today a primary
national concern: the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks upon the United
Prior to September 11, 2001 Islam had been increasingly gaining adherents
in the state of Mississippi, where the Muslim community numbers 5,000
10). Many are professionals, with both men and women holding prestigious jobs
in education, medicine, computer science, and other areas. The state capital
is home to two mosques which bring a substantial Muslim immigrant community
into contact with African-American Muslims. This leads many of Jackson’s
Muslims to identify with and support the political objectives of black elected
officials such as Jackson’s first black mayor, Harvey Johnson. On Johnson’s
watch, the city of Jackson allocated somewhere between $500,000 and $800,000
for the state sponsored exhibition of “treasures” from imperial
Spain entitled The Majesty of Spain (Floyd 1A).4 A city agency, the Jackson
Convention & Visitors Bureau, put an additional $500,000 into the exhibit.
These monies supplemented the $3 million from the Mississippi State Legislature
and $2.2 million from corporate donors. The local Islamic community could not
ignore the memory of the infamous Spanish “Reconquista,” as well
as the Spanish Inquisition, where the application of torture was commonly deployed
to extract confessions from conversos. These memories were coupled with the
fact that “as the Spanish national state became stronger this would eventually
lead to a demand for absolute religious orthodoxy and purity of blood, untainted
by Jews or Muslims” (McKay et al.).5
To avoid a political rumble, local leaders supported the creation of a new
permanent museum funded, in part, by the city’s Convention and Visitors
Bureau, $25,000, as well as the Mississippi Development Authority together
with the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, $10,000.6 The museum developers
also raised approximately $200,000 from local individuals and small businesses.
The International Museum of Muslim Cultures, the first and only Islamic Museum
in the United States, opened its doors on April 15, 2001. The premier and now
permanent exhibit, Islamic Moorish Spain: Its Legacy to Europe and the West,
focused on the period of the Umayyhad dynasty from 755 to 1400. Modern scholars
consider this one of the most brilliant periods in the world’s history
as the cross-fertilization between Muslims, Christians, and Jews accelerated
the development of human knowledge and laid the foundation for the European
The developers of the Islamic museum transformed a small stand-alone office
building into a replica of the famously photographed Cordovan Mosque replete
with an arching striated façade. 10th century tile patterns, representative
of those found in Moorish Spain, covered the foyer, which also held an exquisite
working fountain with an eight point star-like base symbolic of an open book,
symbolizing the importance of learning, enlightenment, and the acquisition
Any worshiper entering a mosque must perform “wudu,” or ablutions,
at least five times a day prior to prayer. Accordingly, the entering theme
was water. Printed plaques addressed the Islamic precept of the unity of all
people, pointing out that Christ used water for baptisms and that the Jewish
religion prizes water for its cleansing properties. The introductory video
suggested that Islamic Spain, with its multiethnic and multinational population,
was the “first society of its kind in human history.” The mix included
Arabs and Jews from the Middle East, Berbers from North Africa, European Christians
from Spain and elsewhere, and Mozarabs or Christians who converted to Islam.
As one approached the exhibit, the 1,400 year-old Muslim call to prayer resonated
on background speakers. The exhibition was anchored around enlarged photographs
and material objects. The enlarged photographs included pages from the Qu’ran
written in Arabic, pictures from 15th century Persian dictionaries, ancient
manuscripts written in Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic, and depictions of exemplary
scholars, scientists, and philosophers. The material objects focused on the
staggering number of crops introduced by 8th century Muslims into Spain.8 The
advent of these new products spurred trade and lead to the development of the
waterwheel followed by the invention of the windmill. The exhibit reflected
the prosperous region, whose proliferation of mosques, synagogues, and churches
began to attract a great variety of scholars, the most famous being Ibn Rushid
or Averros. As a physician, lawyer, and philosopher he considered the relationship
between philosophy and faith.9 He, like the other Islamic scholars of his era,
relied heavily upon ancient Greek texts which had been translated into Arabic.
As a student of the Greek philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle, Averros
would write commentaries on Aristotle’s work in biology, medicine, meteorology,
logic, and ethics.
Spain was so fertile that the Muslims called it Andalusia, or “green
garden.” Because all Muslims learned Arabic to read the Qu’ran,
a common language stretching from Moorish Spain across North Africa, Arabia,
and India into Central Asia, China, and the Spice Islands fostered the development
of an active trade route. As Spanish exports made their way along the trade
route, Islamic scholars were translating ancient Greek works in science, medicine,
and philosophy into Arabic. Toledo and Castile, where Alfonso the Wise recruited
scholars of Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew, became centers for translations of ancient
texts from Arabic to Latin and Hebrew. The subjects included astronomy, medicine,
mathematics, physics, chemistry, mining, sports, and the games of chess, checkers,
and backgammon. It was here that Greek works, once regarded as pagan and expunged
from the consciousness of European Christians, were restored to Europe.
Muslim traders needed to be able to calculate their gains and losses and so
developed Arabic numerals modeled after those in India. Arabic numerals quickly
replaced the cumbersome Latin numerals. The increasing complexity of Islamic
society led to the development of algebraic equations and the concept of positive
and negative signs, along with the concepts of sine, cosine, tangent, and the
development of trigonometric tables. Algebra is an Arabic word coming from “al
jabr.” Al-Khwarizin introduced the concept of algorithms and the decimal
Muslims needed to understand geography to know how to locate Mecca for daily
prayer and in the event of a pilgrimage to the hajj. Al-Idrise, a celebrated
Muslim cartographer, worked in the court of King Roger II of Sicily. By the
9th century Cordova and Toledo had astronomical observatories. The English
word “almanac” comes from Arabic. The Cordovan astronomer Al-Zargali
built a precise water clock, developed a flat astrolabe, and constructed astronomical
Jabir Ibn Haiyar and Al-Kindi worked with chemical compositions and wrote the
leading text in chemistry, which was translated into Latin and used in Europe
until the 18th century. Al-Haitham, also known as Alhazen, correctly described
the function of the human eye and discovered the laws of refraction before
inventing optics similar to lenses used today. His work would lead to the European
invention of the microscope, telescope, and the magnifying glass. His student,
Kamal-al-din, correctly explained the refraction of white light into the colors
of the spectrum.
Bin Al-Baitu used plants to develop medicinal drugs. He combined ancient Greek
with Arabic knowledge to write the standard text on medicinal drugs, Collection
of Simple Drugs and Food, used in Europe through the 16th century. Al Hambra
of Grenada separated the study of pharmaceuticals from the study of medicine,
inventing the concept of toxicology. His work is based upon the ancient work
of the Greek Discordes, whose herbal treatise formed the basis for Islamic
pharmaceutical science. Muslims would also translate and employ Galen’s
Book of Antidotes to introduce the practice of quarantine. Ibn Zuhu Avenzou
developed ways to set bones.
By the time all of the Greek texts on medicine had been translated there were
50 public hospitals attached to medical schools in 10th century Cordova. Al
Zahrarir, regarded as the father of modern surgery, wrote 30 volumes on surgical
methods, including the first illustrated medical book, Al-Tasrif or The Method.
It would be used for the next four centuries as the standard European text
on surgery. Al Razi studied the diseases of children and invented the concept
of the case history. His 25 volume Comprehensive Book on Medicine was used
in medical schools.
Muslims would bring paper from China to the west in 751. Shortly thereafter
the first paper mills appeared in Spain at Xavier, Valencia, and Toledo. This
paper made from flax with linen threads was a workable alternative to parchment
coming from animal skin or papyrus developed from plants. Knowledge of papermaking
spread to Italy and onto Germany, thence Gutenberg and the first printing press.
By the 10th century 800 public schools existed in Cordova, including mosque
schools, palace schools, library schools, and public academies. Universities
appeared in Toledo, Seville, Valenica, Cadiz, and Granada. Students traveled
from France and England to study medicine, mathematics, astronomy, physics,
philosophy, literature, history, and law. The first Umayyad rulers established
a library with over 100,000 volumes at Cordova by the 10th century. This was
Europe’s first large library.10 The multicultural and religiously tolerant
society spiraled into decline when the califate collapsed in the 11th century.
Christians took over and promptly converted the fabulous Cordoba mosque into
a cathedral by 1236. In the pivotal year, 1492, Grenada fell into the hands
of Fernando and Isabel, who initiated the infamous “Reconquista.” It
is at this historical juncture that the west began to build a civilization
in direct opposition to the powerful system established by Islam (see Frank;
During the 300 years following the Reconquista and the Inquisition, imperial
Spain accumulated astonishing amounts of wealth from its New World holdings.
Absent from the exhibit were references to the colossal impact Spain had upon
the New World. A portion of the accumulation was on display for six months
when The Majesty of Spain: Royal Collections from the Museo del Prado and Patrimonio
Nacional opened to the general public. This exhibit was the third in a series
of “blockbusters” staged in Jackson, Mississippi.12 Spain, in exchange
for what the press reported as “millions in fees,” assembled a
colossal collection described as “masterworks” (Floyd; Lucas).13
In true superstar style the King and Queen of Spain, Juan Carlos I and Sophia,
jetted into Jackson to review the largest exhibition of art and decorative
arts ever to leave their country. Most of the objects on display were normally
inaccessible, stored in Spanish warehouses.14
The exhibit reflected the early 18th century, when the last Spanish Hapsburg
king and direct heir to Fernando of Aragon and Isabel of Castile, Carlos II,
died childless, willing his throne to his great nephew, the Bourbon grandson
of French King Louis XIV. This came at a time when the royal households in
Europe competed intensely for the best European architects, artists, and artisans
to build and decorate grand domiciles. Outside of the paintings of Francisco
Goya and a few Spanish crafted objects, the majority of original objects and
paintings in the exhibit were works of French and Italian artists and artisans.
The exhibit concentrated on the years 1746 to 1833, spanning the reigns of
the Spanish Bourbons Fernando VI, Carlos III, Carlos IV, and Fernando VII,
which coincided with the American Revolution. The exhibit included letters
from Benjamin Franklin and George Washington written to King Carlos III during
the American Revolution, when the Spanish monarchy reluctantly supported the
colonists in their struggle for independence. Recent research argues that both
the Spanish and French monarchies harbored deep suspicions of what they saw
as a revolt among the common classes. However, their hatred of the English
overrode their class bias and both monarchies mustered critical support for
the American colonists (Faragher et al.).
Five of the 14 exhibition galleries were recreations from four royal Spanish
palaces (El Pardo, El Escorial, Aranjuez, and Palacio Real) and three “casitas” or
small outbuildings situated on palacial estates. In addition to the small porcelain
room with walls and ceilings entirely covered in brilliantly painted chinoiserie,
or Chinese rococo panels, a Spanish art restoration firm, El Barco, also restored
the Hall of Stuccoes from the Casita del Principe at the Royal Palace of El
Pardo.15 Three hundred pieces of scagliola, a faux marble, covered the walls
in stacked panels, some of which were eight layers deep. Both recreations remain
as permanent exhibits in Mississippi. The other recreations included a banquet
hall containing 12 porcelain settings from the reign of Fernando VII and the
Sculpture Gallery from the Labrador Casita, or “worker’s house,” at
Aranjuez, a neoclassical style room with a marble floor showing aged Roman
mosaics and ancient Roman busts and various sculptures from the Patrimonio
The oldest and largest object in the display was the 55-foot carved and gilded
royal gondola built in 1668 during the reign of Carlos II. It is made of carved
wood covered with 22-carat gold leaf sea nymphs at a cost of $100,000. Situated
opposite the gondola was the 1832 royal carriage of Fernando VII, replete with
mythical Diana, Apollo, and Medusa in gilded bronze, crystal, and precious
stones, displayed realistically with eight life-size horses in full livery
replete with driver and footmen. Both the gondola and the carriage were restored
specifically for this exhibit by twenty skilled Spanish craftsmen and artisans
working for three months.
One gallery was made up entirely of the paintings of the renowned Spaniard
Francisco de Goya with their identical tapestries. This work was originally
installed in the bedroom of King Carlos IV at the Royal Palace of El Pardo
during the late 18th century. The most valuable of the Goya paintings in the
exhibit was El Quitasol, “The Parasol,” which remained in Jackson
only a mere six weeks before returning to Spain. An adjoining gallery featured
additional artworks from the Museo del Prado and seven royal residences, including
German native Anton Rafael Mengs’s Crucifixion of Christ, regarded as
the most important neoclassical painting in Spain today, and major works by
the Italian master Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. There were 17 rare French designed
and produced clocks, depicting themes from Greco-Roman mythology as they displayed
the time, day, month, and movement of the moon and the earth. The exhibit also
included Carlos III’s 16 foot tall throne chair from the Palacio Real
and twelve place settings of porcelain, crystal, gold, and silver from the
reign of Fernando VII. Chandeliers, candelabra, fans, costumes, ivory sculptures,
tables, chairs, engraved muzzle-loading pistols and shotguns, as well as porcelains,
bronzes, furnishings, and religious objects completed the exhibition. While
each exhibit was illuminating, they were also both deceptive in that each drew
the “circle too narrowly and disarticulated the subject from wider historical
determination(s)” (Young). The Majesty of Spain exhibition, with its
emphasis upon imperial acquisitiveness, did not spell out the costs incurred
during the Reconquista or the 300-year extraction from the Americas, worth
billions in gold and silver. It was this invasive plundering that lead to the
genocidal decline of Native Americans and the activation of a 400-year African
slave trade to the Americas. Islamic Moorish Spain, for its part, pointed to
a time when Islam prized innovation and change, before it became what V. S.
Naipaul calls “rigid and text ridden” (Varadarajan A10).16 But
its modesty and thoughtful concentration on learning and enlightenment pointed
to the possibility of building a global society that moves beyond tolerance
to genuine understanding. The combination of exhibits in Mississippi inadvertently
signified the tensions between the west and Islam painfully brought home to
America on September 11, 2001. Looked at in conjunction with one another, The
Majesty of Spain could not help but represent the materialist and acquisitive
west that ignores what it does to “other” people versus what once
had been an Islamic cultural call for unity of all people through an understanding
of all religions and, by extension, all cultures. Of course, we all know that
the totality of either perspective can never be represented in a single set
of exhibits, just as we know that the acts of September 11 do not represent
the entirety of current Islamic perspectives on the west. Those terrorists
who appropriated western openness and used it to inflict damage upon the west
are not representative of the Muslims around the world who daily work and pray
for the unity that will bind the whole of humanity into endearing communities
1 Jacques Derrida argues that western conceptions of a center,
such as origins, truths, purity, ideal forms, God, etc., are attempts
to exclude and flow out of accumulation. The conceptual development of
a center creates and then marginalizes those whose history is nonwestern,
rendering them “others” (Powell).
2 This concept is attributed to F. R. Leavis (During 2-3).
3 This juxtaposition between the West and the Muslim world centered, for the
first time since the Spanish Muslim revolt of 1499, in the West. Previous to
the opening of the Islamic Moorish Museum and the 1993 and 2001 attacks on
the World Trade Center, most direct contact between the two has been in the
Muslim world. The Muslim revolt of 1499-1501 was the last attempt on the part
of the Spanish Muslims and Jews to resist their expulsion from the Iberian
peninsula by Christian Spain.
4 The press release for The Majesty of Spain exhibit reported $800,000, but
local newspaper accounts lowered the figure to $500,000.
5 During the “Reconquista,” Jews and Muslims were given the choice
of Christian conversion or exile, Arabic was banned, traditional Islamic dress
forbidden, Muslim and Jewish property seized, books burned, and mosques and
synagogues converted to Catholic churches. The consolidation of the Spanish
national state led to calls for an absolute orthodoxy extending to so-called
purity of blood.
6 Mississippi manufacturers have multiple trade agreements with Saudi Arabia,
making that country ninth on the state’s list of primary importers of
Mississippi products. In the mid 1990s, the U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia,
Ray Mabus, a Clinton appointee and a former state Governor, facilitated contractual
agreements between Saudi Arabia and Mississippi’s poultry farmers. Much
of the chicken grown in Mississippi today is exported to Saudi Arabia. This
chicken must be slaughtered in a religiously acceptable manner that includes
blessings to Allah prior to slaughter and eventual frozen transport by ship.
Some of the state’s poultry processors employ resident Imams, who are
religiously certified to perform the sacred rites. Others ship their poultry “fresh.”
7 It was in this era that the Islamic poet, Jelaluddin Rumi, dismissed the
terminology of Jew, Christian, and Muslim as “false distinctions” focusing
instead on individual brilliance and achievement, no matter the background.
8 They included rice, cotton, sugar cane, oranges, lemons, limes, bananas,
pomegranates, hard wheat, watermelons, spinach, artichokes, eggplants, saffron,
cumin, anise, mint, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, coriander, parsley, and mustard.
9 His seminal work, Tubafut al-Tuhafut (The Refutation of the Refutation),
was a response to Imam Al-Ghazali’s Tahafut-al-Falosfah (The Refutation
of the Philosophers).
10 Other representative scholars include: Al-Briuni who, collected and classified
fossils and measured the gravity of precious stones and metals; Ibn Sina or
Avicenna, who used the classical scholarship of Greece to develop a philosophic
and scientific encyclopedia, construct a theory on the formation of sedimentary
rock that lead to the study of geology, and wrote over 200 books including
a Canon of Medicine, which was used as a major text in medical schools in Europe
until the 18th century; Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher and court physician
to the Sultans of Egypt and Syria who codified the Talmud and wrote The Guide
for the Perplexed; Alfonso the Wise, who added 100 chess problems to the book
of chess; Al-Zargali or Arzachel, the astronomer who built a precise water
clock and developed a flat astrolabe; the Muslim mathematicians Al-Qalsadi
of Grenada and Jabir Ibn Aflah of Seville; and Abbas Ibn Fumas of Cordoba,
who, among other things, manufactured crystals and discovered the process of
calcination (reducing drugs to powdered form). Roger Bacon read Fumas’s
manuscripts following their translation into Latin from Arabic at Toledo. This
enabled him to introduce gun powder, transferred from China by the Muslims,
to the west.
11 Henry the Navigator, third son of the King of Portugal, set out to reestablish
the Crusades and take over the lucrative Muslim-dominated trade routes across
northern Africa and the Indian Ocean. Portugal paved the way for the Spanish
explorers. Andre Gunder Frank points out that “the usual western Eurocentric
rendition (of Western Civilization as history) jumps from ancient Mesopotamia
to Egypt to ‘classical’ Greece and then Rome, to medieval western
Europe and then to the Atlantic west, with scattered flashbacks to China, India,
et cetera. Meanwhile all other history drops out of the story” (261).
What is left includes the Islamic world system, which incorporated the traditions
of the Afro-Eurasian landmass.
12 The state of Mississippi, along with the cities of Memphis, Tennessee, and
St. Petersburg, Florida, brought “high culture” to the masses by
sponsoring similar lavish “blockbuster” exhibitions to encourage
economic development. The pattern has been described by the media as a “splendor/treasure” model,
highlighting luxury items of exotic ancients (Puente D1). In 1996, Russia joined
Mississippi by staging The Palaces of St. Petersburg: Russian Imperial Style,
followed by France in 1998 with The Splendors of Versailles.
13 Palaces was estimated to have pumped $61 million into the local economy,
as it brought 825,000 visitors to Jackson, Mississippi. Versailles tallied
271,262 visitors. Spain lost $185,000, although promoters claim it added $41
million to the local economy. Attendance was around 273,000. This figure is
53,000 short of the planned attendance of 326,000. For the last two exhibits,
the overwhelming majority of visitors were from Mississippi, whereas most that
attended Palaces were from outside the state.
14 Not surprisingly, the King told the press that he had never seen most of
the 600 artifacts accumulated by the twenty generations of his ancestors (Puente
15 This room is no longer open to visitors in Spain and was one of the two
room recreations that remain intact in Mississippi. The other is the chinoiserie
paneled porcelain room.
16 Other writers point out that Islam made a transition in the 12th and 13th
centuries from an “effervescent” society to one “weighted” with
the “fully developed Shari’a (Islamic legal code), madrasa education,
and the Sufi brotherhood” (Bulliet et al. 246).
Addison, John. The Great Thoughts. Ed. George Seldes. New York: Ballatine,
Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans.
John Cumming. New York: Continuum, 1982.
Bulliet, Richard W., et al. The Earth and Its Peoples. New York: Houghton
Dunn, Ross E., ed. The New World History. New York: Bedford, 2000.
During, Simon. Introduction. The Cultural Studies Reader. Ed. During.
New York: Routledge, 1993. 1-25.
Faragher, John Mack, et al. Out of Many. Upper Saddle, NJ: Prentice Hall,
Floyd, Nell Luter. “‘Majesty’ Boosts Metro Economy.” The
Clarion Ledger 11 Nov. 2001: 1B.
Frank, Andre Gunder. “A Plea for World Systems History.” Dunn
Graham, Charlotte. “Muslim Population on Rise in Mississippi.” The
Clarion Ledger 15 Oct. 2001: 10A.
Lucas, Sherry. “End Nears for ‘Majesty.’” The
Clarion Ledger 15 Aug. 2001: 3E.
Macpherson, C. B. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes
to Locke. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.
Maneck, Susan. “Talk Before Methodist Women.” Jackson, Mississippi.
17 May 2002.
McKay, John P., et al. A History of World Societies. New York: Houghton
Powell, Jim. Derrida. London: Readers and Writers, 1997.
Puente, Maria. “A Mississippi Treasure Baron of Art Brings $9.8
Million Worth of ‘Spain’ to Jackson, Mississippi.” USA
Today 8 Mar. 2001: D1.
Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic,
the Souvenir, the Collection. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,
Varadarajan, Tunku. “Strange News from Sweden: The Nobel Prize
Goes to a Writer of Actual Merit.” The Wall Street Journal 12 Oct.
Voll, John Obert. “Islam as a Special World-System.” Dunn
Young, Robert. “Darwin and the Genre of Biography.” 2002 <http://www.nature.com/rmyoung/papers/paper48h.html.>.
Elizabeth Overman teaches in the Department of History and Philosophy
at Jackson State University where she is a doctoral candidate in Public
Policy and Administration. Her primary research interests are the public
management of social change and the tension between freedom and order
in liberal democratic republics. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 2 (Fall 2002)
Copyright © 2002 by the University of Iowa