Islamic Museum of Australia

White building with large grey Arabic writing on it

My mother outside the Islamic Museum of Australia in Melbourne.

“I would like to visit the Islamic Museum,” said my mother when I visited her in Melbourne last year. My mother likes visiting art exhibitions, but she doesn’t visit many museums. Her request surprised me. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. Like many people she has been appalled at the anti-Muslim rhetoric which is too often heard nowadays. She has always been interested in other cultures. Why wouldn’t she as a Christian be interested in learning about Islam?

Things intervened but we finally visited the Islam Museum in time for its third anniversary. The building is a striking design which declares the Australian roots of the Museum and its place in our modern world. It is adorned with an Arabic excerpt from the Quran which translated reads:

So narrate to them the stories so that upon them they may reflect

And we certainly did a lot of reflecting inside.

The first of five permanent galleries is below street level accessible from the lobby of the museum via stairs or lift. Appropriately, the gallery is about the tenants of Islam and life as a Muslim. We saw an interesting video of the Hajj – the pilgrimage undertaken by Muslims to Mecca. Laws about donating to charity, prayer and fasting are explained on a number of panels.

“Jews, Christians and Muslims believe in the same God,” said my mother when we discussed the diagram that showed the connections between the Prophets of the Abrahamic Faiths. When I was a child my mother told me that Muslims revere Jesus Christ as a Prophet, and I knew that Christ was mentioned in the Quran but I was surprised by the extent of this. “Did you know,” asked a sign, “the names of Mary and Jesus are each mentioned in the Quran at least 5 times more often than that of Muhammad”. On reflection this is continuing the practice of Christianity and Judaism. In their Sacred Books, both religions acknowledge the Prophets that preceded them by including Their stories and discussing Their teachings.

The Islamic Museum helps visitors grapple with misunderstood and controversial topics. I won’t list these topics here, but rather focus on one – the wearing of hijabs by some Muslim women.

I spent some time watching a video of eloquent Australian women explain what the hijab means to them. I loved the fact that one of these women pointed out that it is traditional for women to cover their heads in many traditions – not just Islam.

This is what has astounded me about the backlash from some Australians about wearing hijabs. Are they not aware there is a long tradition of Anglo-Celtic women wearing head coverings? Christian nuns always used to wear habits to cover their hair. What about the Greek grandmothers of our school friends who covered their hair with black veils?

The Muslim women in that video had some other very interesting things to say about the hijab. I watched it several times before I reminded myself that my mother had limited stamina. I had still only seen the first gallery of the Museum.

The second gallery was excellent. Titled ‘Islamic Contributions to Civilisation’, it included snippets about the many important contributions to Western knowledge made by Islam. This has always fascinated me because it is so significant and not often told to a western audience despite it being such an important aspect of our history.

Islamic Contributions to Civilisation was Mum’s favourite gallery. Her working background is in science and technology but she was not aware of the debt that western science owes to Islam.

The dark ages…

weren’t so dark

… said a panel at the entrance to the gallery. We were then immersed in the world of learning and discovery that took place in the Islamic world while Europe was struggling through the Medieval period. We were introduced to the ‘House of Wisdom’ in Baghdad in 1000CE where scholars from as far away as Andalusia (Spain) and China gathered to translate Greek, Latin and Sanskrit texts and to develop new frontiers in science and the arts. We were told about the oldest universities in the world such as al-Azhar in Cairo, founded in 970CE and still operational today.

Mum loved the Islamic Contributions to Civilisation gallery.

Mum spent ages in this gallery. “It is a science museum that everyone should go to”, she said. It was my favourite gallery too. While I would love to tell you all about it in exhaustive detail, I will restrain myself. You should find out about this aspect of European history yourself. It is fascinating.

The Islamic Art section focussed mainly on contemporary artwork by Australian Muslim artists but it also includes artists who are not Muslim but working on Muslim themes. By this stage Mum was getting tired but fortunately there is a café next to this section so she retired for a cup of coffee while I perused the artwork. I am no art expert but I was drawn to Abdul Abdullah’s painting of Waleed Aly which was a finalist in the 2011 Archibald Prize.

The Islamic Architecture gallery gives the visitor a good introduction to the world’s greatest mosques. Islamic architecture is spectacular. While the focus in this gallery is architecture, it is how people interact with architecture that makes a building significant. It would be good if this gallery could include a video of what Muslims do inside an Australian mosque, as well as a section looking at Australian mosque design.

I had been looking forward to seeing the Australian Muslim History gallery as I have long been fascinated by the Islamic history of Australia. This Gallery is an amalgam of the past and the present. There are a number of large panels featuring Notable Australian Muslims. As with the rest of the Islamic Museum, women featured to the extent that you would find in any Australian cultural institution. I didn’t have time to reflect on all the people mentioned but I was interested in learning about women like Miriam Silva who has risen to the top in the corporate world and writer, Randa Abdel-Fattah.

The rest of the Australian Muslim History gallery did not meet my expectations. A lot of space was given to a video and a large panel about a trip around Australia by a group of men seeking to explore the Muslim history of the nation. The video very, very quickly skated over this history and I didn’t quite understand what some places had to do with Muslim history of Australia. The narrative focus of the video and the large panel was on the journey of these twenty-first-century men. The history they were depicting took second place and lacked a cohesive narrative thread of its own.

Significant Muslim Contributions to Australian History

There are two stories in Australian history that demonstrate how Muslims are part of the integral core of Australia. Not many Australians know that Muslims were working in Australia before the British settled here. The Makassans visited northern Australia regularly from their home in what we know today as Indonesia. They harvested trepang for a lucrative market with the Chinese. Evidence of the interaction between the Makassans and the local indigenous people of Arnhem Land exists today in the languages of the Yolngu people.

Long line of camels

Camel teams like this one in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia(c. 1910) used to service many remote stations and towns in outback Australia.
Source: Museums Victoria

Another significant Muslim contribution to Australia was the building of the Overland Telegraph from Darwin to Adelaide. When the telegraph commenced transmission in 1872 it transformed Australia’s connection to the world. No longer would Australians have to wait weeks to hear news from the northern hemisphere via a ship. Muslim cameleers from the Indian subcontinent were crucial in delivering the supplies necessary for the construction of the telegraph line. They also established provided essential services to remote communities by transporting goods throughout outback Australia.

The Overland Telegraph was a formidable project developed in a very difficult and isolated environment. “For the White people, the building of the Overland Telegraph was something like the building of an observation station on the moon”, writes Alan Atkinson in his award-winning Europeans of Australia. Just think about it. Muslims working with Christians transformed communications between the antipodean British colonies and the rest of the world.

The Australian Muslim History gallery covers these histories but I would have liked to see some more depth in the telling of these stories. There were large wall panels on the history of the Makassans in Australia as well as the cameleers. Neither conveyed this fascinating history with the punch that the Islamic Contributions to Civilisation gallery achieved.

The Islamic Museum of Australia has an opportunity to amaze visitors with this history just as it amazed my mother with the history of the Islamic contribution to western science and technology. “Did you know” pithy facts could catch the imagination of visitors and help them understand that Muslims have played an important part in the history of our country. Did you know that Adelaide Mosque was built in the late 1880s? Did you know that Brisbane’s Holland Park Mosque is over one hundred years old? Did you know that Muslims were in Australia before the first British settlers arrived in Sydney? All this history demonstrates that Muslims have been an integral part of our nation and its history for as long as most of the European Australians.

We had been at the museum for about three hours. My mother had thoroughly enjoyed it but was exhausted. Still, there was one more thing we wanted to do.

We spent some time outside taking photos of the Museum. It is a lovely building but difficult to photograph without including parked cars and power lines in the photo. It was a challenge but we had fun working out the right angles to take the photos we were seeking.

The Islamic Museum of Australia is well worth visiting. Check their website for opening hours and location. If you want to find out more Australian Muslim history check the links I have provided in this post and my History Muslims in Australia list on Trove.

Large tank painted with green, purple, red and blue shapes. In the centre of one of the blue shapes is Arabic writing.

Now that’s what you do with an obtrusive tank in your garden! This is one of two tanks at the back of the Islamic Museum. I don’t know what the writing says.

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8 thoughts on “Islamic Museum of Australia

  1. I did a year of History and Philosophy of Science, so I had some idea of where ‘Greek’ science went during the Dark Ages, but it is clear we still need reminding.

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    • I remember being astounded by that history of science when I first learned about it in my mid twenties. It still isn’t widely held general knowledge but it should be.

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  2. I once heard a wonderful talk by John Mulvaney about Muslims in northern Australia. He went through some of the archaeological evidence of the trepang industry – places where they boiled up their sea cucumbers and smoked them on the beach, and groves of tamarind trees that probably arrived as seeds in their gut.

    He also told the story of a group of old camelteers somewhere along the Overland route, who built a mosque out of local products – so basically timber and galvanized iron. They worshipped there, but they had no wives or children to follow the faith, so as a last act of observance, they pulled the structure down before they died, so that it wouldn’t be left empty. Although I’ve read Mulvaney on the trepang sites, sadly I don’t think he ever published the story of the Ghan mosque.

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  3. The ‘Islamic Contributions to Civilisation’ is indeed excellent, particularly because I loved Islamic history from North Africa, the Middle East and Southern Spain. What I knew nothing about (and I blush to admit it) was the role of the camel teams in building the Overland Telegraph from Darwin to Adelaide. Nor had I ever heard of camel teams used to service many remote stations and towns in the outback.

    Thank goodness for the Museum and for bloggers.

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    • The history of Muslims in Australia before Federation is fascinating but there has not been enough work to publicise it. Work has been done on this history. Bilal Cleland has written an overview of this history which can be accessed via the Islamic Human Rights Commission in the UK. The National Archives of Australia drew on this history in their account of Muslim Journey. In 2012 the La Trobe Journal published by the State Library of Victoria devoted an entire issue to the Muslim Experience in Australia. That issue includes several articles about the history of Muslims in Australia.

      The issue that you obliquely raised is about publicising history. It is not enough that research is done on a particular area and that a only few people know about it. Work has to be done to then disseminate that history wider – an important role for bloggers, journalists and other writers. When this is done it is then important that readers follow the advice of late historian, Jill Roe. Read widely! With regards to the history of Muslims in Australia we still need to work on step 2 – more work needs to be done to publicise the history so everyone in Australia has the opportunity to read it if they wish to avail themselves of that opportunity.

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