I had the privilege of speaking at the Press Conference for the launch of “So That You Might Know Each Other: Faith and Culture in Islam”, an exhibition which opened at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra on Friday 20 April 2018. The name of the exhibition is taken from the verb, لِتَعَارَفُوا, in the Holy Quran, Surah Al-Hujurat [The Dwellings] (49:13):
O people! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might know each other.
The exhibition is a cooperation between the Vatican Anima Mundi Museum, the Sharjah Museums Authority and the National Museum of Australia. The exhibits include costumes, jewellery, musical instruments, embroidered hangings, armour, sacred manuscripts, calligraphy and ceramics.
Dr Matthew Trinca, Director of the National Museum of Australia, emphasised how timely the exhibition is. It showcases a wonderful variety of art and culture from Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia and provides a unique opportunity for the people of Australia to get to know this rich Islamic heritage.
Father Nicola Mapelli, Director of the Vatican Anima Mundi Museum of World Arts and Cultures, said that the pieces selected showed that beauty is a common language for all people. The cooperation with the other museums also showed the Vatican’s commitment to growing strong and positive Christian-Muslim relations.
Ms Manal Ataya, Director General of the Sharjah Museums Authority, shared the origins of this exhibition in a similar, historic offering in Sharjah in 2014. She stressed that in times of misinformation and prejudice, the museum and the items in this exhibit provide a safe space and an occasion for deep conversations about faith and culture.
I spoke about the connection between Aboriginal reconciliation and interfaith relations; noting also that the first contact between the first peoples and the Makasar is included in this exhibition, along with the contribution of the Afghan cameleers in opening up the interior of the country.
I affirmed that good relations between Christians and Muslims generally prevail here in Australia. I also acknowledged that while Islamophobia is a reality, sometimes stirred up by leaders for their own political advantage, the best way to overcome it is getting to know people.
I stressed that with over 40% born and raised here, Muslims are no longer foreigners or strangers, but fellow citizens; even more, with shared beliefs in God, angels, prophets and scripture—though of course expressions are different—to other believers they are also sisters and brothers in faith.
I acknowledged that the hospitality extended by Muslims on national mosque open days and for iftar meals during the month of Ramadan helps break down fears, stereotypes and suspicions. I thanked and congratulated the organisers of this exhibition for it provides another opportunity for Christians and Muslims to get to know each other, which complements my own work and that of many others in Christian-Muslim relations.
The exhibits are clearly identified and explained. The official guide book is a treasure of information. In my tour of the exhibition, knowing the sense of proximity to the Prophet that these sacred items would engender in the hearts and minds of Muslims, I was particularly moved by the qandil, an embroidered separator from the kiswah, the ceremonial cloth draped over the Kaaba in Mecca; and the, richly embroidered hangings for the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.
I encourage Muslims, Christians, believers from other faiths and all people to visit this exhibition. I hope that schools—private, public, faith and independent—will arrange tours, especially for students of Studies of Religion. I hope that Muslim, Christian and interfaith organisations will arrange guided visits.
I hope that many concerned citizens will visit, experience and reflect on this rich heritage of Islamic faith and culture from other parts of the world but also including our own Australian story, and that their minds and hearts will be opened to broader horizons.
While it is obviously easier for people in or near the national capital to visit the National Museum in Canberra, I hope that many people from Sydney and other parts of the state and even further will make the effort to see this exhibition.
As the title of the exhibition indicates, it is a wonderful opportunity for Christians and Muslims and others “to get to know each other”. The exhibition runs to 22 July 2018.
For details see: http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/so-that-you-might-know-each-other