People cannot relate the Vatican 
to Islam: Manal Ataya

Sharjah, the Islamic Culture Capital of the Arab Region for 2014, has been transforming itself to live up to the prestigious title. KT Staff Reporter Lily B. Libo-on spoke to Manal Ataya, Director-General of the Sharjah Museums Department, on how the emirate’s 17 museums mirror the spirit of tolerance through Islamic art and culture, archaeology, heritage, science and marine life.

By Lily B. Libo-on

Published: Wed 14 May 2014, 9:15 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 8:44 PM

Many government agencies have joined hands to celebrate Sharjah as the Islamic Culture Capital of the Arab Region for 2014, with over 100 events planned. Where does the Sharjah Museums Department come in this?

We have many events ... More than ten are major exhibitions. These include the ongoing exhibition of the Vatican’s Islamic artifacts titled ‘So that you might know each other’; the exhibition of archaeological materials from Bahrain; and the Noor Ali Rashid Exhibition ... We are now working on the new project for the opening of Al Hisn Fort by November to highlight our participation in the celebration.

What does your department want to achieve during the celebration?

Obviously, we are only one among the many entities of Sharjah, which have ... (planned) ... events, including ‘The Clusters of Light’, which inaugurated the Sharjah Capital of Islamic Culture 2014 celebrations at the Open Majaz Island Theatre on March 30.

What we want to do is to celebrate in many ways the recognition of how much His Highness Dr Shaikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah, has done all these years to attain this stature, not just in culture but also in philanthropy and charity ... His care towards many Islamic countries, his support to Islamic studies ... There’s a lot His Highness has been doing ... most importantly ... on how Muslims need to be more open and moderate in their thinking about other people and other religions.

Do you think the ongoing Vatican Exhibition can help bridge the gap between Christians and Muslims?

Definitely. I think this ongoing exhibition will be able to ... (foster) ... tolerance, peace, love and understanding between Christians and Muslims. When I first announced this exhibition, I got several comments ... (both positive) ... and negative. Some said I should only exhibit Muslim-related things ... People have different views. I want people to decide for themselves ... I want them to come, (discuss), and (conclude) whether (an exhibition) is good or bad; whether it is positive or not.

Majlis is part of the exhibition’s education platform. They (visitors) can talk about it. If I get a negative (feedback), I am not upset and would say I understand ... (their) point of view. We have (had) previous exhibitions focusing on Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). But ... to be in an Islamic museum, it is not necessary that you conduct an exhibition only on Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The Muslim world is much bigger than that.

It is very interesting. When we say Arabs, people think only about Muslims. When we say Muslims, people think about Arabs. Many people (coming to the Vatican Exhibition) are shocked when ... they see different countries that they (didn’t associate) with Muslims like Spain, Portugal, China, and even the Philippines. People do not know that Mindanao in the Philippines has Muslims.

People, at first, cannot relate the Vatican to Islam ... The Vatican collection can enrich people’s knowledge about Muslims around the world.

What makes the Vatican Exhibition unique?

People would not have expected the Vatican to have an Islamic collection. More importantly, as Dr Ulrike Al Khamisi, Middle Eastern and Islamic Arts Collection advisor, said, it is a collaborative partnership between the Vatican and the Sharjah Museums Department, where both curate the exhibition. This is not an exhibition of the Vatican having sent the collection to us. We went there. We chose the objects. We devised the story line, the content, the catalogue and the design. We were very much involved in it.

What are the positives that you expect from Sharjah being celebrated as the Capital of the Islamic World?

Remember, this is Islamic Culture, not Islam (as a religion); it is about the culture in Islam. Culture is a much broader term and ... inclusive of what we have here, the (different) types of people and societies. (When) people think of an Islamic exhibition, they (think) they can see many paintings of calligraphy and different ... sizes of (the Holy) Quran. But, this is not the case. There is a small Quran there, and photographs of other objects like shoes, instruments and furniture ... You see the influence of Islamic culture in designs and patterns.

What do you think is the most visible and active role of the Sharjah Museums Department in the celebration?

As much as possible, we make sure that we are open to the widest audience ... All ages, all backgrounds ... We want them (all) to come to the Vatican Exhibition at the Museum of Islamic Civilisation and to all other 16 museums. We want them to see ... learn and be inspired.

We provide them a programme that allows people to really have fun and learn ... in a nice environment.

There was a talk here in the museum, when a member of the audience said that he was a English and not a Muslim and asked whether he could pose a question. I told him that precisely because he was not a Muslim, he should ask the question. I realise people are afraid to offend somebody. They are afraid to look stupid ... They should not be afraid. I want people to feel comfortable to ask ... questions. We may or may not be able to answer their questions. The best thing we can do is for you to have learnt something new.

How many visitors to do you see in a year on an average?

We get a million visitors in our museums.

How much increase are you expecting this year with the ongoing celebrations?

With the celebrations, I am hoping there will be an increase of at least 10 per cent.

What is the profile of your guests? Do you have guests from non-Muslim countries?

Yes, we do. Lots of tourists are from non-Muslim countries. The large majority of them are of a Russian background. Some are from Germany, Asia, China and Japan. We also have lots of UAE residents, who come from different backgrounds.

I urge people to take this opportunity to open their minds and their hearts to learn about Islam. It is always enriching.

When I travel to other countries, I like to visit churches. I go to museums for information and exhibitions. It is important to know what is going on around the world.

The aspiration is that you will have peace in the world; that you’ll have better understanding of the world; better tolerance of the world. If you are sitting beside someone whose remark is ignorant or racist, you can correct him or her. (For that) you need to know more; or have the facts and be able to say, ‘What you are saying does not make sense because many years or for generations, it has not been the case.’

I think that many people lack information. We are globalised and mixed in many ways. We have to be open and respectful of others.

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