Is it Possible to Create a Japanese Islamicate Culture?

The following is adapted from Dr. Qayyim Naoki Yamamoto’s lecture Muslim Scholars in Japan: Contemplating Islam in a Non-Muslim Society. It is part two of a three-part lecture series entitled ‘East Asia and Islam: Present, Past, and Future’ at the Centre for Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (CAMES). 

Part one is available to read here.


Introduction 

In history, Islam showed itself to be culturally friendly and, in that regard, has been likened to a crystal clear river. Its waters (Islam) are pure, sweet, and life-giving but – having no color of their own – reflect the bedrock (indigenous culture) over which they flow. In China, Islam looked Chinese; in Mali, it looked African. Sustained cultural relevance to distinct peoples, diverse places, and different times underlay Islam’s long success as a global civilization.

-Umar Faruq Abd Allah, Islam and the Cultural Imperative

More than a hundred years have passed since the beginning of the interaction between Japan and the Islamic world. The Muslim population in Japan is said to have now exceeded 100,000. However, despite their placement between China and Southeast Asia — regions where two great Islamic cultures flourished — Japanese Muslims still cannot imagine the unique reflection of Tawhid. The famous Kobe Mosque and Tokyo Camii, respectively South Asian and Turkish in architectural design, reflect this dilemma: while foreign Muslims retain their colors of Islamic culture when they come to Japan, Japanese Muslims have not yet reached the level of expressing “Japanese Islamic culture” at home or abroad.

The creation of a unique local culture is directly linked to the establishment of cultural and intellectual independence of Muslims in a given region. It is an essential process for the establishment of Islam as a living internal cultural source. What is our spiritual soil, and what colors does it reflect when irrigated by the clear waters of Tawhid? 

In other words, until a Japanese Islamic culture is created, Islam will remain “alien” to Japan. The universal vision of Islam shows its true colors only when expressed in the particularities of a culture. Islamic culture will blossom in Japan only after this process occurs. 

To meet this cultural imperative, we Japanese Muslims must not only know the history of Islamic civilization, the ideals of Islam, and the culture that Muslims have created, but also understand the essence of Japanese culture in depth. 

As Shaykh Umar Faruq states:

Building a successful indigenous Muslim culture cannot be left to occur haphazardly, unconsciously, or without direction. The process requires deep knowledge of Islam, history, the humanities, and social sciences and must be based on cognizance of how viable cultural traditions are formed.

Unfortunately, knowledge of East Asia is lacking in Islamic scholarship, and in the global Muslim community today. For example, the Chinese-Islamic civilization is one of the oldest traditions in the non-Arab Islamic cultural sphere, continuing from the 8th century to the present, yet we fail to fully appreciate its intellectual heritage. No region offers a more exciting perspective on Islam than East Asia: it contains both one of the oldest Islamic traditions established by a non-Arab, and simultaneously a country like Japan with a young Muslim community. The expression and practice of Islamic ideals through East Asian culture and vocabulary was the most “established” tradition in Islamic civilization, yet we remain ignorant of it.

In addition, while the Japanese are a people who value tradition, they have continued to reinterpret and present their traditions to the world in various ways. Intellectuals such as Niotobe Inazo (d.1933) and Okakura Kakuzo (d.1913), for example, introduced Japanese ethics and aesthetics to the West. In order for Japanese people to create an Islamic culture of their own, Islamic civilization’s collective amnesia — its disregard for East Asia — must be overcome.

In considering the possibility of a Japanese Islamic culture, I pay particular attention to the following imperatives:

1. To take examples from the traditions of other Islamic cultural spheres.

2. To understand the spirituality present in traditional Japanese culture and look for similarities to Islamic culture.

This process is by no means exclusive to Japanese Muslims. Due to westernization after World War II, Japan is rapidly losing touch with its traditional culture. By engaging in dialogue with the “stranger” of Islamic culture, Japanese people have the opportunity to think critically about what “Japanese culture” entails. Thus, by accepting Islamic culture as a new neighbor, Japanese culture may gain new vitality.

Wabi-sabi: The Essence of Japanese Culture

Tea Ceremony: Japanese Open Culture

The Japanese tea ceremony holistically represents traditional Japanese culture, making it an ideal starting point for this experimental dialogue between the Japanese and Islamic traditions. The tea ceremony not only involves knowledge of tea, but also requires an understanding of flower arrangement, calligraphy, waka poetry, the tearoom, and nature itself — the most essential elements of Japanese culture. 

The tradition of the Japanese tea ceremony, particularly the Wabi-cha (Wabi-tea ceremony), originated in the 15th century, when it was practiced by Murata Juko (d.1502) and Takeno Jōō (d.1555); it is said to have been perfected by Sen no Rikyu (d. 1599) in the 16th century.

The process of powdering green tea for a guest teaches ceremonial manners and etiquette, harmony between nature and mankind, and the relationship between master and guest. Its high spirituality and artistry became widely known to Western society through Okakura Kakuzo’s famous work The Book of Tea.

Tea utensils used in Japanese Tea Ceremonies
Figure 1: Tea utensils used in Japanese Tea Ceremonies

Those who have studied the Japanese tea ceremony may be familiar with the close relationship between the tea ceremony and Zen Buddhism. The term 茶禅一味 (Chazen Ichimi) describes the idea that the tea ceremony and Zen have the same “flavor.” That is, tea — and by extension, the tea ceremony — share the same truth, or pursue the same ideals, as Zen Buddhism.

Hearing this, one might wonder if an Islamic tea ceremony risks mixing the religious cultures of Islam and Zen Buddhism. However, the term 茶禅一味 (Chazen Ichimi) does not seem to represent the historical reality of the tea ceremony. According to Asao Kouzu, a scholar of the history of the tea ceremony, the unity of the tea ceremony and Zen itself is a relatively recent teaching. The term was first used by Senshou Tanaka, founder of the Japan Society for the Study of Tea Ceremonies, in his 1905 book Chazen Ichimi.

The ideological relationship of Zen to the origin of the tea ceremony lacks a historical basis. The Zen philosophical elements of the tea ceremony are simply the result of its interpretations by Zen thinkers after Sen no Rikyu. In Record of Yamanoueno Souji, Sen no Rikyu’s disciple Souji Yamanoue states that the tea ceremony was “born from Zen and its practitioners are Zen Buddhists.” According to Souji’s records, however, the tea ceremony was made “Zen” only by the Zen priests’ use of hanging scrolls and utensils. Moreover, although (according to Souji) Murata Juko, Takeno Joo, and Sen no Rikyu were Zen Buddhists, their tea ceremony styles were very different. Therefore, it is impossible to identify essential Zen Buddhist elements in the tea ceremony itself: rather, the tea ceremony allows individual expression in accordance with specific aesthetic rules in the space of the tea room. 

For example, in 1587, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a leading medieval Japanese general and patron of Sen no Rikyu, organized the first cultural symposium, The Grand Kitano Tea Ceremony, in Kyoto and invited professionals and amateurs alike to express their aesthetics and philosophy through the tea ceremony. People from across Japan and China, including samurai, merchants, and farmers, were invited to participate regardless of their status. No doubt Hideyoshi was exposed to a rich variety of expressions at the symposium, but he appreciated the simplicity of Hechikan’s tea ceremony the most, which relinquished expensive tea utensils and Zen scrolls in favor of the staple elements of the day: powdered green tea served only under vermilion umbrellas on the ground.

Just as some practiced a Zen tea ceremony, “Christian” tea ceremonies also existed in Japan. For example, among Sen no Rikyu’s disciples were prominent Christian daimyo (feudal lords) such as Takayama Ukon. According to Antonio Cermeño, a Catholic priest and scholar of Japanese Catholic history, Ukon meditated in a tea room decorated with Christian paintings. Furthermore, he incorporated the tea ceremony into Christian education.

These historical moments reveal that the Japanese tea ceremony is defined not by its Zen elements but by its openness and spatiality, allowing individual tea masters to express their philosophies and imagination. The tea ceremony is a uniquely Japanese means of expressing the beauty and truth of one’s beliefs. Simply put, the tea room is a public space where tea masters of all religions and cultural backgrounds may express their truths. Thus, one could easily create a tea ceremony based on Islamic principles. 

Within the ambit of Islam, the tea ceremony can take on distinctly Muslim cultural forms. The invention of a Japanese Islamic tea ceremony may give way to Malaysian, Turkish, African, or Pakistani Islamic tea ceremonies, for example. In this sense, the creation of an Islamic tea ceremony offers a thought experiment by which we may see the world not as passive consumers of “Islamic content” but as active participants in an Islamic semantic interpretation of the world. 

Such an experiment would be the first step in meeting the cultural imperatives of Muslims, especially those who live as minorities in a country like Japan, which has built its own culture for more than 2,000 years and has little Islamic history. In light of the history of other Islamic cultural spheres, this is no new challenge, but the very historical endeavor that has given rise to the diversity of Islamic civilization.

The Japanese Philosophy of Embracing Imperfection

How, then, might we imagine an “Islamic tea ceremony”? If the utensils, hanging scrolls, tea room, and conversation with the guest together express a philosophy of the Japanese tea ceremony, then we must understand the vision expressed by the tea ceremony and consider appropriate Islamic ways of articulating it. 

The Japanese tea ceremony is generally understood as pursuing wabi (a sense of fulfillment in poverty and insufficiency). A fundamental element of the Japanese sense of beauty, wabi is reflected not only in the tea ceremony but also in Japanese poetry, literature, and architecture. This element is often combined with sabi (profound beauty felt in the quietness). The resultant spirit of wabi-sabi refers to a conscious embracing of the transience of this world and the imperfections of humans and nature. It reflects a worldview seeking spiritual fulfillment in poverty and insufficiency. This does not entail accepting insufficiency for its own sake, but positively embracing all that has been given to us with the grace of nature or, ultimately, of divinity. 

The recognition of inherent imperfection through this Japanese aesthetic does not contradict the Islamic worldview, as Islam also does not recognize the existence of a perfect creature. As the Qur’an, Hadith, and all Islamic classics teach, everything in this world is transient, and perfection belongs to Allah alone:

كُلُّ شَىْءٍ هَالِكٌ إِلَّا وَجْهَهُ

All things perish, save His Face [Quran 28:88]

This verse indicates that the perfection of Allah can only be realized when we accept our own imperfections and recognize the necessity of our spiritual ascent in order to understand His perfection.

Perhaps the Japanese art that best expresses this philosophy of embracing imperfection is kintsugi (金継ぎ, “golden joinery”) — the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. Rather than repair tools to cover up their flaws and defects, the philosophy of kintsugi accepts the shattered marks as part of the tool’s history, thus elevating it to art. Every tool shall inevitably break; rather than derive any negative meaning from this inevitability, Japanese aesthetics insists on creating the present from the shattered past.

Figure 2: An example of the Japanese art of mending broken pottery also known as Kintugsi

Muslim readers may recall the following hadith:

عَنْ أَنَسٍ أَنَّ النَّبِيَّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَالَ كُلُّ ابْنِ آدَمَ خَطَّاءٌ وَخَيْرُ الْخَطَّائِينَ التَّوَّابُونَ

Anas ibn Malik reported that the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said: Every son of Adam makes mistakes, and the best of those who make mistakes are those who repent. (Sunan al-Tirmidhī)

The Japanese find greater beauty in old, shattered bowls repaired by kintsugi rather than in new bowls dyed with brightly colored glazes. In kintsugi, the Japanese find truth in the process of human spiritual perfection, which strives to refine the heart by accepting imperfection. 

Hence, through the lens of the aforementioned hadith, we may understand the gold that repairs and holds together the shattered bowl as a metaphor for Tawbah (repentance). Any reader of the Sufi classics knows that the first step in a Sufi’s spiritual journey is Tawbah: every human being’s ascent begins with the acceptance of his imperfection and repentance. Therefore, when drinking matcha from a tea bowl repaired with gold, the Japanese confront human nature. While Muslims may avoid using gold on tea utensils, we can understand the commonality between this Japanese philosophy and the spiritual culture of Islam.

At Hideyoshi’s Grand Tea Ceremony, Hechikan practiced a philosophy of simplicity, creating a space for the tea ceremony without fancy utensils or decor — only the shadows created by a single, simple umbrella. He did so not because he lacked the tools, but because he did not need them: he understood that any decoration would be nothing but excess. Such disregard for material possession — the gross pursuit of which is equated to wealth even today — parallels the meaning behind one of Allah’s Names. The name Al-Ghany, meaning “rich,” refers not to “richness” in terms of possession but to a state of material and spiritual sufficiency. As Allah is the Sole Perfect Being, so is He Self-Sufficient, free from even the desire for possession. The pursuit of Wabi is the philosophy of understanding how we are poor (faqir) beings, obsessed with possession, in order to eliminate waste from our spirit and our lives. In this sense, when rooted in the Islamic worldview, Wabi can be understood as the spiritual process of overcoming the poverty (faqr) of human attachment to instead attain a poverty (faqr) grounded in the grace of divine richness (ghany).

This spirit is reflected in a recounting of the Ottoman Sufi Muslihuddin Merkezi Efendi (d.1552). One day, his master Sünbül Sinan Efendi asked his students, including Muslihuddin, the following question: ”If Allah gave you the authority and ordered you to recreate this universe from the beginning, what would you do?”

Each of his disciples gave a different answer. One said, “I would create the seas in this way.” Another said, “I would create the earth in that way.”

When it was Muslihuddin’s turn, he answered: ”Hoca (Master)! Allah has created this universe so perfect, so magnificent, everything in its place, that when it was my turn, I would not touch anything; I would leave everything in its center (merkez).”

After this event, Muslihuddin Efendi became known as Merkez Efendi.

Merkez Efendi argued that there is no need for any change in the world; the practitioner of Tasawwuf requires only a sensitivity to the grace of the Divine. His philosophy parallels that of the Wabi tea ceremony, wherein the tea master accepts the seasons and nature as they are, enjoys a simple room and simple tea utensils to indulge in nature. Only in accepting natural change, and in freeing ourselves from the urge to alter the world in accordance to our base desires, lies liberation from material excess. And it is in this truth that we find a great affinity between the primary vision of the tea ceremony and Islamic spirituality.

Photo by Library of Congress on Unsplash


About the Author: Dr. Qayyim Naoki Yamamoto is currently an assistant professor at the Graduate school of Turkic Studies, Marmara University. He completed his PhD at the Graduate School of Asia and Africa Studies, Kyoto University, in 2018. He specializes in Ottoman Tasawwuf and traditional Japanese culture. His publications include a Japanese translation of Sulami’s Kitāb al-Futuwwa and Introduction to Tasawwuf: A Comparison with Shonen Manga (Shueisha Web Essay Series).

Photo from David Edeistein on Unsplash

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