Thursday 8 June 2023 \


Culture and intellectual heritage of Japanese Muslims

Kobe Masjid (1935), first mosque in Japan built with the support of foreign Tatar, Turkish, and South Asian Muslims
Most people are not familiar with Islamic history in East Asia, despite the region being home to one of the world’s oldest mosques, built in seventh or eighth-century China. More recently in twentieth-century Japan, the Kobe Masjid was built with the support of foreign Tatar, Turkish, and South Asian Muslims. Japan has one of the youngest Muslim communities in history, making East Asia simultaneously home to both the oldest and youngest Islamic traditions established by a non-Arab.
A General Picture of Muslims in Japan
There are more than 230,000 Muslims living in Japan today. Most of them are Muslim foreigners – primarily from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Indonesia – who come to Japan as temporary workers. In terms of fiqh, most Japanese Muslims follow the shafi’i madhab due to the influence and support of Indonesian Muslims. In recent years, the number of foreign Muslims marrying Japanese locals has been on the rise, and more foreign Muslims are acquiring permanent residency in the country. Unfortunately, there are no accurate statistics on the number of Japanese Muslims today. Estimates run anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 Japanese natives, most of whom became Muslim by marrying Muslim foreigners living in Japan. Most Japanese converts are female while the male converts are rare, possibly numbering fewer than 1,000. Additionally, Japan’s second- and third-generation Muslims, with parents of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin, are quite active in the masajid and Islamic culture centers. Furthermore, Nihon Muslim Kyokai – Japanese Muslims Association assists Muslim converts in Japan by offering classes on basic Islamic knowledge, educating second-generation Muslim children, conducting funerals, etc.
While talking about the situation of Muslims in Japan, many assume that most Japanese people reject Islam and Muslims as alien, claiming that there is no hope of Islam growing in non-Muslim countries. While it is true that Japanese Muslims are a super minority, one must not forget that interaction between Japan and the Muslim World began only 150 years ago. From the history of Islamization, it is evident that it usually takes at least 400 years after a land has entered the Islamic ruling system for a majority of its inhabitants to become Muslim. Japan is not a Muslim country, nor is it in the process of Islamization, and its Muslim population is a relatively new phenomenon. It could be said that some Japanese have only just begun to accept the Islamic worldview.
Process of cultural transformation
Muslim scholars say that there are three phases in the vernacularization of Islam: identification, translation, and articulation. The first phase, identification, refers to the generation of people who embrace Islam and acquire an identity as Muslim. They may practice Islam but do not have high literacy of Islamic classics, classical Arabic grammar, fiqh, tasawwuf, etc. 
Usually, it takes a few hundred years for such Muslim communities to delve into further study of Islamic classics, reflecting the second phase of vernacularization: translation. In the case of China, only the elite Muslims were able to read Arabic or Persian texts; they traveled to Arab regions or Central Asia and brought back the Islamic classics, which they then translated into their vernacular language. In Japan, it could be said that the translation phase has just begun.
Translation occurs when the major classics that constitute Islam’s intellectual heritage are translated into the local language. After that begins the third phase: articulation. In this stage, the Muslim community acquires the intellectual ability to articulate Islamic values or concepts in the vernacular language. Through articulation, the local Muslim culture manifests Islamic ideals, in such forms as literature, song, architecture, food, etc. This three-stage process is normally fostered in a society over a period of several hundred years.
Many Muslim preachers and scholars are unaware of the importance of this pacing. Nowhere in the history of Islam has there been such a miracle as a charismatic person who converted 10,000 people to Islam in a single month, translated the classics into the local language, and created a local Islamic culture. Furthermore, importing Islamic traditions, as practiced in another country, to Japan does not mean that the Japanese will immediately understand them.
From the famous Hadith states, “talk to the people according to their level of ‘aql [reason],” we understand that we are advised to speak to people according to their own context. In Muslim-minority countries like Japan, merely translating the Quran is not enough: efforts must be made to spend time with those who embody the message of the Quran, and build a community which manifests Quranic ideals and values. Furthermore, in order to overcome a narrow nation-state mindset, the local Muslims must expose themselves to the broader Muslim community and learn from their experiences.
There are stages to this important process which must be cherished and respected. The Japanese Muslim community is now in the second phase of vernacularization – with some members now reaching the stage of articulation. Perhaps in a thousand years, we may see a Japanese Ghazali and Ibn Khaldun, but we must not hasten the speed.
Islamic Scholarship in Japan
Japanese Muslim intellectuals today come from a variety of educational backgrounds. Most of them received their Islamic education in Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, but many also studied in Malaysia and Turkey. 
However, during Japan’s imperial period and the Second World War, most Japanese Muslims were educated and produced by the colonial policies of the Japanese government. Some claim that those Japanese Muslims were actually fake. The government sent these Muslims to China or countries in Southeast Asia to aid the Japanese Empire’s colonial efforts in such regions by collecting information about foreign Muslims. Though, it is difficult to determine their sincerity; nevertheless, these Muslims produced several written works and inquiries, including Hajj records or travelogues of the Middle East and China. Tanaka Ipei translated the works of Chinese Muslim scholars into Japanese, producing, for example, a Japanese translation of the Seerat An-Nabawiyyah
After the Second World War, the activities of Japanese Muslims suddenly disappeared alongside the Japanese Empire’s support of those in China, Malaysia, or Indonesia. Additionally, among non-Muslim audiences in Japan, Japanese Muslim scholars are not at all renowned in comparison to Japanese Christian intellectuals or Asianist activists, though this may be due to Japanese Muslims acting mainly on the basis of political interests.
Today in Japan, the Quran and several hadith collections (Sahih Bukhari and Muslim) have been translated into Japanese. Hundreds of books on Islam cover topics such as the concept of Allah, prophethood, the meaning of ibadah, etc. Few Japanese Muslim professors and intellectuals have begun to translate books of Islamic aqīdah, fiqh, kalam, etc. Though there exists some research about Islam in Japan, most studies are limited to Islam and Japanese Muslims during the Meiji period (c. 1868-1912). However, there is a huge gap between these Japanese Muslims and those living in the twenty-first century. 

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