GLOCOM Platform
opinions debates Media Reviews Tech Reviews Special Topics Books & Journals
Summary Page
Search with Google
Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:03 03/09/2007
November 2001

Islamic Solidarity and Socio-Cultural Tradition

Toshio KURODA (Professor, International University of Japan)

In response to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the U.S. has launched its military action in the Middle East. As the U.S. bombing is being intensified and the numbers of civilian casualties are mounting in Afghanistan, public sentiment against the military action seems to be rapidly increasing and spreading to various parts of the Islamic world, and this situation can no longer be ignored by political leaders in the region.

The widespread sentiment and movement condemning U.S. attacks on civilians in the Islamic world may well be understood in view of the fact that according to Islam, murder should be regarded as the most serious sin and the act of war should only be directed to warriors and never to civilians, as pointed out in my previous paper (see Toshio Kuroda "Islamic Extremists Violating the Islamic Law."). However, it goes beyond "Islamic law" in the narrow sense. We need to understand the strong sense of solidarity among the Muslim people who share the same feelings across national borders and, as a result, any one Muslim's pain is felt by all Muslims. Understanding such solidarity is an important first step to prevent the current U.S. military action from developing into a "clash of civilizations."

First, it should be pointed out that Islamic movements are not a product of ideology such as communism, but are deep-rooted in the traditional value system that is associated with common people's identity or their way of life. In order to grasp the essence of the current problem, we need to pay attention to this fact and try to understand Islam not only as a religion, but also as a main component of the socio-cultural tradition in the Islamic world. In fact, Islam's teaching has been strongly tied to the formation of the traditions that provide a framework for common people's way of life in wide-ranging socio-cultural aspects such as social systems, practices, customs, and mind-sets. This strong tie may be understood by studying the characteristics and the historical role of "shari'ah," which is generally perceived as the Islamic law.

Although "shari'ah," which is an important component of Islam, is translated as the Islamic law, this translation itself could be a source for misunderstanding. In Arabic, "shari'ah" originally means "the way to the place for water," and this meaning best conveys the essence of the word. For nomads who lead their lives in dry desserts, knowing the way to the place for water is a matter of life and death. Similarly, "shari'ah" is the "way" that believers must know for their lives. Its references are the sacred book Qur'an and the speeches and actions of Prophet Muhammad, which were later supplemented by the professional interpretations of legal scholars' inferences, their consensus, etc. Although these facts about "shari'ah" are relatively well known, the problem is with the recognition of its historical role. Its Western interpretation is clearly wrong, as their interpretation of Islam in general has been quite biased in the past. In short, among Western observers, it has been widely accepted that "shari'ah" has not played any significant role in history since the 12th century. As a result, virtually no study has been conducted on the relationship between "shari'ah" and the history of the region.

Misunderstandings based on this kind of misinterpretation are quite serious. First of all, "shari'ah" is a set of principles that individual believers look to in various phases of their lives, and observing these principles is the foundation for their beliefs. Even if there is only one Muslim in this wide world, this "way" would be practiced. So it is nothing but an absurd argument to say that the matter practiced by over 1.2 billion Muslims everyday has not played any significant role in history.

It should be noted that when the Muslim forces established its great empire covering the region from Spain in the west to middle Asia in the east, people in the empire based everything on "shari'ah" from the management of a nation to the maintenance of small communities and even the practices of family life. In those days, Islam was so influential that it controlled an empire's management. But this "ideal" situation did not last long. Corruption started at the heart of political power and political upper classes were gradually being spoiled and secularized. So as time went on, Islam was wearing down and the political aspect of "shari'ah" was weakening.

However, the Muslim people, lead by legal scholars, demanded that rulers adopt "shari'ah" as the national law, and reluctantly recognized the political system as Islamic so long as rulers accepted their demand in words. This clearly indicates who has been preserving the religion of Islam and the essence of "shari'ah" without much change. Actually, not only under colonial rule but also under non-colonial but often tyrannical rule, common people have managed to set up traditional networks over time in the lower communal layers of the society that political power could not easily intervene in. And under the rulers who could not protect their people just as ones we observe these days, the teaching of Islam has shown the ways of self-defense to common people in their units of small communities. It is taught that "you should not hurry to dine yourself if any of your neighbors are hungry." "Shari'ah" specifies this kind of attitude for mutual assistance in detail at the levels of families and small communities, as well as the state. This ethical teaching has been practiced by many believers and, as a result, regional solidarity has been established as the core for local traditions, customs and systems.

Anyone who visits the Islamic world must notice common people's humble life and good-naturedness. Despite the poor fiscal conditions of the nations, common people's life is filled with the sense of solidarity and the spirit of mutual assistance. In view of the experiences of their own and also of their predecessors, they are fully aware of what has been helping them protect their life. It is not only due to Islam as a religion, but also due to common people's self awareness of socio-cultural traditions that even today over a billion people continue to believe in this teaching and to adhere to Islamic law at the private level. Such self-awareness goes beyond the individual realm and is shared by many others. The essence of solidarity among believers may best be illustrated by the Prophet's saying: "You will see believers share kindness, love, and sympathy as if they were parts of the same body, and if any part of the body suffers then the whole body will react with sleeplessness and fever." In this way the sense of solidarity spreads across national borders just like radiant heat.

It is very difficult for outside observers to correctly evaluate the socio-cultural traditions accumulated in a different culture. If I may use an analogy that the Japanese can understand easily, one might say that forgetting Islam for Muslims is just like the Japanese giving up being Japanese. It is quite unlikely for any believer to walk away from what is regarded by over a billion people as their religion and also as their socio-cultural tradition. Since it is not a newly created ideology but a tradition that has lived on for a thousand years, it cannot be removed lightly.

Islam, which is firmly rooted in common people at grass root levels, does not seem to be declining, but rather to be asserting itself more vocally in recent years. This tide of Islamic insurgence could surely be a threat to some people. Although this movement is causing political friction in various regions, we need to look at the situation from the historical viewpoint of large civilizations instead of focusing on detailed conflicts. We should try to understand, without prejudice, the teaching and the traditional contents of the religion that is believed by one out of five people in the world, rather than paying too much attention to some radical minority groups.

It is about time for us to try our best to strengthen our friendly relationship with people in the Islamic world. In fact, Japan is in the best position among advanced nations to contribute to the avoidance of a possible clash of civilizations, not only because Japan has no historical debt to this world such as colonialism, but also because Japan has a traditional culture that is quite different from Western culture and actually shares some of the Eastern characteristics of the Islamic civilization. We are among the few who can understand both civilizations fully and become a true third party to mediate the conflicts between the two sides.

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications