Islam originated from the prophet Muhammad

Many people associate Islam with prayer and fasting or food restrictions such as those on pork and alcohol, and female veils. Quite a few people might also associate it with extremism and terrorism.

Currently it is said that there are around 1.6-1.7 billion Muslims in the world, and in the near future Islam will be the religion with the largest number of believers.

It is impossible in fact that all of these believers do not consume pork and alcohol at all or are extremists who drift into terrorism. In short, what we think to be Islam is only one aspect of it.

Originally, Islam started when Muhammad, who was born on the Arabian Peninsula in the early 7th century, became a prophet who received the revelation of God and spread the teachings of God.

At that time, a mix of Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, indigenous polytheists, and others were coexisted in the Arabian Peninsula. The god who gave the revelation to Muhammad is the only god. In terms of monotheism, it is same as the preceding Judaism and Christianity.

These religions, whose pillars are beliefs in the only god, are called Semitic monotheism, and they have many parts in common with respect to the basic religious world view.

Islamic teachings were given to Muhammad by God. It is said that the adherence to these teachings leads to a good way of living in accordance with God’s will and to the good afterlife (heaven). The pillar of Islamic teachings is summarized as the six articles of faith and the five pillars of Islam. For example, the five pillars of Islam include practices which we associate with Islam, such as prayer and pilgrimages.

Aside from the obvious adherence to the six articles of faith and the five pillars of Islam, Muslims value the viewpoint of thinking whether their daily behavior is favorable or not from God’s perspective. For example, in Japan, halal is often understood as “things one is allowed to eat.” However, it is not only limited to food. Whether halal (permissible) or not is also applicable to various human behaviors from God’s perspective.

In Japan we have the idea of accumulating virtues in life in this world. Quite a few people still seem to value the spirit of “one good deed a day.” It seems that the intention to avoid impermissible things and want to live virtuously is common between Japanese and Muslims.

Sufism was regarded as heretical by the orthodox

Perhaps Islam reminds us of “visible” behaviors such as prayer, almsgiving, fasting, and pilgrimages.

Soon after the origination of Islam, as the details of the Islamic dogmas had been established, certain forms were determined. After the forms were determined, some people did not pray from their heart as the formality was overly emphasized. Against this, in the early stage after the birth of Islam, the idea to respect the spirituality and avoid certain behaviors without inner dimension came into being. That was Sufism.

Sufis are people who see and practice Sufism as their guideline for their lives. Early Sufis were a type of people who averted worldliness and practiced asceticism deep in the mountains.

They lifted the spirit and purified their mind and body through ascetic practices, and aimed to approach God or be integrated with God. They were comparable to ascetics or ascetic monks in Japan. Sufism, which aimed to be integrated with God, generated various methods of ascetic practices, and one of them is sema. In Turkey, sema is sometimes shown for tourists.

Meanwhile, since Sufism respected spirituality to excess, it led to the depreciation of formal laws and the idea of thinking that if they do not pray from their heart, they rather should not do it. Therefore, some Islamic law scholars say Sufism is non-Islamic. However, while Islamic orthodox studies such as Islamic jurisprudence and theology gradually became specialized and sublime, Sufism provided guidance to the public on how to live virtuously, and it played a role in connecting Islam and the public.

For example, a Sufi called Rumi, who was active in the 13th century, made parables from the Islamic doctrines and conveyed them to the public in the form of poems and preaching. One of the famous narratives by Rumi is the one featuring an elephant. A person brought an elephant to show it to the surrounding people. But the elephant was shown in a dark room. Because the room was dark, each onlooker tried to know what the elephant was like by touching it. A person touched the elephant’s trunk and said that the elephant was like a water spout. Another person touched the elephant’s ear and said that the elephant was like a fan. Another person touched the elephant’s leg and said that the elephant was like a pillar. Another one touched the elephant’s back and said the elephant was like a throne. And each of them insisted on their claim and confronted the others. Then, Rumi said that if each had a candle, misunderstandings would be resolved. Furthermore, he pointed out how blind our eyes are. In this narrative “hand” implies the eyes (vision). He explained that physical eyes, which we usually rely on, can only capture things partially. Moreover, Sufism thinks it is important to capture things using one’s insight instead of one’s physical eye.

Islam gives hints to live virtuously

In recent years, interest in Sufism is increasing in Western society. The reason for this is that the thought and ascetic practices of Sufism is understood as being a part of spirituality.

In other words, the methodology of Sufism, which provides maintenance of the mind and body balance or healing, is attracting attention.

In that sense, it could be said that rather than the interest in Islam, the interest in spirituality, which Sufism itself has, is increasing. It could also be said that Sufism is being proactively accepted by people in the West because it has the idea of enriching the inner side of human beings.

The fact that contemporary people are seeking fulfillment of spirituality seems to indicate again their wish to live virtuously.

A flood of discourse on Islam around us, including veils, prohibition of pork and alcohol, seems similar to the situation where people are stating their individual impressions of touching an elephant in the darkness. By understanding that we tend to understand things partially, we can be considerate about the opinions of others who talk about other parts. Moreover, perhaps it is a good method to doubt even your five senses and use your insight.

Why not get to know the various aspects of Islam, which is expected to become the religion with the greatest number of followers in the world? You might find an aspect which fascinates you.

* The information contained herein is current as of February 2022.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

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