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They were Japanese, about twenty men and women, all dressed in white and standing in straight rows behind a stocky, older man with close-cropped hair. This leader recited the first chapter of the Qur'an in perfect Arabic with a resonant voice. The setting was Karachi, Pakistan's international airport transit lounge during the Muslim pilgrimage season, when believers from all over the world make their way to Mecca, in Arabia. The little group of Japanese Muslims was waiting to board the plane for the final leg of their long journey to Jedda, the Red Sea port of entry for the holy city of Mecca. The Japanese performed their prayers in a small mosque in the terminal, near duty free shops and refreshment stands.
Japan does not have many Muslims, of either ethnic Japanese or other descent. But the Japanese Muslims I saw at prayer in Karachi were clearly Japanese—in language, manner, and physical appearance—but they were also something else. That "something else" is a special style or pattern of behavior and comportment that sets observant Muslims apart from other people, regardless of ethnic, linguistic, cultural, or racial identity.
This book introduces the distinctive features of Islam as a religious tradition, while at the same time providing information on the varieties of Muslim peoples. Islam is a complete way of life embracing beliefs and devotional practices within a larger context of regulated social relations, economic responsibilities andprivileges, political ideals, and community loyalties. Muslims inhabit at least two cultural spheres, the one they were born into and nurtured by and the one acquired as Islamic identity. Usually the two are closely connected, as in Muslim communities of long standing in the Middle East, Africa, southern Asia, and Southeast Asia. But the cultures and subcultures of those vast regions also have very distinctive individual elements and characteristics that have been blended with Islamic beliefs, values, and behavior patterns. In regions where Islam is practically nonexistent or a small minority there is a greater contrast between the general culture and what we will come to recognize in this book as Islamic culture. Often, observant Muslims have to make difficult choices in places like America and Europe when it comes to social and family relations, economic behavior, food, clothing (especially for females), and entertainment, because of conflicts between what Islamic teachings prescribe and what the dominant culture considers the norm.
But even in countries like Indonesia with dominant Muslim populations and also great cultural complexity, several variations of Islamic culture operate in relation to other dimensions of national life. On the heavily populated Indonesian island of Java, for example, there are three generally recognized Muslim populations. The largest is the abangan, mostly working-class people who combine Javanese folk customs and beliefs with Islam in a syncretistic manner. Next are the priyayis, descended from the Old Javanese court bureaucracy—they are Muslim but proud of the indigenous courtly tradition and at home with its symbols and tolerant style. Finally are the santris, the Muslim "fundamentalists" who closely follow the Qur'an and Muhammad's teachings (the Sunna) and reject traditional Javanese cultural and religious beliefs and practices they consider to be incompatible with pure Islam. There is much similarity and a strong sense of community between santri Muslims of Indonesia and strict Muslims in other regions. In my own travels to Muslim countries in the Middle East, southern and Southeast Asia, I have always been able to sense immediately when I was with santri types regardless of their actual nationality, because of their strong orthodox faith and behavior patterns.
The Islamic Religious Way
Writers on Islam have sometimes emphasized the doctrines of the religion to the exclusion of the human contexts in which they are believed and the practices by which they are confirmed and celebrated. The central beliefs and devotional duties of the religion of "submission" (islam) to God are easy to learn, in the way that the floorplan of an office building can be clearly comprehended by consulting a blueprint. But once the elementary, external facts have been memorized, Islam as a living reality still remains undiscovered until one begins to perceive how the beliefs and practices are integrated into the fabric of social and personal life in specific cultural contexts. Muslims—those who have "submitted" to God—continually explain to interested outsiders that their religion is a "complete way of life" in which no distinction is made between religious and secular and all things are within the purview of Islamic authority and regulation.
Islam and Christianity have been conspicuously successful in spreading their doctrines among peoples of widely varying cultures and geographic contexts. Among religions of Asian origin, Buddhism has spread far and wide. Islam is the only Abrahamic tradition—like Judaism and Christianity the great Hebrew patriarch figures in its myths, and it is dedicated to belief in and covenant with the one God—that has had a major impact on Asia to the point of becoming dominant in some regions. Islam has maintained a more consistent system of fundamental beliefs and practices than any other world religion, including Judaism. Although there are sectarian divisions in Islam, they arose largely from political differences and do not include, except for minor details, differences in worship and devotional practices.
Because Islam is a religion of law and recognizes no sharp cleavage between religious and secular matters, it views all things as under God's legislation. Not all aspects of life are relevant to ritual, but they all have been assigned value by Islamic law on a scale from "forbidden" through "indifferent" to "obligatory." The holy law is known as Shari'a, from an Arabic word which means "way," such as the way to the water hole. Shari'a does not literally mean "law"; rather, it means God's ordaining of the right way for his faithful creatures, a way that includes actual law. It closely parallels the Jewish concept of Torah.