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To understand Japan, its people and the culture; is to understand Shintoism. Shinto is the ancient religion of Japan. It is ingrained in Japanese culture and traditions, and thus is synonymous with Japanese identity. Shinto religion is primarily focused on ancestral and natural spirits. It is a religion considered as polytheistic, animistic, and also pantheistic, although it is not deemed as a ‘religion’ in the same sense as Abrahamic religions. In this essay we will mention the belief system, worship and worldly system of Shintoism and the Islamic perspective and response to Shintoism in light of the Qur’ān and Sunnah.
Shinto “the way of the gods” has an unknown origin date and was only known through oral tradition and practice. Originating perhaps as early as 1000 BCE and its’ primary tenants as early as 4 BCE. All written sources on Shintoism only came about once writing was introduced to Japan from the Chinese, and with intention to distinguish this native belief from Buddhism and Confucianism when they were brought in the 6th Century from China and the Korean Peninsula (Hirai, 2019).
The core of Shinto belief is in the veneration of Kami (singular and plural), best translated as sacred/revered guardian spirits, a spiritual essence, loosely as divine beings or gods. But this is an “over-simplification of a complex concept” as there is a vast diversity to the types of Kami (“Kami,” 2009). Kami can be of “human kami and “animistic” natural kami, and ancestral kami”. Kami in the animistic sense are of phenomena, forces of nature like wind, components of the environment like mountains.
Kami, whose main place of worship is at Shinto shrines, are also within everything – living and non-living. Thus Kami are immanent; in and of this world, among humankind and nature, and of humankind and nature itself, not separate nor transcendent. Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, is the major and most important ‘deity’ and rules over all Kami. It is important to understand that Kami are not ‘worshipped’ nor seen as supreme beings in the same sense that Muslims worship and view God, but the Kami are offered prayers, praise and offerings, rituals performed, and are believed to somewhat influence human events. Although they are venerated, they are not seen as omnipotent nor omniscient.
This core belief of Shintoism of the nature of Kami, is in stark opposition to the monotheistic Islamic belief of God’s unity of oneness – Tawhīd. Allāh is the One Supreme Deity, “Say, “He is Allāh [who is] One. Allāh the Eternal Refuge”, who is Omnipotent and All-Controlling, with no partner nor associates on earth among creation: “Or have they other deities who have ordained for them a religion to which Allāh has not consented?…”. Allah rejects all inanimate objects and abstract concepts which are ascribed some sort of power: “Do they associate with Him things who create nothing and they are themselves created?’.
Ancestral veneration is vehemently obliterated in Islamic creed as it is believed once a person dies, they cannot come back to roam and dwell among mankind on earth as spirits. They enter the realm of the Barzakh, a partition unsurpassable: “…behind them is a barrier until the Day they are resurrected”(Qur’ān, al-Mu’minūn:100). Therefore it belies logic that they could be present, protecting and helping in human affairs, if even they themselves are
Concerning the Kami being immanent, this is in direct conflict with God’s Transcendence, His attribute of being the Most High, exalted above and beyond His creation as numerous Qur’ān verses attests. “He is neither enclosed by creation… He is not a part of the created world nor is it a part of Him. In fact, His Being is totally distinct and separate from His creation”. It is this age-old rampant epidemic of immanence which is the consequence and result of, as Philips so poignantly put it:
Finally, a most clear cut ḥadīth on the issue is when the Prophet Muḥammad asked a servant-girl “Where is Allāh and who am I?” and upon her correctly answering “He is above the sky and you are Allāh’s Messenger”, the Prophet instructed “free her for she is a believer”.
On the concept of death, traditional Shinto belief views it as negative and dark to the extent that it is considered polluting and impure, and was “left to Buddhism to deal with” (“Shinto,”2019, para.9). It was only with the advent of Buddhism and using their teachings and practices on death did the Japanese people have a more fulfilling answer to the meaning of death and the afterlife. This lack of substantial doctrine on death in their own native belief system, perhaps is a contributing factor to the fact that Japan has one of the highest rates of suicide. Humans are beings of intellect, have questioning minds and ask philosophical questions, so to only focus on the here-and-now of life is not enough for one to find solace when hardships arise and when you lose your way.
In contrast, Islam provides the most satisfying explanations on the purpose of life and what happens after death: “And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me”. “He who created death and life to test you which of you is best in deed…”. Islam offers substantial answers to these profound questions on death and the afterlife, with detailed accounts about the journey of the soul and life after death:
If the human being knows where they came from; their purpose here on life – that they are to worship God and are tested, and knows they are ultimately going back to their Creator – it makes for a life full of substance and peace of mind.
One thing in common between Shintoism and Islām is the importance placed on purity. This illustrates that there is an inclination to the natural state (fiṭrah). Shinto’s core is based on purity in all things, so they wash their hands and mouth before rituals. Purification is taken to another level in Islam as the Prophet stated: “Cleanliness is half of faith”. Ablution (wuḍū) is done five times a day before prayer, a ritual bath (ġhusl) is done for full purification for certain occasions and the Muslim should maintain cleanliness in both body and heart as Allāh loves those who purify themselves.
The ultimate Islamic response to any false religion is to call them to the worship of The One True God; to leave behind their false beliefs and return to the natural state upon which they were born. We invite all Shintoists to search within their soul and to reflect upon the creation of the Heavens and Earth and their own creation and to come to the resounding conclusion that there is only One True God worthy of worship and submission. This truth transcends beyond any national identity, patriotism, loyalty to tradition or elders’ beliefs. The Creator who created them is ever willing to accept the return of His servants to the pure monotheism: Islam. To be Japanese is not to be Shinto, to be Japanese is to be a servant who submits his will to the Lord of all the Worlds.
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