Dialogue between Islam and Shintoism: A Precursor to Cultural Understanding and Cooperation


Speech delivered at the conference “Toward the Philosophy of Co-existence: Dialogue with Islam”, organized by International Research Center for Philosophy of Toyo University., Japan, Nov 6, 2012.


  • Introduction

At the outset, I would like to extend my heartful thanks to the authorities of the Toyo University and especially professor Shin Nagai of the Department of Philosophy for their kind invitation and all the preparations of this August meeting. During the last thirty years which I have been invited by the Japanese scholars and institutes, I have always enjoyed the abiding hospitality of my dear hosts. I would also like to thank visiting research fellow Bahman Zakipour whose persistent follow up has made our meeting possible.

As I said, it is more than thirty years that I have somehow been involved in different sorts of dialogue with Japanese scholars and dignitaries, first in the capacity of the Iranian Ambassador to Japan, then as Senior Cultural Advisor to the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in charge of organizing many bilateral cultural events and sessions in Tehran and Tokyo, next as the President of Iran-Japan Friendship Association, promoting cultural / trade / industrial interactions, and more recently as the recipient of the Imperial Order of the Rising Sun: Gold and Silver Star, on April 29, 2010, which made me obliged to further expand my desire and sincere wishes to promote Iran-Japan cultural understanding and dialogue, the present session being one result of it.

Nevertheless, this is the first time I am going to address my Japanese audience mainly on religious terms which make me even happier because that is my special expertise since I have finished my graduate studies at the University of Uppsala (Sweden) in Comparative Religious Studies and History of Religions.

In order to better present my material, I would organize them under the following three headings:

  • Dialogue of Religions: History, Presuppositions, and Implications;
  • Islamic view on foreign/religious interactions,
  • My Understanding of Shintoism.

Needless to say, I would sum up my discussions with a summary and conclusion.


  • Dialogue of Religions: History, Presuppositions, and Implications

Although some scholars have suggested that the modern history of dialogue between religious traditions originates from late 19th and early 20th Centuries, and especially after World War II (Eric. J. Sharpe, “Comparative Religion: A History”, Duckworth Publications, 1975, pp. 251), yet the subject is rather very old near the three great Abrahamic religions, i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In the Islamic / Shiite tradition, apart from the holy Prophet’s debates with the leaders of other traditions, one of the oldest debates with other religious leaders and theologians is reported in “Hadith-e Emran-e Sabi”, or Imam Reza’s famous dialogue with the representatives of Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and Sabeans of his time during Ma’mum period, some 1300 years ago (Shaikh-e Saduq, Tawhid (Divine Unity), translated by M.A. Sultani, Armaghan-e Touba publications, 4th edition, 1988, pp. 638-673).

A close look at the history of religious dialogue reveals that, during the course of the time, these dialogues have pursued three distinct goals: 1. To seek religious superiority by proving that one’s religious faith is superior to that of the others; 2. To pursue some sort of transcendentalism and unity of all religious beliefs; 3. To harbor religious pluralism and diversity of religious beliefs and practices and try to understand, coexist, and cooperate with other traditions and their followers.

Following, we will briefly examine each of the above approaches.

In the first period, which has been going on for many centuries or even thousands of years, the main goal of the religious leaders of different traditions and their followers has been to prove the supremacy and superiority of their own religions over and above all the other traditions (Sharpe, ibid., 127, 153, etc.; also see Edward W. Said, “Orientalism”, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., London, 1978, Chapt. 3). When we say that this attitude has been prevailing for thousands of years, this should not imply that it has been totally abandoned nowadays. Nay, this is not the case and we still notice it amongst many Christians who have been its strong supporters during the course of the time (for more recent examples of its manifestation see Robert Spencer, “Islam Unveiled” and “The Myth of Islamic Tolerance”, Prometheus Books, N.Y., 2005; Edward W. Said, “Covering Islam”, Pantheon Books, N.Y., 1981).

The second phase or period of this interreligious dialogue concerns nineteenth and twentieth centuries, during which time a number of great Western Islamologists like Henry Corbin (1903-1978), Annemarie Schimmel (1922-2003) and others visited the East, with the aim of benefiting the “eastern wisdom and insight”. Also, during the same period, some Eastern scholars such as Radhakrishnan (1880-1970) and Kumaraswamy (1877-1947) spent some time in the West, in order to create better understanding and appreciation of the Eastern wisdom, i.e. culture and religion, in the West and proceed toward “the true religion of the future which will be the fulfillment of all the religions of the past” (Max Muller, “Life and Letters” II, 135, quoted in Sharpe, ibid., 45; also see “the History of Religion: Essays in Methodology”, Chicago University Press, 1959).

Finally, the last or third phase of “religious dialogue” relates to the last few decades, and especially after world war II. During this period, if not all religious camps all over the world, at least some of them in the Christian West, though basically amongst non-Catholics not followers of Vatican, and also some in non-Christian world, adopted a rather liberal / plural approach vis-à-vis other traditions, trying to understand them and coexist and cooperate with them, rather than looking at them as enemies and trying to destroy or abandon them (Sharpe, ibid., 44-45, 251 ff.; also see Richard W. Bulliet, “the Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization”, Columbia University Press, N.Y., 2004; Schimmel, “An Introduction to Islam”, State University of New York Press, Albany, U.S.A., 1992).

Certainly, what has been said about different periods or stages of Christian outlook towards other religions, does not apply solely to different branches of Christianity, but also holds true about different approaches of the Eastern religious traditions, Buddhism, Shintoism, etc., towards other religions as well. For example, in Japan, we have had a different approach of state Shintoism towards Buddhism and other “imported” religions than non-State Shintoism coexistence with Buddhism, Christianity, etc. the same holds true about Hinduism and its varied attitude towards Islam, Buddhism, and other “non-indigenous” traditions.

Lastly, let us notice that amongst the very Pacific Buddhist monks, here in Japan, on the hills overlooking the old capital Kyoto, for many years we have had castle-monasteries full of monk-soldiers engaging in full combat activities, the details of which go beyond the scope of our present discussion.


  • Islamic View on Foreign / Religious Interactions

In order to facilitate our dialogue, especially during “questions and answers” time, I would like to briefly present my views/position on how Islam looks upon foreign/religious interactions of the Islamic / Shiite community, the school to which I belong. Nevertheless, there may be other readings of the Islamic material which I simply do not endorse.

  1. I believe in a sacred book in which more than one hundred “verses” (sentences) are dedicated to the intellect and reasoning (aql), thinking and thought (fikr), planning and designing (tadbir), travelling and observation (seir & nizarah) and other logical, intellectual, natural, and experimental issues. That is why I consider the characteristic of Islam and Shiism to be a logical / intellectual tradition.


  1. I believe in a tradition in whose sacred book there are more than one hundred and fifty verses (lines) on peace (silm), reconciliation (sulh) and cooperation (ta’avon), and prescribes fighting and combat (muqatila) only as an exception and not as a rule. In other words, Islamic community can only engage in warfare when it is attacked or deprived of its right (Holy Qur’an, 2/190-1). In my religion, as it is said in Qur’an, the Prophet of Islam (p.b.u.h.) is “Rahmatan lilalamin” (a mercy to the whole world) (Holy Qur’an, 21/107). I do not represent nor understand the Salafi (Saudi), Taliban, or Sept. 11th (Al-Qa’eda) Islam.


  1. As Mustafa Malakian, a contemporary Shiite scholar has said, I believe that religion should provide happiness, tranquility, and hope to everybody, though, contrary to him, I maintain that Islam can provide these in one’s life. I think any other impression of the true religion (Islam) is a rather wrong or imperfect impression not supported by the historical facts, as well as genuine teachings of Islam. In my opinion, these are the main factors providing man’s temporal and eternal bliss and prosperity.

Certainly, in this outlook, there is no room for making, stockpiling or using weapons of mass distraction, a point repeatedly emphasized by the leader of the Islamic Revolution and other leading religious ulama’ (clergies) of Iran.

  1. I represent an Islam which fully respects other peoples’ opinions and beliefs, and in its sacred book openly states that: “Say: Everyone acts according to his own disposition. Your Lord better knows who is best guided along the way” (Holy Qur’an, 17/84), or the other well-known verse which says: “we have given each of you a code of law plus a program (for a living). If God had wished, He might have made you one community, but compete rather in doing good deeds so He may test you by means of what He has given you…” (Holy Qur’an, 5/48).


  1. Finally, I represent a tradition which is basically “interactive” (Holy Qur’an 3/64) and peace-loving (Holy Qur’an 8/61) and believes in peaceful coexistence with all other peace-loving communities and nations of the world. As demonstrated in the debate of our religious leader Imam Rida (the eighth Shiite Imam or leader) with the leaders of other denominations (Saduq, ibid.), I maintain that any dialogue should be based on mutual understanding and respect.

Since my friend and colleague Professor Feirahi is going to elaborate on these points too, I rather cut my comments short and leave further elaborations to him.


  • My Understanding of Shintoism

As you may probably know, I have edited the first and only book on Shintoism in my native Persian (Farsi) language (Ilm publications, Tehran, Iran, 2008). The book is a collection of articles of a few learned Japanese and foreign scholars and my own studies and observations on the subject-matter. But my intention of writing / translating that book was not to provide a theological or Jurisprudential account of Shinto tradition, but to present a simple description of the pragmatic, i.e. social, ethical and ritual, aspects of Shintoism to the Iranian society at large, which was somehow unaware of these features of the Shinto tradition. In other words, I have elaborated Shintoism, not in the area of theology, phenomenology, historical or comparative religious studies, but have examined it in the context of Japanese daily individual and social life and their attitude towards the man and nature (cosmos). Indeed, the day-to-day Shintoism has to be sought in Shinto Shrine, Shinto rituals and festivals, Shinto family and social life, Shinto attitude towards work, (high) production, (low) consumption, social and national integration and cooperation, promoting Japan’s national and international interests, Japanese modest behavior and exemplary discipline, etc. In short, in everything which has given the modern Japan its present place and status. To me, this is the lesson to be taught and adopted, to be learned and pursued, to be valued and respected; that is, the secret of Japanese progress and development which has earned Japan so much international esteem and recognition, appreciation and pride.

We, in the Islamic World, enjoyed even a better recognition and reputation from the 7th to 13th  – 14th centuries, all in the light of the Islamic tenets and teachings, and contributed a lot to the world’s cultural and civilizational development, which we earnestly intend to revive anyhow.

In my view, as a modern Muslim / Shiite scholar and intellectual, and – to some extent – expert, there is no need to either prove or disapprove Shintoism and/or any other religion, or to be hostile to any tradition and try to downgrade or negate it through missionary activities; but it is necessary to learn from Shintoism, Buddhism, and other traditions and cultures, from all other peoples and civilizations, from every “other” thing and person; and this is the only possible way to attain sustainability of human culture on the face of earth.

Like it or not, time is out for continued hostility, enmity, and destructive competition which has long prevailed among various religious camps in different corners of the world, though Shintoism, not being an “international” religion as such, is very much devoid of this negative trait. Nowadays, there is no positive hearing of the voice of those who burn the sacred book of the others (Terry Jones of America), print blasphemous cartoons of other peoples’ saints and sacred persons (Charlie HEBDO newspaper in France), make scurrilous video-films about beloved prophets of other traditions (Egyptian-American Coptic Christian agent and a convicted fraudster) or call the sacred book of the others “Satanic Verses” (Salman Rushdie). They are trying in vain, only adding to their own troubles with challenging world ethical norms.


  • Summary and Conclusion

Since I intend to make my contribution short, in order to save more time for discussion, let me make the following short summary and then conclude my discussion.

In the light of all recent discussions about the history of religion, phenomenology of religion, and comparative religious studies, I would like to firmly state that there is no single attitude that we can ascribe to any specific religion. Instead, one can rightly conclude that different religious traditions have been understood and practiced quite differently during the course of the time.

Thus, it is not correct that we claim one tradition has been totally pacifist and the other has been, let’s say, totally combative all over the time; or that one tradition has always been introvertive and the other has always been extroversive, etc. This all depends on how we see and interpret the world, what are our mental presuppositions and principles, and for what purpose we intend to pursue our inquiries into different traditions. Rumi, the great Iranian mystic-poet says:

“Although a book is meant for a specific purpose

Yet you can use it as a pillow as well”

 (Mathnawi, Ramazani edition, 185/6)

The second conclusion is that, before the end times, it is not possible to manage the world with only one single religion, culture, civilization, economic or political power. This is not only impossible and impractical, but also unuseful and undesired. The world, as it is, must be diversified and plural. In the words of Radhakrishnan:

The different religions are to be used as building stones for the development of a human culture in which the adherents of the different religions may be fraternally united as children of one Supreme. All religions convey to their followers a message of abiding hope. The world will give birth to a new faith which will be but the old faith in another form, the faith of all ages, the potential divinity of man which will work for the supreme purpose written in our hearts and souls, the unity of all mankind (Sharpe, ibid., 260, quoting Rouner, 296).

The third conclusion is that, with the help of a proper religious & cultural understanding and dialogue, we have to prepare the background for mutual recognition and cooperation of our two nations, the result of which will be to vaccinate and protect the great nation of Japan against all the baseless accusations which nowadays some of the world powers are spreading against the Islamic Republic of Iran. There is a Persian proverb saying “a wise man will not be bitten from the same hole twice”! Once, during the Iran-Iraq war, the great Japanese nation was exposed to all sorts of lies and distortions originated from the Iraqi regime, but circulated by the powerful propaganda machine of the West. It was only when the war was finished that the whole world noticed who had commenced the war, and who had used chemical weapons against innocent civilian people!

That is why, before it is too late, we should not let Japanese mass-media and public opinion fall into the void and frivolous propaganda of the Zionist regime echoed by western powers, pretending that the Islamic regime, with no atomic warhead or intention, is threatening that regime’s stockpile of more than two hundred atomic warheads! Previously, we reiterated that according to our firm beliefs, any production or usage of weapons of mass-killing is strictly forbidden.

Finally, in the last high-ranking visit of Hashemi Rafsanjani, then the speaker of the Iranian parliament and the representative of Imam Khomeini in the high council of defense, to Japan, taking place under the bold initiative of late foreign minister Abe and Prime minister Nakasone, everybody witnessed the astonishing results of high-level tete-a-tete meeting between the leaders of our two countries, a trip which not only removed a great deal of the existing misunderstandings, but also paved the way for expanding bilateral and multilateral relations in all respects, including a threefold expansion of our trade and industrial relations. Certainly today such a bold and courageous initiative is missing on both sides.

I would like to conclude by, once again, thanking our hosts and especially Professor Nagai, and wish prosperity and success for our two nations and our meeting. Thank you all again.



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