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The Art of Embracing: Tasawwuf and Japanese Culture, Dr. Naoki Yamamoto

Dr. Qayyim Naoki Yamamoto is currently an assistant professor at Graduate school of Turkic Studies, Marmara University. He completed his PhD at the Graduate School of Asia and Africa Studies, Kyoto University in 2018. Qayyim Naoki Yamamoto specializes in Ottoman Tasawwuf and traditional Japanese culture. His publications include a Japanese translation of Sulami’s Kitāb al-Futuwwa and Introduction to Tasawwuf: A Comparison with Shonen Manga (Shueisha Web Essay Series).

We talk to Qayyim Naoki Yamamoto about his journey to Islam, the connection between Japanese culture and Sufism and the future of Islamic art.

What was your journey to Islam?

My encounter with Islam is an encounter with a master (Sensei). I converted to Islam 13 years ago in Egypt when I was an undergraduate student at a university in Kyoto, Japan. For a homework assignment I read various works and books on different religious traditions that I found at the university library. I remember one day I came across a book titled "A Brief Introduction to God”. It was a small book that explained the concept of Tawhid in Islam without using any terminology regarding Allah or the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). I was so impressed with the book that I investigated the author and discovered the author was, Khawla Kaori, the wife of Professor Hasan, a professor of theology at Doshisha University, and contacted him about meeting her. Prof. Hasan replied immediately and asked me to meet him at a cafe near the university. As I was waiting in the cafe when Professor Hasan arrived and with sadness broke down crying as soon as he walked through the doors. He said Ustaza Khawla passed away a year ago from an illness. He continued that he had suffered her loss, but that a young man who had read her book and was interested in Islam came to him and reminded him of the following hadith.

قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏:‏

‏ "‏إذا مات ابن آدم انقطع عمله إلا من ثلاث‏:‏ صدقة جارية ،أو علم ينتفع به، أو ولد صالح يدعو له‏"‏ ‏.‏

The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said, "When a man dies, his deeds come to an end except for three things: Sadaqah Jariyah (ceaseless charity); a knowledge which is beneficial, or a virtuous descendant who prays for him (for the deceased)."

He said, "I missed her so much. I kept wondering where she had gone and how I could see her. Now her life has become knowledge and she dwells in your heart and will be with me. In her place, I will be your Sensei (teacher). " To be honest, at that time I just met him and I knew very little about Islam. I was not even sure if I could trust him, but I was at least interested in his honesty in opening up about his feelings to a young student whom he had just met, and what kind of faith supported him.

Later, Prof. Hasan introduced me to Muslims from various countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, England, Syria, and Egypt. He taught me that Tawhid is one but its expression is diverse. I had an image of Muslims as people living in the Middle East, so I was surprised at the variety of languages and cultures that exist within Islamic civilization.

Then in the summer of my sophomore year, I went to Cairo with Prof. Hasan for an Arabic summer program, where Prof. Hasan introduced me to a professor at al-Azhar University. At that time, Prof. Hasan said to me, " why don't you take this opportunity and convert to Islam?

Thinking back, I think the seed of faith had been dwelling in me since I read Ustaza Khawla's book. I had no resistance to his proposal.

Feeling a little nervous I asked him if I would become happy if I converted to Islam. He answered, "You will not be happy by entering Islam. In fact, it will make your life more difficult. You will suffer and you will make mistakes. I have also made many mistakes, and regret and repentance have become my best friends. But I am living as a Muslim because I want to see my wife again in the hereafter. I want to die as Muslim. You can just be a flawed, weak and sinful Muslim like me, and that will be enough. Then Allah will guide us to what He wants us to be."

I thought his reply was very sincere but also compelling, as I had been reading much about Islam by now. I was moved by how faith allows people to be honest with others about their weaknesses and sufferings, and how it beautifully creates a sense of integrity in serving others. While not declaring it openly that day I embraced the faith of Islam in my heart.

How did your travels as a child lead you to becoming interested in diverse cultures?

My grandmother was a kimono merchant and was well versed in traditional Japanese culture, including the tea ceremony. On the other hand, my family was open to foreign cultures and allowed me to experience various cultures, including a homestay in the U.S. when I was 9. My parents told me we must train our spirit to learn balance. There are no absolutes in human-made things, and we have no right to judge others. Culture is the same; I was taught to absorb different cultures and build that balance within ourselves.

What led you to pursue a career in academia focusing on Islamic studies?

Unfortunately, the Muslim community in Japan is still very small and at its infancy and there are few opportunities for people in Japan to learn about Islam. I decided to specialize in Islamic studies at graduate school because I believe that the best way to maintain my identity as a Muslim is to create an environment where I can pursue Ilm in my life.

During your studies did you also travel to conduct fieldwork in Muslim countries?

I have done fieldwork in various countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Jordan with a university research grant, but Turkey has given me the most cherished memories.

Over the past decade in Turkey, Syrian Ulama and Turkish Islamic scholars have worked together to rediscover the Ottoman Empire's intellectual legacy to develop Islamic scholarship. I have learned from their efforts that traditions are maintained and passed on to the next generation by the will of human beings.

You studied Islamic Science in Istanbul, why did you choose to pursue this area of


Japan has various values and cultures that shaped Japanese society, such as the kimono, tea ceremony, and Buddhist classics. Still, in recent years their influence has been reduced, pushed aside by Westernization. I wanted to study the history and intellectual traditions of Islamic civilization to consider from a broader perspective how to preserve Japanese culture in the future. In this sense, I thought that Islamic studies and the spiritual traditions of the Ottoman Empire could provide a very useful perspective.

Islamic sciences during the Ottoman Empire were an intellectual system that created a society embracing people of diverse origins, and Tasawwuf created the spiritual foundation of such a society. Japan and Turkey have experienced the process of modernization in a variety of different contexts. They have similarities and differences concerning the preservation of traditional culture and intellectual heritage. I am particularly interested in learning about the history and practice of Tasawwuf, the spiritual and cultural center of Ottoman society, and its post-modern situation.

You connect Japanese culture to the mutual aspects of Tasawwuf (Sufism), what inspired you to make these connections?

I have noticed that Tasawwuf has a surprising number of similarities in the practical aspects of Japanese culture. Such as the various practices of purifying the heart, called Suluk in Tasawwuf, were practiced in many lands with various methods. The Mevlevi Sufi order that developed in Anatolia, for example, used cooking and kitchen duties as a spiritual practice. Tariqa masters appoint their disciples to various kitchen-related positions to develop their spirit. The same tradition existed and continues in Japanese Zen Buddhism. At the Eiheiji, a Soto Zen temple in Fukui Prefecture, Japan, the food is prepared by a practitioner appointed to the position of Tenzo. It is a process that helps suppress one's ego and cultivate a spirit of service to others. The now world-famous Japanese Shojin ryori (vegetarian cuisine) was also developed within this Zen Buddhist culinary culture. When Tasawwuf and East Asian traditions are compared, many researchers work from a metaphysical perspective, but I wonder how effective such an approach would be to a Japanese reader. Of course, it is essential to look to metaphysical foundations, but it is equally or even more important to look to the cultural practices that express them. I think it is a fascinating subject, for example, I think there would be great interest by experts and ordinary Japanese readers on a comparative study of the dishes prepared in the Mevlevi Order's culinary training and Zen Buddhism's vegetarian cuisine.

I have introduced the culinary culture and recipes of the Mevlevi Order on the Shueisha website (

and it was very well recieved by Japanese readers -Alhamdulillah.