Research Unit5 Islamic History and Culture


Secretariat of Unit 5

Address: Department of West Asian Studies
Institute of Oriental Culture, University of Tokyo
Hongo 7-3-1, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 113, Japan
Tel & Fax:03-3815-9565

What are the aims of Research Unit 5?

[Report of the First Research Seminar of Research Unit 5 at Institute of Oriental Culture, University of Tokyo., 1997/6/28]

GOTO Akira





  1. 1. What is the Creative Basic Research?
  2. 2. Structure and Budget of Research Unit 5
  3. 3. Necessity for "Creation" of the Area to be Researched
  1. 4. Use of Geographical Information System


1. What is the Creative Basic Research?

Our Islamic Area Studies Project which begins this year falls under the category of what is called the New Program in the Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research. The official name for this category is Grant-in-Aid for Creative Basic Research. In the past, we have conducted research on the topic of Urbanism in Islam under the Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research on Priority Areas.I would like to begin by explaining my understanding of the difference between the Scientific Research on Priority Areas category and the Creative Basic Research which we are now working under.

As I understand them, Scientific Research on Priority Areas are granted in areas of research which are deemed especially important to the scholarly development of Japan. Therefore, areas which fall into this category are given more budget. In our previous research, the field of Islamic Studies was recognized as not being limited to the narrow definition of Religious Studies, but mainly researching the Islamic World in a broader context. Within this broader field, we decided to conduct research on urbanism. Through this research, we hoped to discover new frameworks of knowledge and we pride ourselves on having met with a fair amount of success.

My understanding of the Grant-in-Aid for Creative Basic Research which we are now working under is that this budget is allocated for basic research in order to create new fields of study. Looking at how this Project was selected, it seems to me that we are expected to create a new field within the larger field of Area Studies in general, which itself is in the process of being created. To create a new field of area studies is why our Project, whose official name is "The Modern Islamic World as a Dynamic Entity" , has been entitled as Islamic Area Studies. In our five years of research with this Project, it is our duty to create a new field known as Islamic Area Studies. In doing this, we are expected to enrich the content of the emerging field of Area Studies.

2. Structure and Budget of Research Unit 5

Research Unit 5 in this Project is responsible for research on "Islamic History and Culture". Professor SATO Tsugitaka will be the project leader for the entire five-year span of the project and it is likely that Research Group 5 will remain based at the Institute of Oriental Culture of the University of Tokyo for the duration of the project. For the time being I, GOTO Akira am the representative of the base of operations of Research Unit 5, but this may change in the course of five years.

Research Unit 5 is divided into two Research Groups. The research topic of Group A is "Muslims in Everyday Life" and the topic of Group B is "Islamic Civilization in Human History". Each group is comprised of six researchers and it is possible that during the course of the research, the members or leaders of the group may change. One of the characteristics of this project is that we are trying to attach importance to the flexibility of groups and members.

The research of this Unit will by no means only be carried out by members of the Project. We are hoping for active participation from researchers who are not members. It is possible for researchers who are not members of the Project to participate in budgeted research activities such as surveys in foreign countries. It is also expected that many researchers will participate in various ways such as giving lectures at research seminars and providing comments, etc. Because we have a limited budget, we cannot invite and provide transportation expenses for all who would like to participate in research seminars, but we hope that many people will be able to participate freely in many ways without regard to affiliation.

The budget of Unit 5 is smaller than we expected and it cannot be said to be sufficient. Although we have a very small budget, let's try to put it to good use and conduct productive research.

3. Necessity for "Creation" of the Area to be Researched

Because we are attempting to create a new field known as Islamic Area Studies within the framework of Area Studies in general, I have been considering the scholarly background of this attempt. It seems to me that there are three important points to be considered.

Farewell to the Knowledge System of Nineteenth Century Western Europe

The first point is the farewell to the knowledge system of nineteenth century Western Europe. In the nineteenth century, thinkers in Western Europe classified things and affairs, and used the concepts of the Evolutionary Theory to organize them. Human cultures and societies were classified and organized just as animals and plants were. Western European society and culture was seen as the only one which had been evolving and developing and non-Western European cultures and societies, referred to as "Asian" or "Oriental", were thought to have taken impasses of evolution and therefore thought of as unevolved and undeveloped. For western thinkers, the purpose of Historical Studies was to study the dynamism of "highly evolved" societies and therefore Western Europe was the only society worth studying. The other areas was not seen as objects of the dynamic historical research, but of the observation of static entities, like as Japanology, Sinology, Indology and Cultural Anthropology. The criticism of "Orientalism", which claims that scholars played the role of rationalizing the dominance of the West over the Orient in order to westernize non-Western European societies, should be considered very seriously as a question related to scholarship.

Japanese Universities were established in order to import the nineteenth century Western European knowledge system. However, looking back historically, the nineteenth century in Asia was an extremely dynamic period. We must make farewells to the scholastic system which could not understand this. I believe that Area Studies should be a discipline in which Western Europe and other areas are viewed in the same way and Western Europe is viewed relativistically. Area Studies should also view areas around the world not as static entities to be observed, but as dynamic phenomena whose changing vectors must be discovered. I believe that the official title of our Project, "The Modern Islamic World as a Dynamic Entity", is closely related to this way of looking at Area Studies.

Theory of the Networked Society

The second point is that we are seeing a change from research on communities to networks of individuals. From the nineteenth century up until ten or twenty years ago, most research on Asian and African societies was directed at tribal communities and village communities. Under this kind of view, an individual hardly existed outside their community, they understood Asians, Africans and Native Americans as immersed in their communities. Autonomous individuals were considered unique only to modern Western Europe. Our former project, "Urbanism in Islam" started with the hypothesis that since the seventh century, Islam set up not communities enveloping individuals, but urban societies which produced people leading urban lifestyles. That an urban society is a group of autonomous individuals is self-evident supposition. I believe that the seventh century Meccan society which formed the basis for Islam was such an urban space. The Urbanism in Islam Project had, as its background, the idea that the Western European Islamic scholars up through the nineteenth century were basically incorrect in their idea that the Islamic world which came from Mecca is a mosaic of exclusive, self-sufficient communities.

Perhaps a community which envelops each individual does not exist now and has never existed in the past. Each individual creates various relationships with other people from birth to death. Research on communities sees each of these interpersonal relationships during one's lifetime as closed inside a community and endeavor not to see relationships outside of the frame of the community. People live within the framework of multilayered human relationships such as blood ties present at birth, new blood ties brought about by marriage, ties to fellow classmates and one's juniors and seniors while receiving an education, ties at the workplace and ties of allies and enemies formed during war and conflict. All interpersonal relationships are not formed by only one community. There are many structured groups which an individual interacts with simultaneously and in parallel. There are a wide variety of human relationships. In other words, I believe that human society is the grouping of people within various interpersonal networks.

One of the key words in the Urbanism in Islam project was "Networked Society". Not everyone understood this term in the same way, but everyone agreed that it refers to something which is not an exclusive, self-sufficient community. I believe that in our research from now on, we must view society as the sum total of multilayered networks.

A Multidimensional Understanding of the Area

The third point I believe needs to be considered is that an area should not be viewed individually as a immovable one. Rather, it should be viewed multidimensionally. I have studied seventh century Meccan society for many years, so here I will take as an example the very limited time and space known as seventh century Mecca and the area surrounding it.

At the time, this small area was in the cultural region I call the Bread and Milk region. That is to say, it was part of the larger area which was home to this type of food culture. Wheat was harvested, ground into flour, mixed with water and kneaded. This mixture was then baked in an oven. These techniques were established in the Fertile Crescent belt in the Middle East around 6,000 BC. Sheep and goats were also raised for their milk and techniques for making dairy products such as butter, cheese and yogurt were developed in the same area at the same time. This culture, which had bread and milk as its staple foods spread over a larger area as time passed. Europe from the Alps northward was incorporated into this culture quite late, possibly around the tenth century. Japan was exposed to this culture via Europe but I believe we have not yet been fully incorporated into this cultural area. It is supposed that Arabia, including Mecca had been incorporated into this cultural area by 1000 BC at the latest.

The town of Mecca is at the bottom of a rocky valley where agriculture is impossible. However, the area around Mecca is dotted with oasises and wheat is grown there. However, there is not enough moisture in the air to cultivate wheat using rainwater. Therefore small-scale qanアt (a type of irrigation system) are necessary for irrigation. We can imagine a historical process wherein this technology was introduced into Arabia the surrounding area of Mecca and became part of the Bread and Milk cultural region. At that time, seventh century Mecca was part of the large Bread and Milk food culture area which, at that time, may have included the area from the Indus Valley and Central Asia in the East to the Mediterranean in the West.

Even if we only examine the food culture of seventh century Mecca, we see that it is part of many cultural regions and geographical areas. For example, the dates cultural region, the wine cultural region and the camel milk and meat consuming cultural region, etc. Each of these cultural regions can be seen as having its own geographical area. It is clear that food culture is not the only part of human culture. Taking the example of languages and writing systems, Mecca belonged to the Northern Arabic region of the Shem linguistic region. In addition, it was in the Northern Arabic script cultural region. And, as we investigated in our former project, Mecca was in one corner of a region centered on the Middle East which had a high degree of urbanism. The various areas, which seventh century Mecca was a part of, were created under historical processes. The historical dynamism and the area's spatial positioning combined to create the small area surrounding and including seventh century Mecca.

Until last year, an area studies project was conducted based at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University. As I understood it, the main issue debated was what sort of areas we should divide the world into and, taking Southeast Asia as an example, whether it is possible to create a concept of Southeast Asia as an area. Are there several units into which we should divide the world? Or several tens of units, or hundreds of units? When divided into areas this way, these area units are not seen multidimensionally. Area Studies up until now has been approached in this way and it might have been productive. However, I believe that we should conduct area studies paying much more attention to more dynamic change and multiple dimensions.

4. Use of Geographical Information Systems

One of the special characteristics of this Project is the adaptation of Geographical Information Systems to Area Studies. We researchers in the Humanities and Social Sciences are not accustomed to this kind of system which uses a computer to process a variety of spatial information from a satellite such as graphical images of the surface of the Earth. It has been predicted that systems like these will become indispensable for Area Studies in the future. We are not sure exactly what sort of research is possible using these systems, but I believe that it is necessary for us in Research Unit 5 to try many ways of using them. Let's try to find a way to use these systems in the next five years.

Copyright 1997 Islamic Area Studies