Corporeal Hermeneutics of Sacredness and Constructing Identity by Halal Consciousness

Muslims actualize and embody their interpretation of the Holy Scripture in a verbal and non-verbal way.[1] Male circumcision in the Jewish-Muslim tradition, for example, is the act of carving or inscribing religious significance, in order to embody sacredness.[2] In the same sense, the act of eating foods that are recognized as halal can be called the embodiment (shintaika) of the religious meaning.[3] It is not simply so that the act gives the ‘meal’ a ceremonious purpose, but rather that the act of eating halal food or consuming animals slaughtered while reciting the sacred words is a very corporeal interpretation.[4] This embodiment can also be called realization or actualization, but because I think Nakata and Legendre’s viewpoint regarding the corporeality of interpretation is appropriate, clarifying personal individual consciousness and action, I would like to use the word embodiment. In this way, I think it is possible to develop a new dimension of Izutsu and Said’s idea of Islamic culture as ‘communities of interpretation’. Fundamentally, everyone lives in ‘communities of interpretation’ and everyone always interprets his Self and Other(s) in an individual manner, which is in danger of being closed down in the context of halal standardization.

While circumcision is the act of inscribing sacredness from the outside onto the outside, the act of eating halal food is the act of inscribing sacredness from the inside into the inside, so that the sacredness is integrated within the human body. Circumcision, as well as the taboo on pork, existed as a custom before the Qur’anic revelation. However, since then, the significance of those same actions has changed into the embodiment (personal or individual actualization) of the Qur’anic ideals such as the sacred law, words, and will of God, making these ideals part of the believers’ Self, and understanding the ideals as the elements of the believers’ own identity. The embodiment of the Quranic ideals is a practice of sacredness as the embodiment (inscribing) of the distinguished nature. The embodying practice functions as the precondition for the decision as to what believers should do or the criterion for believers’ actions. In this way, it works as the articulation of the world or nature, and that provides the understanding of the world or nature. In halal consciousness, it has the same effect. The articulation of and decision regarding halal are the result of an understanding of the world or nature, in other words, the realization of the embodiment of the Qur’anic ideals. In halal consciousness, it is articulated and decided which part is appro_priate to sacredness.

This cultural religious act indicates the hermeneutic feature of Islam and determines the worldview as well as the self-defining understanding of ‘Self’, ‘Other(s)’, and the ‘world’. In the self-defining spot, the world or nature is interpreted according to the halal principle. There, another horizon is opened along with embodiment, in which mind and body are reintegrated. Nakata’s idea of embodiment demonstrates this fact. In my understanding, the peculiarity of his interpretation lies in regarding the definitive feature of food culture in Islam as the one-to-one relationship between God and man.

This attitude seems to be against the stereotypical Japanese view on nature. In general, one thinks that the Japanese attitude to nature implies a kind of unification between nature and man. In the same stereotypical manner, the Islamic attitude is represented as sacred, religious, or supernatural (contra-natural). In my opinion, the generally observed attitude of people in Japan indicates that they unconsciously and essentially separate nature and man. On the contrary, Muslims are highly conscious about being unified with halal objects. The one-to-one relationship between God and man in Islam does not mean that Muslims separate the transcendent from the rest. In the Muslim consciousness, all phenomena, events, and acts are the sacred manifestation of transcendency. In this sense, all human experience (physical or mental) is the body-mind interaction of sacredness. Nakata explains the meaning of body-mind interaction of sacredness in this context through his interpretation of ‘The Night Journey’ (Qur’an 17:44). According to Nakata, this passage shows that the basic Islamic worldview is animism. It appears to the Muslim body-mind unit (the individual which embodies the Quranic ideals) that sacredness appears in the immaculateness of all phenomena. Nakata calls this appearance animism.[5]

By demonstrating the Muslim concept of immaculateness, it can be argued that there is a direct relationship between food, transcendency, sacredness, and animism. In the following quote, Nakata explains his concept of animism and at the same time the relationship of transcendency (separation or purification in his understanding) to all beings (their existence is glorification) in the universe:

It is totally irrelevant to Islam to think that only the human being as rational being is special. All things and events in the universe are spiritual beings, which praise God in their words. In Islam the human beings are distinguished only through the presence of an intention to choose to obey or disobey the orders of God. All things and events in the universe except the human beings praise God inevitably and necessarily, while the human beings are able to run counter to God’s orders. The human essence consists in the ethical being which is able to commit a sin.


The sentence ‘All things and events in the universe are spiritual beings, which praise God in their words’ corresponds to the Muslim version of animism. The part of ‘All things and events in the universe except the human beings praise God inevitably and necessarily’ coincides with a Muslim version of Heraclitean worldview that all things are in flux.[6] In Nakata’s mind, I think, the image ‘everything glorifies’ and the vision ‘everything flows’ expresses the activity and movement of the world, as perceived by humans. According to Nakata, each decision towards events and things should thus be understood as a corporeal interpretation of the sacredness in Islam. Therefore, in each act and on all levels, man establishes his relationship with sacredness. Nakata uses the word ‘intention’ to denominate this relationship, which in religious terms is expressed as ‘glorification’. In this sense, the act of eating food is no exception. In his understanding, every physical and psychic act (intention) of Muslims, including the act of eating, is a ‘glorification’ of God. I argue that Nakata as such introduces his understanding of animism, claiming that Muslims construct their own identity in their encounter with phenomena or objects, which are in an animistic state of constant perpetual flux.

In the ‘traditional aesthetics’ of Japan, the changing nature, which is regarded as living, vivid, and endlessly full of nuance, is immediately conceptualized at the moment of every individual experience. This understanding of the world experience is quite often represented as a Japanese Buddhist view of ‘everything flows’.[7] In classical Japanese waka poetry, poets intentionally turned the streaming vision of nature into the semantic ‘multistratification’ of waka-poetic concepts.[8] Therefore, the instantaneous conceptualization, which is poetically verbalized in Kokinshu,[9] Shinkokinshu,[10] or Saijiki,[11] is easily confused with the direct cognitive experience of nature or of the surroundings. At least, if one does not understand the poetic-creative consciousness, one solely reads stereotyped expressions and associations.[12] Furthermore, when these concepts, which were formed in cultural history and which represent experienced realities, are used, one unconsciously or uncritically speaks of stereotyped aesthetic ideas or classified senses of season, instead of describing, explaining or interpreting one’s own experience.

In waka in the classical periods, such natural things as moon (autumn), snow (winter), cherry-blossoms (spring), cuckoo (summer) appear constantly, showing that they are already poetic stereotypes. The fact that one gets the impression that these natural objects have lost their original concreteness and vitality, and have turned into insubstantial entities is due to a fundamental shift of emphasis that occurred [... ] from the dimension of description to that of evocation. As a result, Nature is made to function primarily as a power evocative of semantic fields. The moon, for instance, immediately evokes autumn, and through the latter, the whole extent of a semantic field including Nature and human affairs in so far as the latter are related to autumn.[13]

If ‘these natural objects have lost their original concreteness and vitality, and have turned into insubstantial entities’, it means that nature is experienced in a non-animist way. However, if Nakata’s opinion about the distinction of sacredness is fundamentally based on an animist view of the world, I claim that his opinion has the potential to develop a nonstereotypical sensory perception, because his corporeal interpretation negates standardization in the sense of stereotypical conceptualization and represents critical consciousness and understanding of contextual individuality. In Nakata’s type of worldview, the contra-stereotyping tendency must be stronger, and thus more conscious in the daily lives of the Muslim Japanese, when they follow one of their ‘ulama’ Nakata. Given the halal consciousness of animist sacredness qua immaculateness as an indispensable and essential condition for experiencing nature and human affairs, Muslim Japanese are always vividly confronted by the surrounding majority’s categorizations, which make them conscious of their Muslim identity, as Nakata demonstrates. Usually, it is supposed that Muslims negate the animist perception, because Islam is a monotheistic religion. However, while explaining Muslim identity, Nakata demonstrates that a real animism is expressed in Islam. The important thing, however, is that this position is taken only by the minority, making precisely this minority forcibly aware of their non-stereotypical conceptualization and understanding of the world experience.

  • [1] On Muslim culture as interpretation, Izutsu, Isuramu bunka, 26. See also, Said, ‘Orientalismreconsidered’, 93. On sacredness in Islam, see Chodkiewicz, ‘La saintete’, 13—32; Idem, Le Sceaudes saints, 1986.
  • [2] Legendre takes the Jewish custom of circumcision into consideration for exemplifying thecorporeal inscription of sacredness. Cf. Legendre, De la Societe comme Texte, 73—74. I includethe Muslim custom of circumcision in the same process.
  • [3] Nakata, Watashi wa naze, 23—25. Nakata speaks of the embodiment of the ideals. In his view,the embodiment is a sort of naturalization or rendering unconscious in the way of thinking andbehaviour. When eating, which is the most ordinary and familiar event or act, Muslims cannothelp practicing the hermeneutic culture of Islam. Therefore, this matter is a highly interesting andsuggestive example for the embodiment of the ideals in general.
  • [4] Bourdieu, Meditations pascaliennes, 187; Legendre, De la Societe comme Texte, 73—74.
  • [5] In order to examine his way of constructing his identity, I quote Nakata’s Japanese translationof verse 44 below, and translate his choice of the words and expressions into English literally(Nakata, Isuramu, 71): ‘The seven heavens and the earth, and beings in them offer up theglorification to Him (God). Indeed, no matter what it is, there is nothing, which does not praiseHis transcendency (choetsu) in admiration for Him. However, you all do not understand theirglorification’ (17:44). Nakata stresses in his Japanese translation the aspect of immaculatetranscendency. Cf. al-Mahalli, Tafsir al-Jalalayn, 256. By emphasizing transcendency, which isimplied contextually, Nakata demonstrates that transcendency does not prevent the interaction ofnature and man, but it provides for animism, as discussed below. Suyuti’s (1445—1505) work isregarded as one of the most standard classical interpretations under Sunni as well as ShiiteMuslims. It is well known that al-Suyuu spoke in defence of Ibn cArabi (1165—1240), one ofthe most prominent thinkers in Islam, whose interpretation will be discussed in relation toNakata’s idea of animism below. By emphasizing transcendency, which is implied contextually,Nakata demonstrates that transcendency does not prevent the interaction of nature and man, butit provides for animism, as discussed below.
  • [6] Heraclitus of Ephesus is a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who described the world in thefamous short phrase ‘everything flows (panta rhei)’. This expresses that the world is alwayschanging. Such a worldview is observable in Buddhist thoughts (cf. Izutsu, Poetry, 534—535) aswell as in Islamic ones (cf. Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, 232).
  • [7] Cf. Izutsu, ‘Poetry’, 534—535.
  • [8] Ibid., 532-533.
  • [9] The Kokinwakashu (Collection of Old and New Japanese poems) is the first official Imperialanthology of waka poetry, compiled in ca. 905—912. This contains poems that are not included inthe oldest anthology of Japanese poems, Manydshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves),completed after 759. The ideals and concepts represented in the Kokinshu became the canon ofaesthetics, poetry, literature, theatre, and other traditional arts.
  • [10] The Shinkokinwakashu (New Collection of Old and New Japanese poems) is the eighthImperial anthology of waka poetry, compiled in ca. 1201—1210. Besides the Kokinshu, this isone of the most influential classics and it is said that the symbolism and techniques in literature aremost refined and sophisticated.
  • [11] In the Nara period (710—794), the Chinese saijiki (Year Time Chronicle) came to Japan. TheJapanese original version was made by Kaibara Ekiken (1630—1714) in 1688. However, under theinfluence of Japanese poetry, the Japanese type of saijiki became a collection of the key terms ofseasonal ideals, things and events used in the renga and haiku poetry. This type was compiled forthe first time as early as 1647 by Kitamura Kigin (1625—1705) under the title Yama no I (Well ofMountain).
  • [12] Cf. Izutsu, ‘Poetry’, 532-533.
  • [13] Ibid., 533-534.
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