Unit 5 Group A Report on the First Research Seminar
"Knowledge and Society"


Date & Time: Saturday, July 3, 1999 14:00 -

Location: The University of Tokyo


The "Knowledge and Society" Study Group held its first research seminar on Saturday, July 3, 1999. A presentation was given by SATO Kentaro (University of Tokyo Graduate School) on "A 'Novel' Festival - Theories Surrounding the Introduction of the Mawlid of The Prophet in Maghrib and Andalusia from the 13th to 15th Centuries AD (7th to 9th Centuries AH)."


Mr. Sato divides into two parts theories surrounding a 'novel' (he uses this word to translate bid'a) festival celebrated in Maghrib and Andalusia from the mid-13th century to commemorate the mawlid (birthday) of Muhammad. The first part consisits of theories by Abu^ al-Qa^sim al-'Azafi^ who founded this festival. The second consists of postdated theories to be found in the collection compiled by al-Wanshari^si^. Before the 13th century, it had been common Muslim practice to celebrate Christian festivals. In order to "correct" this, Azafi^ introduced the mawlid, which from the point of view of bid'a did not differ at all from the Christian festivals.

Furthermore, in analyzing the fatwa^s after the introduction of the mawlid, opinions may be divided into three groups: those advocating complete acceptance (their involvement with the group of mystics is pointed out), those advocating conditional acceptance, who felt that if there are no outstanding deviances accompanying it, the mawlid should be recognized, and those opposing entirely. Those advocating conditional acceptance were in the majority and the theoretical debates of these fatwa^s centered on whether the customs associated with the mawlid, not the mawlid itself, were part of bid'a or not.

Before Mr. Sato began the main part of his presentation, he spoke about the reasons for discussing the theories surrounding the mawlid in the "Knowledge and Society" Study Group research seminar. He stated that his interest lies in the analysis of the relationship between Islamic Law and its protector, the ulama^ (Mr. Sato regards the ulama^ as "the protector of knowledge in the Islamic world") and society. In this analysis, an important point to examine is bid'a. The concept of bid'a itself means nothing more than a 'novel' act. Therefore, in the decisions of the ulama^ accept or reject 'novel' customs not based in The Koran or Sunna, the two texts which form the basis for Islamic Law, we can find the relationship between knowledge and society.


Based on his interest in the issues mentioned above, Mr. Sato comes to the following conclusions after analyzing the theories surrounding the mawlid. According to him, the stance of the ulama^ which decides whether or not to recognize the existence of a festival mainly on the basis of the appropriateness of the various customs surrounding it, without any discussion of the appropriateness of celebrating the birthday of Muhammad, can be seen as a symptom of both the "deepening" and the "corruption" of Islam. In other words, this shows that the masses had begun to interpret Isalm in their own ways, and that the intelligentsia had begun to take a compromising attitude.


The main points which were brought up in the discussion which followed may be classified as follows:


1) Points related to the interpretation of Islamic Law: Mr. Sato pointed out that the sources of Islamic Law are The Koran and the sunna, transcendant and authorities not to be touched. He then discussed how these were different from actual conditions in modern Islam. It was put forth that Islamic Law is not as inflexible as he supposes, and that it is a system which can adapt itself to social conditions. It was also pointed out that he may be taking for granted the immutability of the hadith which makes up a substantial part of the sunna.


2) Points related to the dichotomy between the Islam of the ulama^ and popular Islam: There was criticism concerning the concept of "popular Islam" which was mentioned in the conclusion. Mr. Sato defended this distinction by bringing up aspects of Islam such as sufism which developed later, and were never part of the Islam of the ulama^. Mr. Sato stated that issues of nomenclature aside, a dichotomy does arise when these aspects are viewed by the ulama^.


It is possible to trace these issues back to interpretations of the concepts of knowledge and culture, and the discussion continued in this direction. Basic background questions were asked, such as whether we can see political and social relationships underlying the decisions of individual legal scholars, whether knowledge is an entity which exists transcendentally or whether it is a marketable resource which is found within actual political and social relationships.


As a result of these deliberations, the importance of keeping in mind the concepts of "knowledge and tradition" and "knowledge and power relationships" in further presentations was recognized.