The prince and the prophet

Time unites what space divides. The Japanese archipelago and the Arabian Peninsula are worlds apart — the mountain mists of the one, the burning desert sands of the other, linked today by Saudi oil imported in massive quantities by Japan; but that was far, far in the future in the sixth and seventh centuries.

Japanese scroll painting of Prince Shotoku at the age of 14 as a Buddhist Pilgrim. Colors on silk. | SMITHSONIAN MUSEUM (FREER GALLERY)
Japanese scroll painting of Prince Shotoku at the age of 14 as a Buddhist Pilgrim. Colors on silk. | SMITHSONIAN MUSEUM (FREER GALLERY)

How was it then? Bedouins on camels roamed the desert, in restless quest of sparse pasture for their sheep and goat herds. Tribe fought tribe, raiding each other’s cattle, fighting wars over waterholes. They worshipped many gods, prominent among them the moon god. Their language, Arabic, is said to be beautifully musical. Illiterate, they were natural poets — bards.

The Japanese were just emerging from their tribal phase, slowly becoming a nation. They were settled farmers, of rice primarily. They too worshipped many gods. They too were poets, as the eighth-century anthology “Manyoshu” makes clear. Not the moon god but the sun goddess was the object of their special reverence.

An ancient Bedouin seeing Japan would think it an oasis — a soft, gentle land, well-watered and fertile. An ancient Japanese seeing Arabia would recoil in horror. Here, he would have said, was a land fit for hyenas, jackals, scorpions and vipers, which in fact abounded. Locusts too, which the Bedouin roasted and ate with relish.

Two men born around the same time — the eighth decade of the sixth century — bridge, in the imagination, an unbridgeable gap. Each is the product of his distinctive environment; also the shaper of it — a hero, the stuff of legend, a maker of history. Had Prince Shotoku and the prophet Muhammad ever met, what would they have said to each other?

Shotoku’s name — posthumous — means “sage-virtue.” Muhammad’s — also posthumous — means “highly praised.” Shotoku’s legend begins in a stable, Muhammad’s in a cave. Muhammad founded a religion, Shotoku imported one. Shotoku’s 17-article “Constitution” hardly compares with Muhammad’s Quran in scope, depth or impact; still, each is a founding document, one molding the Japanese character, the other the Islamic.

Shotoku in life was called Prince Umayado, which means stable door. His legendary birth in front of a stable, c. 574, suggests Christ. Had some word of the Christian Son of God reached Japan? It’s possible. Nestorian Christians were active in China.

The eighth-century historical chronicle “Nihon Shoki” tells this story: Shotoku’s mother, an imperial consort, was passing the palace stable when suddenly, painlessly, she gave birth, her child a prodigy able to speak at birth and master Buddhist doctrine (as Jesus mastered rabbinic Jewish doctrine) at a very young age.

Buddhism had gained a very precarious foothold in Japan a generation before the prince’s birth; it was under attack by worshippers of the native Japanese gods. Japan’s first — and last — religious war came to a climax in 587. The 13-year-old prince’s intense prayers, legend has it, assured Buddhism’s victory — which was not, however, the native religion’s defeat, for the two gradually fused in a most remarkable manner, subsequent generations of Japanese worshipping foreign and native gods with equal devotion. The native religion, hitherto nameless, now acquired its name: Shinto, the way of the gods.

Muhammad, born around 570 in Mecca, was no Bedouin but an urban merchant. He was subject to strange visions. There was a cave he would withdraw to periodically for meditation. There he heard a voice: “Recite!” It was the angel Gabriel, who filled him with the words of the Quran — the words of Allah, “who created man from clots of blood.” The year was 610; the month, Ramadan.

Shotoku’s Constitution predated the Quran by six years. To the casual reader its exhortations seem mere homilies enjoining harmony, obedience, justice, honesty and hard work. But so primitive and vague was Japan’s government, writes historian George Sansom, that “the mere formulation of a set of moral laws was… almost revolutionary, and we see here the first results … of the importation of Indian religion and Chinese (Confucian) philosophy.” Japan had taken a long stride forward.

There was no stopping it now. A new age had dawned. Missions to China were dispatched one after another — flotillas of primitive, scarcely seaworthy ships carrying ambassadors, priests, students and merchants, representatives of an infant nation hungry to the point of braving, almost courting, death at sea for Chinese learning, Chinese art, Chinese crafts — anything Chinese.

The mission of 607 is especially famous. The Japanese emperor’s missive to his Chinese counterpart, written apparently by Shotoku, begins, “From the emperor of the land of the rising sun to the emperor of the land of the setting sun” — a presumption of equality that risked mortally offending the haughty Chinese. What had the Japanese to compare with Chang’an, the Chinese capital, the largest city in the world? Japan’s capital, Asuka (in present-day Nara Prefecture), was hardly a city at all.

Ruffled feelings were soothed, however, the Chinese won over by the wide-eyed eagerness of the Japanese to learn. Here begins a bilateral teacher-pupil relationship that endured for centuries and is likely unique in the history of international relations.

Muhammad, “reciting” as the angel had commanded, won followers and made enemies. He called his new religion “Islam,” meaning total submission to the will of God. What God? Pagans had gods of their own. There was no amiable merger here, as with Buddhism and Shinto. Violence threatened and sometimes flared. Outnumbered, Muhammad and his followers sought sanctuary in the town of Yathrib, soon to be renamed Medina. Muhammad himself arrived in September 622, year 1 of the Muslim calendar — also, as it happens, the year of Shotoku’s death.

In 624 Islam fought its first jihad — holy war. It was Mecca versus Medina, the old versus the new, paganism’s last stance against the invisible but omnipotent creator God of Muhammad. Muhammad revealed himself a military as well as a religious genius. Heavily outnumbered, he was nonetheless victorious. He died in 632, Islam going on to conquer in Allah’s name an empire stretching from Spain to the borders of China.

Japan, content with its island seclusion, conquered nothing, evolving instead, during the Nara and Heian periods (710-794; 794-1185) one of the world’s most distinctive cultures. Peace reigned, the arts flourished. By the 10th century, Chang’an was in ruins and the world’s two great cultural centers were Islamic and Japanese, Baghdad and Kyoto, the one descended from Muhammad, the other from Prince Shotoku.

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

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