The National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) is a research center for ethnology and cultural anthropology.

A Cross-Regional Study of Diversity within the Muslim World through the Use of Visual Descriptions and Films

Joint Research Coordinator YOSHIMOTO Yasuko

Reserch Theme List


Islam, intercultural-comparative study through visual images, multicentrism


This research seeks to shed light on the diversity and commonalities of Islam developing in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Americas through the study of visual representations, such as photographs and films, which visually capture and chronicle various themes such as ceremonies, physical technique and material culture.

Concerning the diversity of Islam, as numerous previous ethnographic descriptions have made clear, there is an obvious tendency to view uniformly various actions arising from methods for recitation of the Koran and worship, as well as the constituent elements of mosques and their functions. This research group seeks to utilize a wealth of visual materials from the Muslim world centering on the Middle East including geographically peripheral areas, and squarely reexamine the diversity within commonality that has previously been overlooked. Through this work, we hope to question the conventional thinking that tends to regard individual Islamic areas as one entity in a regional framework. Then we plan to discuss individual cases using a cross-sectional method and for the final analysis reinvestigate actual concepts such as center and peripheral.

Research Results

This Inter-University Research Project continued for 30 months. It began in October 2010 when at four meetings participants presented the results of their research in Vietnam, China, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, and Israel. Participants shared their knowledge on the practice of Islam in the regions where they conducted research. Through case studies of different regions, shared topics were identified for discussion. These included, for example, the names and linguistic origins of terms "the dead" and "ancestral spirits," how the Holy Koran is recited and differing representations of self and other. Also, issues related to film ethics were identified.

Four more meetings were held in 2011, at which the history of visual anthropology and recent debates in the field were discussed. Also, reports were presented on the practice of Islam in Iran, the U.S.A., Indonesia, and Mali. There was discussion on the benefits and limitations of using unedited film footage as research material, and whether various aspects of "Islam" and "Muslim" depicted in this footage can be explained by the single concept of "the diversity of Islam."

A further four meetings took place in 2012. In addition to receiving new reports on Islam in Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Japan, we organized a panel for the Japanese Society of Cultural Anthropology (JASCA) at which preliminary presentations were made. The intention was not to focus simply on the diversity of Islam and Muslims, but to explore these differences by applying the concept of polythetic classification or family resemblance, components of which do not share a single distinctive feature.

Debates like those described above illustrate the possibility of escaping from the abstractions created by translating into existing religious terminology and of using visual images to communicate local differences to scholars who work in a variety of different regions. This transcends the limitations of traditional concepts and textual description, and demonstrates the effectiveness of using visual materials in comparative research that spans different regions. This is one of the main achievements of the project.

Concrete results include the panel "The realities of Islam as seen in visual materials—exploring the potential of 'Family Resemblance' in comparative research", presented at the 46th annual meeting of the Japanese Society of Cultural Anthropology (JASCA), held on June 23, 2012 at Hiroshima University. Five members of this project participated in the panel.