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Jordan A to Z: I is for … Islam!

What can I say in a simple blog post of a few hundred words about the main religion of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan?  Whatever I say  in this short span of words could not do the topic justice.  So, I will just give a couple of stats, and a little food for thought.

Estimates vary on what percentage of the population here in Jordan are Muslim.  My best estimate pulled from a variety of sources is around 96%.  (out of aprox. 6 million people).  At such a high percentage one might think you should just say 100%, but there is a sizable Christian minority that is given a lot of religious freedom and has a definite impact on society.  The government even guarantees 10% of parliamentary seats to Christians.

It is probably safe to say that 100% of Muslims here are Sunni, although you may meet a Shi’a here or there … it is not enough to make a demographic blip.

Of course, Islam is famous for the so-called 5 Pillars or religious activities that every Muslim should perform:

  1. reciting the Shahada (“there is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet”)
  2. praying 5x a day (preferably in a mosque facing Mecca, but not necessarily)
  3. fasting during the month of Ramadan (no food or drink from sunup to sundown)
  4. giving to the poor (2.5% of your extra wealth each year)
  5. going on pilgrimage to Mecca (once in a lifetime if you can afford it)

Many outsiders think that Islam is a religion that solely revolves around the performance of these 5 activities.  I have often heard non-Muslims say that Muslims hope to go to heaven by doing these 5 things as “religiously” as possible.  Not to say that these activities are not important, I must point out that at the core of the Islamic system (as I understand it) is a system of belief or faith.  Besides the activities above (or perhaps before them) are the 6 core beliefs that Muslims have faith and trust in:

  1. The Oneness of God (I think this one speaks for itself)
  2. The prophets of God (Muhammad, Jesus, David, Moses, Abraham and most of the rest of the biblical prophets)
  3. The books of the prophets (Muslims consider the Qur’an, Gospels, Psalms, and Torah to be scripture)
  4. The Angels (believed to be the helpers of God, particularly the Angel Jibreel/Gabriel)
  5. The Last Day (that there will be a day of judgment that all will face)
  6. Fate/Destiny  (That God has ordered beforehand the events of our lives)

If a Muslim does not believe in these 6 things then  he or she is not truly a Muslim, even if they perform the 5 pillars perfectly everyday.

I will write more on Islam at another time.  The only other point I would like to make right now is that my experience as a Christian American living in an Islamic Middle Eastern country has been very positive.  I have been welcomed warmly and treated with respect.  This may not be the case everywhere in the Islamic world, but it certainly has been my experience here in Jordan.  I have met many people of deep beliefs who want peace not only for their families and country but for the world as well. Although there are significant differences between Islam and Christianity, I have found that many here prefer to focus on those things that we hold in common, rather than the things that divide us.

I say all of this because I know that Islam and Muslims are still caricatured by some in the west in a negative light.  There is still fear and mistrust.  My only question for people would be this:  where do you get your information on Muslims … from the media or from your Muslim friends? Don’t judge an entire group of people based on the actions of some of its fringe elements.  There are a lot of unsavory Westerners and even Christians by whom we would not like to be judged.

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Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Origins (part 2)

Previous Post: Ramadan Basics

All of the major religions advocate fasting in some form or another, but fasting plays a particularly special role in the life of Muslims.  The month-long fast during Ramadan punctuates the rhythm of the Islamic calendar, serving as a spiritual focal point for many.  The scope of the fast (an entire month), the communal nature of it (all Muslims should participate), and the intensity of fasting (no food or drink during daylight hours) set it apart from the fasting practiced in Islam’s monotheistic cousins Judaism and Christianity.  So, what are the origins of this important religious practice that roughly 1.5 Billion people worldwide are currently observing (as of August 2011) ?

Possible Linguistic Roots

If one consults the venerable Hans Wehr Arabic-English dictionary one finds under the root (ر م ض ) two major meanings.  The first is  from the Form VIII verb (irtamaDa) meaning to be consumed with grief or sorrow.  The second seems to be a masdar or verbal noun (ramd) meaning the condition of parchedness or scorchedness.  When the month of Ramadan falls in the summer months, a correlation with these two terms might seem apparent.  However as the timing of Ramadan changes eac year (sometimes falling in winter) it is not likely that either of these words is related and that the origins of the name for the month are lost in the annals of history.  Of course the “alif noon (-an)” ending in arabic can indicate the dual in Arabic, so perhaps it is the month of double parchedness.

Quranic References

As with most religious practices it is helpful to start with the most relevant religious text.  As it turns out the Quran contains 14 references to fasting in 8 distinct passages.

  • 5 passages offer fasting as an option for believers to make up for or redeem a shortcoming of one sort or another (accidental murder of a believer, inability to make sacrifice on hajj, breaking an oath, killing game near the kaabah in Mecca, divorcing and remarrying the same woman.)
  • 1 passage about Mary the mother of Jesus
  • 1 passage about fasting and forgiveness
  • 1 passage about fasting during Ramadan

As a point of reference, here is the Quranic passage re.  fasting during Ramadan

Note that the bracketed words in the English translation are not in the original text, but are added by the translator for the sake of clarity

Al-Baqara 2:183-187 (English Translation – Sahih International)

يا أيها الذين آمنوا كتب عليكم الصيام كما كتب على الذين من قبلكم لعلكم تتقون

183 O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous –

أياما معدودات فمن كان منكم مريضا أو على سفر فعدة من أيام أخر وعلى الذين يطيقونه فدية طعام مسكين فمن تطوع خيرا فهو خير له وأن تصوموا خير لكم إن كنتم تعلمون

184  [Fasting for] a limited number of days. So whoever among you is ill or on a journey [during them] – then an equal number of days [are to be made up]. And upon those who are able [to fast, but with hardship] – a ransom [as substitute] of feeding a poor person [each day]. And whoever volunteers excess – it is better for him. But to fast is best for you, if you only knew.

شهر رمضان الذي أنزل فيه القرآن هدى للناس وبينات من الهدى والفرقان فمن شهد منكم الشهر فليصمه ومن كان مريضا أو على سفر فعدة من أيام أخر يريد الله بكم اليسر ولا يريد بكم العسر ولتكملوا العدة ولتكبروا الله على ما هداكم ولعلكم تشكرون

185 The month of Ramadhan [is that] in which was revealed the Qur’an, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. So whoever sights [the new moon of] the month, let him fast it; and whoever is ill or on a journey – then an equal number of other days. Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship and [wants] for you to complete the period and to glorify Allah for that [to] which He has guided you; and perhaps you will be grateful.

وإذا سألك عبادي عني فإني قريب أجيب دعوة الداع إذا دعان فليستجيبوا لي وليؤمنوا بي لعلهم يرشدون

186 And when My servants ask you, [O Muhammad], concerning Me – indeed I am near. I respond to the invocation of the supplicant when he calls upon Me. So let them respond to Me [by obedience] and believe in Me that they may be [rightly] guided.

أحل لكم ليلة الصيام الرفث إلى نسائكم هن لباس لكم وأنتم لباس لهن علم الله أنكم كنتم تختانون أنفسكم فتاب عليكم وعفا عنكم فالآن باشروهن وابتغوا ما كتب الله لكم وكلوا واشربوا حتى يتبين لكم الخيط الأبيض من الخيط الأسود من الفجر ثم أتموا الصيام إلى الليل ولا تباشروهن وأنتم عاكفون في المساجد تلك حدود الله فلا تقربوها كذلك يبين الله آياته للناس لعلهم يتقون

187 It has been made permissible for you the night preceding fasting to go to your wives [for sexual relations]. They are clothing for you and you are clothing for them. Allah knows that you used to deceive yourselves, so He accepted your repentance and forgave you. So now, have relations with them and seek that which Allah has decreed for you. And eat and drink until the white thread of dawn becomes distinct to you from the black thread [of night]. Then complete the fast until the sunset. And do not have relations with them as long as you are staying for worship in the mosques. These are the limits [set by] Allah , so do not approach them. Thus does Allah make clear His ordinances to the people that they may become righteous.

From these verses the following points seem obvious to me as an outside observer

  • The purpose: to become righteous (v. 183)
  • Exceptions: Those who are ill or traveling do not have to fast, but they have to make it up later (v. 184,185)
  • Prohibitions: Food, water and sexual relations  during daylight hours (v. 187)

But why the month of Ramadan?

Faithful Muslims would most likely answer this question by simply pointing to the Quranic injunction to fast during this specific month.  However, there is some additional information that is of interest.

Before the inception of Muhammad’s religious career, he worked as a caravan trader.  However, some biographers have noted that during this time period in his life it was common for Muhammad to spend  time during the month of Ramadan in fasting and prayer.  It was his habit to retreat to the solitude Cave of Hira in Saudi Arabia for this time of spiritual reflection.  Why Muhammad chose this particular month in unknown to me.

One year Muhammad was surprised to receive a vision of the angel Jibreel (Gabriel in English).  It was this Jibreel who revealed to Muhammad the message of the Quran.  The giving of the Quran during the month of Ramadan is one of the major events that the holy month commemorates and many Muslims seek to read the entire Quran during the month.  Indeed, the Quran contains the markings of 30 equal sections (juz in arabic) that facilitate this devotional activity.

So from the very foundation of the religion Muslims have been encouraged to fast for one month out of the year.  In Arabic the word “fast” is saum and the activity of “fasting” is sayyim. Observing the fast is one of the so-called 5-Pillars of Islam (or 5 obligatory practices for the Muslim believer).  The main support for the practice is found in the 2nd chapter of the Quran, but there are also numerous references to fasting in the Hadith (Islam’s other holy book – the sayings and actions of the prophet muhammad) and some of the more specific practices can be found there.  If you get a chance this Ramadan, be sure to ask a Muslim friend or neighbor where the custom of fasting during Ramadan comes from and enjoy the conversation that follows.

Next Post: Ramadan Goals

Other Ramadan Related Posts here at Pilgrim without a Shrine:

Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Basics (part 1)

Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Goals in Muslim Words (part 3)

Ramadan Breakfast at Hashem’s in Amman, Jordan

Haircut at Fawzi’s Saloon, a Ramadan Tradition 

Eid Mubarak!

Beginfast or Commensfast Anyone?

Ooops, I forgot Weekend Headlines from Jordan #4

Successful Ramadan Trip to the Saloon

Jordan Headlines #3

Looking for a Ramadan Special at the Local Saloon

Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Basics (part 1)

It’s a little after 4:30 AM on August 1st, 2011.  This date happens to coincide with Ramadan 1st, 1432.  Ramadan is the Islamic holy month of fasting and the name Ramadan is actually the name of a month on the Islamic calendar.  The official Islamic calendar is lunar (as opposed to the solar Gregorian calendar familiar in the West), and records years from the date that Muhammad made his emigration from Mecca to Medina.  Due to the differences between the calendars, the beginning of the month of Ramadan changes from year-to-year according to the Gregorian calendar.  It shifts about 11 days earlier each year.  This year Ramadan falls during the peak of the Middle Eastern summer.  Long hot days will surely make for a difficult fast.

This Ramadan, I will be blogging my knowledge, thoughts, and reflections on Ramadan.  This will obviously be from the perspective of an outsider as I am not Muslim.  However, I have been living in the Middle East for 3 years now and have visited a number of times before moving here.  So I think I have a unique perspective that many non-Muslims do not have.  Take my thoughts for what they are worth.  I welcome all questions and comments from both Muslims and non-Muslims.

The Basics

Amman, Jordan between dawn and sunrise, 1-Ramadan 2011/1432

The fajr call to prayer just sounded 15 or 20 minutes ago here in Amman, Jordan.  This is the call to prayer that officially marks the beginning of dawn each day.  This is the moment that light breaks over the horizon (not officially sunrise) and during Ramadan marks the beginning of the daily fast.  Practicing Muslims rise early (or possibly stay up all night) to eat a pre-fast meal (called suhoor in Arabic) before the fajr prayers.  The fast during Ramadan is during daylight hours from dawn to sundown.  The fasting includes abstaining from all food and drink during those hours.  It also includes no smoking, no sex, no chewing gum, and for the most devout no swallowing of spit.  (You will see a lot of spitting in public during Ramadan!)  It has been blazing hot of late here in Jordan, so refraining from water will be particularly difficult.

The fast is broken with an iftar meal at the sounding of the maghrib (sunset) call to prayer.  Interestingly the word iftar is derived from the same root as the word for breakfast (fatoor), so it’s breakfast for dinner for Muslims throughout the month of Ramadan.  The fast is traditionally broken by eating dates and drinking juice followed by sometimes lavish meals.  During the month of Ramadan you can see street vendors here in Amman selling plastic bags of juice concentrate throughout the day to be used later at iftar.

Who is expected to fast and special considerations

King Abdullah I Mosque after fajr prayers 1-Ramadan 2011/1432. Amman, Jordan.

Every  healthy adult Muslim is expected to observe the fast.  Exemptions are made for the ill, pregnant and nursing mothers, travelers and young children.  It’s not clear to me when children are expected to begin fasting.  I have heard everything from age 7 to age 12.  The younger ones in that range are generally not expected to practice the full fast, but to begin preparing themselves to partake more fully in later years.  Non-Muslims (here in Jordan) are not expected to fast, but are forbidden by law to eat, drink, or smoke in public during the month of Ramadan.  Of course, this means in the street – but also most other public venues.  Restaurants, cafes  and food courts at the mall are all closed during daytime hours.  Only a few restaurants and cafes with “touristic” licenses can be found open.  Public consumption of food and drink outside of these places or private homes can be punishable with tickets or even imprisonment.  I have never heard of either of these things actually happening, but have heard of non-muslim friends being warned by the police!

The schedule of life can seem a bit topsy-turvy to the outsider.  Businesses tend to hold non-standard working hours during Ramadan.  Some close during the heat of midday.  Many open late and close early. This is especially true when Ramadan falls in fall/winter months and people need to make it home to prepare for the iftar meal.  Driving in Amman in the pre-iftar hours can be more maddening than usual – and trying to find a taxi can be nearly impossible.  And then for an hour or two the city is like a ghost-town as nearly everyone is somewhere breaking the fast.  The half-hour before and hour after maghrib prayer-time is sctually the best time to drive anywhere in the city during Ramadan – you’ll have the streets nearly to yourself.

Ramadan isn’t just about fasting

And then after everyone has broken the fast the city comes alive.  People are out and about visiting, shopping, even working.  Businesses are often open late into the night.  Cafes and restaurants that would normally close stay open well past midnight – some until just before dawn.  People often stay up all night eating and drinking as they would normally during the day.  Some Muslim friends have complained that they gain more weight during the month of fasting than during regular months!

Generous Ramadan! The typical Ramadan greeting.

The atmosphere of Ramadan is festive.   It’s not only a time for fasting, but also for visiting extended family and celebrating.  People hang strands of lights, some shaped like stars and crescent moons, and other decorations much like people would for Christmas in the West.  The standard greeting during the month is “Ramadan Kareem”  or “Generous Ramadan.”  The response is “Allahu Akram” or “God is more generous!”  Indeed, the month is marked by generosity.  At the end of Ramadan parents give gifts to their children, uncles give money and toys to their nieces and nephews, and brothers do the same for their sisters, particularly the unmarried ones.  People give cash gifts to the garbage men who work on their street, and many people buy extra food for the needy.  Businesses and wealthy patrons sponsor iftar meals for the poor.  In general it is accepted that charitable giving during Ramadan accrues a double blessing and many people make their annual zakat (alms) giving during this time.

If you have a Muslim friend, neighbor, or co-worker be sure to greet them for Ramadan (Ramadan Kareem!) and take the time to visit them.  This is not advised during daylight hours, but it is more polite to drop-by after the iftar meal is completed.  It may seem very late for a visit to a non-Muslim, but for fasting Muslims … the night is yet young!  A gift of high-quality dates is always appreciated and a Ramadan greeting card is a nice touch.  Your visit will certainly be appreciated and who knows, perhaps you will be invited back to share an iftar meal later in the month!

Next up: Ramadan Origins

Other Ramadan Related Posts here at Pilgrim without a Shrine:

Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Origins (part 2)

Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Goals in Muslim Words (part 3)

Ramadan Breakfast at Hashem’s in Amman, Jordan

Haircut at Fawzi’s Saloon, a Ramadan Tradition 

Eid Mubarak!

Beginfast or Commensfast Anyone?

Ooops, I forgot Weekend Headlines from Jordan #4

Successful Ramadan Trip to the Saloon

Jordan Headlines #3

Looking for a Ramadan Special at the Local Saloon

Easter, another reason Jordan is not going the way of the rest of the Middle East

Today was Easter Sunday. (Ok, technically it was yesterday – where did the day go!?)

Uniquely, it was Easter in both Eastern and Western rites today (a confusing difference of opinion about the dating of Christianity’s biggest holy day based on which calendar is being used – Gregorian or Julian).  Here in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan the king has declared that all Christians should observe Easter according to the dating used by the Eastern rite.  This certainly makes thing simpler in this Muslim country where there are significant Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox minorities.  Why does it take a Muslim monarch to get Christian sects to agree on something?  (but I digress . . . )

Of course today was a regular work day for the majority of Jordanians, but Christians around the Kingdom worshiped freely and observed the holiest day of Christianity without hindrance.  This, despite the fact that Islam does not recognize the resurrection of Jesus at all.  In fact, Islam teaches that Jesus was never even crucified, hence no resurrection.  Yet, here in a country where 97% of the people are Muslim, Christians are allowed to believe as they wish and maintain their worship and devotional practices without fear of reprisals.

Not so in neighboring Egypt, where Coptic Christians are regularly persecuted and sometimes even killed while attending church services.  Large scale rioting recently broke out in a southern province when a Christian governor was elected.  However, here in Jordan the government reserves a certain number of parliamentary seats for the Christian minority (actually at a higher ratio than the number of Christians in the population – a bone of peaceful contention and debate for some).  A Coptic Christian friend of mine is so happy to be living in Jordan where he and his wife and children have no fear of public persecution.  Their church building is located across from one of the largest mosques in the city (see slideshow below) – something that might be a cause for concern in downtown Cairo, but here in Amman it ensures they receive extra police protection when things are unsettled in Egypt.

I don’t want to make it seem like Jordan is a Utopia of peace in the Middle East and that there is no tension between Muslims and Christians here.  For sure, there are small problems from time to time.  It is rare to find deep bonds of friendship between Muslims and Christians here.  However, in a society where the notion of tribe is still very alive and well, this is no surprise.  Unlike America where family bonds are broken early and people seem to develop a greater affinity for their friends than relatives, here in Jordan the opposite is true.  People live with their families for much longer (and this is viewed as normal and acceptable) and will almost always choose family over friends when making plans and determining allegiances.  This tendency naturally precludes many Muslim-Christian friendships, but it also minimizes the number of friendships outside of the family in general.

That said  there is a mutual respect between the two religions and a recognition of the need of peaceful coexistence.  This was demonstrated to me today as Muslim friends and acquaintances greeted me for Easter, using the traditional Arab greeting for any major holiday (used by all Arabs):

كل عام و انتم بالخير

Which roughly translates “Goodness to all of you every year.”  It is used during the Muslim Eids, Christmas, New Years, Easter, and other major holidays.

Some Muslim friends even went out of their way to call me and greet me and my family with a cheerful “Happy Easter!”

While the rest of the region is boiling with turmoil it is these small glimpses into everyday life here that reassure me that Jordan is not on the same slippery slope.  For sure, there are economic woes and political disquietude and even a lunatic fringe that makes “good” press, but overall there is a commitment to peace and safety for all Jordanians and guests living within the borders of the Kingdom.  Certainly this is in part due to the wisdom of the royal family represented  by His Majesty, the late King Hussein and his son His Majesty King Abdullah II.  They have set the tone for a Jordan that has been given character and heritage by its diverse tribal (Muslim & Christian) roots yet  strengthened by the recognition of the common good.

In my opinion, the peace that the Kingdom of Jordan experiences today is also a remnant of the peace left by the risen Lord who so many centuries ago had a soft spot for the people of this area – choosing to be baptized and baptize, heal, and feed thousands on this side of the river.  The love and peace he exuded can still be felt today.

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Grateful Generosity: Thanksgiving and Eid al-Adha Remix

Note this post is my outsider’s reflection on observing the sacrifice of the the Islamic Eid al-Adha festival this year in Amman Jordan.  For my outsider’s summary on the broader details of Eid al-Adha, check out last year’s post here.  I’m not sure why but as of Nov 2009 it’s the most viewed page on the site (2600+ views).

Turkey, Stuffing, and Mashed Potatoes, yes - even here in Jordan

This year (2009) brought an interesting convergence of cultures and holidays as the American Thanksgiving celebration coincided with the beginning of the Islamic Eid al-Adha (Fesitval of the Sacrifice).  In American culture the last Thursday of November is always Thanksgiving Day and people typically spend it with family and friends.  It is usually a day of feasting featuring a huge meal with turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie.  Some also take the time to serve the less fortunate.  Churches and other organizations often put on Thanksgiving dinners or deliver Thanksgiving meals to those who can’t afford to celebrate on their own.  Here in Amman we were able to celebrate with a mixed group of Americans, Canadians, and Jordanians.

Haggling over the price of a sheep of Eid al-Adha in Amman, Jordan 2009

By way of contrast Eid al-Adha falls on a different day each year as Muslims follow a lunar calendar.  This year the Thursday of Thanksgiving corresponded with the preparation day before the actual beginning of the festival.  The 5-day government holiday begins on preparation  day.  The streets were crowded yesterday with people making their last minute purchases for the holiday.  I was caught in a couple of traffic jams.  The interesting contrast with Thanksgiving is that many Muslims fast on preparation day.  Feasting and Fasting.  Traditionally in America early Thanksgiving Days were accompanied by a day (or even days) of fasting as people expressed their gratitude to God for his blessings.  But it seems we Americans have lost that tradition over the years, preferring the feast to the fast

Best Buy got flak for wishing people a "Happy Eid al-Adha" in this Black Friday flyer.

Today (Friday), was the actual beginning of the Eid.  I awoke this morning at 5 AM with the extended call to prayer that is typical on the mornings of the Greater Eids.  Of course waking up early on the day after Thanksgiving is not unusual in the States, as many rise at the crack of dawn to line up at stores in anticipation of getting some of the best shopping deals of the year.  Black Friday has almost become a religious experience for some.  Actually, electronics retailer Best Buy got in trouble with some this year for mixing too much religion with Black Friday.  They printed an ad that advertised their Black Friday deals and wished Muslims a Happy Eid al-Adha.  From my perspective this seems like a culturally savvy move recognizing that the Eid actually fell on Black Friday.  Apparently 10 pages of complaints were lodged on the Best Buy website – how petty, culturally arrogant, and just plain backwards.  Have people forgotten that with freedom of religion comes recognition of other religions in the society as a whole.  Those who were offended shouldn’t worry –  it’ll take aproximately 33 years for Eid al-Adha to fall exactly on Black Friday again.

In Amman Jordan today, early risers weren’t off to the mall or the department stores to find the best bargain.  (Although curiously I found that at 6 AM plenty barbers and bakeries were open).  Rather, many people were up early to pray at the mosques.  The call to prayer sounded for a good couple of hours this morning and people went early to begin the festival with prayer and a sermon.

Displaying Jordanian pride at the sheep/goat pens

After some time at the mosque many go to one of areas in the city reserved for the selling and sacrifice of animals for the festival.  For many days now people have been buying animals for this purpose.  Many purchase a lamb or goat (around 150-200 dinars), but some purchase cows or even camels (5000 dinar).  As an outsider it’s somewhat surprising and amusing to see ordinary looking people struggling to put a live sheep or goat in the trunk of their ordinary looking car.  I even saw one family putting theirs into the trunk of a taxi.  This made me laugh out loud, but perhaps it was the taxi driver and his family.  Those who buy and take their sheep may be planning to do the sacrifice at their home, or have another butcher do the deed

Jordanians gather for the sacrifice after attending morning prayers at the mosque

However, many show up at the sheep pens early on Friday morning to have their animal sacrificed, skinned, and butchered while they wait.  And, it’s a real family outing.  I saw men, women, and tons of kids all watching this fascinating ritual take place.  No one seemed to bat an eye at the animals being sacrificed right in front of them – the women, the little kids, even the girls in pink coats and cute winter hats took it all in stride.  I was really struck by the family nature of the event.  I kinda figured I would just see a bunch of men at the place of sacrifice but that was definitely not the case.

The whole experience was fascinating and if you are ever in a Muslim country during Eid al-Adha you should find out where the sacrifices will be taking place and go check it out.  However, be warned: it’s not for those with a weak stomach, don’t like the sight of blood, or have trouble seeing animals killed.  I didn’t understand everything that was going on this morning, but heres a thumbnail sketch.

The first thing that struck me this morning was the smell.  My son and I had stopped by to take a look at the animal pens earlier in the week and in his own charming way he had summed up the smell at that time, “Ewwww, it smells like sheep poop.  Or maybe camel poop!”  Anyone who has grown up near a farm knows the smell.  This morning was different.  It was distinctly the smell of freshly butchered lamb.  The air was permeated with it.  You might not recognize the smell if you live back in the States, but after a year of walking past sides of lamb hanging in the open air in the market you begin to identify the odor.

Basically the area was divided up into a bunch of different pens for the different sellers.  People would come and buy an animal, or often bring a slip showing that they had previously bought an animal.  Some of the animals had numbers spray painted on them – I imagine this is something like a customer number, but I could be wrong.  Most of the pens had their own sacrifice/butchering area as well.  The animals would be led to the place of sacrifice – sometimes led backwards by one leg.  I guess this is to help shield them from what is about to happen.  Then the animal is sacrificed by one stroke of a sharp knife across its neck.  This is done over a sort of makeshift trough or drain that runs to a large metal barrel or tank that has been sunken below ground for the purpose of collecting blood.  The dead sheep are lined up in a row on the ground so the blood will drain out.  On the other end of this line there is a man who skins and disembowels the sheep.  The carcass is then hung on a meat hook.  A butcher chops it into sections on the hook and then takes it to a nearby block for further breaking down.  One butcher I saw was using a  large tree stump as his block.  The pieces of meat are then given to the customer who is usually holding some sort of heavy duty plastic bag waiting to receive the fresh meat.

It was chilly this morning and the sides of lamb steamed as they hung in the cool air.  I overheard one guy commenting positively on how the air was like a refrigerator.  I couldn’t imagine the whole process taking place in the hot summer months!

Each family then takes the meat and distributes it according to Islamic tradition.  The combination I’ve heard most often is some for the immediate family, some for the poor, and some for the extended family.  Over the next few days there will be big family get-togethers and feasts not unlike Thanksgiving.  (Ok, the menu is dramatically different.)  The most important part, however, is giving to the poor.  Like folks back home who help the poor on Thanksgiving, acting on behalf of the less fortunate is a major part of observing Eid al-Adha.  Even if a family isn’t going to have an animal sacrificed they can donate  money so food will be given to the poor.

The differences and similarities between the two celebrations have been swirling around in my mind this morning.  Setting aside a day to be thankful, or be obedient to God, or to help the poor are good things.  But there’s this tension for me because, really, we should be doing those things everyday.  Our gratitude to God shouldn’t just be relegated to one day out of many, nor should our obedience or generosity.  However,there’s something in human nature, that despite our best intentions we wander and stray from time to time.  Perhaps the level of gratitude or obedience or generosity that we observe and practice on special days like Thanksgiving or Eid al-Adha isn’t humanly sustainable every day of the year.  But in a way shouldn’t our lives over-pour in generosity due to the gratitude we have for the blessings that have come our way.  Shouldn’t these special holiday observances should be powerful reminders to bring our lifestyles more in line with the desires of God and live each day with grateful hearts, obedient wills, and generous spirits?

Ok, time to get off the soap box.  Wherever you are and whatever holiday you are observing I wish you the very best. Happy Thanksgiving!  Eid Mubarak!  Peace to all!

Note: Even though I left out the most graphic ones,some of the pictures below are a bit bloody – if the sight of animals being sacrificed or butchered bothers you – don’t look.  If you are interested remember that clicking on a thumbnail below will bring up a full-sized pic.



Eid Al-Adha, the Hajj, and life in Amman

(Note on Dec 15th 2009: I wrote this post a year ago and it includes my outsider’s summary of what Eid al-Adha is all about and a few personal reflections on life here in Amman last year during the Eid.  For my 2009 account of visiting the place of sacrifice on Eid al-Adha with a gallery of pics, click here.)

Today is Sunday in Jordan.  But not just any Sunday – it’s the Sunday after the long break for the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha.  As Sunday is the first day of the work week here many people were back to their jobs and schools after some time off.  We had a break as well and I had plans all week to write something here about the Eid.   Oh well, better late than never!

For those who don’t know – here’s a thumbnail sketch of Eid al-Adha.  This is the second major holiday on the Islamic calendar.  (or maybe first – somebody can correct me if they know for sure)  The first is Eid al-Fitr which is the major feast at the end of Ramadan (the month of fasting).  Eid al-Adha also happens during a very important time on the Islamic calendar – al-Hajj.  This is the time of the pilgrimage to Mecca which many understand to be a commemoration of Muhammad’s flight (or emigration) from Mecca to Medina.

Pilgrims throng the Great Mosque in the Islamic holy city of Mecca during the Hajj

Pilgrims throng the Great Mosque in the Islamic holy city of Mecca during the Hajj

Although the entire hajj is important, one of the most important parts is the vigil held on the plains and mount of Arafat.  It is on this mountain that Muslims believe that Muhammad gave his farewell speech.  It is required for pilgrims to pray prayers of repentance in this spot on the Day of Arafat which is always 70 days following the start of the month of Ramadan and the 9th day of the month of the Hajj (note that the Islamic calenar follows a lunar year so the dates of these observances change each year on the Gregorian calendar).

Muslim pilgrims at the Mount/Plain of Arafat

Muslim pilgrims at the Mount/Plain of Arafat

It is said that failure to appear at the plain of Arafat invalidates a pilgrims Hajj.  It is also said that the erstwhile prayers offered hear can earn a faithful Muslims a clean slate from their sins.  Many pilgrims will maintain the vigil not only during the day but throughout the night until the following day.

Muslim pilgrims holding a nighttime vigil on the Mountain of Arafat

Muslim pilgrims holding a nighttime vigil on the Mountain of Arafat

The next day pilgrims make their way to the nearby city of Mina where they commemorate the other important aspect of the Hajj – remembering the life of the prophet Abraham.  Muslims believe that it is near this location that Abraham almost sacrificed his son.  Just like the story from the Torah, Allah provides a goat/sheep at the last moment, redeeming the life of Abraham’s son.  For Muslims who do not travel to Saudia Arabia this story is the centerpiece of Eid al-Adha – the holiday/holy days associated with the Hajj.

Here in Amman (just like the rest of the Islamic world) this means sacrificing a sheep/goat.  In the days leading up to Eid al-Adha I overheard a number of conversations about the best place to buy sheep, and engaged in a number of conversastions about the yearly sacrifice.

Sheep awaiting their important role in Eid al-Adha celebrations

Sheep awaiting their important role in Eid al-Adha celebrations

Families who can afford to purchase a sheep at 200 Dinars ($284) or so, will use a portion of the sheep for a celebration with their family.  A portion is then reserved to give to the poor and perhaps a portion reserved to give to the extended family.  If a family is wealthy enough they will purchase one sheep for each category (immediate family, the poor, extended family).  I did speak to a lot of people who said they could not afford to make a sacrifice themselves this year, but Eid al-Adha is also an important time to visit family, and many expected to celebrate with those in their family who could afford to make the sacrifice.

Apparently some people make the sacrifice at their homes, but most take the sheep to a special place reserved for the sacrifice and have a trained individual perform the sacrifice and butchering of the sheep for distribution.  The sacrifice itself can be made anytime after the vigil of Arafat or after the morning prayers are made on the particular day.

Here in Amman I awoke to the extended version of the morning call to prayer, which included about 45 minutes to an hour of chanting “Allahu Akbaar, Akbaar Allah!  Akbaar Allah” (God is the Greatest!)  After that I wondered up the hill to check out the neighborhood mosque.  It was standing room only and took nearly 10 minutes for the place to empty out after the sermon.

In Saudia Arabia pilgrims make the sacrifice on the day following the Vigil at Arafat.  But first they must take part in the ritual stoning of the Jararat or three stone pillars representing Satan.

One of the original stone pillars representing Satan near Mina

One of the original stone pillars representing Satan near Mina

As you can see the pillars were quite small and it took a long time for millions of pilgrims to throw 7 stones each at 3 pillars.  There are stories of pilgrims being trampled, seriously injured,and sometimes passing away due to the press of the crowd.  A couple of years ago the Saudia government decided to replace the original pillars with large walls that would facilitate the flow of pilgrims through this stage of the hajj.

New walls representing Satan and awaiting stoning by pilgrims on Hajj near Mina

New walls representing Satan and awaiting stoning by pilgrims on Hajj near Mina

This may seem like an odd ritual, but it is important to the Islamic version of the story of Abraham sacrificing his son.  Muslims believe that it was Satan, rather than God, who asked Abraham to sacrifice his son.  According to some interpretations of the Qur’an, Satan used a dream to trick Abraham into believing that God wanted Abraham to sacrifice his son.  Allah intervened at the last minute and provides an alternative sacrfice, which the Quran calls a great ransom or redemption.

I found that this was a great time of year to learn more about local beliefs and customs as many were very happy to respond to questions about the Eid and the sacrifice.  I hope next year to actually get over to the place of sacrifice.  And maybe I’ll understand more of the morning sermon next year too.  For now it is back to work and school for most (myself included).  Of course Eid celebrations this year have flowed into Christmas celebrations.  Christians are hanging lights and putting up trees.  And students are looking forward to their next break from school. Someone told me 2 days for Christian students and 1 for Muslim.  I’ll have to check and see if that’s true.

Eid Mubarak!

I like to think of conversation starters each day to get the ball rolling with strangers I meet so I can practice speaking Arabic.  By strangers I mostly mean taxi drivers, duukkan (little shop) owners, the barber, and Eli the Wise-tire-guy at the corner.  (77-years wise and still  changing tires – but that’s a story for another time). Yesterday’s question was “Will tomorrow be Eid-al-Fitr?”  This may seem like an odd question, as most holidays back home have a definite date.  The dates for Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas are set months – even years – in advance.  Not so with the timing of Islamic holidays which depend on moon sightings to officially begin.

The common response to my question about Eid starting was something along the lines of “Bukra, Insha’allah, bas mumkin ba3di bukra.”  “Tomorrow, God wiling, but maybe the day after tomorrow.”  That said everyone was making preparations for Eid to start today (Tuesday, September 30th).  Schools and Government offices were scheduled to be closed. Most stores were going on modified Holiday schedules – many closing for the first couple of days of Eid.  People were out and about running errands before things shut down for the week.  This included stocking up on fruits and vegetables as fresh ones are apparently hard to come by during the week of Eid.

So Iwas wondering how we would find out in the morning if Ramadan had in fact concluded.  Well, there was no doubt as rolled over in bed at 6:30 AM that Ramadan had in fact concluded.  Listen to this sound file recorded from the roof of our building:

01-amman-2008-eid-al-fitr

If you’re like me, based on that recording, you might imagine that the streets were thronged with people celebrating Eid – however, like me, you would be wrong.  The voices are actually 100s of muzzeins (the callers at the mosques), either live or recorde, from around the city.  For the most part the city streets were empty, pretty much like Christmas morning in the States.

The calls of “God is Great, Praise to God, Praise to the Greatest!” continued for over an hour as the city woke up.  I wonder if Christmas morning used to be that way in the States?  Well, with church bells sounding to welcome to holiday – not necesarily the calls of the muzzeins.

I am curious what life will be like over the next few days.  We have a break from school and we can now eat and drink in public during the day so exploring the city is back on!  Eid is typically a time for visiting extended family, going out, taking small vacations, etc.  so we expect a lot of hubbub. I’ll be sure to let you know.  In the meantime, here are some pics I snapped from the roof  this morning as the sun was rising over the city and callers were heralding Eid.  It was a particularly good morning for pictures as there were dark rain clouds in the west and sun dawning over the hillside in the east.  Click on the pics in gallery to get bigger photos with descriptions and a places for comments.  Enjoy!