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Jordan A to Z: F is for …. Friday!

Friday!

Ahhhh … the weekend!  And by weekend, I mean the weekend proper not just the last day of the work-week and the beginning of the weekend.  Yup, that’s right here in Jordan, Friday is a bona fide day off.  It stems from the Islamic religion, with Friday being their preferred holy day as opposed to Saturday for the Jews and Sunday for the Christians.  So, all across the Middle East Friday is a day off from work for most people.  Of course, as in all nations, if you are in the service or hospitality industry you will most likely be working anyways.

For most working-class people Friday is their only day off.  A two-day weekend is really a modern convention in the Middle East.  Some countries (mainly in the gulf) opt for Thursday and Friday as the weekend.  However, here in Jordan, it is Friday and Saturday.  Unless you are a Christian … then you get Friday and Sunday off but have to work or go to school on Saturday.  Go figure.  Split weekends.  Not fun.

Some of you might be asking what do Jordanians do on Friday?  Well, here’s my outsider’s answer to that:

  • Sleep -Jordanians love to stay up late.  Especially on Thursday nights.  They stay up with their family chatting over small cups of strong coffee or tea talking into the wee hours of the morning.  As a result, Fridays are often a slow start for some.  Actually early Friday morning is a great time for grocery shopping as the aisles are mostly empty … but don’t wait until afternoon as any grocery store will likely be packed!
  • Go to the Mosque -Despite the well-known mandate to pray 5x per day, Muslims are not required to pray in the mosque each of those times (it is considered more beneficial to pray in the mosque, but not mandated).  However, mosque attendance spikes on Fridays – especially around midday – as this is when the Imam gives his speech or sermon.  Worshipers sit on the ground to listen to the sermon and then perform their prayers.  In the larger mosques it is not unusual to find the men lining up in rows outside the mosque in the courtyard, on the sidewalk, and eventually in the street.  This is because the mosques are full to overflowing on many Fridays
  • Visiting – Friday is a day for making a round of all of the relatives.
  • Outings – The malls and restaurants and supermarkets and cafes are packed on Fridays with Muslim families out and about enjoying the life in Amman.  But the most famous and well-loved Jordanian Friday outing is the:
  • Mishwar – On Fridays families like to get out of town, find a place along the road or perhaps in a park or other clear area, lay out some blankets and spend the day grilling food, drinking tea, and enjoying each others company.  Mishwar comes from the Arabic term for grilling meat.  It is not uncommon to see an extended family parked out under any random tree along the major highways, enjoying more each others company and the food than perhaps the setting itself.

I would like to think that restaurant chain TGI Fridays realized the master stroke of marketing genius in their name the first time they opened a branch here … however, I have a feel it was probably just a fortunate happenstance for them.  Either way, I stand with them and millions of people in the Middle East in thanking God that it’s Friday.

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​Jordan A to Z: ​B is for …. ​Bedouin Heritage!

Dividing up the modern Middle East

Lines in the sand ... the map of Jordan

At first glance the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan seems to be a young nation.  Like its neighbors in the Middle East it is a relative newcomer on the global scene … gaining independence and “official” recognition as a nation on 25 May 1946.  When you look at a map of Jordan, with its straight lines running at strange angles in the middle of the desert, it is not hard to imagine the global powers-that-be arbitrarily drawing up the map of the Middle East in the time between the first two world wars.  However, what these strangely intersecting borders and the relatively recent “birthdate” of the nation fail to convey is the rich and long history of the peoples of this region.

People have settled this area for centuries before the modern borders were drawn.  Those familiar with the biblical lands of Ammon, Moab, and Edom should be reminded that they were located here.  Jordan contains some ruins of the oldest settlements in the world … Al-Beidha is a neolithic village dating from 7200 BC!  Archeological finds have demonstrated that the region covered by the modern day Kingdom of Jordan has been inhabited since those ancient days.  A Bedouin culture typified by the domestication of herd animals and the nomadic lifestyle that accompanied such activity seems to have risen in the Chalcolithic period (4500-3200 BC) and continues to this day.

It must be noted that the lines drawn in the sand by the power-that be cannot contain the ancient culture of the Bedouin peoples scattered throughout the region!

Bedouin heritage shaping culture in Jordan for millennia

It is impossible to underestimate how strongly Bedouin culture has shaped the culture of the modern day Kingdom of Jordan.  From 4000 years before the birth of Christ until a mere 75 years ago most of the inhabitants of this area were Bedouins in the true sense of the word.  They lived in tents or other temporary structures and much of their life revolved around the care of livestock.  The ebb and flow of life was dictated by the seasons and the needs of the animals that were the wealth and lifeblood of the Bedouin.  Even though 75-80% of the Jordanian population today lives in the urban centers, it was the exact opposite less than a century ago.  It is not uncommon to hear the most cosmopolitan, well-educated city dweller to speak of their grandparents Bedouin lifestyle.  Just like in America … you don’t have to go back too many generations to discover the family farm.

Some highlights of Bedouin culture

The coffee pot is always on near the Bedouin's tent

  • Hospitality: The practice of welcoming the stranger is by far the defining characteristic of Bedouin culture.  Today you will hear the phrase “ahlan wa sahlan” repeated constantly in Jordan (welcome and welcome again in the future).  When entering a Bedouin tent it is customary to remove ones shoes, and in ancient times water was provided for washing feet dirtied by travel.  A good host would always offer coffee immediately. Indeed a pot of coffee is often on, or not far from, the fire all day long.  The Bedouin host will continue to fill your tiny cup until you signify you are finished by shaking it slightly left-to-right between your fingers.  Even though your host will fill your cup all day it is good manners to stop at three.
  • Three days of welcome -Part of the importance of hospitality arose out of the perils of living in such close proximity and communion with the desert.  The desert was a a great equalizer for early man.  One cannot exist for long on one’s own in the desert and must rely on the hospitality of the community and sometimes strangers. In ancient times if someone arrived at a Bedouin’s tent it was customary to welcome them for 3 days, providing them with food, water, shelter, and protection for that time period …. without asking questions!  After three days questions would be asked and decisions made about on-going provision and care.
  • Protection – It is a matter of great personal honor for a Bedouin to protect anyone who is a guest in their dwelling.  They consider it their personal responsibility to do whatever necessary to protect a guest.  Even if someone was fleeing from trouble they could expect to be granted asylum from a Bedouin in his tent for at least 3 days.  It could be after that time that the Bedouin would decide to escort the asylum-seeker out of the area … in which case the Bedouin would often provide safe passage by means of an armed escort and perhaps even some provisions for the onward journey.
  • Honor & Shame -All of this comes out of a high sense of honor and shame within the culture.  Honor and Shame don’t just rest on the individual but it rests on the family, the clan, and the tribe.  Thus your actions as an individual bring honor or shame not only on your own head, but on your family and indeed the extended family.  In the west we view the individual as the most important unit of society … but for the Bedouins it was (and still is) the family and the tribe.  It was nonsensical to think of the individual as being completely self-sufficient in the natural environment of the ancient Middle East.  This belief has persisted till modern times and strengthens the fabric of Jordanian society.

Bedouin life today

This post has already gotten way too long (and is a day late!) so I will just treat this topic briefly.  True Bedouins that live in tents and temporary dwellings are still possible to find in Jordan.  You will begin to see their tents just on the outskirts of any major cities.  You will even see shepherds grazing their sheep on open patches of greenery in the middle metropolitan Amman!  Many modern Bedouins are more semi-nomadic or have settled in small villages.  It wasn’t long ago that in the south of Jordan you could find Bedouins living in places like Petra and Wadi Rum as they had for centuries.  However, as the tourist industry grew, the government sought to present a different image in such historic locations and built towns for some of the southern Bedouins to live in.  Many of these Bedouins make there living now as guides and salesmen in Petra and Wadi Rum

As I mentioned before, many Jordanians have Bedouin roots … so even city-dwellers are not far removed from that history.  The cultural values of preserving honor and avoiding shame are alive and well in Jordanian cities.  As is the value of hospitality!  Come visit Jordan and find out for yourself!

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A visit to Azraq Wetland Reserve in the Kingdom of Jordan

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is typically thought of as a desert environment … if anyone takes the chance to consider the environmental classification of this small but strategically located country.  If you know anything about the geography and climatology of Jordan, then you will also know that it is one of the most water poor countries in the world, facing annual struggles to stay ahead of usage demands with meager supplies.So it may come as a surprise to you that Jordan is home to what was a vitally important, natural, regional wetland …. Azraq Oasis.

Azraq Wetland, copright 2011 Brian C

Azraq Wetland Preserve, Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

Azraq Oasis would have covered a large area of the Eastern Jordan

Please note that I said … “was.”  It’s not that Azraq Oasis doesn’t still exist, but it is only a shadow of its former self.  The Oasis used to be larger that the country of Lebanon, a gigantic blue jewel in the the otherwise barren brown-hued landscape of Northeastern Jordan.  The Oasis was a haven for both humans and animals, serving as a stop for trade caravans traveling West from Baghdad and north from The Arabian Peninsula and also as a North-South rest stop for migratory birds.

Unfortunately, today only a fraction of this amazing wetlands environment remains.  Why?  Overuse of the precious water resource by Jordan’s developing cities in the late 1980s and the 1990s virtually annihilated the oasis.   The spring that had fed the  area for centuries retreated several meters underground in the 1990s.  The only reason anything remains today is that the Ministry of Water pumps water back into the Oasis today in an attempt to repair the damage that was approved by a previous version of the Ministry back in the 80s when they deemed that a certain level of pumping would do no harm to the wetlands.  Hindsight, as they say, is 20-20.

20 years ago the water in this area would have been up to my son's neck

Despite its sad history, the Azraq Wetlands Reserve remains a jewel in the Jordanian landscape.  As you drive through the open desert along highway 40 from Amman it is hard to imagine the trade caravans and legions of soldiers from every time period of recorded human history trekking through this barren landscape.  Yet, this is exactly what they did.  When they came over the final rise and viewed the drop down into the green and blue of the Azraq Basin it must have been a very welcome sight.  It still is today … but back then it would have stretched as far as the eye could see.

Getting to Azraq from Amman

Gray Heron

It is quite simple to get to the Azraq Wetland Preserve from Amman and takes about 1.25 to 1.5 hours depending on traffic.  Thew quickest way to get there is to head south out of the city by way of Misdar Street (the road from the balad through east Amman and joins up with the airport road just south of the City).  You go past Wahedat, Middle East Square/Circle, the vehicle licensing facility and just past some plant nurseries find an exit for Highway 40.  I’m pretty sure that the # is not mentioned, but there are signs for Sahaab, Azraq, and Iraq.  This highway will take you north and east out of Amman.  You follow it for quite some time through the Eastern Desert and past a few of the Desert Castles, which are surely worth a stop if you have the time.  Eventually, Highway 40 meets with Highway 30 (the route from Zarqa  and points north of Amman), and a handful of kilometers later the road comes to a T-instersection in the town of Azraq.  There are two parts to Azraq – North (Shemaali or Druuzi(for the Druze who once settled here)) and South (Januubi).  North Azraq is to the left from the intersection and is where you will find the intriguing black basalt Azraq Castle.  South Azraq is to the right from the intersection and is where you will find the entrance to the Wetland Reserve.  Highway 5 connects the two parts of Azraq and runs from the Saudi border in the south up to Highway 10 that runs to the Iraqi Border in the north and east.

Error in Lonely Planet GuidebooksI have generally found the 2006 Lonely Planet  guide book to be an excellent resource for all things Jordan.  The 2009 version despite expanded info on Petra and Wadi Rum is a poor attempt at an update and has a lot of inaccuracies when it comes to prices and opening times.  I know this is to be expected over time, but right from the moment the new edition hit the shelves a lot of this info was wrong in the 2009 version.  Although now prices are off in both, I generally find the info in the 2006 guide to be more reliable.  However, both have got it wrong for the directions/maps to Azraq Castle and the Azraq Wetland Reserve.

The correct locations for attractions around Azraq

  • Azraq Castle is located off Highway 5 in North Azraq (after turning left/north at the T-Instersection of Highways 30 and 5).  Just keep going through town … you can’t miss it on the left hand side.  And despite the guide saying it is free, they will charge you a couple JD to get in. (.250 JD for residents)
  • The entrance to The Azraq Wetland Reserve is located just east of the main road that runs through South Azraq (after turning right/south at the T-Intersection).  Just follow the brown RSCN signs with the red arrows.
  • Also note that the entrance fee info for the Reserve is incorrect in the guide, which states it as 2 JD.  It is actually as follows:  2 JD for Jordanian Citizens, 5 JD for foreigners with Jordanian residency, 10 JD for Foreign tourists.  It is worth it to help the local economy and the conservation efforts of the RSCN.  But it is a bit of a sticker shock if you arrive at the reserve looking to pay 2 JD.
  • The Shaumari Wildlife Reserve that is listed as a double entry on a ticket from Azraq is closed indefinitely.  The RSCN employee at Azraq could not give me a time frame for when it would be open (as of December 2011).

Kudos to the RSCN

Killifish (or pupfish) species that is only found in Azraq .... almost died out, but was saved by RSCN efforts

The RSCN (Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature) has done a good job with their initial conservation efforts at Azraq.  They should be applauded for saving a rare species of killifish, only found in Azraq, from extinction.  They have also contributed to the survival of a herd of water buffalo – some of the only remaining large animals that once populated the oasis.  Without their efforts in advocacy, the entire basin would probably now be desert, so their work should be greatly appreciated.  Unfortunately the visitors center is small, as is the trail through the wetland.  It only covers a fraction of the Reserve.  Of course there is a delicate balance between preserving the natural environment and promoting eco-tourism, which in turn pays for the ongoing preservation efforts.  My sense is tourism through this out-of-the-way part of Jordan is a bit on the light side.  Perhaps there are a lot of school trips when the weather is nicer.

Well, that’s enough from me.   I should just let the pictures do the rest of the talking.  It should be noted that these pics are from the beginning of the winter season here in Jordan … I am going to go back in the Spring when I am sure the area will be much more green and vibrant!

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

Previous post in series: Ramadan Origins

Personalizing Ramadan

This Ramadan I have made a point of asking many of my Muslim friends and acquaintances one particular question: “What is the main goal of fasting during Ramadan for you?”

It has been a fascinating month of conversations.  For many, it seems to be a bit of an odd question.  Perhaps something is lost in translation or perhaps its a different perspective of devotional practices.  When faced with this question many of my Muslim friends hesitate and ask for clarification.  Perhaps, it’s the idea of a “personal” goal.  Ramadan has such a community feel to it.  But they also get hung up a bit on the notion of “goal” or “aim” or “objective.”  These words seem to make more sense for them in a different setting – perhaps they are seen more fitting into a business or education or military milieu than a religious one.

Nonetheless everyone (whether immediately or after some clarification) has shed additional light on the Fast for me and I have deeply appreciated each conversation.  I wish that all of you could have been present at each one.  It would be impossible for me to quote everything here, but I will give you a summary of what has been shared with me.

Obedience and Righteousness

First of all, many people pointed to two things: (1) the necessity of the fast, and (2) the process of becoming more righteous in God’s eyes.

Both of these concepts (obedience & righteousness) have grown increasingly foreign in Western thought and culture.  In the West we are taught to question authority (especially religious authority) from a very young age.  Obedience may be important for children, but even then it is cast as respect.  However, for many of my Muslim friends it is important to them to obey what they see as a command of God.  For most I would not categorize this as a “blind” or unthinking obedience, but rather a choice of the will to do what they believe to be right.

Which brings us to the second notion: righteousness. This word seems to have gained a negative connotation in the West; perhaps taking on a bit of the notion of arrogance or religious one-upmanship.  The term itself (in English) has to do with “the state of being right” or “performing right actions” and popularly may include the idea of trying to curry favor with God or people.  But in the basic understanding of the term, “righteousness” is doing the right thing simply for the sake of honesty and integrity.  For my Muslim friends there is no question that they want act correctly before Allah.  And the Fast during Ramadan is one of these actions.

The Qur’an specifically states that fasting during the holy month is an act of righteousness.  But let’s divest the term of some of it’s religious and cultural baggage and simply say that “you can’t go wrong with fasting during Ramadan.  It’s pleasing to God.”  Or, “Fasting … it’s the right thing to do.”  Pleasing God – being obedient and right before the creator –  is a huge personal goal for most Muslims during the Fast.  However, I can’t emphasize enough how this was not seen as something negative and onerous, or something simply done unthinkingly with no meaning.

Meaningful, Rather than Rote Obedience

Perhaps the following will bring some nuance to the notion of of obeying God through the Fast (the following are my paraphrased translations of particular things than have stuck out to me as unique in some of the conversations I have had this month):

  • Fasting brings me strength.  I can work harder and longer when I fast.  It makes me stronger, not weaker.  Strength in my body, but also in my mind and my spirit.
  • Fasting brings health to the body.  It is a time of renewal.  12 months you do with your body as you like, but for one month you give it to God and do what he wants.
  • Fasting during Ramadan is like cleaning out a filter.  Your stomach is like a filter and it gets dirty.  Everyday we put whatever we want into it.  During Ramadan we give God a chance to clean out our stomachs.  But not only our stomachs, also our minds.
  • Fasting is not just about not eating and not drinking.  These things are important but they are not the only things.  It is about not lying and not thinking bad thoughts,  and not looking at women in a bad way, and not treating people poorly.  If I do all of these things while I am fasting why would God care?
  • Fasting helps me to think about other people, like the poor people.  During Ramadan I cannot just do what I want all day.  I have to think less about myself so this gives me more time to think about others.  And maybe the people who do not have enough money or food.  So I can help them because I am not thinking just about myself and what I want.
  • God does not want our food and our drink.  These are small things to him.  He wants us to control our bodies and our spirits during the month of Ramadan.  To do the right thing in all of our days.
  • Fasting during the month of Ramadan teaches me self-control.
  • It is not enough just to do the right thing in Ramadan.  Of course, God wants us to do the right thing all of the time.  We cannot make sins all year and then make no sins in the month of Ramadan and think that this is ok with God.  We must obey God in all of the year.  Ramadan helps us to remember this important fact.
  • Fasting helps me to become closer to God.  The Quran teaches that he is near to us.  And I hope to become near to him by fasting.
  • Fasting is all about loving God.  It is a way for me to show God that I love him because I do what he says to do.  This is a small thing for me to do.  Some people think that it is very difficult.  But if I love God it will be an easy thing for me to do.

I hope by reading these statements you catch a little bit of the devotional depth that Ramadan holds for many Muslims.  It is not simply something “I have to do”  it is something that is seen as integral to their relationship with God and others.  As I heard some of these things from my Muslim friends these past few weeks it reminded me of some things written in the previous holy books.

Fasting is not just about abstaining from food (God wants you to have self-control):

12 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. 13 You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.  (1st Corinthians 6:12-13) باللغة العربية

Fasting is about our relationship with God:

    16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.  (Jesus in Matthew 6:16-18) باللغة العربية

Fasting is about how we treat others (especially the poor and oppressed):

2 For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

 6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? 8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.

9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: “Here am I.”   If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, 10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.  11 The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.  (Isaiah 58:2-11)  باللغة العربية

I think this last passage speaks for itself and is a powerful template for fasting in general for all of the monotheistic religions.

Next Post: A Tale of Two Iftars

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 Origins (part 2)

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 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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