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

Peace on Earth . . . Copts in Jordan celebrate Christmas despite attacks in Egypt

Egyptian riot police stand guard near church in Alexandria Egypt during Christmas Eve Services

My phone rang this morning at 12:40 AM.  It was my Egyptian friend Joe.  He and his family were across town at the Coptic Orthodox church attending the annual Christmas Eve prayer vigil.  (Many branches of Orthodox Christianity celebrate Christmas according to the old Julian calendar on January 7th.)  I could hear the sound of many people in the background, the voices sounded festive and happy.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  Only a week ago over 20 Coptic Christians were killed and over 70 wounded in an attack on a Coptic Church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve by Muslim extremists.

Joe was just calling for a ride home for himself, his wife, and three kids.  Taxis are hard to come by late at night here in Amman, and with 100s of other worshipers looking for a ride home it was impossible to find a ride.   I was glad he wasn’t calling with other news.

Orthodox priests in traditional garb

The street corner was crowded with people streaming out of the church; conversing, laughing, and waiting for rides.  The Coptic priest (obvious in his traditional black robes and long beard) was blessing children.  A typical Coptic Christmas if it hadn’t been for the two police officers not far from the priest’s elbow and the cars with flashing lights posted on the street nearby keeping an eye on the proceedings.

Joe and I exchanged the traditional Arabic Christmas greeting “Every year goodness to you.”  “And Goodness to you.”  (Interestingly, this is also a standard Muslim greeting during their holidays.)  The family was happy and dressed in their Christmas best.  4-year old Tony was  dashing in a full suit and bright red tie.  They said that it was the first year that the church had been completely packed.  Every seat, both downstairs and upstairs was taken and there was no room even to stand.   I congratulated them, but expressed my surprise given the recent attacks in Egypt.

Baba Shenouda, leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, presides over Christmas Eve vigil in Egypt

Joe replied that first of all, those types of attacks could never happen in Jordan because the government here takes a strong position against extremism and terrorism.  Joe thanked God for the safety his family felt as Christian minorities in this Islamic nation and for the police who were stationed near the church during their Christmas Eve vigil.  Secondly, and more important, Joe said that when people face troubles they turn to God and that is why the church was packed out for the 4+ hour prayer vigil marking the eve of Jesus’ birth.

Persecution of Coptic Christians is not a new thing and the New Year’s Eve attack is just the latest in a long line.  One year ago on Christmas Eve 2010 a gunman shot 7 worshipers (and 1 Muslim security guard) dead at a Christmas eve vigil in Egypt.  In 2009 attacks on both Christmas and Easter Eve services left Copts dead there as well.  And the violence is not just restricted to holidays.  This past April an estimated 3,000 Muslim attacked Christians in Marsa Matrouh in northern Egypt causing hundreds of Copts to seek haven in a church.  Over 50 homes, shops, and cars were destroyed in that incident.  The list could go on and on.

Muslims (on right) stand in solidarity with Christian worshippers in Egypt on Christmas Eve

However, it must be noted that this violence against Christians is not condoned by all.  A group of Muslims gathered near Coptic churches in Egypt last night in a show of solidarity with their Christian neighbors.  The Egyptian government posted riot police and bomb squads near churches and the sons of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak attended Christmas vigils.  Extremists have taken responsibility in the latest attacks and are calling for more.  Thankfully nothing happened last night in Egypt or here in Jordan.  But what will happen when the media attention fades and the security details go back to normal duty?  It seems just a matter of time before another attack shakes the Coptic community in Egypt.

I hope Joe’s confidence in his family’s safety and security here in Jordan holds true.  People of peace from all faiths and walks of life must take a serious stand against religious violence and the murder of innocents.

Who Answers Prayers for Rain?

In some place the standing water seem like a small lake - paddle anyone?

It’s been raining for the last 3 days here in Amman.  It is winter, which, for Amman, means rain. But three days in a row is a bit unusual, especially with another day of the wet stuff forecasted for tomorrow.  Usually it’s just a few hour of rain every couple of weeks during the winter here. Or maybe a full day, but this weekend has been particularly wet. Which means that streets have turned into streams, stairways into waterfalls, and pedestrians have the extra task of dodging spray from cars besides just the actual vehicles themselves.

Notice the foam from chemicals and polluted runoff

Amman’s drain/sewer system was apparently not  designed for rain, so scenes such a the following are common when it rains, even just a little bit.

(Please note: these three pics were snapped back in Oct of last year.  Believe it or not I didn’t seem to have my camera on me at all over the last 3 days.  Strange.  But really, whenever it rains hard in Amman it usually looks like this.)

Pedestrians beware!

The last few days it has not only been rainy, but cold and windy and completely overcast – the exact opposite of stereotypical Middle Eastern weather.  Just the kind of weather that would get us complaining back in the States.  But you know, what?  I have never heard a Jordanian complain about the rain.  Ever.

Even people who you would think should complain just a little bit.  Case in point: our Egg McAmmani guy.  He is one of dozens (probably hundreds) of pushcart sandwich vendors around the city.  They typically have fantastic sesame-seed breads which they fill with your preference of roasted eggs, tomatoes, zataar, salt, hot sauce, cheese, and/or falafil.  We go for eggs, tomatoe, zataar and salt (with hot sauce if I’m not sharing with my wife).  We’ve never been able to get a straight answer on what it’s called in Arabic – people usually look at us funny when we ask and say, “It’s a sandweesh!”  Or if pressed further that might say it is a “ka3ak” the name of the sesame seed bread the sandwich is made on.  We call it an Egg McAmmani and it is one of our favorite breakfast treats at roughly 75 cents.

The "sandweesh" guy is on the left, while a cabby makes his own on the right. The cigarette ash no doubt adds a little something.

Anyways this guy should not be happy about a 3-day, cold, driving rain.  It’s gotta be bad for the sandweesh business.  Not to mention shivering in the cold under a drippy tree all day.  But this morning He greeted me with his usual smile and and said he  would work come sun or rain.  He did have an umbrella over his cart (which ironically, in arabic has a name derived from the word for sun as that is it’s more typical protective function), but despite the smile he looked cold.  When I asked him about the rain he said it was from Allah and gave thanks for it. This is normal here.  Everyone – Muslim and Christian alike thank God for the rain.  What is often seen as an annoyance or “ruiner of plans” in the parts of America that I have lived in, is seen here as a blessing and source of life.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus mentions by way of proverb that “God sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.”  I think there is a tendency back home for people to take that to mean that bad things (like rain) happen to both good people and bad people.  It’s much clearer after living in the Middle East that the true message of this ancient desert proverb is that God gives life to everyone, both good or bad.

Growing up, I can’t remember how many times I’d hear people pray/hope against rain because of some special event.  Here it is the exact opposite.  People of both Muslim and Christian background pray for rain.  If there is very little rain during the winter months Muslim Imam’s will even call special prayer meetings to beseech Allah for rain.  Christian churches will do the same. Last winter was one of those years.  There was all sorts of news about the drought and how reservoirs were far below their normal capacities.  Prayers were offered and eventually the rain came.

This winter has been different – the rain has been plentiful.  No special prayer meetings have been called (to my knowledge) but people are genuinely thankful that it’s been a wet winter.

However, the whole topic raises a question for me.  When both Muslims and Christians pray for rain and it does rain – whose prayers are being answered?  Some would say that both Christians and Muslims pray to the same God so, obviously, both are being answered.  Others would disagree with this and see believers in both camps as praying to different god’s and that it is likely that it is one group’s prayers over and against the other’s that is being answered.  Still other people would disparage the whole idea of any deity answering prayers for rain.  What do you think?

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.



Pope Benedict visiting Jordan

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Amman, Jordan yesterday to start his first papal visit to the Middle East.  His tour includes 4-days here in Jordan and 4-days in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Their Majesties King Abdullah II and Queen Rania greet HH Pope Benedict XVI at the airport (BBC news photo)

Their Majesties King Abdullah II and Queen Rania greet HH Pope Benedict XVI at the airport (BBC news photo)

There has been a bit of  buzz around here the past week or so.  The attitude is very positive.  Christians of all denominations seem to welcome the pope’s visit warmly and see it as a boon for Christianity in this Muslim nation (Christians only make up 3% of the 5.8 million people).  Muslim friends have also been positive (other than a few speculations about traffic problems), and remembered fondly the visit of John Paul II 9 years ago.

King Abdullah, Queen Rania, and Pope Benedict served coffee at airport reception on Friday.  (BBC News Photo)

King Abdullah, Queen Rania, and Pope Benedict served coffee at airport reception on Friday. (BBC News Photo)

I’m not sure who initiated this trip but papers here indicate that HM King Abdullah invited the Pope.  Jordan has long been a stronghold of peace and (comparative) religious tolerance in the region and it is not surprising that this is one of the first Middle Eastern countries for the Pope to visit.  I can think of three strategic purposes for the invitation from HM the king.

  1. A reflection of HM King Abdullah’s stance on Islam in the contemporary world and esp. it’s relationship to Christianity and Judaism.  In 2004 HM King Abdullah comissioned a number of Islamic Scholars to draft what would later become known as the “Amman Message.”  This appears to be a well thought out explanation of what some inthe West would decribe as “moderate” Islam.  A year later came the “Amman Interfaith Message” aimed at “establishing full acceptance and good will between [the three monotheistic religions].”
  2. To encourage the country’s (rumored to be) shrinking Christian population.  Although they only represent 3% of the population Christians are guaranteed 9% of parliamentary seats.  This rubs some the wrong way, but there is no doubt that Christians have (and continue) to play an important role in Jordanian society.  As in other parts of the Muslim world wealthier and more educated Christians are leaving for the West.  Perhaps this visit fromthe Pope will be beneficial in encouraging positive Muslim-Christian relations in the kingdom and remind those that are here of HM King Abdullah’s benevlonce towards them.
  3. Encouraging Christian pilgramage/tourism to Jordan.  There are many important Biblical sites in Jordan – the most significant of which is the Bethany Beyond the Jordan – speculated baptism site of Jesus.  There is excellent archaeological evidence for this being the place where John the Baptist was baptizing long ago.  25% of the countries tourists apparently pass through here, but Jordan would like to see more awareness of the rich Biblical history reflected in this and other sites (Mount Nebo, Pella, Madaba, Herod’s fortress at Machaerus, etc.) and increased tourist traffic at the Baptism site and throughout the Kingdom.
Pope Benedict greets muslim leaders in Amman (BBC photo)

Pope Benedict greets muslim leaders in Amman (BBC photo)

Of course, there have been a few detractors, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood.  They called for another public apology from the Pope re. his infamous 2006 speech which included a quote from a Medieval scholar that did not reflect favorably on Islam or their prophet, Muhammad.  The Vatican’s official stance was that the pope has already publicly stated long ago that he was sorry for the use of the quote an that it did not reflect his personal views on Islam.  While divisive at the time the speech and it’s aftermath led directly to the formation of the “Common Word between Us and You” initiative, which was an attempt by Christian leaders to reach out to Muslim leaders and bridge the gap of differences by focusing on some of the commonalities between the religions (namely loving God and loving neighbor).  Despite disappointment on the part of some about the lack of a new apology,BBC reports that:

…the top religious adviser to Jordan’s king thanked the Pope on Saturday for expressing regret for the speech.”I would like to thank you for expressing regret over the lecture in 2006, which hurt the feelings of Muslims,” Prince Ghazi bin Mohammed told the Pope.”We realise that the visit [to Jordan] comes as a goodwill gesture and a sign of mutual respect between Muslims and Christians.

Happy onlookers greet Pope Benedict in Amman (BBC news photo)

Happy onlookers greet Pope Benedict in Amman (BBC news photo)

I am intrigued about the ongoing reaction to the Pope’s visit.  He has already made the rounds of some important sites – Mt. Nebo (where Moses died), Madaba (a largely Christian (Catholic/Orthodox) town near Amman,  and Jordan’s largest mosque where he made a speech encouraging peace, cooperation, and dialogue between Islam and Christianity and eschewed religiously motivated violence on both sides.  As I noted reception here has been largely positive among Muslims and local Christians.

Pope Benedict greets onlookers near community center in Amman

Pope Benedict greets onlookers near community center in Amman

In the negative reaction category, there are of course a few Muslim who have spoke out as I mentioned before.  But suprising to me was the ambivalence about the Pope’s visit on the part of Wetern  (ex-pat) Christians.  Most of the ex-pats I know who are Christians are some flavor of Protestant.  Many of their reactions could be summed up by saying, “Oh?  The Pope?  Ok, that’s nice.”  I’m not sure what fuels this.  I mean, ok, I’m not Catholic but I think the Pope is a pretty important and influential world/religious leader.  His presence here in this predominately Muslim country is significant for the Christians here and perhaps has some implications for future Muslim-Christian dialogue and relationship.  Not to mention the Mid-East peace process as he visits both Israel and Palestine after his Jordan stop.  Ok, so he’s not the leader of my particular Christian tradition and he’s just a man like anyone else – but let’s have a little gravitas and sense of history people!

HM Queen Rania Greets Pope Benedict XVI at a royal Palace in Amman (ABC News Photo)

HM Queen Rania Greets Pope Benedict XVI at a royal Palace in Amman (ABC News Photo)

One last cool result of the Pope’s visit.  HM Queen Rania started a Tweet (Twitter feed for the uninitiated – or a kind of a one-line at a time electronic diary for the super-uninitiated) to give a running update on the pope’s visit. It’s a rare personal insight into the (semi)random thoughts of a world leader, “Special day here in Amman; not everyday pope drop s by 4 a visit ” or “Just listened to Pope’s speech. Our region so needs a message of Peace.”  She also mentions the movie she and the King were watching the night before the Pope arrived (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past – apparently His Majesty muttered “chickflick” under his breath at the suggestion), her failed attempt to get her 4-year old to don a suit, and posts a pic of HM King Abdullah and one of their son’s rolling out for an afternoon motorcycle ride.  I hope she continues to Tweet after the Pope leaves.   HM Queen Rania is already famous for her YouTube videos and seems to be a royal figure very much in tune with how to communicate in this electronic era.

Twitter pic form HM Queen Rania of HM King Abdullah II(and son) on motorcylces

Twitter pic form HM Queen Rania of HM King Abdullah II(and son) on motorcylces

This and other of HM Queen Rania’s pics can be found here.

Well, I need to wrap this up soon.  Sorry for the typos and if there are any bad links.  Had to type this quickly as I need to go to bed soon.  Pope Benedict is giving an open mass at the largest sports stadium tomorrow.  I’m gonna go check it out.  The gates open at 4 AM and close at 8 AM.  Mass starts at 10 AM.  Should be a very, very intriguing morning.  Oh, btw for security reasons you can’t bring sharp objects, food, or a cell phone.  I’m joining a couple of friends and we’re going to try and get there by 6 AM.   It’s 11 PM – better go.  I’ll hopefully get another update posted late tomorrow.

Recent Thoughts on Osama bin Laden and Martin Luther King Jr.

Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden has been getting on my nerves lately. Not personally, mind you – we’ve never met. But he released a speech recently that did two annoying things.

(1) he claimed that the Pope was responsible for recent reprints of the cartoons of Muhammad in the Danish press, stating that Benedict XVI was part of a “new crusade”against Islam.

(2) Bin Laden again co-opteed the Palestinian cause for his own purposes saying that, “Palestine cannot be retaken by negotiations and dialogue, but with fire and iron.” (BBC reporting here) And also encouraging support for Palestine by joining the “jihad” in Iraq. Like that even makes any sense.

I find these two items annoying for two different reasons.

(1) When Bin Laden speaks out against the cartoons of Muhammad and links them in some obscure and nefarious plot by the Pope he connects with certain “fears” that exist in the Muslim/Arab psyche. Namely that Christians are in the business of antagonizing and disrespecting Muslims and that, worse yet, Christian leaders are plotting a crusade against Islam.

(2) When Bin Laden links himself to the Palestinian cause he connects with certain “fears” that exist in the Western psyche. Namely that muslims are religious extremists and that bin Laden, the Palestinians, and probably most Muslims are in cahoots against Israel and the US (and apparently Europe now).

Basically Osama bin Laden is a fear monger playing both sides against each other. Hitting at the core of what both sides worry about and what the other side doesn’t exactly understand. (Americans don’t generally get how anyone could be that upset about a cartoon and Muslims don’t understand why they are always guilty by cultural/ethnic association).

I was simmering in this annoyance the other day when I heard a fascinating episode of Fresh Air on NPR. Host Terry Gross was interviewing New Yorker writer Steve Coll about his new book entitled, “The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century.

Coll has studied the extended bin Laden family (54 children born to Osama’s father Muhammad bin Laden) and their rise from Yemeni poverty to Saudi wealth, and international notoriety. I was surprised to learn such facts as:

  • Muhammad bin Laden died in a plane crash caused by an American pilot’s error
  • Osama’s brother Salem died in an ultralight crash in San Antonio Texas
  • Before his death Muhammad bin Laden was the sole contractor for religious building projects in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem
  • That Muhammad bin Laden owned property in Jerusalem that was confiscated by the Israeli government in 1967

Hmm . . . and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Interesting, though to note the thin thread of connection with Palestine that I had not been previously aware of. Also interesting how having access to obscene amounts of money and powerful networks can “help”you cope with life’s tragedies in any way you want – from buying real estate and cars to fomenting religious extremism.

The episode is around 40 minutes long and well worth a listen (Fresh Air -The Bin Ladens a Complicated Family Tree). You can also find an excerpt from Steve Coll’s new book which deals with the broader family – not just Osama.

And now for the MLK connection. Today (well, Friday April 4th) is the 40th anniversary of his assassination. My friend David has posted a fitting recognition with some meaningful links. You can also look at a nice photo essay on BBC about some of today’s commemorative activities or a photo essay about MLK’s life at TIME.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Osama Bin Laden. Both charismatic. Both standing against oppression. Both still speaking today even though one is in hiding and one is in the grave. History will most likely count both of them as great leaders. Yet, these two men could not be more different.

One espouses the glories of martyrdom for a cause he is barely connected with, in hopes of using violence to end one form of oppression in favor of another. The other man dying as a martyr while he peacefully, but actively struggled to bring an end to an oppression that he knew all to well. MLK did not look at death as something to be sought, but was not afraid to face it. His martyrdom was significant in bringing a peace (though imperfect) to a troubled nation.

Both men fighting against oppression. One preaching violence, another peace. One encouraging others to die from a distance. The other dying unexpectedly right in the thick of the struggle. Who knows what historians will say about Osama bin Laden and Martin Luther King 100 or 200 years from now. All I know is that from this angle, the martyrdom of MLK speaks more loudly from beyond the grave and is more relevant to Christians, Muslims, and Jews everywhere in this troubled world than OBL’s poisonous rhetoric from his hideout in a cave.

Here’s a 9-minute clip of MLK’s last speech given 40-years ago this past Thursday. If you don’t have time for that, click on the second one – it’s only 90 seconds or so. Profound, timeless, and a relevant example for all those seeking to end oppression and make peace in this world.