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 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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Note: If the slideshow is too fast for you to read the captions you can hover over the pictures and a control bar will pop up.  You can then cycle through the images manually.

Eid Al-Adha 2010, Amman Jordan

Today is Eid Al-Adha in Amman, Jordan.  (And most of the rest of the Muslim world for that matter).  On this Eid (festival/holiday/ holy day) Muslims around the world sacrifice a goat or sheep (or if truly wealthy, maybe even a cow or camel) and have a feast with their family.  They also give 1/3 of the meat from the sacrifice to their extended family and 1/3 of the meat to the poor.  Early in the morning people go to the mosque for prayers and a sermon.  After this they go to one of several places of sacrifice scattered around the city.  Here the young and the old, the men and the women gather to perform this annual tradition and collect the fresh meat for eating later that day. Throughout the day there will be many visits made to both close and distant relatives and gifts of clothes and money will be given.

If they are able, parents typically give children new clothes on this Eid as well as Eid al-Fitr.  People are always dressed in their best around the time of the Eids.  Uncles are particularly generous in giving money to their neices and nephews at this time of year and it is expected that brothers (especially older ones) will give money to their sisters.  Adult nephews also give monetary gifts to their older aunts, especially if they are widowed.    At some point in the day the family comes together for a meal centering on the meat that was sacrificed in the morning.  In many ways it is a time of connecting with family and remembering God, not unlike the American observance of Thanksgiving.

Of course, the origins of this festival are in the story of Abraham ascending the mountain to sacrifice his son.   At the last minute God provides a ram for Abraham to sacrifice instead.  Muslims remember this story, shared by all three monotheistic faiths,  as they celebrate the festival of Eid al-Adha.

This morning I went out early and snapped a few pics, particularly for those who might be reading from the States and never have the opportunity to witness something like this.  Hover your mouse over the bottom of the slideshow window for controls to pause the show or move forwards or back.

(Please note: if the sight of animals being butchered is offensive or difficult for you then you may not want to watch the show.  I have tried my best to make sure there is nothing terribly bloody or shocking, but I know everyone has different tolerance levels for these sort of things).

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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.