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.

Jordan A to Z: G is for …. Gelatin

Why, you may ask, does G day for Jordan have to do with gelatin?  2 simple reasons.

The first is most obvious … my brain feels like gelatin! A week of writing posts everyday is enough to make anyone’s brain wiggle and jiggle like a translucent block of brightly colored confection.  Probably with little pieces of fruit, or better yet shredded carrot, it it! On top of editing and teaching and being a family man … a post-a-day is quite demanding and I’m feeling it!

The second reason G is for Gelatin in Jordan is this . . .

Many brands of gelatin are not considered Halal for consumption by followers of Islam.  You may or may not be aware that Islam has a dietary code akin to the kosher regulations of Judaism.  I say akin because they are actually a number of differences, but the fundamental nature of both systems is similar … proscribing for the community what is and is not permitted to eat.  The how and why of the two systems vary greatly … but the essence is the same.

Most people are aware that permitted food is Judaism is considered “kosher.”  In Islam the term is “halal”  and the opposite is “haram.”  No that is not harem …. think /hah-rahm/.

In Islam Halal meat has been butchered in accordance to Islamic principles.  And it does not contain pork.  Petty simple.

Well we were told one time by a local that gelatin was Haram because it contained pork.  Of course we laughed, and explained to our friend that there was absolutely no pork in gelatin.  It seemed ludicrous to us …. Ham flavored jello?

As it turns out … pork in Jello … not so crazy.  It seems that the fine makers of most gelatin products have traditionally used pig cartilage as a key part in the gelatinizing process.  (yeah I just made up the term gelatinizing) .  So there you have it folks … check carefully before serving gelatin based products to your Muslim guests.  Halal brands will be clearly marked as such and generally use some sort of cow cartilage in lieu of pig.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muslim pilgrims at the Mount/Plain of Arafat

Muslim pilgrims at the Mount/Plain of Arafat

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

Muslim pilgrims holding a nighttime vigil on the Mountain of Arafat

Muslim pilgrims holding a nighttime vigil on the Mountain of Arafat

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

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

Sheep awaiting their important role in Eid al-Adha celebrations

Sheep awaiting their important role in Eid al-Adha celebrations

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

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

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

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

One of the original stone pillars representing Satan near Mina

One of the original stone pillars representing Satan near Mina

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

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

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

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

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