Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Jordanian Shade

We first wrote the following post in 2006, and repost it every summer with a few changes when the temperatures soar.

It has been a fairly mild summer here in Jordan, without the usual weeks at a time of temperatures in the mid to upper 90s, with occasional forays into the 100s. A lot of people have commented about and noticed this. The past few weeks, though--just as summer is supposed to be ending--summer has instead finally arrived. It is hot, dry and dusty, and many people--if they can--avoid the mid-day heat and simply stay inside. However, because the humidity is not always very high, if you are outside, it is possible to get a decent respite from the heat by walking or resting under the shade of a building, a tree--really, whatever you can find. Yes, it is hot, but finding that elusive shade really can make a big difference in your level of comfort.

Of course many of the stories in the Bible are set in a climate like this, and in my mind the Jordanian heat brings those passages to life. In Genesis, for example, one story has Abraham sitting in his tent "in the heat of the day." When three men come to visit him, he tells them to rest under a tree. These are small details, but because of our time in Jordan I can imagine the afternoon heat experienced by Abraham, as well as the good shade from the heat that the tent and the tree would provide. Also, there is the story of Jonah, who after preaching to the people of Nineveh--a city in what is now northern Iraq, not all that far from us here--left and built himself a little shelter outside the city. It was apparently quite hot, so God raised up a bush to provide shade for Jonah, and to "save him from his discomfort." The next day, though, God caused the bush to die, and Jonah lost his shade. As a result, he became so hot and frustrated that he grew "faint and asked that he might die." Jonah was so hot that he lost his will to live.

Now, I've never been so hot that I wished I were dead, but again, because of our time in Jordan I can imagine how Jonah felt. I think I've felt like that while riding on a windowless bus in the Jordan Valley, the temperature outside of over 100 degrees causing those of us inside to bake, my khaki pants--not shorts, because men must dress modestly too--clinging to the sweat on my legs. I think I've felt like that while walking near the Jordan River, the hot breeze beating down on us like we had just opened a hot oven and all the mighty power of the sun seemingly focused on the straight, naked, part in my hair on the top of my head. I know I've felt like that while trudging Amman for a taxi in the midday summer heat: the streets choked with cars and traffic barely moving, exhaust fumes combining with dust to choke away what's left of the "fresh" air there, a backpack and long pants--modesty, again--serving to cover my body in a sweaty film of claustrophobia, and every taxi maddeningly occupied. Through these--and other--experiences, I can imagine why Jonah was so upset that he lost his shade.

So, as I said, shade can make a big difference, and it is this shade--a shade that can save you from devastating heat--that is good to think about when looking at the imagery used in other parts of the Bible. For instance, Psalm 121 calls God "your shade at your right hand," and Isaiah 25 calls God "a shade from the heat." When I read this, I remember how the other day--when I was outside walking in the heat of the day--I moved immediately into the shadow of a building as soon as I noticed it, how I sought the shade from the heat it would give me. Shade works, and I suppose it is my quick jump into this shade in the heat of a summer day that the various biblical writers had in mind when they referred to God as shade. Like the building, like Jonah's bush, like Abraham's tent, God makes the heat we experience more bearable.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Why do Muslims Fast?

In honor of this being the month of Ramadan, the following is the third and final post describing this most important month.

Ramadan can be a long month for Muslims, especially in the heat of the long days of summer. The entire month runs on a different schedule, with some shops closed for hours at a time and the work day of many people completely rearranged. Government offices in Jordan, for example, are open only from 10 to 3 during Ramadan. In my own conversations with Muslims, I have been told many times that not being able to smoke for all those hours is the most difficult aspect of the month. Water usually comes next. Yes, Muslims believe that God has commanded this fast, and provided the various meritorious acts we discussed in a previous post. But what do they believe about why they fast? What is its purpose? Below are several quotations that deal with the purpose of fasting.

Muhammad Asad (1900-1992) was an Austrian born Muslim convert from Judaism who became a very important 20th century commentator, even being given Pakistani citizenship in the late 1940s and helping in the formation of that country after its formation out of separation from India. He believed the fast was designed by God to teach Muslims to empathize with the poor: that by denying themselves food and drink for a time, Muslims would better understand what people who can't always afford to eat on a regular basis go through. He also believed the fast helped teach Muslims self-discipline. These convictions on the purpose of the Ramadan fast are fairly representative, and I have heard from others especially about the idea of instilling empathy with the poor. Said Asad:

Twofold I learned, is the purpose of this month of fasting. One has to abstain from food and drink in order to feel in one’s body what the poor and hungry feel: thus social responsibility is being hammered into human consciousness as a religious postulate. The other purpose of fasting during Ramadan is self-discipline, an aspect of individual morality strongly accentuated in all Islamic teachings (as, for instance, in the total prohibition of all intoxicants, which Islam regards as too easy an avenue of escape from consciousness and responsibility).  In these two elements—brotherhood of man and individual self-discipline—I began to discern the outline of Islam’s ethical outlook.

Ibn Kathir is an 8th Century scholar from Syria. He wrote an exegesis of the Qur'an that is famous still all across the Muslim world, and among Muslims generally wherever they live. His explanation for fasting during Ramadan focused on the spiritual aspects, saying that it helps to get rid of the impurities that lead to sinful behavior.

In an address to the believers of this Ummah, God ordered them to fast, that is, to abstain from food, drink and sexual activity with the intention of doing so sincerely for God the Exalted alone. This is because fasting purifies the souls and cleanses them from the evil that might mix with them and their ill behavior. God mentioned that He has ordained fasting for Muslims just as He ordained it for those before them, they being an example for them in that, so they should vigorously perform this obligation more obediently than the previous nations.

The Egyptian Mahmoud Shaltout (1893-1963) was the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the most prominent center  of Arabic and Islamic learning in the world, an institution of higher learning which was founded in the late 10th Century. His thoughts echo those of Asad above, namely that the Ramadan fast is meant to inculcate within Muslims self-discipline and empathy with the poor. Although Asad mentions it too, Shalout adds more explicitly that this empathy is supposed to then lead to concrete action on the part of a Muslim as well.

Fasting is the means by which the Muslim voluntarily abandons certain legitimate frivolous enjoyments as a means of putting his soul to a test and promoting its capacity for perseverance, thus strengthening his will to keep away from sins, both obvious and obscure.  The Muslim thereby samples enough of starvation to make him a warm-hearted, hospitable person, sympathetic with the poor who are in constant want. This is precisely the spirit Islam endeavors to create in the Muslim’s heart and mind by requiring fasting as a mode of worship. Therefore, Islam attaches no significance to the kind of fasting that does not inspire this great humanitarian spirit, and a person fasting for any other purpose has nothing to gain except hunger and thirst.
Finally, the month of Ramadan is seen by Muslims to be a month of great blessing and forgiveness. According to Abul Ala Mawdudi (1903-1979), an Indian-born thinker who had a major influence on the political Islam of today, "during Ramadan evil conceals itself while good comes to the fore and the whole atmosphere is filled with piety and purity." Shops and homes advertise these attributes with signs and decorations, like the grocery store near our apartment that drapes a colorful banner over the main walkway every year that says: "Ramadan, the month of blessing and forgiveness." Many Muslims--regardless of how they are feeling that day without their usual food and drink, and maybe sometimes regardless of whether or not they fully mean it at the time--will comment about these attributes. It is a time of denial of physical needs and extra focus on God, with acts that are required and other acts that are not required but meritorious in nature, meant to encourage this extra focus. Two statements attributed to Muhammad illustrate this.
When the month of Ramadan starts, the gates of the heaven are opened and the gates of Hell are closed and the devils are chained.
Whoever established prayers on the night of Qadr (The Night of Power) out of sincere faith and hoping for a reward from God, then all his previous sins will be forgiven; and whoever fasts in the month of Ramadan out of sincere faith, and hoping for a reward from God, then all his previous sins will be forgiven.
As the statement above indicates, Muslims believe a successful Ramadan fast brings with it complete forgiveness of all the sins of the previous year. This is the forgiveness mentioned in the banner at the grocery store, this is one of the reasons the month is seen as such a blessing. It is a month that takes care of what has gone on during all the previous eleven. To make this point, Abu'l-Faraj ibn al-Jawzi, a 12th century scholar from Baghdad and one of the most productive writers in Islamic history, used the familiar story of Joseph (Yusuf in Arabic)--found in the Qur'an as well as the Bible, with some differences in details--being sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt.

The Likeness of Ramadan and Prophet Yusuf
The month of Ramadan to the other months is like Yusuf to his brothers. So, just like Yusuf was the most beloved son to Ya'qub (Jacob), Ramadan is the most beloved month to God. 

A nice point for the nation of Muhammad to ponder over is that if Yusuf had the mercy and compassion to say [to his brothers] 'there is no reproach for you today…', Ramadan is the month of mercy, blessing, goodness, salvation from the Fire, and Forgiveness from the King that exceeds that of all the other months and what can be gained from their days and nights.

Another nice point to think about is that Yusuf's brothers came to rely on him to fix their mistakes after all those they had made. So, he met them with kindness and helped them out, and he fed them while they were hungry and allowed them to return, and he told his servants: 'Carry their belongings with you so that they don’t lose them.' So, one person filled the gaps of eleven others, and the month of Ramadan is likewise one month that fills the gaps of our actions over the other eleven months.  Imagine the gaps and shortcomings and deficiency we have in obeying God! We hope that in Ramadan, we are able to make up for our shortcomings in the other months, to rectify our mistakes, and to cap it off with happiness and firmness on the Rope of the Forgiving King. 

Another point is that Ya'qub had eleven sons who were living with him and whose actions he would see at all times, and his eyesight did not return because of any of their clothing. Instead, it returned due to Yusuf's shirt. His eyesight came back strong, and he himself became strong after he was weak, and seeing after he was blind. Likewise, if the sinner smells the scents of Ramadan, sits with those who remind him of God, recites the Qur'an, befriends on the condition of Islam and faith, and avoids backbiting and vain talk, he will (by God's Will) become forgiven after he was a sinner, he will become close after he was far, he will be able to see with his heart after it was blind, his presence will be met with happiness after it was met with repulsion, he will be met with mercy after he was met with disdain, he will be provided for without limit or effort on his part, he will be guided for his entire life, he will have his soul dragged out with ease and smoothness when he dies, he will be blessed with Forgiveness when he meets God, and he will be granted the best levels in the Gardens of Paradise.

So, by God, take advantage of this greatness during these few days and you will soon see abundant blessing, high levels of reward, and a very long period of rest and relaxation by the Will of God.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Meritorious Deeds in Ramadan

In honor of this being the month of Ramadan, we are including several posts describing this most important month. This is the second in the series.

In our previous post we wrote about what is required of Muslims during the month of Ramadan. There are other acts, though, which are not necessarily required, but which are seen as meritorious if they are performed; Muslims can participate in them for an extra blessing or reward from God. Although they aren't necessary to carry out, these acts are part of the fabric of the month, and in some cases are almost as ubiquitous as smokers and coffee drinkers are absent.

The Night Prayer
One of these special deeds is the Night Prayer, called Tarawih in Arabic. Muslims are supposed to pray five times every day, and the night prayer simply involves performing an extra prayer, at some point between the final required prayer of the night and the first of the next day. According to the famous scholar Ibn Taymiyya--whom we introduced in the previous post--"Tarawih is a voluntary prayer by which a true believer intends to seek the pleasure of God and draw near to Him." The idea for the night prayer comes from a saying of Muhammad's, who is reported to have said: “Whoever performed the night prayer in Ramadan with sincere faith and hoping for a reward from God, then all his past sins will be forgiven.”

Another of these deeds entails the giving of charity. Muslims are already required as part of their faith to give a certain amount in charity, but it is seen to have a higher merit to give during Ramadan. "One of the good deeds of this blessed month of Ramadan is charity and benevolence, which is more virtuous than during the other months," said Ibn Taymiyya. "The goal of giving charity and donations is to attain the pleasure of God." Because of this, during Ramadan those in need of charity are often more noticeable on the streets here in Jordan, as they want to make use of the desire of people to give. We have even received knocks on our door from strangers asking for money during Ramadans past.

Reading of the Qur'an
Muslims also believe in the meritoriousness of increasing their reading of the Qur'an during Ramadan, because they believe it was during Ramadan that the Qur'an was revealed by God to Muhammad. "The blessed month of Ramadan is the month of the Qur’an, in which reciting the Qur’an according to one’s ability is strongly recommended," said Ibn Taymiyya. Because this is so highly recommended, it is very common to walk by a shop and see the shopkeeper behind the counter, silently studying the Qur'an. Just last night at the park, there was a father there, reading bits of his pocket-sized Qur'an between interactions with his child.

Seclusion in the Mosque (I’tikaf) 
Another of the meritorious deeds of Ramadan is secluding oneself in the mosque to spend extra time with God--called I'tikaf in Arabic--during the last ten days of the month. It's a bit like being a monk or nun for a short time. Muhammad was said to have done this every Ramadan. Again, according to Ibn Taymiyya: "One of the special deeds of Ramadan is I’tikaf. Performing I’tikaf means to confine oneself in seclusion in a mosque for the purpose of worshipping God alone, leaving every worldly and personal affair.  The mind of the person who observes I’tikaf concentrates exclusively on the goal of pleasing God.  He is engaged in various types of worship, repentance, and beseeching God’s forgiveness." I don't think this is real common--at least in Jordan--as it is difficult for people to leave behind their lives and responsibilities. Many people do spend more time in mosques during Ramadan, though, even taking their meals there when they can, which is perhaps a type of I'tikaf.

The Night of Power
As mentioned above, Muslims believe the Qur'an was revealed during the month of Ramadan. The Night of Power is the exact night this is believed to have happened, and so it is not just the most special night of Ramadan, but the most special night of the entire year. As a result, there is great merit in spending the night in prayer, reciting the Qur'an and/or in praise of God. Muhammad is reported to have said: “Whoever prays during the Night of Power, with firm belief and expecting a reward for it, his previous sins are forgiven.” If you live close enough to a mosque, it is not uncommon to hear a bustle of activity inside most of the night.

Performing the Minor Pilgrimage
Finally, all Muslims who are able to are required to perform the main pilgrimage with its standard rituals--Hajj--to Mecca in Saudi Arabia at least once in their lifetimes. The 'Umrah/Minor Pilgrimage has slightly different rituals and is not required, but is meritorious to perform. Muslims believe its performance holds even higher merit during Ramadan. Muhammad is reported to have said that “'Umrah in Ramadan is equal (in reward) to Hajj.”

So, there is a lot going on in Ramadan--and a lot going on in the minds of many Muslims--besides fasting. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013


Ramadan began last week. So, in honor of this, the following is the first of several posts describing this very important month. They were posted last year during Ramadan as well.

The Islamic calendar runs on a lunar cycle, and when the new moon was spotted in the clear, steamy, summer sky here last Monday evening, the month of Ramadan began. It will continue until the next new moon is sighted, for about 30 days. Ramadan is one of the five, basic, famous "pillars" of Islam--the others being to declare that "there is no god but God, and Muhammad is God's prophet", pray five times daily, give a certain amount in charity and perform the pilgrimage to Mecca. Ramadan is the month of fasting, and during Ramadan Muslims are required to abstain from food, drink, sexual relations and smoking from sunup to sundown. This is the basic duty of the pillar of the Ramadan fast. Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) is a famous Muslim scholar born near the border with Syria in what is now Turkey. He spent the last years of his life in Damascus, and had a significant influence on generations of Muslim thinkers, right up to the present day. "Fasting is to abstain from eating, drinking, sexual intercourse, and the rest of what breaks the fast from dawn until sunset, with the intention of drawing closer to God," he said. "Fasting during the lunar month of Ramadan is obligatory... It is mandatory for every Muslim to fast during Ramadan and it is one of the well established pillars of the religion."

Fasting is actually not referenced often in the Qur’an. The Qur'an mentions general fasting a few times, but the specific obligation of the Ramadan fast is mentioned only once. This occurs in Surah (chapter) 2, beginning with verses 183-185, where fasting is commanded, and travelers and the sick are exempted:

O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may (learn) self-restraint. (Fasting) for a fixed number of days; but if any of you is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed number (Should be made up) from days later... Ramadan is the (month) in which was sent down the Qur'an, as a guide to mankind, also clear (Signs) for guidance and judgment (Between right and wrong). So every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting, but if any one is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed period (Should be made up) by days later. God intends every facility for you; He does not want to put to difficulties. (He wants you) to complete the prescribed period, and to glorify Him in that He has guided you; and perchance you shall be grateful. 

Two verses later the parameters of this fast are set out. As mentioned above, it is to last from sunup to sundown, and it is to involve not just abstinence from food, but from drink and sex too.

Permitted to you, on the night of the fasts, is the approach to your wives. They are your garments and you are their garments. God knows what you used to do secretly among yourselves, but He turned to you and forgave you; so now associate with them, and seek what God has ordained for you, and eat and drink, until the white thread of dawn appear to you distinct from its black thread. Then complete your fast until the night appears; but do not associate with your wives while you are in retreat in the mosques. Those are Limits (set by) God. Approach not nigh thereto. Thus does God make clear His Signs to men: that they may learn self-restraint.

As you can see, beyond the simple obligation to fast during Ramadan, some of the details surrounding it are covered by the above passages. Other details are not, though; these details are instead found in what is called the Hadith, which are a mixture of collections of various sayings of Muhammad and reports from his companions regarding actions they saw him take. For example, the following report from one of the most important collections of this literature addresses the question of eating a meal just before the sunrise in the early hours of the morning, which the great majority of fasting people here in Jordan do:

Anas reported God's Messenger as saying: "Take meal a little before dawn, for there is a blessing in taking meal at that time."

Another addresses the question of fasting continuously, without breaking to eat.

Ibn 'Umar said that the Apostle of God forbade uninterrupted fasting. They (some of the Companions) said: "You yourself fast uninterruptedly," whereupon he said: "I am not like you. I am fed and supplied drink (by God)." 

And since sex isn't allowed, what about kissing? Another report deals with that issue.

'Aisha [one of Muhammad's wives] said that the Messenger of God kissed one of his wives while he was fasting, and then she ('Aisha) smiled (as she narrated). 

With the help of the Qur'an and many, many more reports like these from the Hadith, these details are then further explicated in Islamic law. A well known manual of Islamic law from the 14th century includes in the section on the Ramadan fast such headings as "At What Age a Child Fasts," "Conditions Under Which Travel Permits Not Fasting," "Things Which Invalidate the Fast," "Things That do Not Break the Fast," "Making Up Missed Fast Days," "Those Not Obliged to Fast Ramadan" and "Involuntary Acts That Break the Fast".

It is important to note that fasting during Ramadan is not supposed to be all about avoiding food, drink and sex. Muslims are supposed to avoid bad behavior and work to have good intentions and attitudes too. The following two hadiths illustrate this point.

The Prophet said, "Whoever does not give up forged speech and evil actions, God is not in need of his leaving his food and drink."

God's Apostle said, "Fasting is a shield (or a screen or a shelter). So, the person observing fasting should avoid sexual relation with his wife and should not behave foolishly and impudently, and if somebody fights with him or abuses him, he should tell him twice, 'I am fasting.'" The Prophet added, "By Him in Whose Hands my soul is, the smell coming out from the mouth of a fasting person is better in the sight of God than the smell of musk. (God says about the fasting person), 'He has left his food, drink and desires for my sake. The fast is for me. So I will reward (the fasting person) for it, and the reward of good deeds is multiplied ten times.'"

Commenting on this idea of a fasting person being better than the scent of musk, the 14th century Syrian scholar Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya--who was a student of Ibn Taymiyya--delineates the characteristics of a true fasting person.

The main question is who really keeps the fast? It should be kept in mind that while fasting, man’s limbs should be free from sins, tongue from lies, bias and false language, stomach from food and drinks and secret organs from union. He will not speak anything that may spoil his fast, he will not do anything which may invalidate his fast. He will speak only good things and will do only useful things. Therefore talks and deeds of a fasting man are like the scent one smells while sitting next to the bearer of musk. Similarly anybody who sits with the fasting person is benefited from his talks and deeds and is saved from lies, abuses of mouth and limbs. This is the fast desired by the Shariah [Islamic law], not mere refraining from food and drink… Therefore, true fast is that limbs fast from sin and stomach fasts from food and drink, because as food and drink break and spoil the fast, sin also spoils the reward and fruit of the fast and makes him as he had not fasted at all. 

So Muslims must fast from sunup to sundown during the month of Ramadan, and possess a good, sweet-smelling spirit and attitude. These are the basic duties of Ramadan.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

People of Petra

Today we went to Petra with some friends who are visiting us. However, since we've been there six or seven times, I didn't take any pictures of the city meticulously carved into the sides of the mountains, or its beautiful natural surroundings. There were a ton of tourists there, though--far, far more than I had ever seen before--so instead I snapped pictures of them, the people of Petra. A lot of strangers have taken my picture over the years here, so today, I decided it was time for me to do the same.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Qur'an: Arrangement and Structure

A couple months ago we posted an entry on the basic definition of the Qur'an, which you can read by clicking here. Below is a follow-up to that post, on the arrangement and structure of the Qur'an. At some point, there will be two or three more, dealing with other issues related to the Qur'an.

As defined in the previous post on the Qur'an, Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the written record of revelations from God given orally to the Prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel over a period of about 23 years.  These revelations are divided in the Qur’an into 114 separate units, called Surahs, ranging in length from 3 to 286 verses, called ayas.  According to the famous Persian Qur'anic commentator and historian Al-Tabari (838-923), the word Surah, which in English is translated as chapter, can come from two sources.  First is from the root suur (سور), which means to enclose, fence in, wall in or surround with a railing or wall.  It is from this root that the word for the type of wall that surrounds a home or a town—like that which surrounds the old cities of Damascus or Jerusalem—comes, separating what is inside from what is out.  It is like “the wall of a town,” he says, “meaning the wall which encircles it, because of its elevation over what it surrounds.”  Also, al-Tabari said Surah could come from the root sa'er (سئر), which means to remain or be left.  It is from this root that the word suu'ra (سؤرة) comes, meaning that which is leftover.  Those who read the word this way, he says, define surah as “the part which is left in the Qur’an over the rest of it, and which is retained."  Or, in the words of the 20th century Lebanese scholar Mahmoud Ayoub, “the better portion of a thing or separate sections, that is, a chapter.”  Either way, a clear separation between readings and into different units is denoted.  “Thus the word signifies a distinct section of the Qur’an separated from what is before and after it,” says Ayoub.  Regarding the word aya (آية), although translated into English as verse, it refers to that which points to something else, or sign.  In fact, besides this particular use of the word aya, the Qur’an spends a great deal of time referring to the signs of God in nature and the world.  For example, Surah 42:29 says, “and of His signs (ayat) is the creation of the heavens and the earth and what He has spread forth in both of them of living beings.”

Except for the opening surah, the surahs in the Qur'an are ordered roughly—but not exactly—by length, from the longest to the shortest.  Each surah has a name—such as The Criterion (25), The Pilgrimage (22), The Iron (57) and The Cow (2)—which comes from a prominent word or theme in the Surah.  Sometimes, though, the name comes from a word or theme that actually is not so prominent, as in the case of The Poets (26), which is 227 verses long, and the poets from which the surah gets its name are not mentioned until verse 224.  There are also several Surahs that simply begin with certain individual Arabic letters and are given names that coincide with these letters.  Muslims know the Surahs by these names, not their numbers. Muhammad spent time in the cities of both Mecca and Medina, and each Surah is explained as either having been from Muhammad’s Meccan or Medinan period, even though some Meccan Surahs include ayas said to have been revealed in Medina, and vice versa.  Generally, Meccan surahs are believed to be those that are shorter in length—especially those near the end of the Qur’an—and that speak more about broad themes, such as judgment, warning, heaven and hell, belief in God and God’s signs, whereas the Medinan surahs are believed to be of the longer variety and include more specific items regarding rules, regulations and legislation.  Finally, except for The Repentance (9), each surah begins with the words, “in the name of God, the most Gracious, the most Merciful.”

And what about the material contained within these surahs?  What is the content of the Qur’an?  Without getting into too much detail here, according to Egyptian-born professor of Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, Muhammad Abdel Haleem, "quantitatively speaking, the Qur’an consists of the various beliefs of Islam by far, followed by moral issues, ritual aspects, and then legal provisions."  According to Ayoub, “The Qur’an, broadly speaking, consists of moral and legal precepts, commands and prohibitions with regard to lawful (halal) and unlawful (haram) actions, promise (wa’d) of paradise for the pious and threat (wa’id) of punishment in hell for the wicked.  It also contains reports of bygone prophets and their peoples, parables, similes and metaphors, and admonitions.  Finally, it sets forth for the pious obligations (fara’id) of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, the rites of pilgrimage, and struggle (jihad) in the way of God.”

It is important to know, though, that the Qur’an is not laid out in a neat, orderly fashion, with, for example, beliefs in one section, stories of ancient prophets in another, and ritual aspects and legal provisions in other sections.  The Qur’an is not arranged in the form of a narrative, like the biblical books of Genesis or Exodus, or like the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  In fact, just one Surah—Yusef/Surah 12, which deals with the same Joseph (called Yusef in Arabic) from the book of Genesis—can really be considered to be in story form.  Its contents are not arranged chronologically, or by theme or subject matter.  Instead, many Surahs in fact have several subjects, and may switch rapidly back and forth several times between subjects, themes and/or stories involving various prophets, people and past events along with events contemporary to Muhammad.  “The Qur’an is not like a legal textbook that treats each subject in a separate chapter,” says Abdul Haleem.  “It may deal with matters of belief, morals, ritual and legislation within one and the same Surah.”

This aspect of the Qur’an’s arrangement has been the cause of much criticism from non-Arabic speaking—especially Western—readers of the Qur’an.  To such people, the quick fluctuation between stories and themes makes the Qur’an seem disjointed and haphazardly put together, and difficult to read.  However, Muslims would argue that this mingling of themes, characters and other aspects emphasizes their interconnectedness.  Also, the mixing together of various ritual and legislative aspects with ideas about God, doctrine and other religious beliefs ties everything back to God.  “This gives its teachings more power and persuasion, since they are all based on the belief in God and reinforced by belief in the final judgment,” says Abdel Haleem.

For example, legal aspects, according to Abdel Haleem, “are given more force through being related to beliefs, rituals and morals.”  To highlight this idea he points to verse 255 in Surah al-Baqara (2), which is a lengthy description of God and God’s attributes that is preceded by an admonition to give charitably.  Also, he points to a section in the same Surah that deals with divorce, but is broken up at some point by a reminder to be devoted to prayer.  Such mixing is purposeful, providing for a constant reminder of the various themes and issues found in the Qur’an.  If the Qur’an followed a more neat thematic, chronological or historical arrangement, he said, “it would not have had the powerful effect it does by using these themes to reinforce its message in various places.”

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

No, I Don't Like Your Hair

Before we came to Jordan seven years ago some people suggested I cut my hair. You know, to fit in better, so people in this conservative society wouldn't be turned off by my long locks. Anyway, I didn't cut it, and I've never had any problem. Sure, I get a few more stares than the average white guy here, but I did back at home too, especially from the occasional anxious store clerk who is certain I look like a shoplifter. I've never gotten the sense that people wouldn't talk to me or distrusted me here because I looked different. I have friends young and old, and with varying degrees of religiosity, and the strangers I meet every day are perfectly willing to talk to me. My long hair, though, does set me apart aesthetically from nearly everyone in Jordan. That is true. Because of that, I am every so often forced to answer questions about it, usually from a kid. Such an inquisition took place yesterday, while I was innocently waiting for my shawarma. My inquisitor was around twelve or thirteen years old, and he took a keen interest in how I looked while waiting for his shawarma too. The following is the English translation of our conversation.

Kid: Why is your hair like that?
Me: Why not?
Kid: Why is your hair like that?
Me: Why not? Why is your hair like that?
Pause, confusion.
Kid: Why is your hair like that?
Me: Why is your hair like that? It's too short.
Kid: What?
Me: It's too short.
Pause, again.
Kid: Why is your hair like that?
Me: Why? You don't like it?
Kid: No.
Me: What? Is it prohibited?
Kid: Yes.

I smiled wide, and laughed, and began to consider my next response. But, alas, his shawarma was ready, and he grabbed it and walked away, leaving me alone, with my forbidden hair.

Friday, March 29, 2013


Recently I fulfilled a years long quest to visit the Azraq Wetlands Reserve, an oasis and migratory bird stop in the middle of a dustbowl about two hours northeast of Amman. As part of the trip we first also visited the nearby Qasr Azraq, a castle originally built by the Romans in the third century. On the way back home, we stopped for tea in a Bedouin tent set up to serve thirsty travelers like ourselves.

Unfortunately, the wetlands are nothing like they once were. This is due in large part to the results of war, as they started to be drained in earnest to provide water for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who fled to Jordan from Israel during and after the 1967 Six Day War. There was simply no other source to tap, and the water was siphoned off faster than it could be naturally replaced. So, while at one point the wetlands covered an area the size of Lebanon, now they cover just about five square miles. In ancient times the wetlands were basically an extension of Africa, housing such animals as rhinoceros, hippopotamuses, elephants, cheetahs and lions. Now, there are no animals there, save for a few water buffalo. A few decades ago, hundreds of thousands of migrating birds could be seen there. Now, though, only around a thousand can be seen. The site is now protected and the government is introducing water back into the area, but much of what was lost is never coming back. In fact, war still threatens Jordan's resources. Perhaps up to a million Iraqis fled to Jordan during the peak fighting in their homeland--many of whom remain. In addition to this, several hundred thousand Syrians are now here, having escaped the civil war in their country. No doubt all these people put quite a strain on the infrastructure here, and test the boundaries of Jordan's limited resources. I was interested to see the little that remained of the Azraq wetlands, but being there and seeing what could have been--and what was--just made me sad.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

What Goes Up...

The crackle of not too distant--more than likely celebratory--gunfire as I sat up on our rooftop a few nights ago reminded me of this video from Saudi Arabia I saw recently. We like to commemorate happy occasions by unloading bullets into the sky here in Jordan, and I've found bullets on our old street and on the ground at a nearby park that I'm pretty sure didn't come from drive-bys. I'm also pretty sure that anyone in the area of these guys had to head for cover.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Wadi Yabis

Recently we took a hike through Wadi Yabis, a valley--wadi means valley in Arabic--that starts high in the mountains of the north and winds its way down to the Jordan Valley, the lowest point on Earth. Located in an area said to have been the homeland of the biblical Prophet Elijah, the valley features a rare perennial spring that we enjoyed walking through, thousand year old olive trees and the elusive Black Iris--Jordan's national flower--which I finally saw in person for the first time. Because it is spring now, the surrounding hillsides were also covered in a thick green that will disappear by the beginning of the summer.

Friday, February 22, 2013

We've Moved to the Country

Made in Damascus, purchased just outside a Palestinian refugee camp, and burning pressed olive tree wood--leftovers that would otherwise be thrown away after the trees are picked and trimmed, so as not to unnecessarily chop down trees in this tree scarce country--we are now heating our new home with this stove, which means we have moved to the country. 

After seven years near Second Circle in Amman, we have left the city for Marj al-Hammam--which in Arabic means "Meadow of Doves"--a small town of around 30,000 people, and about 15 minutes by car from the capital.  At our old apartment, we lived on the second floor in an incredibly densely populated area, with the buildings on either side of us so close we could hear our neighbors washing their dishes, blowing their noses and urinating. Yes, urinating. Now, we live in our own smallish house and have a huge yard ringed by various fruit trees, with no immediate neighbors and one street adjacent to the yard on which--as of 2:50 on this Friday afternoon--no car has been seen today. This will be quite a change.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Webcams Around Jordan

Jordan just installed 24/7 webcams at the Citadel--which we wrote about recently--and at Petra, the Dead Sea and the Red Sea coastal city of Aqaba, plus one of the Amman skyline. We don't know if the Amman view ever changes, but our apartment is just five minutes up the road from what is currently showing. Click this link for the article in the Jordan Times about the initiative, and click here to go right to the webcams. According to the Jordan Tourism Board (JTB), "Jordan is the first country in the Middle East to install tourism webcams."

Sunday, February 10, 2013


The Roman ruins of Jerash are about a 30 minute drive north from our home in Amman. Widely considered the most extensive and best preserved Roman city in the region, remains there include a huge arched entrance, a long colonnaded street, a colonnaded oval forum, two big temples, a hippodrome and two amphitheaters where concerts take place still today. It is Jordan's second most popular tourist attraction, after Petra. Like the Citadel, which we wrote about a couple of weeks ago, it's also a great place to run around, which we did recently.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Qur'an: Definition

Periodically we try to post about various aspects of the Islamic faith.  Several months ago during the month of Ramadan, for instance, we published three separate posts dealing with the the basic meaning of Ramadanmeritorious deeds Muslims can perform during Ramadan, and the importance of fasting for Muslims during Ramadan.  Below is the first of several posts dealing with how Muslims view their sacred book, the Qur'an.

Muslims believe that the Qur'an is the written record of revelations from God given orally to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel over a period of about 23 years.  Or, in the words of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Iranian born Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University: “The Qur’an for the Muslim is the revelation of God and the book in which His message to man is contained.  It is the Word of God revealed to the Prophet through the archangel Gabriel.”

The word Qur’an comes from the root qara’a meaning to read or recite.  According to Muhammad Abdel Haleem, Professor of Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, “The word qur’an lexically means ‘reading’ and came to refer to ‘the text which is read.’”  While Abdel Haleem emphasizes the aspect of reading, others, however--such as Nasr--focus more on the aspect of recitation.  This may just be a difference of semantics, however, since the words were first received orally and this oral nature is still of prime importance.  I have many times seen neighbors, shop keepers, etc., reading the Qur’an—not silently—but quietly aloud, in a sense both reading and reciting it at the same time.  Also, taxi drivers will often listen to the recited Qur'an while they work.  There is also some evidence to suggest the word Qur’an may come from the root qarana, meaning to collect, although this definition has far fewer adherents.  Whatever the case, either definition—reading or reciting, and collecting—works.  “The book is so called both because it is a collection of the best religious teaching and because it is a book that is or should be read,” says Maulana Muhammad Ali, an early 20th century Pakistani scholar who is responsible for a well known English translation of the Qur'an..

The word Qur’an occurs many times in the text, and it may be used to refer to the full text—the Qur’an as a whole—or just part of the text.  The following are some examples of its use:

“It is we who have sent down the Qu’ran to you by stages.” (76:23)
“Ramadan is the month in which was sent down the Qur’an…” (2:185)
“It is a Qur’an which we have divided (into parts from time to time), in order that you might recite it to men at intervals; we have revealed it by stages” (17:106)
“Be not in haste with the Qur’an before its revelation to you is completed…” (20:114)
“God has purchased of the believers their persons and their goods; for theirs (in return) is the garden (of paradise): they fight in His cause, and slay and are slain: a promise binding on Him in truth, through the law, the gospel, and the Qur’an.” (9:111)

As mentioned above, to Muslims, the Qur’an is the word of God.  By the word of God, however, it is not meant that Muslims believe that the words of the Qur’an are inspired by God, or that God inspired people to write the words.  It means, instead, that Muslims believe the Qur’an to be God’s very speech, the actual words of God.  “To Muslims, the Qur’an is the speech of God, revealed in word and meaning,” says Abdel Haleem, and “God speaks directly in the Qur’an.”  The Qur’an “is the transcendent Divine Word which became human speech,” says Mahmoud Ayoub, Lebanese born former Professor of Islamic Studies at Temple University.  And finally, according to contemporary South African scholar Farid Esack, Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of  Johannesburg, South Africa, “to invoke the Qur’an is to invoke God.  The Qur’an is God speaking, not merely to Muhammad in seventh-century Arabia, but from all eternity to all humankind.”

To Muslims the Qur’an is the word of God in every aspect.  From the shortest vowel sound to the concepts conveyed to the form of the book itself, it is all divine, all from God.  “Every letter in the Qur’an is the word of God, and every sound in it is the true echo of God’s voice,” says Hammudah Abdalati, author of a well known introduction to Islam.  “Both the spirit and the letter, the content and the form, are Divine,” says Nasr.  “Not only the content and meaning comes from God but also the container and form which are thus an integral aspect of the revelation.”

Muslims do not believe, though, that as the word of God, the Qur’an was conceived of or created by God at the moment of its revelation, or at any other time, for that matter.  Instead, Muslims believe the Qur’an to be eternal—always existing—and uncreated.  This was not always the case, as early on opinions differed as to the question of the createdness or uncreatedness of the Qur’an.  Also, for a time in the early to mid ninth century the createdness of the Qur’an was official doctrine of the Islamic state, and those holding the opposite view were sanctioned and the subject of persecution.  However, after this time, the view of the eternal uncreatedness of the Qur’an won out, along with the concomitant view that its recitation, reading, writing or hearing by humans was also the uncreated Word of God.  “The Qur’an is the speech of God, the revelation of what He spoke.  It is uncreated,” said the Palestinian scholar Ibn Qudama (1147-1223).  “Whatever is recited of it, or chanted or heard or written, in whatever form, is the uncreated speech of God.  This includes the surahs and the verses, the words and the letters…”  

This became the official and consensus view of the state and religious establishment, and became such an important part of Islamic beliefs that denying this uncreatedness became equated with unbelief.  According to the Iraqi Abu Hanifa, the 8th century founder of one of the four main schools of Sunni Islamic law, “the Qur’an is the speech of God—exalted be He—uncreated… Whoever says that the speech of God—exalted be He—is created is a disbeliever in God.”  The Egyptian scholar Al-Tahawi (843 or 853-935) in his well known creedal statement said that “[the Qur’an] is not something created such as the speech of mankind.  So whoever hears it and claims it is the speech of a human, then he has committed Unbelief.”  And finally, according to the 12th century Iraqi scholar Ibn al-Jawzi, “the word of God is not created… The repetition of the word of God by created beings does not make it created because that speech is in its essence still the speech of God and it is uncreated.  So, in every situation, repeated or memorized or written or heard, it remains that way.  Anybody who says it is created in any way is an unbeliever whose blood may be shed after he has been called on to repent [and refused].”

Muslims believe not only that the Qur’an is the uncreated speech of God, but also that the original copy of the Qur’an—the “original archetype” in the words of Ayoub—is with God in heaven in what is referred to in the Qur’an as “The Preserved Tablet” and the “Mother of the Book.”  This idea is found in the following places:

  • Surah 85, verses 21-22: "Nay, this is a glorious Qur’an, (inscribed) in a Tablet Preserved!"
  • Surah 43, verses 3-4: "We have made it a Qur’an in Arabic that you may be able to understand (and learn wisdom).  And verily, it is in the Mother of the Book, in Our Presence, high (in dignity), full of wisdom."
  • Surah 13, verse 39: "God blots out or confirms what He pleases: with Him is the Mother of the Book."
Some consider this book to consist exactly of what is found in the Qur’an.  It “is often regarded as the original copy of the Qur’an,” said Esack.  However, others believe it to be the repository of all the revelations that have ever come from God. 20th century Pakastani scholar Abul A’la Maududi, who was a great influence on contemporary Islam, for instance, calls the Mother of the Book “the Original Book which is the Source and Origin of all the revealed Books.”  Also, 12th century Persian scholar al-Zamakhshari, who wrote a famous commentary on the Qur'an, says “The original text is the tablet corresponding to the words of God: ‘No, it is a glorious Qur’an, in a well-preserved tablet’.  This writing is designated umm al-kitab because it represents the original in which the (individual) books are preserved.  They are taken from it for copying.”

Connected to the belief in the Qur’an being the strict, direct and actual words of God, it is important to understand that Muslims believe that it is entirely the words of God.  Muhammad had no part in their formation; he was simply the vehicle by which God made God’s words known to humans.  “The Prophet was purely passive in the face of the revelation he received from God.  He added nothing to this revelation himself,” says Nasr.  “He did not write a book but conveyed the Sacred Book to mankind.”  In the words of al-Tabari (838–923), an influential historian from modern day Iran, the Qur’an is a revelation that “God caused to descend upon” Muhammad and, in fact, the phrase “sent down” in a variety of forms is employed over 200 times in the Qur’an in reference to itself.  As a result, Muhammad is viewed to have been like an empty vessel or pitcher that, when filled up from on high, would pour out the words of the Qur’an for those around him.  However, he is not viewed to have been the originator of those words; he simply offered what was given to him by God.  Echoing Nasr, Abdel Haleem says of the Qur’an that “Muhammad is no more than its receptacle.  God is the one who speaks in this book.  The Prophet is the passive recipient of a revelation over which he has no control.”

So we have established what Muslims view the Qur’an to be, and have settled on a kind of basic definition of it.  In order to further define and understand its purpose for Muslims, though, it will be helpful to briefly look at the other common names by which it has been called over the years, names which are found in the Qur’an itself.  Maulana Muhammad Ali in the introduction to his English translation of the Qur’an has listed 21 such names—again, all found throughout the Qur’an—among them being the Admonition (10:57), the Judgment (13:37), the Goodness (3:103), the Clear Argument (4:175), the Revelation (26:192) and the Light (7:157).  These names all give additional clarification as to how Muslims view the Qur’an. 

However, in addition to al-Qur’an, three other names have commonly been used by Muslims as what could be called alternative names for the Qur’an, names which again are found in the Qur’an and which provide further detail regarding a definition, explanation or description of the Qur’an.  According to al-Tabari, along with Qur’an they make up the four names given by God for God’s revelation.  One of these is kitaab, which comes from the root kataba meaning to write.  According to Abdel Haleem, “The Muslim scripture often calls itself ‘kitaab’: lexically, this means ‘writing’ and came to refer to ‘the written book.’”  This appellation also occurs often in the Qur’an, a prime example being Surah 2:2: “This is the book, in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear God.”  After this are two more descriptive names used in the text: al-dhikr and al-furqaan.  Below are a few short explanations concerning the meaning of these names by some of the Muslim thinkers we have been referencing, along with a verse from the Qur’an in which the name is used.

Al-Dhikr/The Reminder
Surah 15:9: “Surely we have revealed the reminder, and surely we are its guardian.”
al-Tabari: “As for the interpretation of its name ‘Dhikr’, there are two possible meanings.  One is that it is a reminder from God by which he reminds His servants, and in which he informs them of His restrictions and impositions, as well as the other judgments He lays down.  The other meaning is that it is a citation, and ennoblement, and an honor, for whoever has faith in it and believes what is in it.”

Al-Furqaan/The Criterion
Surah 25:1: “Blessed is he who sent down the criterion to his servant, that it may be an admonition to all creatures.”
Ayoub: “The Qur’an has also been called al-furqaan (the criterion distinguishing truth from falsehood or error).”
al-Tabari: “Our opinion about the origin of furqaan is that it is a separation between two things, a disjunction between them.  This can be [effected] by a judgment, a deliverance, the manifestation of a proof, or a victory, as well as by any other means.  Thus clearly shows that the Qur’an is called the Furqaan because it separates the one who is right from the one who is wrong by its proofs, its evidence, its delimitation of religious obligations, and by its other meanings which judge between who is right and who is wrong.”
Nasr: “It is also a furqaan or discrimination in that it is the instrument by which man can come to discriminate between truth and falsehood, to discern between the real and the unreal, the absolute and the relative, the good and the evil, the beautiful and the ugly.”

Finally, we will add one more piece to our definition and understanding of the Qur’an.  The Qur’an is many things and covers many topics, as its contents include issues relating to the various practices, doctrines and beliefs of Islam.  It is probably safe to say, however, that the number one goal of the Qur’an—and of everything in the Qur’an having to do with practices, doctrines and beliefs—is guidance, guidance that leads to God. “God has made everything in the Qur’an… a guide for His servants towards His pleasure, that which will lead them to the Garden,” says al-Tabari, and Ayoub says the Qur’an’s “primary function” is “to guide people to God.”  Al-Tabari also says of the Qur’an:

“[God] made this Revelation a brilliant light in the obscurity of ignorance, a lustrous star in the twilight of uncertainty, a sure guide against wandering in the ways of confusion, and a leader on the paths to salvation and truth… Its pillars will [never] crumble, its way-marks will [never] be obliterated by the span of time; he who follows it will not deviate from the goal of the path, he who journeys with it will not wander from the way of guidance; he who complies with its direction will attain success and will be well directed, but he who strays will take the wrong turning and lose his way.  [This Revelation] is the refuge to which [those who are guided by it] repair in case of differences; it is the stronghold to which they resort in times of adversity, the fortress in which they entrench themselves against the whisperings of Satan, the wisdom of their Lord in which they seek arbitration, the [binding] decision of His judgment between them to which they ultimately have recourse and in accordance with which they act; [it is] His cable by clinging to which they are saved from destruction.”

There are a plethora of passages in the Qur’an that refer to it as a guide, parts of some of which are written below:

Surah 31:2-3: “These are the verses of the wise book, a guide and a mercy to the doers of good.”
Surah 27:1-2: “These are verses of the Qur’an, a book that makes things clear; a guide, and glad tidings for the believers.”
Surah 61:9: “It is he who has sent his messenger with guidance and the religion of truth…”

Ayoub also bases his judgment on the fact that the Qur’an opens with a prayer for guidance in Surah 1; then, this surah is followed by the aforementioned Surah 2:2, with another reference to guidance: “This is the Book: in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear God.”  Maududi in his commentary of the Qur’an points out this prayer or request for guidance in Surah 1 and—since it is the first Surah in the Qur’an—calls the rest of the Qur’an the response to it.  Below is the whole of this first Surah, followed by Maududi’s explanation of it, with a very clear explication of what he believes the Qur’an to be, based on his analysis of the surah that opens it.

In the name of God, Most Gracious. Most Merciful.
Praise be to God, the cherisher and sustainer of the worlds;
Most gracious, most merciful;
Master of the Day of Judgment.
You do we worship, and your aid do we seek.
Show us the straight way.
The way of those on whom you have bestowed your grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who do not go astray.

This Surah is named Al-Fatihah because of its subject-matter.  Fatihah is that which opens a subject or a book or any other thing.  In other words, Al-Fatihah is a sort of preface. 

This Surah is in fact a prayer which Allah has taught to all those who want to make a study of His book.  It has been placed at the very beginning of the book to teach this lesson to the reader: if you sincerely want to benefit from the Quran, you should offer this prayer to the Lord of the Universe.

This preface is meant to create a strong desire in the heart of the reader to seek guidance from the Lord of the Universe, Who alone can grant it.  Thus Al-Fatihah indirectly teaches that the best thing for a man is to pray for guidance to the straight path, to study the Quran with the mental attitude of a seeker-after-truth and to recognize the fact that the Lord of the Universe is the source of all knowledge.  He should, therefore, begin the study of the Quran with a prayer to him for guidance.

From this theme, it becomes clear that the real relation between Al-Fatihah and the Quran is not that of an introduction to a book but that of a prayer and its answer.  Al-Fatihah is the prayer from the servant and the Quran is the answer from the Master to his prayer.  The servant prays to Allah to show him guidance and the Master places the whole of the Quran before him in answer to his prayer, as if to say, "This is the Guidance you begged from Me."

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Citadel: Our Local Park

Amman has very little green space and we live in a first floor apartment, so we don't have a lot of options for outside play, or for just enjoying the outdoors in general. What Amman does have, though--and Jordan in general--are amazing, ancient archaeological sites. These act as our parks, and we take occasional trips to those nearby when we want to spend a nice day outside.

Recently we went to the Citadel, which is a hill overlooking downtown Amman, which we can see every day from the roof of our building, or from the end of our street. The Citadel lays claim to being one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world, as evidence there reveals the presence of settlement activity stretching to over 7000 years ago. It is said to have been the location of the capital of the Ammonites--frequent adversaries of the Israelites in the Old Testament--where King David sent Uriah the Hittite to his death to cover up his affair with Bathsheba. The remaining ruins, though, are mostly more recent, including a Roman Temple to Hercules, a Byzantine era basillica, and a mosque, water cistern and palace complex built by the Umayyads, the first Islamic dynasty, who ruled from 661-750. This is the Citadel--our local park.