Throughout the past 20 years, religion has faded steadily from my life. When I was a child, my family was heavily involved in our local Methodist church. I sang in the children’s choir, my mom worked on the church-wide newsletter, and many of my friendships were fostered through attending Bible study. Although I only have vague memories of this time, I am certain this period of my life left a lasting impact and taught me the values of morality and responsibility. At the age of 10, my involvement began to wain as my peers underwent confirmation and I chose to pursue the year-round commitment of competitive swimming. However, my family still attended church every Easter and Christmas until the death of my grandmother and my relocation to Denver for university. Now, the only semblance of faith in my life is my occasional utterance of the phrase, “Jesus Christ!” if something especially perplexing happens. While I do not believe in a structured “higher power” or the concepts of heaven and hell, I do like to imagine that there is a greater force that keeps the balance of good and evil in check. I internally summarize this idea as simply believing in karma.
When considering studying abroad in the Middle East, religion was not a determining factor. I knew Jordan was a predominately Muslim country and I had absolutely no reservations about living with the resulting implications. I’ve blogged before about enjoying the daily call to prayer and the religiously inspired phrases such as “insha’allah” that are sprinkled into every conversation I have from professors to taxi drivers. However, I never had the chance to explore Islam as intimately as I did this past Wednesday when I went with a group from CIEE to the King Hussein Bin Talal Mosque.
The building itself is a massive structure, easily seen from the city as it sits atop one of Amman’s many hills near Mecca Mall and the Royal Automobile Museum. As much of Amman is dusty and charmingly organic (meaning it is allowed to develop naturally and, often, dirtily), the mosque felt unusually pristine and well-kept. We walked as a group of 20 from the main gates, under one of the many arches you can see in the picture, and into a small area full of cubbies to store shoes and bags. All of the women were given a black, floor length gown with a hood to put on. As a mosque is the preeminent place of worship for Muslims, it is necessary for women to cover their hair as a symbol of modesty and protection.
As we walked into the main praying area (for men – there are two separate rooms where women are allowed to pray), I was taken by how grandiose it was. Large aisle ways dedicated to prayer were lined with monumental arches and topped with the most exquisite and ornate chandeliers. As shoes are not allowed inside the mosque, even the carpets were free of dirt and appeared welcoming to kneel upon. One interesting feature of the mosque is its heating system. It is heated both by the modern method of central air, but also by a heating system under the floors. When we visited, the weather outside was frigid, so everyone enjoyed sitting on the floor and thawing their bottoms.
After a quick question and answer session with the mosque staff, we were given time to wander about. During this time, I realized the vast differences between being in a mosque and a church. The majority of the churches I have been in focus on making guests and worshipers feel welcome. Most of the sermons I have heard include a welcome message to both old and new members of the congregation. Although I have neither been in a mosque during prayer or performed the traditional Islamic prayer myself, I have observed that it is a highly solitary act. Rather than listen to a pastor retell his own interactions with God and suggestions to others on how to build a similar relationship, Islam is about finding your own motivation and reasons to strengthen the bond. I believe both religions have similar goals of spreading faith, tolerance, and understanding, but each has a unique way of achieving these ideals. As with everything in life, religion is a personal decision and, ultimately, it does not matter what a person believes, as long as he does so of his own volition and not because of the pressure from outside forces.
I’m not sure if this stems from my love of geography (if the sun’s position and resulting time of day even equates to being geography…), but I was especially interested in the mosque’s digital clock displaying the daily times of the call to prayer. The call is given five times per day and changes each day as the length between sunrise and sunset changes with the seasons. In the summer, the days are longer so the calls are more spread out throughout the day, whereas in the winter, the days are shorter so they happen more frequently.
To be honest, I am not sure why there are eight times displayed and which five are the actual times of the call to prayer. We only just finished learning the alphabet and my vocabulary ranges from milk to window, so I cannot yet read the words on the clock. After our tour inside the mosque, we were taken to the small museum located on the outer grounds of the mosque. The museum had three displays: a branch taken from a tree under which the Prophet Muhammad is said to have rested, a hair from the Prophet Muhammad’s beard, and a letter he wrote pointing out the similarities between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
As with all museums, the validity of the artifacts must be questioned, but it is fascinating to think that a small, almost microscopic, beard hair can survive from ~600AD until 2013. It also made me realize how incorrect my concept of historical time is. This past quarter, I took two history classes on the Arab-Israeli conflict and colonialist America. It was only halfway through the quarter before I realized the Middle Eastern history happened more recently than the American history. For some reason, American history feels so recent, and in some regards it is, but I forget that the rest of the world is constantly changing, as well. Seeing the Prophet’s hair made me consider that even 600AD is recent in the entire span of universal history. The trip to the mosque managed to change both my perspective on religion and history, if it can even be considered history.