Two Religions in One Country
By: Marguerite Guter
October 26, 2017
There are two religions in Jordan: Islam and Christianity. Of course, there are some people that might not meaningfully identify with either religion, some other religions which have small minorities, and various sects of each religion present. However, there are only two religions in any meaningful sense. Many people think of the Middle East as an exclusively and homogeneously Muslim region—and Jordan is 92 percent Muslim—but the Christians that live in Jordan have often been here for centuries or millennia. After all, Jordan is right next to the Holy Land. In many of my classes, we have discussed issues related to religious minorities like Christians living in Muslim states and societies. We have discussed how sharia should work when there are minorities, the historical usefulness of Christian banking practices in light of Muslim prohibitions against usury, and the seats in Jordan’s parliament reserved for Christians. In the two months that I’ve been here, however, my experiences of religion in Jordan have been far more personal.
I knew before I left the United States that society in Jordan was not strictly Muslim, and that I would not have to wear a headscarf here, but I still assumed my host family would be Muslim. I had been warned by multiple friends that I was coming right before Eid al-Adha, a celebration when Muslim families traditionally slaughter lambs or goats in the house and eat them for days, and I attempted to prepare myself. However, I didn’t have to. My host family is Christian, which seemed a little odd to me given that the society is overwhelmingly Muslim. In fact, at least half of the host families through my program are Christian, for a number of reasons. Muslim women who follow the practice of covering up in the presence of strangers would have to be covered up constantly within their own homes if they invited in American students, which is a major restriction. Since many of the students are also Christian, host families who share their religion may find it easier to relate to them, and some host families even take their students to church. The skew towards Christian families is also partly a matter of chance, based on who lives near the study center and is willing to host students. While I was somewhat disappointed about missing out on experiencing Muslim holidays, my host family is one of my favorite things about Amman, and they certainly still give me new cultural experiences.
It’s difficult to tell who is Christian or Muslim in Jordan. It’s not that I’ve been trying to guess people’s religions, but I noticed that I tend to make assumptions. All Arab-looking men, in my head, are Muslim, which I likely absorbed from stereotypes to this effect in the United States. Meanwhile, I assume that all women wearing headscarves or head coverings are Muslim, while women who don’t cover their heads are Christian. Since so many Muslim women here do wear headscarves, I need to actively remind myself that I know plenty of Muslim women who don’t, including several in my program, and that in the United States it’s rarer and braver for women to exhibit their religion this way. I’ve also become absorbed in the culture that assumes people are either Christian or Muslim, despite the fact that I personally don’t identify strongly with any religion.
After seeing only two religions for a month and a half, my recent visit to Jerusalem was a bit of a shock. We spent a lot of time in the Old City, which is split into four quarters: Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Armenian. It brought all my assumptions into question, since I was just as likely to see Orthodox Jewish or conservative Christian women wearing head coverings and skirts brushing the ground as Muslim women. Beyond seeing an incredible history of three major religions, much of it shared, and the way the city has grown up as a central, important location for everyone, the range and variety of religious expression in Jerusalem was fascinating and beautiful.
However, I also stayed in East Jerusalem and visited the West Bank/Palestine while I was there, which was heartbreaking. Despite apparent religious pluralism in Jerusalem, the conflict and oppression that occurs along mostly religious lines is tragic. It was a relief to return to Amman afterwards, with the Arabic alphabet, less Westernization, women wearing headscarves everywhere, and hearing the call to prayer from three mosques at once in my Christian host family’s house. There might be less religious diversity in Jordan, but perhaps it’s just less obvious diversity, and it’s hopeful to see that in Jordan two religions can live in harmony.