Youth in Jordan are devout, but adapting to a modern world

Story and photo by Bri Hollis

AMMAN, Jordan – Although the youth population here is moving away from traditional religious practices – such as multiple daily mosque visits for the men, wearing a hijab for women and interrupting daily routines to participate in prayer rituals – their Islamic faith has not diminished.

They are merely re-defining their religion, experts say, and practicing in a way that coincides with modernization and, more specifically, their academic priorities.

“You can practice Islam and still [adapt to] modernization,” said Nama’ Moh’d Al Banna, professor in the department of Shari’ah – the Islamic law based on the teachings of the Quran – at the University of Jordan. “Less women are wearing the hijab and less males are going to the mosque, but they are being religious in other ways.”

Students at private Petra University in Amman represent the changing religious landscape in Jordan. Many youth in this country are adapting their views of what it is to live a religious life to accommodate their studies and career objectives.

In this country of about 6.5 million people, about 98.8 percent are Muslim, according to 2010 figures presented by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. But Muslims in Jordan do not adhere to strict religious practices such as those who follow a Wahhabi version of Islam in Saudi Arabia. Jordanians’ level of religiosity – how devoutly they practice their Islamic teachings – is less conservative. Fewer women wear niqab here for example – which are the robes that completely cover a woman’s head, face and body. Women can also drive and have a job here, and still be considered devout.

But even within that less conservative environment, the youth of Jordan are still straying from strict guidelines presented within the Quran. Experts believe that over time, an influx of student enrollment at universities, as well as an increasing Western influence, has contributed to that recession. And there is no indication things will reverse.

“I don’t have to always be praying to be a good man,” reasoned Hussam Al-Qussi, a 20-year-old agricultural studies major at the University of Jordan. “I’m good to my family, say thanks in Allah’s name and am good to my friends and my work.”

A lecturer at the University of Jordan said this is a common justification offered by contemporary youth. Images on TV, in magazines and on the Internet display a liberal lifestyle ridden with modern clothing, secular weddings, freedom of food choice, and young people in the workplace. For youth in Jordan, who have more access to these media than previous generations, the pull to live as their on-screen contemporaries is strong and hard for them to ignore.

But, he added, young people still consider themselves to be religious. It’s just that they are adapting their idea of what that means.

“Islam surrounds every individual here,” said the lecturer, who asked that his name not be used because of the sensitive nature of his comments. “So almost all young people still follow the rules of marriage and diet because everyone in the community does. But Islamic faith is strong in all young people no matter what they do.”

Mohammad Zeidan, professor of youth culture at May 29 University in Istanbul, said part of the shift is by necessity. Youthful residents of Jordan need to look ahead to their careers and ambitions if they hope to develop and maintain their own families here some day. “The high rates of enrollment at universities…mean that young people are looking for jobs and looking for more money. They are giving importance to different things than their parents did.”

Damaa Rashdarr, a 17-year-old computer science major at Petra University in Amman, said something similar. She grew up in a devout household. Her father and brothers attend the mosque frequently and her mother wears a hijab both inside and outside the house. Yet the younger Rashdarr, who dresses in contemporary clothing and no head scarf, ignores scheduled prayer time to focus on schoolwork.

“But it doesn’t mean anything,” she said as she sat on a courtyard bench in the middle of campus with her long brown hair pulled to one side. She doesn’t need to cover her hair with a scarf or set aside specific time to pray, she said.

Rather, she finds a way to – within herself – identify with the Islamic faith and live out the teachings of the Quran through her relationships with others and small acts of reverence. “I treat the people around me like my religion says I should. I thank God many times a day, and every time I say Alhamdulillah,” – an Arabic greeting meaning ‘thanks to God’ – I mean it.”

The 25-year-old Zeidan doesn’t see this interpretation as rejecting religion. Instead, he sees it as youth incorporating religion to accommodate a changing worldwide, and Jordanian, landscape: “Because of modernization and the media, some things they didn’t used to think about before, they are thinking about now and beginning to criticize, construct, reconstruct and deconstruct.”

Young people still recognize the rules of the Quran, but, as Rashdarr explained, they express their appreciation to God by respecting their family and friends, taking advantage of their opportunities to study and focus on their schoolwork and personally thanking God – both outwardly and within – for the fortunes of their lives.

“Things are different now,” said Rashdarr. “But I don’t forget that I’m a Muslim.”

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