Ahmad's religion

I think I did a decent job in telling the story of the amazing day that Linh and I had in Syria. Now I'd like to share my thoughts on something that struck me on that day.

Our host on that day was a Syrian English teacher named Ahmad. We learned a lot talking to him: about his family, public education in Syria, culture, politics, and so on. As I noted in an earlier post, Linh loved asking Ahmad about his religion. I'd like to share some of the things that stick out in my mind on this topic.

The Hajj
When we were hanging out with Ahmad and his father,  Linh asked, "Has your father been to Mecca?"

"Oh yes, he and my mother went three years ago."

"Did he like it?", she asked.

"Oh yes. It is very nice. When you get there, everything is free. The government of Saudi Arabia pays for everything. You can eat as much McDonalds as you like."

That's right. In Mecca, the holiest place on Earth, during the Hajj, one of the most sacred rites in a Muslim's life, the food that the pilgrims eat is none other good old McDonald's. ((I would guess this is because McDonald's is subsidizing the food to promote itself. And the reason that the pilgrims are excited about it is that in some poorer countries, American fast food is actually more expensive than local options, and is seen as a luxury (KFC in China is the classic example).))

Ahmad told us that there are some very rich people who like to go to Mecca every year, but that most people can only afford to go once or twice in their whole lives, since they have to pay for their own transit. If one has enough money, one buys a plane ticket. Otherwise, a very long bus journey is required (1,650km / 1,025 miles as the crow flies).

Upon returning home the pilgrims are celebrated, by others and themselves, too. They paint the fronts of their houses to indicate their successful completion of the Hajj, just so everybody knows about it. The house that Ahmad lives in is painted in this way, but that's only because it used to be his parents' house.

Ahmad appeared to me to be a devoutly religious man, and we talked at great length about his religious beliefs and practices. Some of the things that he said and did during our few hours together that really made me think of him as a religious man:

Questionable claims
All of these things are apparently barred by the Qu'ran, but for some of them, Ahmad explained, there was also scientific evidence. The issue of jewelery came up when we asked Ahmad if it was customary for men and women to exchange wedding rings. Ahmad explained that the Qu'ran forbids men from wearing gold, and that a scientist did a study that found that wearing gold makes men sterile.

Ahmad also mentioned to us that a sheikh on television said that an astronaut went into outer space and heard the words of the Qur'an.

When Linh told Ahmad that she thought that the call to prayer was beautiful, even though she had no idea what the words meant, Ahmad told us another story he heard from a TV sheikh:

This sheikh claimed that he was in the United States, sitting in a room with the door open, reading the Qur'an, when a man overheard him, walked in and said,

"What is that sound? What are those words? Those are the most beautiful words I've ever heard."

The sheikh told the American man that he was reading the Qur'an, and then, to use Ahmad's phrasing, the American "entered Islam".

When we were in the slaughterhouse, watching the men saying "Bismillah, Allahu Akbar", Ahmed told us that this protected the food. He told us a scientist did an experiment with two apples. Over one apple, he said the words, and over the other, he did not. Both were left out for a long time in the same place, and then both were tested for germs. I'm sure my astute readers can guess the exciting conclusion to that experiment.

I've saved the most surprising and hilarious dubious claim for last:
We were talking about the relationship between Syria and the United States, when Ahmad said that people in Syria like Barack Obama, and that his relationship with Bashar al-Assad (the president of Syria) is quite good. And then it came, the shocker:

"We have heard also, that Obama is a Muslim", said Ahmad.

"No, I think he is a Christian. His father was a Muslim, I think", Linh corrected him.

Some Christians in the USA refused to vote for Obama because they erroneously thought he is a Muslim, and in Syria, Muslims like him because they also erroneously think he's a Muslim. To quote Stephen Colbert, "Why won't that story die?"

Tolerance and intolerance
When we asked him about it, Ahmad tried to give us a brief explanation of why he is Sunna and not Shia, and his explanation was something along the lines of "They believe that Ali is the prophet, not Mohammed" (or some other untrue distortion of what Shia believe, as far as I could tell), and thus they are bad. He explained that almost everyone in Syria is a Sunna, and made it clear that he thinks Shia are very wrong in their beliefs.

Still, he explained that there are Christian people, and even a few Shia in Syria, and that they are allowed to worship as they please. The Christian women are even allowed to walk around unveiled.

Linh asked Ahmad how people felt about president Assad's wife, since she was very "open" as Ahmad called it. She doesn't wear a veil, and she has a much more active professional life than most Syrian women.

Ahmad gracefully dodged this question, saying only,
"We only hope the president is successful in creating more jobs for Syrian people."

This sounded like, "It bothers me, but it's not my place to criticize the president", to my ears.

So, then, how would I summarize Ahmad's religiosity? He observes religious rituals many times a day, and heeds the guidance of religious leaders on television. He seems to believe some very silly things about gold and germs. He is obviously extremely willing to engage with non-Muslims: his almost absurd generosity towards Linh and me is proof enough of that, and Ahmad told us that we were not the first Westerners to be so lucky.

Perhaps the main difference between Ahmad and most of the religious people around me in my day to day life is that I witnessed Ahmad practicing his religion, and he spoke specifically about his beliefs, so there was no ambiguity.

I must say that before I met Ahmad, I thought someone who looks to bearded, stern-looking sheikhs on television for guidance on how to live life would be someone I have nothing in common with, or maybe even someone to be avoided. And yet, Ahmad turned out to be one of the most kind, generous, and even inquisitive persons I've ever met.