Jordan Table of Contents

More than 90 percent of Jordanians adhered to Sunni Islam in the late 1980s. Although observance was not always orthodox, devotion to and identification with the faith was high. Islam was the established religion, and as such its institutions received government support. The 1952 Constitution stipulates that the king and his successors must be Muslims and sons of Muslim parents. Religious minorities included Christians of various denominations, a few Shia Muslims, and even fewer adherents of other faiths.

Early Development of Islam

In A.D. 610, Muhammad, a merchant belonging to the Hashimite branch of the ruling Quraysh tribe in the Arabian town of Mecca, began to preach the first of a series of revelations granted him by God through the angel Gabriel and to denounce the polytheism of his fellow Meccans. Because the town's economy was based in part on a thriving pilgrimage business to the Kaaba, the sacred structure around a black meteorite, and the numerous pagan shrines located there, Muhammad's vigorous and continuing censure eventually earned him the bitter enmity of the town's leaders. In 622 he was invited to the town of Yathrib, which came to be known as Medina (the city) because it was the center of his activities. The move, or hijra (known in the West as the hegira), marks the beginning of the Islamic era. The Muslim calendar, based on the lunar year, begins in 622. In Medina, Muhammad--by this time known as the Prophet-- continued to preach, eventually defeated his detractors in battle, and consolidated both the temporal and spiritual leadership of all Arabia in his person before his death in 632.

After Muhammad's death, his followers compiled those of his words regarded as coming directly from God into the Quran, the holy scripture of Islam. Others of his sayings and teachings as recalled by those who had known Muhammad (a group known as the Companions) became the hadith. The precedent of his personal behavior was set forth in the sunna. Together the Quran, the hadith, and the sunna form a comprehensive guide to the spiritual, ethical, and social life of an orthodox Sunni Muslim.

During his lifetime, Muhammad was both spiritual and temporal leader of the Muslim community; he established Islam as a total and all-encompassing way of life for human beings and society. Muslims believe that Allah revealed to Muhammad the rules governing proper behavior and that it therefore behooves them to live in the manner prescribed by the law, and it is incumbent upon the community to strive to perfect human society according to holy injunctions. Islam traditionally recognizes no distinction between religion and state, and no distinction between religious and secular life or religious and secular law. A comprehensive system of religious law (sharia) developed gradually during the first four centuries of Islam, primarily through the accretion of precedent and interpretation by various judges and scholars. During the tenth century, however, legal opinion began to harden into authoritative doctrine, and the figurative bab al ijtihad (gate of interpretation) gradually closed, thenceforth eventually excluding flexibility in Islamic law. Within the Jordanian legal system, sharia remains in effect in matters concerning personal status.

After Muhammad's death, the leaders of the Muslim community consensually chose Abu Bakr, the Prophet's father-in-law and one of his earliest followers, as caliph, or successor. At that time, some persons favored Ali, the Prophet's cousin and husband of his daughter Fatima, but Ali and his supporters (the so-called Shiat Ali or Party of Ali) eventually recognized the community's choice. The next two caliphs--Umar, who succeeded in 634, and Uthman, who took power in 644--enjoyed recognition of the entire community. When Ali finally succeeded to the caliphate in 656, Muawiyah, governor of Syria, rebelled in the name of his murdered kinsman Uthman. After the ensuing civil war, Ali moved his capital to Mesopotamia, where a short time later he, too, was murdered.

Ali's death ended the period in which the entire community of Islam recognized a single caliph. Upon Ali's death, Muawiyah proclaimed himself caliph from Damascus. The Shiat Ali, however, refused to recognize Muawiyah or his line, the Umayyad caliphs; in support of claims by Ali's line to a presumptive right to the caliphate based on descent from the Prophet, they withdrew and established a dissident sect known as the Shia.

Originally political in nature, the differences between the Sunni and Shia interpretations rapidly took on theological and metaphysical overtones. Ali's two sons, Hasan and Husayn, became martyred heroes to the Shias and repositories of the claims of Ali's line to mystical preeminence among Muslims. The Sunnis retained the doctrine of the selection of leaders by consensus, although Arabs and members of the Quraysh, Muhammad's tribe, predominated in the early years. Reputed descent from the Prophet, which King Hussein claims, continued to carry social and religious prestige throughout the Muslim world in the 1980s. Meanwhile, the Shia doctrine of rule by divine right became more and more firmly established, and disagreements over which of several pretenders had a truer claim to the mystical powers of Ali precipitated further schisms. Some Shia groups developed doctrines of divine leadership far removed from the strict monotheism of early Islam, including beliefs in hidden but divinely chosen leaders with spiritual powers that equaled or surpassed those of the Prophet himself.

The early Islamic polity was intensely expansionist, fueled both by fervor for the new religion and by economic and social factors. Conquering armies and migrating tribes swept out of Arabia, spreading Islam. By the end of Islam's first century, Islamic armies had reached far into North Africa and eastward and northward into Asia. The territory of modern Jordan, among the first to come under the sway of Islam, was penetrated by Muslim armies by A.D. 633.

Although Muhammad had enjoined the Muslim community to convert the infidel, he had also recognized the special status of the "people of the book," Jews and Christians, whose own revealed scriptures he considered revelations of God's word and which contributed in some measure to Islam. Jews and Christians in Muslim territories could live according to their own religious law, in their own communities, and were exempted from military service if they accepted the position of dhimmis, or tolerated subject peoples. This status entailed recognition of Muslim authority, additional taxes, prohibition on proselytism among Muslims, and certain restrictions on political rights.

Social life in the Ottoman Empire, which included Jordan for 400 years, revolved around a system of millets, or religious communities. Each organized religious minority lived according to its own personal status laws under the leadership of recognized religious authorities and community leaders. These recognized leaders also represented the community to the rest of society and the polity. This form of organization preserved and nourished cultural differences that, quite apart from theological considerations, distinguished these communities.

Tenets of Sunni Islam
Islam in Social Life
Islamic Revival
Religious Minorities

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress