Introduction to the Middle East - Religion



Religion is perhaps the single most important marker of communal identity in the region. Islam, the religion of the overwhelming majority of the population, originated in northern Arabia when the Prophet Mohammed ( A . D . 570-632) succeeded in converting the animist and pagan tribes of the Arabian Peninsula to the new religion. Following the death of the prophet Mohammed, Arab-Muslim armies swept out of Arabia in a series of military expeditions that pitched the Muslims against the Christian Byzantines and the Sāssānians, who were Zoroastrians. Defeated by the Muslims, the Byzantines were forced to withdraw their armies from Jerusalem and Damascus into the heartland of Anatolia, closer to their capital of Constantinople. The Sāssānians were routed out of Iraq and Persia, which became provinces of the newly formed Arab-Muslim state, based first in Damascus and later in Baghdad. Within a hundred years after the Prophet's death, the borders of the Muslim Empire had reached the Pyrenees in the west and Afghanistan in the east. The conquest of this vast and heterogenous territory was accompanied by mass conversions to Islam.

During his lifetime, the prophet Mohammed had recognized the Jews and Christians as "People of the Book," recipients of a valid but incomplete revelation. As such and unlike the pagan Arabs, the small Jewish and Christian communities in northern Arabia were not forced to convert to Islam; they were tolerated and given a special status within the larger Muslim community, or umma, as "protected" people.

This policy was followed by all the Muslim successor states; the Jews and the various Christian sects were allowed to practice their faith and retain their institutions and customs. They were, however, required to pay a special poll tax and were not allowed to serve in the army. This policy was later adopted by the Ottomans and extended to a large number of non-Muslim communities, including the Armenians and the Druze. Known as the millet system, it formed a basic principle of Ottoman administration; at the turn of the twentieth century, seventeen different communities were recognized. This practice was, to a large extent, responsible for the encapsulation and the survival of religious communities as inherent components of Middle Eastern social structure. Concomitantly, it served to reinforce the social and political significance of sectarian identity.

The Christians of the Middle East have a long and complex history. Besides the Greek Orthodox Church (which was the official church of the Byzantine Empire), other indigenous Christian churches have their origin in one or another of the many schismatic movements of the fifth and sixth centuries. The two largest Christian communities in the Middle East, those of the Copts of Egypt and the Maronites of Lebanon, originated in religious controversies of the fifth century.

Another Christian minority that dates back to the same era is the Assyrian Nestorian community of Iraq. The Nestorian church was formed as a result of a schism within the Byzantine church at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A . D . The Assyrians, who speak an Aramaic dialect, were originally located in several villages scattered in the mountains that divide northern Iraq from Turkey. Like other minorities in the region, the Assyrians were caught in the web of colonial politics; with Britain's encouragement, a group of Assyrians sought to secede from the newly independent state of Iraq and establish their own nation-state in the north. This misguided attempt led to tragedy when, in an attempt to flee Iraq into French-held Syria in 1933, several thousand of them were massacred by the Iraqi army.

The Copts constitute the single largest Christian community in the Middle East, as well as 5 to 7 percent of the Egyptian population of about 56 million people. The Copts speak Egyptian Arabic and are, generally speaking, hard to distinguish culturally from the rest of the Egyptians. The Coptic church is a national church, limited to Egypt; it has its own liturgy (in Coptic), ceremonial calendar, and clerical hierarchy headed by a patriarch.

The Maronite church is the largest of the Uniate churches of the Middle East and is limited mainly to Lebanon. The term "Uniate" refers to a number of Middle Eastern churches that chose to abandon the Eastern Orthodox rites, recognize the authority of the pope, and adopt Latin rites. Another Uniate church is that of the Chaldeans, who lived predominantly in Iraq (with a small group in Syria and Iran) and were prominent in the hotel and restaurant business there. Following World War II, a large number of Chaldeans emigrated to the United States and Canada.

When the Republic of Lebanon was proclaimed in 1926, the different sectarian groups, all of whom speak Arabic, were formally recognized as corporate political communities, each of which was allotted a number of representatives in the national parliament. Furthermore, it was also decreed that the president of the country had to be a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the house a Shia Muslim. The system failed to work as anticipated, and, by the mid-1970s, inherent strains and foreign pressures exploded in a civil war that has plagued Lebanon into the late twentieth century. It is difficult at this juncture to predict the future shape of the Lebanese polity and the role that sectarianism will play in the political domain.

Prior to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the collapse of the European colonial regimes in the region, large Jewish communities had existed in most countries of the Middle East and North Africa, with the exception of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The Jews generally spoke the national language of their respective countries (i.e., Arabic, Persian, or Turkish) and, with a few notable exceptions, tended to concentrate in urban areas. In northern Iraq, there used to be a small Jewish community scattered in a number of villages in an area dominated by Kurdish tribal chiefs. These so-called "Kurdish Jews" spoke a dialect of Hebrew known as targum. Similarly, throughout the mountainous areas of Morocco, Jewish communities were established among the rural Berber-speaking population. As might be expected, Jewish communities of the Middle East varied greatly among themselves, as they tended to reflect the life-style and cultural traditions of the specific country or region that they inhabited. Ranging from wealthy bankers and merchants to humble artisans and poor shopkeepers, community members were widely differentiated in terms of wealth, education, and influence.

Since the massive emigration of Jews to Israel, the United States, Canada, France, and other countries in the 1950s, only a few thousand Jews remain today in Turkey, the Arab countries, and Iran. In Israel, immigrants from such countries as Iraq, Morocco, Yemen, Tunisia, and Libya are referred to as Oriental Jews," or "Mizrashim." Despite their numerical advantage (they make up about half of the population of Israel), they tend to lag behind the European Jews in terms of political power and social status.

Besides the Christian and Jewish communities, there exist a number of distinctive religiously defined minorities in the region. These minorities had their origin in intra-Muslim religio-political disputes; most of them represent schismatic offshoots from Shiism. This is the case with the Druze who inhabit the mountain zones of Syria, Lebanon, and Israel; the Alawi of Syria and Turkey; the Zaidi of the Yemen highlands; and the Yazidi of northern Iraq. These groups share a history of political dissidence, defeat, and persecution, as a result of which they are found in marginal areas far from the direct reach of the dynasty in power. Despite the differences in their religious beliefs and practices and their cultural styles, these communities tend to be tightly organized under the leadership of an oligarchy of religious elders; they also tend to be highly endogamous, secretive, and inaccessible to outsiders.

Lastly, a community may have its own distinctive cultural identity which is not based on language, religion, or life-style. The Circassians, who are Sunni Muslims and speak Arabic, form such a group; they are found in Turkey, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. Some of the Circassians came to the Middle East as refugees after having fled their homeland in the Caucasus during the nineteenth century; others were brought in by the Ottomans and resettled as buffer groups in hard-to-administer Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire. Small in number and divided as they are among several nation-states, the Circassians have preserved their sense of cultural identity through the collective memory of a shared historical past and a common place of origin.


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