Religious Beliefs and Practices. Islam is the youngest of the monotheistic religions. Established in the seventh century, Islam's central tenet is the oneness of God. Humankind is called on to obey God's law and prepare for the Day of Judgment. Muslims view the Prophet Muhammad as the last in a long succession of prophets going back to Abraham. Muslims accept Jesus as a prophet who possessed miracle-working powers. The Qur'an places emphasis on his virgin birth. Muslims do not, however, recognize the divinity of Christ or accept that he was crucified, claiming instead that God intervened at the last moment. Shia Muslims differ from Sunni (orthodox) Islam over the rightful succession of the Caliphate (leader) of the early Muslim community and over the role and powers of the ulama (religious scholars or clergy). The majority of Arab American Muslims are Sunni; Arab American Shia Muslims are mostly from Lebanon and to a lesser extent from North Yemen and Iraq.
Arab Christians are divided between Eastern rite churches (Syrian Antiochian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Coptic) and Latin rite Uniate churches (Maronite, Melkite, and Chaldean). Originally, all Middle Eastern denominations belonged to churches that followed Eastern rites. The Uniate churches eventually split from the Eastern churches and affiliated with the Latin church in Rome. Although they formally recognize the authority of the Roman pope and conform to Latin rites, the Uniate churches maintain their own patriarchs and internal autonomy. The Middle Eastern churches, Eastern as well as Uniate, allow priests to marry, though not bishops, and maintain their separate liturgies, often in an ancient language (Coptic, Aramaic, Syriac, and so on).
Religious Practitioners. Islam lacks a hierarchical church structure. The ulama are essentially teachers or scholars, lacking real authority, though Shia Islam as practiced in non-Arab Iran invests the ulama with special occult powers and authority in social matters. The Middle Eastern churches are structured in rigid hierarchies, and priests often command substantial respect and authority in local affairs.
Ceremonies. Strictly speaking, Islam recognizes only three religious holidays: Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, and Eid al-Adha. Other holidays, like the Prophet's birthday, are celebrated by some communities and not others. Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, is the time of fasting that precedes Eid al-Fitr. The fast requires complete abstinence from food, drink, tobacco, and sex from sunrise to sunset during the entire month. Eid al-Fitr ("End of the Fast") marks the end of Ramadan. Eid al-Adha ("Feast of the Sacrifice") commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael in obedience to God. The holiday at the end of the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, falls on a different day each year owing to the differences between the Islamic lunar calendar and the Western solar calendar. The Eastern rite churches differ from the Latin churches on the timing of Easter and Christmas celebrations. Easter is celebrated the Sunday after Passover, and Christmas is celebrated on the Epiphany, which falls on January 6.