The Middle East: sandy deserts, hot, Muslims, Arabs, hummus, camels. This is the stereotype of the Middle East most people know of; much of the world sees the Middle East as one monolithic religious, cultural and ethnic block.
In actuality, the Middle East contains a surprising plethora of diversity. Since Islam and the Middle East are so intertwined (anyone ever heard someone say “Arabs practice Islam”)? let’s start with religious minorities of the Middle East and work out from there. Let’s look shall we?
Here’s the thing: there is a lot of history here. Why? Probably because Judaism is about 4,000 years old. Jews and the Middle East are like Sonny and Cher: you can’t talk about one without talking about the other. For starters, Abraham, considered to be the father of Judaism, is from Mesopotamia/ modern day Iraq. The festival Purim celebrates the liberation of Iranian Jews and Passover tells the story of Egyptian Jews. So, as I already said, the history and roots run deep here.
There are three groups of modern day Jews: Mizrahim, Sephardim and Ashkenazim. Mizrahim Jews are Jews who have stayed in North Africa and the Middle East. Often they are confused with Sephardic Jews, who helped to rebuild Israel, were enslaved by the Romans, then settled in Western Europe, predominately Spain, until the inquisition forced them to flee (to Ottoman lands). Also in this mix is the Ashkenazim, the Jews of Eastern Europe.
Since the easygoing year of 1948, the country of Israel has been a beacon for Jews the world over. Around 5.7 million of those Jews live in Israel and and 5.3 million in the United States. The next biggest population is France with just under 500,000. Check out other Jewish populations statistics.
As I mentioned (and hopefully you noticed), there exists a nation called Israel. If you are not familiar with Israel click here, here, here, here and here. And…here. As you can see, there exists much animosity between Israel and its neighbors. The basic root of the problem is that around the turn of the last century (1900), a mass Jewish migration to Palestine built upon previous immigration and began to create the beginnings of a nation state. Currently, Israel and Palestine remain embroiled in the controversy that began over a century ago.
Jesus (a Jew) was born in Bethlehem, in modern day Palestine (West Bank). From Jerusalem Christianity spread among Hellenistic Jews and throughout the Mediterranean region. Christianity has gone through several metamorphosis in the last 2 millennium. From being persecuted by not one, but two empires in its the beginning, to being spread by the Romans, to the Crusades, to being spread worldwide by missionaries, Christianity has played a large part not only in the Middle East, but also the world over the years.
One cannot talk about Christians in the Middle East without talking about two groups: the Coptic Christians, the largest Christian community in the modern Middle East, and the Chaldean Christians of Syria, Iraq, and Turkey.
Officially called the Church of Alexandria, Coptic Christians made the news before the fall of Hosni Mubarak and have been in the religious limelight since with the death of their Pope. Coptic Christians have been around since roughly 451 AD after a split with the Orthodox Church over minor differences about the nature of Jesus. Coptic Christians were a majority in Egypt until the end of the 12th century when, due to conversions, Islam became the primary religion. At current count there are between 10 and 14 million Copts in Egypt and 2 to 4 million in diaspora.
Belonging to the Chaldean Catholic Church which belongs within the family of Syriac Christianity, this group sometimes called Kaldaye are based in Iraq, Syria, and southeast Turkey. Speaking a language noted as being related to a modern day version of the language of Jesus, Chaldeans have a long, rich history. It is also the Chaldeans who have suffered tremendously at the hands of violent actors in throughout Iraq and Syria during modern upheavals. Population estimates of Chaldeans vary at roughly 500,000 with the largest diaspora residing in metro-Detroit. Whatever the official population, it is beyond a doubt that sustained campaigns of violence against Chaldeans in Iraq and Syria have led to mass migration to Kurdistan, the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia.
Within the broader family of Islam there are many branches and offshoots. Most notably of those is Shi’a Islam. As a Muslim friend of mine pointed out recently, “We do not see ourselves as Shi’a or Sunni, just Muslim,” but it is still something worth talking about.
Shi’a Muslims Shi’a are the majority in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Azerbaijan and depending on the day, Yemen. Shi’a Muslims make up about 36% of the total population in the Middle East and 38% of the population of Muslims in the Middle East. Besides the majority population countries mentioned above, Shi’a Islam is prominent in Kuwait, Lebanon, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. Due to a power struggle dating all the way back to the establishment of the Caliphate, Shi’a and Sunni Muslims have sometimes, not always, been at odds. Shi’a Islam of course has its roots in Islam but it does diverge in belief in some key aspects.
Here is (another) quick break down of different Shi’a belief systems, courtesy of my friends at PBS:
The Ismaili do not recognize Musa as the seventh imam of Shia tradition, but instead give that title to his brother, Isma’il. Some within the Isma’il are known as Sab’iyah or “Seveners,” and also consider Isma’il to be the final imam. The Ismaili faith began in North Africa and eventually spread to Pakistan, India, and Yemen.
The Zaidiyah, sometimes known as “Fivers,” believe that after the prophet’s grandson, Hussein, the next and final of the imams was Zayd Ibn Ali, rather than his brother, as traditionally observed. The Zaydiyah tradition is closer to Sunni doctrine than most other Shia sects, and was once the dominant faith of Yemen, where it still exists today.
It would be easy to keep this all straight if the sects above were all there were in the Middle East. But oh no, there are so many others. Check out these below:
The Alawites (or Alawi in Arabic) follow the teachings of Muhammad ibn Nusayr an-Namiri, a contemporary of the 10th imam. The Alawites believe in the deification of Ali, a notion that brands them as heretics in both Sunni and Shia Islam (Muslims believe in only worshiping God; this is why they do not have pictures of Muhammad). Though viciously persecuted by both Muslim factions as well as the European Crusaders, the Alawites survived and eventually became a prominent minority in Syria, where today they are outnumbered only by the Sunni.
The Druze are mostly in Lebanon, and practice a secretive and eclectic religion based on Ismaili Shiism, Gnosticism, and elements of Greek philosophy. They are a small sect, permitting no intermarriage or conversion to or from their beliefs. Their theology is a secret to the outside world, and is guardedly preserved by an elite caste of scholars known as “uqqal,” meaning “knowers.” The Druze are not considered Muslims by most of the Islamic world.
Don’t worry, you’re not ignorant, you just don’t know Baha’i. Forming in the 19th century, Baha’i is a relatively new religion. The Baha’i Faith recognizes many prophets throughout the ages, including Abraham, Buddha, Moses, Jesus ad Muhammad. Baha’i also follow the teachings of The Bab (the “door/gate” in Arabic), and the Bab’s student Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith. Baha’i was born in Persia (Iran (part of the greater Middle East)) and spread throughout the world. Currently there are an estimated 5-7 million Baha’i around the world, with concentrations in India (1.7 million), The United States (750,000), and Iran (460,000= largest religious minority in Iran).
The estimated 5-7 million Baha’i worldwide represent over 200 countries. The largest community in the greater Middle East in Iran has been faced with a great deal of persecution by the Shi’a (Check out my article talking about Shi’a Islam for more information) majority. Activists who stand up for Baha’i rights often find themselves imprisoned and tortured. The system of repression of the Baha’i has been adopted as a state mandate (pg 47) on behalf of the Iranian regime. This being said, Baha’i are persecuted in other countries as well. Many of these countries (who are Majority Muslim), who take umbrage (beef) with the Baha’i claiming there are prophets after Muhammad, who is considered the “Seal of the Prophets” by Muslims.
So there you have it, a fraction of the diversity within the Middle East. Mind you this does not count factors such as socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, political affiliation, nationality, language, ethnicity, or tribe. Not so monolithic after all…