Religion: Middle East

William E Shepard. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 5. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

This surveys the religious traditions of the Middle East from the seventh century C.E., with limited attention to earlier developments. By the seventh century the Middle East had largely accepted monotheism in its Jewish, Christian, or Iranian form. This involved the worship of one God, who has created and sustains the universe but is separate from it, and a more or less forceful rejection of other gods. This God is symbolized in male terms and is very much concerned with human moral activities, which he will reward or punish in the afterlife.

Islam: Beginnings and Basic Teachings

The Arabian peninsula was one of the last places to accept monotheism, and it did so in a distinctive form that was to dominate the Middle East thereafter. From about 610 until 632 Muhammad, a caravan merchant in Mecca, received verbal messages that he and his followers understood to come from God and that were collected together to form the Koran, the Muslim scripture. The Koran is considered to be the verbatim word of God, but only in the original Arabic language. Muhammad was rebuffed by the leaders of Mecca and, in 622, migrated with his followers to a nearby city thenceforth known as Medina. From here he conducted a campaign involving some fighting and much political maneuvering, which led to his victorious return to Mecca in 630 and the acceptance of his religion and leadership by the Meccans. His immediate successors effectively moved forth to conquer the neighboring lands, establishing in the course of a century an empire extending from Spain in the west to central Asia in the north to the Indus River in the east. While they established their political rule quickly, it was several centuries in most places before the majority of the conquered peoples embraced their religion.

This religion is called Islam, meaning “submission to God,” and its adherents are Muslims, or submitters. Its key doctrines are summed up the words “No god but God (Allah); Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” The recognition of other divine beings alongside God is called shirk and is strongly rejected. Muhammad is understood to be the last of a series of prophets sent by God to humans, beginning with Adam and including biblical figures such as Nuh (Noah), Ibrahim (Abraham), Musa (Moses), and ‘Isa (Jesus). These prophets had missions limited in time and place, and their messages have been lost or altered. Muhammad’s mission, by contrast, is universal, and his message has been faithfully preserved. Jews and Christian are viewed as “people of the scripture” (that is, previous scriptures), having genuinely based but inferior religions. They were granted the status of dhimmis (“protected peoples”), having what might be called “second-class citizenship” in Muslim society. In practice, their situation varied with circumstances, and other groups, such as Zoroastrians, were also often granted similar status.

Islam: Sunnis, Kharijites, and Shiites

The main divisions among Muslims are based on differing views of the political succession to Muhammad. In the Sunni view the first four caliphs (successors) were legitimately chosen by the community and were the best rulers the community has ever had. With the coming of the Umayyad dynasty, the moral level declined and rulers were sometimes corrupt, but they were usually to be accepted since the dangers of revolt were a greater evil. The Umayyad (661-750) and Abbasid (750-1258) dynasties are generally recognized by Sunnis as true caliphs. In more recent centuries the Ottoman rulers up to 1924 gained wide recognition as caliphs.

The Kharijites held that major sins disqualified a ruler, often seeking to enforce this view by violent revolts. These revolts failed, but the Kharijites contributed to Muslim theological thinking, and small groups of them continue to the present. Modern Islamic radicals have similarities to the Kharijites and are often labeled as such by their opponents.

In the Shiite view Muhammad had chosen his son-in-law and cousin, ‘Ali, as his successor, but the majority passed him over three times. When he finally became caliph (fourth in the Sunni reckoning), he could not stem the moral decline and was soon murdered. After this, his rightful successors, all descendants of his, never ruled although they taught their followers. His second successor, Husayn, led a small army in revolt against the Umayyads and was killed at Karbala’, in Iraq. The commemoration of his martyrdom has come to include emotional and dramatic rituals, and he has become an effective model for revolutionary action since the 1970s, especially in Iran. The largest group of Shiites, the Twelvers, recognize a line of twelve legitimate rulers, or imams, of whom the last disappeared about 874 and is expected to return in the future as the Imam Mahdi to bring just government to Earth. Sunnis also have the idea of the Mahdi as an ideal ruler, but not necessarily in the line of ‘Ali, and conceptions vary considerably.

Another group of Shiites, the Seveners or Ismaili, accept a line of imams that diverges from that of the Twelvers at the seventh imam and continues with imams who are sometimes visible and sometimes hidden. Of the various subdivisions of the Ismailis, the best known in the early twenty-first century are the followers of the Aga Khan. The Ismailis constituted a significant revolutionary movement from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries and became known to Westerners as the Assassins.

Another group of Shiites is the Zaydis, whose line of imams diverges with the fifth. Of all Shiites, the Zaydis are the closest to the Sunnis in their ideas and practices. A Zaydi imam ruled Yemen from 901 to 1961.

Islamic Law, Theology, and Philosophy

The primary concern of Muslim religious thinking has been the elaboration of the rules for living, including social and political life. The key concept here has been shari’a, the “path” God has laid out for believers to follow, involving the moral evaluation of actions as “obligatory,” “recommended,” “permitted,” “discouraged,” and “forbidden.” The details of this are worked out in fiqh (literally “understanding”) by qualified scholars, or ulema. The authoritative sources are the Koran and the sunna (the words and deeds of Muhammad, usually understood as protected from error; for Shiites the words and deeds of the imams are included), and the ulema engage in effort, ijtihad, to derive from these sources rules for particular situations. The Sunni view has generally been that whenever they come to a consensus on some issue, this is binding on future generations. Among Sunnis several traditions or “schools” of fiqh developed, of which four survive into the twenty-first century, the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali. Although there have been tensions among them in the past, they are now mutually recognized and in principle a Muslim should follow one of them. Twelver Shiites give less weight to consensus, and the currently dominant form of Twelver fiqh stresses the need to follow a living mujtihid (one qualified to practice ijtihad), or ayatollah. As a result, some ulema acquire a following and have considerable influence. While fiqh in principle covers all areas of life, in practice some areas have been more elaborated than others, and the degree to which fiqh is applied in practice has varied considerably with time and place.

Theology (kalam) in Islam arose, in a considerable measure, out of the challenge of Greek philosophy, which was still very much alive in a Christianized form in the areas the Muslims had conquered. The first major school of kalam was the Mu’tazila, who appear to have been influenced by disputations held with Jewish, Christian, and other scholars. Among their better-known views is the claim that the Koran is created and that humans have free will. Al-Ash’ari (873-935) used their rational methods to uphold the uncreated nature of the Koran and divine determination. Another school, that of al-Maturidi, was similar but somewhat less extreme on the last point. Over against all of these, the Hanbalis largely rejected the venture of kalam as an inappropriate probing into the divine. An attempt to impose Mu’tazilism as orthodoxy in the ninth century backfired and the Mu’tazila lost ground among Sunnis, though their ideas continued to be influential among Shiites.

Kalam sought to use reason to interpret revelation, but the philosophers sought to build on reason alone and saw themselves in the line of Plato and Aristotle. For them reason gave the purest knowledge but was only for an elite; revelation provided the same basic knowledge in symbolic and concrete form for ordinary people. The greatest of the philosophers was Avicenna (Ibn Sina; 980-1037), who developed a system designed to incorporate all experience and knowledge, from the physical to the psychological to the spiritual. For him reason at its highest level is a divine faculty that leads us to the vision of the divine. The more spiritual side of Avicenna was later developed in Iran into a kind of philosophical mysticism known as ‘irfan, whose greatest proponent was Mulla Sadra (d. 1641), and which continues very much alive in the early 2000s. Conceptions drawn from philosophy are also central to the teachings of the Ismailis and most of the esoteric groups mentioned below.

More important than kalam or philosophy has been the Sufi movement. From the early centuries individuals such as Rabi’a al-Adawiya (d. 810), Abu Yazid Bistami (d. 874), and al-Hallaj (857/858-922) sought a more direct contact with God and expressed this in sometimes unconventional ways. From about the thirteenth century this developed into large-scale movements, turuq (“orders”), which provided spiritual and moral guidance and distinctive rituals (dhikr) designed to produce ecstasy. Later Sufi theoreticians made considerable use of philosophical concepts to express their views and experiences. The greatest of these was Ibn al-‘Arabi (1165-1240), known for his doctrine of the “unity of being” (wahdat al-wujud) in which the Names of God correlate with the visible world in a kind of mutual dependence via a spiritual realm of prototypes.

Smaller Esoteric Groups Connected with Islam

There are a number of smaller groups, many derived from Shiism, whose teachings and practices are quite distinctive, whose full doctrines are often known only to an elite, and who are quite tightly organized and often do not accept converts. They are often considered non-Muslims by others and have often suffered persecution.

The Druze believe that God is beyond description and that the Ismaili ruler of Egypt, al-Hakim, who died or disappeared in 1021, was his final earthly manifestation. They also believe that human souls transmigrate. The Druze live primarily in Lebanon, where they have played a strong political role.

The ‘Alawis (or Nusayris) in Syria and the Alevis in Turkey are quite distinct groups, but both recognize ‘Ali as the highest manifestation of the divine. The ‘Alawis follow the teachings of Ibn Nusayr (ninth century) and believe in transmigration. The Alevis in Turkey derive from the Shiite Safavid movement in the sixteenth century and are closely connected to the Bektashi Sufi order. They suffered considerable persecution under the Ottomans.

The Yazidis, a Kurdish sect dating from the twelfth century, believe in a creator God who has delegated the running of the world to seven angels, of which the chief is Malak Ta’us (Peacock Angel), said to have once rebelled against God but repented. This may be the reason they are called “devil worshippers” by outsiders. They believe themselves to have been created in a manner different from other humans, and they believe in reincarnation.

The Ahl-i Haqq, also Kurdish, believe in seven manifestations of divinity, of whom ‘Ali was the second and Sultan Sohak (fifteenth century?) was the last. They also believe in reincarnation, in which those souls capable of it will be purified.

The Baha’i movement developed out of Iranian Shiism in the nineteenth century. Baha’ Ullah (1817-1892) claimed to be a new prophet for the present age and produced a scripture, Kitab al-aqdas (Most holy book), thus moving out of the Islamic orbit and presenting a new religion. Teaching that prophecy has not ended but that each age has its prophet, the movement has stressed its “ecumenical” dimension arising out of its recognition of all the previous prophets and has emphasized human unity. It has gained a considerable following worldwide, as well as still having a significant following in Iran, where it has suffered persecution, especially since the Islamic revolution.

Iranian Movements: Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism

Zoroastrianism looks back to the Iranian prophet Zarathushtra, who may have lived anywhere from 1500 to 500 B.C.E.Central to its view is a cosmic struggle between good and evil in which humans are called to participate. Ahura Mazda (later Ormazd), the creator of the universe, chose the good, while the evil spirit, Angra Mainyu (later Ahriman) chose the evil. These two are both primordial, but Ormazd will defeat Ahriman at the end of time. Its highly developed conceptions of spiritual beings and its eschatology probably influenced Jewish thinking in the later centuries B.C.E. It uses fire as its central symbol, so that the Muslims called the Zoroastrians “fire worshippers.” In the third century C.E. Zoroastrianism was reorganized as the state religion of the Sassanian dynasty. After the Muslim conquest, most Iranians became Muslims, but Zoroastrian activity remained vigorous for some time. A small Zoroastrian community continues to exist in Iran and a larger one in India (the Parsis).

The Manichaean movement was founded by Mani (216-277?) and has an extremely dualistic view in which the material world is the realm of evil and darkness. Particles from the world of light have been captured and imprisoned in matter, and knowledge (gnosis) and highly ascetic practices are designed to free them and return them to their heavenly home. The movement spread widely and was strong for some centuries, being the official religion of the Uighur state in central Asia from 763 to 840. It was severely persecuted by both Christians and Muslims and died out by about the twelfth century.

The Mandaeans, located mainly in southern Iraq, are an ancient Gnostic sect, claiming John the Baptist as their prophet at least since Islamic times. They practice frequent ritual immersions (baptism).


By the seventh century most Jews lived outside the land of Israel, a situation experienced as galut (exile, alienation) and one that was to be ended only with the advent of the Messiah. In the meantime, they were to live by Torah, a term that in its narrowest sense refers to the first five books of the Bible but in its broadest sense to all authoritative teaching, and in particular by halakah, the practical part of Torah (similar to shari’a among Muslims). The main authority, apart from the Bible, was the Babylonian Talmud (completed about 700), a wide-ranging collection of laws, discussions, and commentary. The authority of the Talmud was rejected by the Karaites in the eighth century, and they became a minority sect, surviving in small numbers into modern times.

As dhimmis under Islamic rule, Jews sometimes suffered but often prospered, and many of them participated significantly in the high culture of the Islamic world. This participation included a notable philosophical movement whose greatest representative was Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides; 1135-1204), who was also physician to the vizier of Saladin, then ruler of Egypt. An esoteric mystical movement, the Kabbalah, was very influential from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Outbursts of messianic fervor occurred from time to time, of which the most tragic was that of Shabbetai Zvi (1626-1676), whose messianic pretensions ended with his conversion to Islam. By this time the cultural and religious leadership of Judaism had largely shifted to Europe.


By the seventh century much of the Middle East was ruled by the Christian Byzantine Empire, Armenia was Christian, and there were many Christians in Iran and central Asia. Most of these Christians came under Muslim rule in the seventh century, although the Byzantine Empire did not finally succumb until the fifteenth century. These areas eventually became predominantly Muslim, but Christian communities continued to exist down to the twenty-first century. Many Arab Christians are “Greek” Orthodox or Melchite, continuing the Byzantine tradition, accepting the Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds and recognizing the seven ecumenical councils, of which the last was at Nicaea in 787. The last of the great Orthodox Fathers, John of Damascus (c. 675-749), lived under Muslim rule and wrote a treatise against Islam. There are four Orthodox patriarchates in the Middle East, those of Constantinople, which has precedence of honor, Alexandria, Antioch (now based in Damascus), and Jerusalem. The latter three are mainly Arabic speaking, and that of Antioch has the largest following.

Several Middle Eastern churches rejected the Chalcedonian formula of the “two natures” of Christ, speaking rather of one “divine-human nature,” and are often called Monophysite (“one nature”). These include the Armenian and the Syrian Orthodox (Jacobite) Churches, as well as the Coptic Church of Egypt and Ethiopia. The Syrians and the Egyptian Copts suffered considerable persecution under the Byzantines and at first welcomed Muslim rule. The Syrian Church continued quite strong through the fourteenth century. The Coptic Church enshrines a strong sense of Egyptian ethnic identity and is characterized by an ascetic and monastic spirituality as well as a veneration for its ancient martyrs. In the early twenty-first century about 10 percent of Egyptians are Copts.

The Nestorian Church, also non-Chalcedonian, was particularly strong in Iraq and eastward into central Asia beyond the Muslim empire. Nestorian scholars were among the main translators of Greek philosophy into Arabic. Many of the Mongols, who devastated much of the Middle East and sacked Baghdad in 1258, were Nestorians, but after the Mongols converted to Islam at the end of the thirteenth century, the Nestorian Church declined rapidly. In the twenty-first century the small Nestorian community in Iraq calls itself “Assyrian.”

Europeans attempted to impose their form of Christianity and their rule in the Crusades, ultimately unsuccessfully and with often disastrous results for local Christians. They received support, however, from the Maronite Church of Lebanon, which dates from about the seventh century and which eventually adhered to the Roman Catholic Church, while retaining many of its distinctive practices. In recent centuries groups from other Eastern churches, known as Uniates, have also adhered to Rome while retaining many of their distinctive practices. Since the nineteenth century, Protestant missionary efforts have resulted in the establishment of small Protestant communities in many Middle Eastern countries.

Modern Developments

European imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has had a considerable effect on religion as on other aspects of life in the Middle East. For Muslims it has created a crisis that is at once spiritual and political. Muslims have tended to assume that since they had the true religion, God would grant their community material and moral success, and for a thousand years history largely supported this perception. The European success has challenged this perception, and the effort to meet this challenge has given rise to a series of reform efforts. Some seek to limit and control the influence of religion on society in order to clear the way for modernizing (effectively Westernizing) reforms, usually arguing that their reforms are consistent with a properly understood Islam. These reformers have usually adopted a nationalist ideology in which Islam may figure as a subordinate aspect. The best known of these was Atatürk, whose reforms in Turkey included an explicit rejection of shari’a law. Another radical nationalism is that of the Ba’ath Party in Syria and Iraq. This approach is called “secularism,” and many Middle Eastern governments are more or less secular. At the other extreme are those who insist on an even more stringent application of the shari’a than was generally true in earlier times and who strongly reject Western culture and values while accepting Western material technology. This position is diversely called Islamic radicalism, Islamism, or Fundamentalism. The Islamic Republic of Iran and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan are prominent but quite different examples. Osama bin Laden and those like him are exceptionally extreme Islamists.

The situation of the Jews in the Middle East changed dramatically in the course of the twentieth century, largely as a result of events in Europe. European Zionists, many of them antireligious, sought to establish a national home in what was then Ottoman-ruled Palestine. The Nazi Holocaust confirmed in many minds the necessity of this. The State of Israel was established in 1948 by European Jews, but most Middle Eastern Jews soon moved there. This has in a large degree shifted the Jewish focus back to the Middle East and shifted the image of Jews from a weak and persecuted to a strong and self-reliant people. Unfortunately the displacement of Arab Palestinians has led to continual conflict and exacerbated tensions in the area. It has increased Muslim antagonism toward Jews generally.

The situation of the smaller groups has varied considerably. Christians often welcomed and sought to benefit from European imperialism or, at least, were quicker than Muslims to take advantage of the educational opportunities offered by the missionaries and others. Traditional church leaders, however, often saw a threat in the missionaries. Arab nationalism took hold first among Christians, and Marxism has appealed more to the Christians than to the Muslims. Helped by a French connection, the Maronites have had a strong position in Lebanese politics. The esoteric groups have fared variously. The Druze have formed an effective political bloc in Lebanon and have been inclined to identify ideologically with Arab nationalism. The Alawis have accepted the Ba’ath version of Arab nationalism and have effectively been in power in Syria since about 1970. The Alevis in Turkey supported Atatürk and have inclined toward secular left-wing politics. Since the 1980s, they have staged a considerable cultural revival. Whether among secularists or Islamists, modern conditions have tended to politicize religious divisions. Virtually all of the groups here considered have experienced considerable out-migration to Western countries, and these diasporas influence the home-country groups in various ways.