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Religious minorities in the Middle East

The Middle East has been the crossroads between the great cultures of Africa, Europe and Asia for almost 5,000 years. Nowhere else on the planet do three continents come together in a way that people can easily pass from one to the other on foot. Throughout the ages, explorers, refugees, traders, soldiers and missionaries have passed back and forth.

With the domestication of the camel in the second millennium B.C., trade between the great centers of Africa, China, Europe, India and the Middle East brought goods from all over the known world to peoples of many different cultures. It was not only material goods, however, that moved between these great cultures. Ideas and beliefs also passed along with the bolts of silk, the bundles of spices and the exotic furs and precious metals.

The Middle East is also the birthplace of three great religions that proclaim belief in one God — the great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Two of these religions, Christianity and Islam, are religions with a sense of mission. Since the earliest days of Christianity and Islam, Christians and Muslims have felt impelled to go out and spread the message of their faith. These faiths were geographically placed to spread outwards from the Middle East to the farthest reaches of the then–known world.

Both Christianity and Islam enjoyed success initially in the region of their birth. Within four centuries of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, Christianity had become the religion of the entire Mediterranean world and the Middle East up to the borders of the Persian Empire. Monks from the Middle East were missionaries in India and China before some parts of Germany and Scandinavia became Christian.

With the death of Muhammad in 632, Islam began to spread with amazing speed through the countries where Christianity had become established. Within a few centuries, Islam had replaced Christianity as the dominant religion in the Middle East.

Though Christians continue to exist in the Middle East, they comprise a small minority in all countries except Lebanon. They make up no more than ten percent of the populations of Egypt and Syria and considerably less elsewhere in the region. Because Christians, when taken together, constitute the largest single religious minority in the Middle East, it is erroneously thought they are the only religious minority.

Other factors have also colored the impressions that people in the West have of the Middle East. The back–and–forth struggles between Islam and Christianity over almost 15 centuries have led many in the West to believe that the Middle East is entirely Muslim and many in the Middle East to believe that the West is entirely Christian.

The reality is, in fact, far more complex — and interesting. The religious landscape of the Middle East reflects the history and geography of the region. All the ideas, beliefs and traditions that have passed through the region have left behind small — sometimes tiny — communities that cling to beliefs more ancient than Christianity or Islam, all of which are different from “standard” Christianity and Islam.

Like the limbs of a giant tree, some of the religions of the Middle East branch out from older religious traditions, while other religions are unique and not directly related to any of the other religions of the region. Over the centuries, these religions have interacted with each other locally and some have taken over characteristics of the other while maintaining their own identity. This is sometimes referred to, rightly or wrongly, as syncretism.

Numbers are important in the Middle East. Numbers give people power or take power away. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to get exact numbers of the adherents of the different faith groups that will appear below. Some of the reasons for imprecision are: (1) the group’s geographical isolation; (2) political issues; (3) group secrecy. Despite these uncertainties, the numbers used are drawn from the best estimates available.

Several groups trace their roots in one form or another to Islam. The largest division in Islam is between the Sunnis, who comprise about 85 percent of world Muslims, and the Shiites, who comprise about 15 percent. Relations between Sunni and Shiite Muslims vary from tolerance to open hostility depending on the location.

Among Shiites, there are further divisions.

Isma’ilis follow a form of Shiite Islam that traces its ancestry back to the seventh imam. Isma’ilis can be found in India; Pakistan, where they are under considerable pressure; and North America. They are perhaps best known as followers of the agha khan. Estimates on the number of Isama’ilis vary widely with numbers as low as 3 million and as high as 15 million.

Zaydis are another minority within the Shiite community. Found mostly in Yemen, where they constitute 25 percent of the total population, Zaydis are considered “moderate” Shiites because their beliefs come closest to those of the Sunni majority. It is estimated that there are about five million Zaydis.

However, there are other groups who, while “related” to Islam, are almost universally considered heterodox by Muslims.

The Alawis are a religious minority that has been in the news recently because Hafez al–Assad, the late Syrian president, and his son Bashar al–Assad belong to this religion. Alawis are also known as Nusayris, after Muhammad ibn Nusayr, one of the founders of the movement. They can be found in Lebanon, Syria and Turkey and estimates are that they number between 1.5 and 2.5 million faithful.

Though most Sunni and Shiite Muslims consider Alawis infidels, recent attempts have been made to draw them within the fold of orthodox Shiite Islam. In 1973, 80 Alawi leaders claimed allegiance with Twelver Shiite Islam, the form of Shiite Islam in Iran and Lebanon. Musa al–Sadr, the charismatic Lebanese Shiite leader, included the Alawis in the Shiite Council.

The future status of the Alawis, especially in Syria, is an open question. Demographically, they are the second largest religious group in Syria after the Sunnis. The government of Syria remains in the hands of the Alawi al–Assad family, which has done everything to strengthen the community’s position in the country. However, with the advent of the Arab Awakening, the present Syrian government is under attack and it is not likely that the community will maintain its privileged standing if President Bashar al–Assad and his government should fall. There are concerns that a Sunni–Alawi civil war with persecutions will break out if violence escalates. So much is in flux and the situation is so complicated that this must be considered merely conjecture.

The Druze represent a religious minority that was for the most part unknown in the West until the civil war in Lebanon. Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land sometimes encounter Druze, whose religion is not Jewish, Christian or Muslim.

Found in Israel, Lebanon and Syria, the Druze form a self–enclosed minority of about a quarter of a million people. Druze neither accept converts nor recognize converts from their tradition. Intermarriage between Druze and non–Druze is strictly forbidden.

Though fairly secretive, it is known that Druze consider themselves monotheists who believe in the one God. Al–Hakim, the sixth Fatimid (Shiite) Caliph of Egypt (996–1021), an eccentric figure who disappeared into the desert one night, plays a quasi–divine salvific role among Druze. Also, unlike orthodox Christians and Muslims, Druze believe in the transmigration of souls. Believers are divided into the elites who have access to a “wisdom” that is secret even to other Druze who are not members of the elite.

Mandaeans are another religious minority. Until the U.S.–led invasion of Iraq in 2003, most Mandaeans lived in southern Iraq. Numbering between 60,000 and 70,000, many since have been displaced from their homeland.

Mandaeanism is part of the great Gnostic tradition that struggled with Christianity in the early centuries of the Christian era. Though it rejects Jesus, it traces its ancestry to John the Baptist, a belief reflected in its frequent use of baptism for purification. For Mandaeans as for most Gnostics, salvation is obtained through the salvific knowledge of the origin of the soul.

Historically, Mandaeans have been hostile toward Christians and Jews. However, because they have a sacred text — the Ginza — and a prophet in John the Baptist, they have been treated by Muslims as one of the People of the Book and, until recently, left in peace to practice their faith.

Zoroastrians, or Parsis, are the spiritual descendants of Zoroaster, the sixth–century B.C. Persian prophet and reformer. Until the Muslims conquered the Persian Empire in the seventh century, Zoroastrianism was the official religion of Persia.

Though monotheists, Zoroastrians believe in a divine principle of good — emanating from Ahura Mazda (“wise lord”) — and a principle of evil, which is traced to free will at the beginning of creation. Good and evil struggle throughout history.

Muslim persecution in the eighth through the tenth centuries led to a large migration of Zoroastrians from Persia to India, where in Mumbai today there is a significant community. Small Zoroastrian communities can be found today in the Middle East, Europe, North America and Australia. Scholars believe that there are between 145,000 and 210,000 Zoroastrians in the world.

The Yazidis constitute one of the smallest and most interesting religious minorities in the Middle East. It is estimated that there are less than 100,000 of them living in parts of Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Syria. They believe that they are not descended from the biblical Eve and, hence, hold themselves apart from non–believers.

Though they believe in one God, that deity is not interested in the running of the cosmos. That task has been handed over to Mal’ak Tus (“peacock angel”), who together with six other angels manages creation.

Yazidis do not believe in the existence of evil but believe that purification occurs through the transmigration of souls, similar to what is believed in the religions of India. Influences of Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam can be found in the practices of the Yazidis.

Just beyond the borders of what is, strictly speaking, the Middle East, two modern religious movements arose from within Islam. They are included here because they continue to play a role in the Muslim world, including the Middle East as understood in the rest of the article.

The Ahmadiya movement began in India toward the end of the 19th century. Mirza Gulam Ahmad, a Sunni Muslim, claimed to be the Mujaddid (“renewer”) whom Muslims believe comes to restore Islam in an age when it has become lax. Likewise, he declared himself to be the Mahdi, the eschatological leader who ushers in the end times. It was Ahmad’s declared task to revive the true and pristinely peaceful Islam. He rejected any violent notion of jihad and called upon Muslims to follow a new way of peace.

The movement he started divided into two schools. One school, the Lahore Ahmadiya, follows a more orthodox Sunni position and holds that there is no prophet after Muhammad. The larger school, the Ahmadiya, claims tens of millions of followers around the world and holds that Mirza Gulam Ahmad was a non–lawgiving prophet.

Ahmadiya has been legally declared heretical and non–Islamic in Pakistan and the followers of the movement labor under considerable restraints and discrimination. Though Ahmadiyas are found all over the world, they are coming under increasing pressure in Muslim countries with growing fundamentalist factions.

At about the same time that the Ahmadiya were starting in India, the Baha’i movement was beginning in Shiite Persia.

Syed Ali Muhammad of Shiraz declared himself the “Bab” (“gate”) and later the awaited Mahdi, the previously mentioned pivotal figure of the end times in Shiite Islam. Ali Muhammad was executed in 1850 and succeeded by Mirza Hussein Ali Nuri, who took the title Baha’u’llah (“glory of God”).

The teachings of the Bab and Baha’u’llah present God as one and totally transcendent. Human beings cannot know God directly and so there is a type of progressive revelation, one building upon the other. Baha’is tend to see validity in most religions, which they see as progressive dispensations or manifestations of the utterly transcendent one God.

Baha’is number between five and six million throughout the world and can be found on every continent. In Muslim countries, they are considered non–believers and in Iran they are severely persecuted. Baha’is have major shrines in Haifa, Israel, and Chicago, Illinois.

The Middle Eastern landscape has many different religious minorities. As a minority in religiously non–pluralistic and often authoritarian societies, religious minorities are always in a precarious situation.

Some minorities such as the Druze and Yazidis keep themselves isolated from the overall population and have little interaction with the dominant society. Other minorities such as Christians and Alawites have a more visible presence, the latter holding political power in Syria.

A more recent phenomenon has made the situation of religious minorities in the Middle East even more precarious — Islamic extremism.

For most of its history, Islam has been relatively tolerant of religious minorities in its midst. Some minorities were simply ignored and others were positively engaged.

In the 20th century, Islam began to experience the emergence of puritanical, extremist movements. These movements are often led by people with little or no religious credentials and who depend on volume and violence to advance their cause of a “pure Islam.”

The practice of takfir, or declaring others — mostly other Muslims — to be infidels, has introduced a new climate of intolerance into the Muslim community. Where fundamentalist movements are ascendant, all are in danger. The first targets of Muslim extremism are other Muslims, who do not follow what they consider a “pure” form of Islam. Ultimately, all who are religiously different are targets for violence, expulsion and forced conversions.

Most if not all religious minorities in the Middle East are under tremendous pressure somewhere in the region. It remains to be seen whether the Arab Awakening will result in greater freedom and tolerance for religious minorities or increased discrimination and persecution.

Rev. Dr. Elias D. Mallon is CNEWA’s education and interreligious affairs officer. He holds a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Languages and a Licentiate Degree in Old Testament Studies from the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.

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