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10.4: Social Institutions

  • Page ID
    104090
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    10.4: Social Institutions

    Religious Identities of the Middle East

    About 55% of the world’s population profess one of the main monotheistic faiths that are found in the Middle East (2.2 billion Christians; 1.6 billion Muslims; 14 million Jews). These faiths are referred to as “Abrahamic Religions” because they each trace their origins to the Hebrew prophet Abraham. The similarities across the Abrahamic religions and other religious groups can be attributed to shared histories, values and cultural practices. Today the Middle East is defined by conflict and antagonism, but there are many shared worldview within these religions, in addition to the differences. For instance, all of these religions consider the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to be central to their traditions and understanding of spirituality.

    Aerial view of the Temple Mount, sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Aerial view of the “Temple Mount”, sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims. (CC BY-SA 4.0; Godot13 (Andrew Shiva) via Wikimedia)

    Religion has been a powerful social force in the region because, especially in the past, religious identity has been something closer to an ethnicity in the Middle East, defining one’s cultural identity as well as one’s spirituality. There are general cultural aspects shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They each:

    • Were founded by a Semitic person or people;
    • Refer to the same God: Yahweh in Hebrew; Jehovah in English; Allah in Arabic; Khuda in Persian.
    • Use similar concepts of Justice. For example the idea that one should always consider God to be present when one is judging. Other than murder, adultery and stealing, bearing false witness was one of the most egregious crimes in the societies in which these religions originated.

    Islam and Judaism have more doctrinal similarities with each other than they have with Christianity, especially in regard to their concepts of monotheism (God being without offspring or partner – this is a specific reference to Surat al-Ikhlas of the Qur’an in Islam), their legal systems and in their rigorous restrictions on daily life and practice, such as their protocols for diet. However, unlike Judaism, both Islam and Christianity are universal religions; i.e., one needn’t be born into it to participate in the religion. The following religious comparison grid provides key areas of similarity and difference amongst them.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Abrahamic Religions Comparison Chart. (CC BY-SA 4.0; via Payind & McClimans)

    Abrahamic Religions Comparison Chart

    Belief/Practice Judaism Christianity Islam
    Concept of God, monotheism One god, considered as creator and sustainer of the universe. Worship of any additional gods is discouraged by banning images of humans and animals which could potentially be idols. One god, considered as creator and sustainer of the universe. God as cause of Mary’s immaculate conception, and “father” of Jesus. One god, considered as creator and sustainer of the universe. God possesses no partner, no offspring. Worship of any additional gods, or idols, is strictly forbidden. Worship of any additional gods is discouraged by banning images of humans and animals which could potentially be idols.
    Messengers of God/Prophets Belief in prophets of God. Belief in prophets of God. Jesus is considered the Son of God. Belief in prophets of God. Belief that Muhammad is the last of God’s prophets. Jesus is considered a prophet.
    Timing for weekly worship/community gathering. This is a day of rest, Friday evening through Saturday evening is a time of required rest from normal daily work. Synagogue services on Saturday are a time designated for community. This is a day of rest, Community worship on Sunday. It is a required day of rest from normal daily work. Friday is the day for group prayer. Work is allowed, however.
    Scripture Torah (including the Ten Commandments). Torah (including the Ten Commandments); New Testament. Torah (including the Ten Commandments); Psalms; Gospels of the Christian Bible; Qur’an
    Afterlife/eschatology Judgment Day, Hereafter Judgment Day, Hereafter, Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, Limbo Judgment Day, Hereafter
    Stories of Human Origin Adam and Eve as the first humans; the great flood; Adam and Eve as the first humans; the great flood; Adam and Eve as the first humans; the great flood;
    Alms Tithing, or giving a portion of your wealth to those in need. Tithing, or giving a portion of your ealth to those in need. Alms, or Zaka, is one of the five pillars
    Circumcision Required for males. Not required. Required for males.
    Pilgrimage Was required, until the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. not required. many pilgrimage sites, however. required to Mecca. tombs and shrines that may also pilgrimage sites.
    Ritual Use of Water Ablutions before prayer, and traditionally before entering the Temple in Jerusalem. Holy water is used before entering a church, to bless worshipers during mass, and to baptize. Ablutions are required before prayer.
    Messianic expectations The king will one day return. Jesus will return on Judgment day Shi’is expect the rightly-guided Imam, or Mahdi, to return.
    Supernatural entities Angels Angels, Satan/Lucifer Angels, Jinn, Satan, or Shaytan/Iblis
    Fasting and Dietary restrictions Fasting for Yom Kippur. Multiple restrictions and requirements for preparation, including the way to slaughter animals. No pork. Ritual use of alcohol. Fasting for lent. Eastern Orthodox Christianity requires a vegetarian diet for lent. Pork is allowed. Ritual use of alcohol. Fasting for Ramadan. Multiple restrictions and requirements for preparation, including the way to slaughter animals. No pork. No alcohol.

    Religious Diversity

    Within each of these religions there is immense diversity. For example, many do not know how diverse the state of Israel is in reality. Israeli citizens can be Jewish, Muslim, Druze or Christian. They can also be Arab, in addition to every ethnic heritage around the world. In general, Jews with European heritage are called Ashkenazi Jews, while Jews from the Middle East are called Sephardic Jews, or Mizrachim. Core tenets from the Torah are shared by all Jewish communities, but the practices surrounding them vary from community to community.

    Likewise, there is much diversity within Muslim-majority countries, and within the global Muslim population as a whole. Several communities follow religious practices which emphasize different aspects than mainstream Islam, have separated into a theology, or combine theologies with other religions:

    • ‘Alawi Shi’ism: a form of Shi’ism, but more centered on venerating ‘Ali. There are many communities in Syria and Turkey
    • The Druze Faith: Islamic foundation, but radically different practices and theology
    • The Bahai’ Faith: Related to Shi’i Islam, recognizing a prophet who came after Muhammad, however.
    • Yazidism; Combination of Islam, Zoroastrian and other traditions

    These facets of diversity show how many people of colors there are, and have been, in the Middle East, and how problematic it can be to generalize about the religious outlook of a country, or even a small area within a country. In the U.S. and other countries around the world, many Middle Eastern immigrants represent minority communities of the Middle East.

    Christian communities in Middle Eastern countries are perhaps the least represented communities in mainstream information sources. Assyrians, Armenians, Copts, and other cultural groups that are predominantly Christian, are increasingly minoritized in Muslim-majority countries while at the same time many of their communities in diaspora. Only Armenians have their own nation-state. Middle Eastern Christian communities are more prominent in the U.S., because they make up a larger percentage of the total number of individuals who have emigrated from the Middle East to the U.S., than do Muslims. Therefore, it is more likely for one to meet a Christian with Middle Eastern heritage in the U.S. than in the region. Such as the examples below.

    Photograph of Andre Agassi playing tennis.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Andre Agassi, famous American tennis player with Iranian, Assyrian, and Armenian heritage. (CC BY-SA 2.5; Akademan via Wikimedia)
    Photograph of Paula Abdul.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Paula Abdul, American singer of Syrian-Jewish descent. (CC BY-SA 3.0; Toglenn via Wikimedia)

    We go into more detail about Islam and Islamic practices because of the impact Islam has had on all members of society (including non-Muslims), and the need to correct pervasive stereotypes about Muslims.

    What is Shar'ia Law?

    Islamic law, or the shar‘ia, guides the religious practices of Muslim communities, and may also may serve as a basis for government. Shar’ia remains an important guide to daily life for many Muslims, but its legislation now resides outside of the legal system in most Muslim-majority countries, with differing levels of involvement and influence. In some cases shar‘ia has remained the state’s government and legal system, as in Saudi Arabia. In any Muslim community, however, Islam’s precepts for good conduct remain paramount. The Five Pillars provide a foundation for proper religious practice, and are as follows (in order of importance):

    1. Shahada, or Declaration of Faith;
    2. Salat, or Prayer (5 times daily);
    3. Saum, or Fasting (Especially During the Month of Ramadan);
    4. Zakat, or Alms (2.5% of one’s income should go to those in need, provided one has that much after meeting one’s own, one’s immediate family, and surrounding community needs);
    5. Ḥaj, or Pilgrimage (if one has the health and financial means, a Muslim is required to go to Mecca once in his or her lifetime, during the month of Ḥaj and perform a specific set of rituals)

    In Islam, the only requirement to become Muslim is the first pillar; which is simply to utter the Shahada, or Declaration of Faith (translation, Payind): “I bear witness that there is no God other than the one God. I bear witness that Muhammad is the servant messenger of God.”

    Image of the Shahada in Arabic Calligraphy.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Image of the Shahada in Arabic Calligraphy. (CC PDM 1.0; via Pixabay)

    Beyond the Five Pillars, however, a moral life includes principles from the Qur’an and the example set by the prophet Muhammad which provide a moral foundation for the practices and laws which are intended to guide all facets of individual lives, families and society as a whole. These principles for leading a correct life often require a moral struggle to achieve. This relates to a duty in Islam called jihad.

    The Concept of Jihad

    The meaning of jihad is struggle – it can be internal and spiritual/ moral, or external and physical/combat. Inner struggle is considered the “Greater Jihad”, or Jihad al-Akbar, due to its greater difficulty and greater importance in the life of a Muslim. Jihad al-Akbar is revered by Muslims. Jihad’s other meaning, related to war against an enemy, is the lesser jihad, or Jihad al-Asghar. This is the struggle against injustice, oppression or invasion, and it allows the use of military force. Jihad al-Asghar possesses greater renown in the West, due to three powerful factors:

    1. Jihadi extremist groups in the news,
    2. European conflicts between Europe and what they called “Islamdom”, termed “Holy War” at the time (jihad continues to be translated as “holy war” for this reason).
    3. Stereotypes of Muslims as angry and violent aggressors pervade the Western knowledge base due to this history and the reinforcement of these images through various forms of media.

    Following the 9/11 attacks in 2001 by the terrorist group Al-Qaeda, the word “jihad” has become a contentious term associated with extremists who justify their violent actions as part of a a political project, or a religious war against nonbelievers. Despite the multiple and many benevolent applications of the concept of jihad, today it is often narrowly associated with a form of holy war, or with sacrificing one’s life for the sake of God.

    Al-Qaeda (the “base” or “foundation”) is a terrorist network of Islamic extremists and Salafist jihadists (a splinter group from Sunni Islam). Islamic extremism is not the same thing as Islam. Islam, by definition, is peaceful. Al-Qaeda formed during the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989) and has had a strong presence at various times in different regions throughout the Middle East. It is connected with ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or the Islamic State, which recently controlled large areas in Iraq and Syria, but lost nearly all of its significant territory by March 2019. ISIS claimed responsibility for the Easter suicide bombings in Sri Lanka, which killed over 250 people at churches and hotels, and has also been connected with terrorist activities in Congo, the Philippines, Nigeria, Libya, and parts of Egypt. It’s important to note that Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups or splinter sects are not representative of Islam overall, just as extremist Christian terrorists such as the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh are not representative of mainstream Christian beliefs.