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7.3: The Religious Hearths of North Africa and Southwest Asia

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    North Africa and Southwest Asia is the hearth area for several of the world’s major religions. These religions have changed the global cultural landscape, but have also led to tension and conflict throughout the region. Three religions in particular, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, trace their ancestry through the tribal patriarch Abraham, who may have lived some time in the 2nd millennium BCE.

    The oldest of these Abrahamic faiths is Judaism. Judaism is a monotheistic religion, meaning that it is defined by a belief in one god. Jews believe that Abraham established the first covenant with God. The central Jewish text, the Torah, includes a discussion of the creation of the world as well as the establishment of this covenant. The first Jewish temple, built by Solomon, was constructed in modern-day Israel around 832 BCE. The Babylonians destroyed both the city of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple in 587 BCE, and many scholars note that this event led to the creation of the written Hebrew Bible, what Christians term the Old Testament. The temple was reconstructed by Herod beginning in the 1st century BCE. However, this region has long been subject to invasion and conquest. In 70 CE, the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans. This event prompted large-scale Jewish emigration from the region.

    Both temples in Jerusalem were largely places of sacrifice and God was believed to literally dwell within the space. Thus, early Judaism was a temple-centered religion. The destruction of the Second Temple marked a distinct turning point in Jewish history between the historical Temple Judaism and modern Rabbinic Judaism. If a Jewish person is no longer defined by the sacrifices they make at the Temple, then what is it that makes someone Jewish? Rabbis and the interpretation of Jewish religious texts became centrally important to creating new ideas of Jewish identity.

    Today, there are around 14 million Jews worldwide; around 42 percent live in Israel, another 42 percent live in North America, and the rest live mostly in Europe. In addition, Judaism developed a number of different branches including

    • Orthodox, which is more traditional,
    • Reform, which is also known as Progressive Judaism,
    • Conservative, which is somewhere in the middle. Conservative is the largest branch of Judaism worldwide.
    • Millions of Jews around the world consider themselves to be unaffiliated or secular, emphasizing the ethnic and cultural values of the Jewish faith rather than the religious theology.

    Christianity is another Abrahamic, monotheistic religion. It developed from the life and teachings of Jesus, a Jewish preacher who was born in 4 BCE in Judea, located in modern-day Israel. Jesus believed that the end times were near and emphasized love as the central religious doctrine. He was crucified by the Romans around 30 CE, a method of execution typically reserved for those who challenged the established social order.

    Originally, Christianity was a sect of Judaism, but it eventually developed into its own, distinct religious tradition. A number of councils were held during the early years of Christianity to create an agreed-upon doctrine, though some of these decisions were disputed. Over the years, Christianity developed distinct branches and denominations. The first of these divisions, known as the Great Schism, came in 1054 CE and was as much a product of geography as theology. This split divided the Eastern Orthodox from the Roman Catholic churches. In 1517 CE, the German monk Martin Luther penned The Ninety-Five Theses, which criticized Roman Catholic doctrine and began the Protestant Reformation.

    Christianity is the largest religion in the world today with over 2.2 billion adherents. Although there are a wide variety of individual Christian beliefs, Christians generally view Jesus as a divine figure and believe he was resurrected following his death. Roman Catholicism remains the largest single denomination of Christianity with 1.2 billion members particularly in Brazil, North America, Western Europe, and parts of Africa and South America.

    The religion that is most characteristic of North Africa and Southwest Asia is Islam. Islam teaches in the existence of one God and emphasizes the belief in Muhammad as the last prophet. Followers of Islam are known as Muslims. Islam builds upon much of Jewish and Christian theology. Like Judaism, Islam views Abraham, Noah, Moses, and others as prophets of God. Also like Judaism, Islam has a monotheistic understanding of God; God is simply known in Islam as Allah, from the Arabic al-ilāh, meaning “the God.” Islam teaches that Jesus was a prophet. Much of the story of his death and life in the Qur’an is similar to the story in the New Testament.

    Muhammad was born in Mecca, in present-day Saudi Arabia, in 570 CE. Beginning when he was 40, Muslims believe that Muhammad began receiving revelations from God and later began preaching in his community. Muslims believe that the words of the Qur'an, the holiest book in Islam, contain the words of God as revealed to Muhammad. Qur’an literally means “the recitation” in Arabic. In 622 CE, after widespread persecution, Muhammad was forced to emigrate to Yathrib, what is now the city of Medina, Saudi Arabia. This year marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. In Yathrib, Muhammad gained converts and political authority. Eventually the Muslim forces from Yathrib conquered Mecca, where Muhammad later died in 632 CE.

    Immediately after Muhammad’s death, disagreements arose over who should succeed Muhammad as the leader of the Muslim faith. Most Muslims believed that the leader of Islam should be the person who is most qualified. Today, this group represents the Sunni branch of Islam. Others, however, believed that the only rightful leader must be a blood relative of Muhammad. This group is known as Shia, which derives from the Arabic phrase shi’atu Ali meaning “followers of Ali,” who was Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. Sunni is still the largest branch of Islam today, representing around 90 percent of adherents while Shia constitutes around 10 percent of all Muslims (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Map of Global Sunni and Shia Majorities (Derivative work from original by DinajGao, Public Domain)

    The Five Pillars of Islam form the foundation for Muslim life and practice. First, the pillar of Shahada refers to a declaration of faith. It is generally recited in Arabic but translates as ”There is no god but God (and) Muhammad is the messenger of God.” Stating this phrase with conviction is all that is required to convert to Islam. The pillar of Salat refers to prayer five times per day. When Muslims pray, they face the Kaaba in Mecca, a cubed structure that is considered to be the most sacred Muslim site in the world (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). The third pillar of Islam, Zakat, refers to the giving of alms, or charity. Muslims are required to donate 2.5 percent of all assets each year.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): The Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia (© Muhammad Mahdi Karim, Wikimedia Commons, GFDL 1.2)

    The fourth pillar, Sawm, requires Muslims to fast during the month of Ramadan. During this month, adult Muslims abstain from food, drink, and sex during daylight hours. Those who are ill, pregnant, elderly, or are otherwise unable to fast are exempt from the requirement. The month-long fast is designed to bring Muslims closer to God, but also to remind them of the feeling of hunger in the hopes that they will be mindful of those who are less fortunate throughout the rest of the year.

    Finally, the fifth pillar of Islam is hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca that is expected for all physically and financially able Muslims to complete at least once in their lifetime. During the hajj, which lasts several days, Muslims complete a series of rituals, some dating back to the time of Abraham. In 2012, a record 3.16 million pilgrims completed the hajj and crowd control has been a significant concern as the numbers of pilgrims have swelled. Since 1990, several stampedes have occurred; the deadliest was in 2015 and killed over 2,000 people.

    Islam is the majority religion in every state in this realm except for Israel. Globally, Islam has around 1.8 billion followers and is the fastest-growing of the world’s religions. Although this region is largely united by a belief in Islam, the divisions within the faith, as well as the presence of numerous minority religious groups, have often led to conflict.


    an ancient monotheistic religion founded in the Middle East that holds the Torah as its holiest religious text


    the belief in one god


    a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus


    a monotheistic religion that emphasizes the belief in Muhammad as the last prophet


    the holiest book of Islam believed to contain the words of God as recited by Muhammad, also spelled Quran or Koran


    a pilgrimage to Mecca that is expected for all physically and financially able Muslims to complete at least once in their lifetime

    7.3: The Religious Hearths of North Africa and Southwest Asia is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.