Religion in the Middle East Essay

Religion in the Middle East

Introduction

            There is a well-known story, dating back to the early days of the Arab-Israel conflict, about an American representative at the United Nations who found himself involved in a more than usually acrimonious argument between the spokesmen of the two sides. Forgetting for a moment where he was and to whom he was speaking, he urged the Arabs and Israelis to settle their quarrels like Christians. A less frequently cited addendum explains that this is precisely what they have been doing ever since. The more difficult term “Middle East” is correspondingly defined as the area where the three religions meet. Ever since the Muslim Arab conquests the gross divisions of Middle Eastern society have been recognized as lying between the Muslims (those who claim that they submit to the full revelation of God through the Qur’an) and the ‘People of the Book’ (that is, in Muslim eyes, those who have accepted part of God’s self-revelation but corrupted it in one way or another – the Jews by confining God’s love and mercy to themselves; the Christians by behaving towards Jesus, son of Mary, as if he were Son of God). Further subdivision is based upon specific patterns of belief and practice. All these facts indicate that Middle East is a truly unique and as historical events show dangerous mix of religious views and beliefs and complex politics on religious traditions and religiosity.

Religion: State Assessments

            The level of religion within a particular state is sometimes difficult to determine. This is especially true in a region as diverse as the Middle East, because of the many different factors which come into play. Within the region as a whole, a Sunni Islamic majority predominates: of the 18 states considered among scholars, 15 boast nominally Sunni Islamic populations of 70% or more (Von der Mehden, 1993). World-wide the population of Sunni Muslims makes up 83 % of the almost 1.1 billion Muslims around the world (Von der Mehden, 1993). The differences between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims are exceptionally pronounced and greatly exacerbated by the extreme nationalism which seemingly pervades many of the states in the region. The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) was fought largely on this basis, although it is true that both have considerably large Shi’ite populations. Many other factors also contribute to the region’s diversity: relative wealth and status of some of the countries, dictatorial leadership and oil reserves, among other things.

            Both Israel and Lebanon break the above mould, strictly on the basis of their sizeable non-Muslim populations. When Israel was granted statehood in 1948, it was created in order to provide a homeland for Jewish people after the atrocities which they had suffered during the Second World War. The state of Israel was erected in the territory which formerly had been the State of Palestine. Within the Muslim world, this was seen as a horrible affront, and since that time, the Palestinian population, now residing in Israel, has continued to fight for land claims recognition and citizenship status, among other things. This rift of religions has pitted Jew against Muslim in many confrontations, notably the Arab-Israeli wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973. As a result, religious differences are very near to the hearts and consciousness of virtually all citizens of the region, and threaten to erupt at any time into a bitter showdown.

            Lebanon, like Israel in terms of state of religion is anomalous. However, unlike Israel, this anomaly is low religiosity. The Lebanese Parliament has equal representation among Christian and Muslim representatives. Freedom of religion is unequivocally guaranteed, a right which is also guaranteed in practice (Lewis, 2004). There is no official state religion in Lebanon. This is so because of the religious split among the population; 30% of me population are Coptic Christian and 70% are Muslim, with representation of both Shi’ite and Sunni sects, although Sunni largely predominates (Lewis, 2004:115).

            Syria is the other country which is also considered a country with low religiosity among other Middle East countries. Freedom of religion is guaranteed and this is respected in practice by the Government. There is no official state religion, and the percentage of religious majority within the state is relatively low 74% (Sivan, 1990). Bahrain is more firmly ensconced in the middle category in terms of state of religion. While the Government readily endorses freedom of religion, a fact which is carried out in practice, the official state religion is Islam. The Government meets regularly with Christian and other leaders, and religious materials from many denominations are readily available, although anti-Islamic writings are prohibited. The legal system in Bahrain is a mixed system, with some reference made to both Shari’a and to secular legislation, and there is also an independent working judicial system run by secular interests (Kostiner, 2000). Only 70% of the population is active in me Shi’a Muslim faith, which makes up the largest percentage of the population in terms of religious groups. Similarly to Bahrain, Kuwait guarantees freedom of religion, and tolerates other religions. Kuwait’s Constitution states that: all people are equal in… public rights and duties before the law, without distinction as to… religion [and] freedom of belief is absolute (Kostiner, 2000:108). The State protects the freedom to practice religion in accordance with established customs, provided that it does not conflict with public policy or morals. 55% of the country’s population is Sunni Muslim, including the ruling family; 30% of the population belongs to the Shi’a Muslim sect. The laws of the country and the court system are based on a mixture of both Shari’a and secular laws (Kostiner, 2000).

            Oman reaffirmed Islam as the official state religion in its basic law. The basic law also states that Shari’a forms the basis of all legislation, and also that a mixed system of Shari’a and secular courts will form the basis of the legal system. The government legislates against discrirnination on the basis of religion and, in practice, mose of other religions are free to practice their own beliefs, although they are not allowed to gather publicly or to publish religious materials, among other things. Sunni Islam is the religion of more than 75% of the population.

            The Egyptian case is similar to that of Bahrain, in that the majority of the indicators signify moderate religiosity. While the Constitution grants “freedom of belief and the practice of religious rites,” this right is seriously restricted in practice by the Government and its various agencies. Recent reports have pointed to cases of blatant disregard for and violent discrimination against recently converted Christians, mostly of the Coptic Orthodox Church (Chelkowski et al, 1998). The official religion of me state is Islam, which serves also as the legislative basis of the state, although the court system remains secular.

            Israel is the most dissimilar of all of the countries of the Middle East. Its population is 82% Jewish, the majority of which are orthodox to ultra-orthodox, and the official state religion is Judaism. Freedom of religion is guaranteed under the law and this right is more or less respected in practice, although there are massive amounts of discrimination perpetrated against the Palestinian minority, the population of which is Sunni Muslim. The courts and laws are represented by a parallel system of religious and secular structures, and citizens of Israel may select, in many cases, whichever they prefer. There is, however, a differentiation between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. These differences are becoming more and more accepted by Jewish minoroties, seen, for example, in that secular burials and cemeteries are being allowed and secular weddings, which must be conducted abroad, are now being recognized (Von der Mehden, 1993).

            The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is another country which shows moderate levels of religiosity. Its population is 92% Sunni Muslim and the state religion is Islam. Freedom of religion is guaranteed under the Constitution, which forbids religious discrimination. The Government, for its part, does not prohibit any other worship, and tolerates all other religions. Within the Kingdom, mere exists a mixed system of Shari’a and secular courts and laws, although the Government does not fully comply with Shari’a law.

            In Libya 97% of the population is Sunni Muslim. Under Qadhafi’s direction, the Islamic Call Society (ICS) was established to control and disseminate “state-approved” religion, among other things; this takes the place of an official state declaration of religion. There is no official freedom of religion, and those teaching Islam which is not approved by the government are banned (Kostiner, 2000). However, minority religions do exist without official sanction. There is no enforced adherence to Shari’a, almough religious law is used as a tool to legitimize actions of the Qadhafi government.

            On the opposite, Iraq is mostly a highly religious state. The official religion of Iraq is Islam, and 65 % of the population is Shi’a Muslim Arab, although there is a Sunni Muslim Arab minority comprised of approximately 35% of the population. Virtually the entire population of the state is Arab. The major difference between the Shi ‘ites of Iran and the Shi’ites of Iraq is their bloodlines; Iraqis are Arab, while Iranians are not (Monshipouri, 1998). There is no official freedom of religion and other religions are not tolerated in practice, including Shi’a Muslim customs. The courts, not tied religiously, are inextricably bound to the presidency; instead of religious legitimization, as in Iran, Iraq’s regime used to be legitimized by strong military ties. The United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven Emirates, is an interesting case in that each of the Emirates has separate laws and customs, and so virtually nothing in this regard is consistent. Islam is the official religion throughout. 99% of the population is Sunni Muslim, and the balance of the population is Shi’a Muslim (Kostiner, 2000). Officially, there is freedom of religion, but in practice, other religions are forced to curtail some of their activities. There are both Shari’a and secular courts within the Emirates.

            One often thinks of Iran as being perhaps the most repressive regime, in terms of religion and practices affected by religion, of the Middle East. In fact, this is perhaps the case. The population of Iran is 95% Shi’a Muslim, with the majority of the remaining 5% being Sunni Muslim (Monshipouri, 1998). Islam is the official religion of me state. There is no official freedom of religion, and, in practice, religions other than Shi’a or Sunni Islam are not well tolerated, although Christians, Jews and Zoroastrianists are regularly elected to special reserved seats in the Parliament (Monshipouri, 1998). Special schools run by these minority religions are frequently intruded upon. Many of the top government officials, Iran’s supreme leader Ali Hoseyni Kh?mene’i are actually Shi’a clergy, making separation of church and state almost non-existent. Iran is, indeed, a case of high religiosity.

            In Saudi Arabia there is absolutely no freedom of religion. Islam is the official religion of the state, and its population is 100% Sunni Muslim (Ayubi, 1991). Generally, all of the Muslim activity within the state is of the Wahabbi variety, a strict and conservative group. Other religions are not tolerated, and those of other religions are, in fact, punished. The only law within the state is Shari’a law. Saudi Arabia therefore has perhaps the highest level of religiosity of any of the states of the Middle East. As revealed in the analysis, the breakdown of states is not truly surprising. The states which are traditionally associated with high religious intensity are Iran and Saudi Arabia, and both have been shown to have extremely high levels of religiosity.

Religious Hegemony of Islam in the Middle East

            During the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, the Islam hegemony took a number of forms. At the beginning of the century, the major intellectual tone was one of Islamic modernism. Gradually, however, as nationalist movements gained strength, a more secularist orientation emerged. In the Arab East, this secularism did not represent a rejection of Islam so much as a reinterpretation of Islam’s role in modernizing societies. This secularism “believed that society and religion both prospered best when the civil authority was separate from the religious, and when the former acted in accordance with the needs of human welfare in this world” (Kirk & Frederick, 1955:18). This was an adaptationism with an individualist tone, and at times, the implicit individualist style of earlier Sufi thought helped to shape the views of these thinkers.

            The history of the Islamic community is a dynamic part of the Islamic experience. The early and continuing success of Islam provided a confirmation for Muslims of the message of the revelation, and the starting point for an understanding of Islam in the modern world must be the historical experience of the ummah (the Muslim community). The long interaction between changing conditions and the permanently established Quranic message has set patterns and ideals, and an analysis of the continuing effectiveness of that interaction is a necessary foundation for an understanding of Islam in the contemporary world.

            The Islamic dimension involves the complex and rich heritage of the Islamic community. There are many significant elements which can be viewed in terms of three general themes: the historical development of the community, the common elements of the continuity of the Islamic experience, and the basic elements of diversity within the Islamic community.

            The heart of the Islamic faith is the belief in one God who is directly involved in the affairs of humanity. God is seen as requiring submission to His will and as having made that will known to humanity through revelations to a series of prophets. For Muslims, the final and complete form of those revelations was given to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century (Poliakov et al, 1992). It is carefully recorded in the Quran and is the foundation of Islam. Muslims, then, are those people who accept the unique oneness of God and recognize that Muhammad was the messenger of God.

            This simple foundation for faith and experience has significance for all aspects of life. The revelation did not just define a creed or a set of beliefs; it set forth the basic blueprint by which humanity should live. In this way, the Quran is the foundation for the ideal society, which Muslims believe will result from submission to God and His will. To be a Muslim is not simply a matter of individual belief; it means participating in the effort to implement God’s will on earth. As one modern Muslim explains it, “Islam teaches not only that the realization of the good is possible in this world but that to bring it about here and now is precisely the duty of every man and woman” (Makdisi, 1997:33). In the broadest sense, the Islamic community is that community which works to implement God’s will as defined in the Quiran here on earth in the contexts of history and society.

            The ideals and organizations of the majority of Muslims fit within the broad patterns of Sunni Islam. However, within these boundaries there is great scope for diversity of approach and emphasis. Even on the basic question of the meaning of the oneness of God, differing aspects of the divine are emphasized by different Sunni groups. Two poles of the interpretive spectrum are emphasis on the immanence of God and emphasis on God’s transcendence. Although no Muslim loses all sense of either aspect of God, there is a tendency to focus on one or the other. The Sufi traditions concentrate on the closeness of God to the individual believer and the legalistic ulama place greater weight on divine transcendence. Within the Sunni community, when Sufism has moved in the direction of a more overt pantheism, there has been resistance, just as extreme legalism has often aroused a more mystical response. A similar diversity can be seen in approaches to Quranic interpretation.

            The life of Muhammad has received great attention in the Sunni tradition. Major efforts to collect the Traditions of the Prophet culminated in the ninth century when six great collections of hadiths were compiled and came to be accepted as the standard body of the Traditions. However, these collections are not canonical and their authority comes from a flexible consensus in the community rather than an official institutional validation.

The information provided by the records of the early community is the basis for the Sunni definition of the just society. The early community is accepted by Sunni Muslims as being a special example of the way the ummah should be, and later Sunni revivalists have modeled their actions on those of the salaf (“pious ancestors”). This community provides a relatively concrete basis for the ideal even though great diversity in interpreting the experience is possible.

            Sunni Muslims are in full agreement that the message of unity provides the foundation lot social integration and that this means that the legal basis for society is Islam. However, as the Islamic legal system evolved, a number of accepted schools emerged rather than one single, authoritative statement of the law. By the time of the rule by sultans, four Sunni schools of law (madhhabs) had come to be accepted as equally authoritative, despite the disagreements among them. These schools are not separate “sects” or “denominations,” but, rather, emphasize different moods and techniques of law and interpretation.

            Each school starts from the bases of the Quran and the Traditions. The Hanafi school traces its development back to Abu Hanifa (d. 767), and gives some emphasis to personal reasoning and free judgment in legal interpretation (Sivan, 1990). Because of its relative flexibility, it became the school of a number of major states and was officially recognized by the Ottoman and Moghul rulers. It is thus widespread in the central and eastern parts of the Islamic world. The Maliki school, which traces back to Malik ibn Anas (d. 795), places greater stress on using the Traditions as a basis for legal interpretation and is more conservative in mood (Sivan, 1990). It became the dominant school in much of Islamic Africa. Muhammad al-Shafi’i (d. 820), the founder of the Shafi’i school, developed a more formal science of jurisprudence, which characterizes his school, by combining a strict usage of Traditions with a formal methodology of analogical analysis (Sivan, 1990). This school became important in the Arabic-speaking areas of the eastern Mediterranean. The fourth school is the Hanbali. It is the most strict in its insistence upon an adherence to the specific terms of the Quran and the Traditions, and it allows very little scope for individual reasoning or analogy. This school has often been associated with fundamentalism and is currently dominant in Saudi Arabia. The law schools reflect the fact that Sunni Islam is not monolithic. It is the product of diversity developing within the framework of the great common themes of Islam.

            The major division within Islam is between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites. At the heart of the split is disagreement over the nature of the ummah and the full meaning of the revelation. The Sunni majority tradition has the authority of being confirmed by the historical experience of the community, while the Shi’i Islamic tradition has often been at odds with the actual historical experience. The Shi’i tradition developed as an alternative vision and, in the days of the caliphs, presented a basis for opposition to the emerging Sunni political and social establishments. When Abbasid unity crumbled in the tenth century, successful Shi’i movements built the large Fatimid empire in Egypt and north Africa and a number of smaller states. However, the firm establishment of the sultanate system was accompanied by a reassertion of Sunni dominance in most of the Islamic world.

            In the framework of the great common themes, the Shi’ites tend to emphasize the immanent aspects of the divine, especially in terms of leadership for the community as being centered in the figure of the Imam. In the Shi’ite view, Muhammad did designate a successor and that person was Ali. The validity of the succession of the first three caliphs was denied, and the community is believed to have been in error. The importance of a designated successor or Imam was explained in terms of the continuing human need for guidance in understanding and applying the revelation. “The interpretation of the divine revelation by the Imam . . . was regarded as the right guidance needed by the people at all times (Peretz, 2004:51).

            For most Shi’ites, there was a line of twelve Imams who provided this guidance, even though none of the Imams gained significant political power. In the tenth century, this “Twelve-Imam Shi’ism,” or Imami Shi’ism believes that the twelfth Imam in the line was taken into divinely sheltered seclusion and will return to visible leadership of humanity at some future date as a Mahdi or messianic guide.

            Diversity within Shi’ism comes over the identification of the authority of specific Imams. One group associates itself with Zayd ibn Ali, who led a revolt in 740. Among the Zaydi Shi’ites, the Imam is any member of the house of the Prophet who rises against the illegitimate rulers of an age. This tradition became established in Yemen. Another group takes as its starting point the claim of a person called Isma’il to be the legitimate seventh Imam. The Isma’ilis maintained a more revolutionary mode as the majority of the Shi’ites became more politically passive in later Abbasid times.

            Significant numbers of Imami Shi’ites are in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, and they are the dominant majority in Iran. This dominance began when the Safavid state established Imami Shi’ism as the official religion of the Iranian state in the sixteenth century. By Safavid times, Imami basic positions had become carefully articulated. The Ja’fari school of law, whose origins are identified with the sixth Imam, Ja’far al-Sadiq, provides the basic structure for jurisprudence and differs little from the Sunni schools except in the issue of the Imamate and the choice of authentic traditions. In the area of political theory and community guidance, it was clear that “pending the return of the Hidden Imam, the possibility of absolute claim to political power (qudra) and authority (wilaya) resembling that of the Imam himself was ruled out (Poliakov et al, 1992: 60-61).  In this situation, Imami Shi’ites accepted the idea that there are religious teachers whose piety and knowledge render them capable of independent interpretive judgment in matters of faith. These people are called mujtahids, that is, people who can exercise ijtihad (“independent judgment”) (Poliakov et al, 1992). It came to be accepted that in the absence of the Imam, people needed to follow the guidance of a living mujtahid.

            Developments in the Safavid state reflect the broader trends of the time in the Islamic world. Early Safavid rulers created a relatively flexible state system, culminating with the rule of Shah Abbas (r. 1587-1629) (Sivan, 1990). However, by the mid-seventeenth century, the Shi’i ulama were asserting their own position as guides for the community and at the end of the century one of the major mujtahids, Muhammad Baqir al-Majlisi, compiled a comprehensive exposition of Imami Shi’ism in strict and uncompromising terms. In the following years, as the Safavid state itself collapsed, the religious scene was dominated by a tension between two schools of thought: the Usuli, which utilized a more flexible methodology that relied on reasoned opinion and analogy, and the Akhbari, which was more fundamentalist in tone.

References

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