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The Question of Identity: Ethnicity, Language, Religion, and Gender

Islamic Period:  Diversity and Pluralism

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Diversity as a Virtue: Language, Ethnicity, and Religion

Oftentimes we think of the ethnic and religious diversity of the Middle East as a source of conflict. Because of its geo-strategic importance, the Middle East has been occupied by various empires that have left their cultural and linguistic marks on the region and its peoples. Nonetheless, in various periods in the Middle East's history, this ethno-linguistic richness was a source of great intellectual productivity and cultural reciprocity.


The region presents a fascinating mélange of languages: Semitic (Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew), Indo-European (Persian, Kurdish), Turkic, and Afro-Asiatic (Berber). The three dominant languages in the Middle East are Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. Many Middle Eastern elites, however, were, and continue to be, bi- and trilingual. Arabic is the language of the Qur'an and the Shari‘a, and consequently, many non-Arab Muslims have learned to read and write in Arabic. Ottoman elites mastered Ottoman-Turkish, Persian, and Arabic, while Arabs living under Ottoman rule learned Turkish, the language of the administration and the bureaucracy. Religious minorities, especially Jews and Christians, often wrote and spoke in two different languages. For example, Jewish elites living under Muslim-Arab rule spoke in Arabic, read their holy scripture in Hebrew and Aramaic, and wrote in Hebrew, Arabic, and in a special script known as Judeo-Arabic, (Arabic written in Hebrew characters). Judeo-Persian (Persian written in the Hebrew script) developed along similar lines. Today, many Middle Easterners speak one or two European languages because of globalization and modern education. In addition to written Arabic (fusha), local Arabic dialects, spoken in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and North Africa differ from each other to various degrees. Nonetheless, all literate Arabs are able to read and write in the written language. In the modern age with modern media, the cinema, in which dialogue is often spoken in the colloquial, has familiarized Arabs with the dialects of other Arab states. The division of Kurdish speaking peoples between Iran, Turkey, and Iraq has likewise created a variety of dialects within the Kurdish language.

Cradle of Monotheism

Considered the cradle of monotheism, the Middle East includes sites sacred to Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The Jewish religion emerged in the regions that form present-day Israel, as well as in present-day Iraq, whose Jewish religious schools contributed much to the formation of the Talmud, and in Alexandria. Christianity was born and propagated in the Middle East. Intense debates regarding Christian thought, theology, and law intensified after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Disputes regarding the human and divine nature of Christ (especially around 449-451 CE) generated splits within which resulted in the rise of the Coptic Church in Egypt and the independent Armenian Church, among others. The division between Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity (1054 CE) created further schisms; most of the Arab Christians remained Christian Orthodox, but splinter groups within Eastern Christianity accepted Papal authority. Since the eighteenth century, missionary activities of both Catholics and Protestants changed the dynamics of Christian communities in the region.

Founding Islam

A key event in the region's history was the foundation of the Islamic state in seventh century CE Arabia. The occupation of the Middle East by the Arab-Islamic state led to the Islamization and Arabization of the Middle East. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad (632 CE), other groups in the Islamic state rejected the claim of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, to rule the community. The faction [shi‘a] that supported ‘Ali gradually developed into a sect that believed that the leadership of the Islamic community should be reserved to 'Ali and his decedents, the imams. Most Shi‘is believe that the community was led by twelve imams, the last of whom disappeared around 873-874 and will return at the end of time to salvage the Shi'i community. Other Shi‘i groups (the Isma‘ilis, the Zaydis, and the Druze) subscribe to different lineages of imamate leadership. The majority of Muslim believers in the Middle East are Sunnis, but important communities of Shi‘is were founded in Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Lebanon. Shi‘i states were formed in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The Safavid state, established in the sixteenth century in present-day Iran, marked the appearance of the most important Shi‘i political entity in the Middle East.   

Conflict and Mutual Influence

The fact that so many religious traditions came into being in the same region does not entail only conflict, but also mutual influence. Each group had to counter claims by other religious groups, while conversion and trade established important inter-religious connections. The Islamic faith recognizes the Bible and the prophets of Judaism and Christianity. The influence of Greek philosophy and neo-Platonism is evident in the thought of all three religions. Medieval Jewish philosophy, for example, was highly influenced by Muslim thinkers and philosophers.

The preservation of the region's linguistic and cultural identities was due, in part, to its topography, in which mountainous areas enabled ethnic, linguistic, and religious communities to preserve their distinctiveness: the Druze in Lebanon, the Kurds in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, and the Aramaic-Speaking minorities in Syria all live in mountainous regions. The Islamic religion acknowledges the rights of Jews and Christians, who are characterized as “The People of the Book.” They enjoyed freedom of faith, as well as religious and cultural autonomy, and gained the protection of the state. They had to acknowledge the sovereignty of the Islamic state and to pay an additional tax, but conversion was rarely enforced upon them. The Ottoman Empire, a multinational and multiethnic state, usually respected the religious rights of minorities under these conditions. In addition, despite the fact that the Qur'an is written in Arabic, ethnicity should not be considered as a marker of religiosity. In Islam, religious devotion, rather than one's ethnic origins, ought to signify the individual's belonging to the community and his or her commitment to its tenets.

Clashes between sects and religious rebellions occurred from the early stages of the Islamic state, while the Sunni-Shi‘i fraction was translated into the rivalry between the Ottoman and Safavid empires. Major changes with respect to the question of identity occurred in the modern period because of colonialism and nationalism. The spread of colonialism meant intensified missionary and trading activities. Furthermore, the colonial powers sought to establish their control in the region by protecting the rights of Christian minorities; the French identified with the Catholic churches, the Russian with the Greek Orthodox and the Armenians, and the British with the Protestants. The fact that certain minority communities were integrated into trade with Europe upped their socioeconomic status and exposed them to European languages. On the other hand, it sometimes cast a doubt on their loyalty to their state.

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