Religious Diversity in the Middle East, Past and Present

15785Today, we have a guest post from Lev E. Weitz, Assistant Professor of History, Director of the Islamic World Studies program at Catholic University and author of the new book Between Christ and Caliph: Law, Marriage, and Christian Community in Early Islam. Weitz's book examines the multiconfessional society of early Islam through the lens of shifting marital practices of Syriac Christian communities, arguing that these interreligious negotiations lie at the heart of the history of the medieval Islamic empire. Here, Weitz brings his insights to bear on the question of religious diversity in the Middle East, today and in centuries past. 

To many casual observers, “religious diversity” in the Middle East might appear to be little more than a cause for conflict. News over the last few years have shown us the Syrian Civil War pitting a Shiite Alawite government against the country’s Sunni majority; Sunni Gulf states aligning themselves against Shiite Iran and waging a punishing campaign against the Shiite Houthis in Yemen; and ISIS persecuting everyone, including Shiites, Yazidis, Christians, and Sunnis who don’t agree with its radical Islamism. These events, catastrophic as they have been, can give the impression that the Middle East is unalterably divided into antagonistic religious blocs, each one jockeying for power at the expense of the other. But accepting that impression as a given would be a mistake. Extraordinary religious diversity—to a degree often unimagined by contemporary audiences—has been a constant in the Middle East’s history since the coming of Islam. And while sectarian conflict is undoubtedly part of that story, the region’s societies have a much deeper pool of experiences in how they have dealt with religious diversity.

Take, for example, the seventh century, when the early followers of the Prophet Muhammad’s religious message conquered a huge swath of territory from Spain and Morocco in the west to Iran in the east. We commonly think of this moment as the origin point of what would become an Islamic world and a global Muslim community. But at the time, there were actually exceedingly few Muslims around, and the Islamic Caliphate they established was home to a vastly larger population of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and others. When the dust of conquest had settled, sectarian political conflict was hardly the most significant experience for these communities. In fact, they experienced much symbiosis with other religious groups. The Caliphate’s Muslim rulers employed non-Muslims as administrators, doctors, and court poets. In some cases, Muslims and Christians did their prayers in the same shared spaces.

We should not mistake this world for a paradise of equality. The Caliphate was an empire with a hierarchy, and Muslims were the elite. But as an empire, the Caliphate was able to accommodate the Middle East’s religiously diverse populations within its hierarchy—the Caliphate’s subjects were not equal, but they could maintain their own traditions without being forced to assimilate to one dominant nationality or religion.

The religiously diverse character of the societies of Islam continued to develop for centuries, as did the strategies with which Muslims, Christians, and Jews adapted to life next door to one another. In the eighth and ninth centuries, Baghdad became the Caliphate’s capital under the Abbasid dynasty and was probably the biggest, richest city in the world west of China. Yet even in this grand Islamic imperial capital, an acerbic commentator of the time could complain that thriving Christian communities had “covered the earth, filled the horizons, and conquered the nations in number and progeny.” Indeed, the Abbasid Middle East’s indigenous Christians, who spoked Aramaic, Arabic, and Persian, were integral to the region’s Islamic society. They filled the halls of the bureaucracies, helping to keep taxes flowing and the Caliphate’s government functioning. Christians routinely served as the most trusted physicians of caliphs and viziers.

Again, such close contacts led to a conspicuous cultural symbiosis and often surprising boundary-crossings. Christians and Jews began to write in a sophisticated Arabic to express their religious ideas—for example, often imitating Quranic and Islamic idioms. The rich Christian doctors of the caliph’s court went so far as to copy their employers’ extravagant lifestyles even in their own homes: many took multiple wives and concubines in imitation of the polygamy that was permissible for wealthy Muslim men but was supposed to be out of bounds for good Christians. Needless to say, Christian bishops did not appreciate this kind of behavior among laymen, and they tried various means to put an end to it. But the fact that Christian polygamy became a concern at all speaks to the close social integration of the adherents of many different religions under the rule of the Islamic empire.

By the Abbasid period, demographic balances throughout the Middle East had begun to change through a combination of conversion to Islam and intermarriage between Muslims and others, and it appears that sometime after 1000 the region as a whole may have become majority Muslim. Yet Christians, Jews, and others retained significant presences in cities and rural districts of Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and North Africa. The hierarchical character of medieval Islamic polities meant that these communities could face discrimination and persecution at politically fraught moments. But that arrangement still accorded non-Muslims a legitimate, if subordinate, place in the system. They were never subjected, for example, to traumas on the scale of Christian Spain’s forced conversions and expulsions of its Muslim and Jewish subjects.

This state of affairs changed considerably in the nineteenth century. Western imperialism and modern nationalism upended the region’s old hierarchies and gave new political aspirations to many constituencies who had previously been on the margins of regional politics. In many respects, sectarian conflicts in the Middle East today are more an eventual outcome of the dissolution of the region’s last Islamic empire—the Ottomans—than of the earlier history of Islamic political rule. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I and the subsequent emergence of the current political map of the Middle East, the interests of religious communities (and other social groups) could be channeled through the institutions of modern nation-states: political parties, parliament, the army, street demonstrations and revolutionary activism. Religious movements that cared to do so could acquire through these institutions a newly formal coherence as sectarian political actors, and this goes a long way toward explaining many conflicts in the region today. Such conflicts, however, should blind us neither to the many routine modes of interreligious cooperation that yet persist, nor to the deeper history of religious diversity, accommodation, and symbiosis in the Islamic Middle East.

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