Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Minority Religions in the Middle East: 1250-1920

Minority Religions in the Middle East: 1250-1920
Copyright © 2012 SAGE Publications. Not for sale, reproduction, or distribution.

Beginning in the late 7th century, Arab Muslims expanded their rule across the vast territory that spanned from Spain in the west to India in the east. Because of a general Muslim policy of tolerance toward subject populations, it was only by the middle of the 13th century that the majority of people in the Middle East had become Muslim. Therefore, large communities of religious minorities, most importantly Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, still existed in the Middle East. Throughout the premodern history of the Middle East, religion was the primary identity marker. For most communities, it was at least as important as family, clan, and even gender. Generally, non-Muslims were protected, independent minorities under Muslim rule, yet they were also second-class citizens and at times suffered harsh persecution. On the whole, religious minorities in the Middle East fared better than those in premodern Europe.


In the 13th century, the Mongols (who were mostly Shamanist or Buddhist) conquered much of the eastern part of the Middle East with brutal force on behalf of their Il-Khan leaders in central Asia. Initially, the Mongol rulers centered in Iran invited Christians and Jews to fill the political positions left by Muslim bureaucrats. Although the Mongols were destructive and wiped out entire communities, their rule produced a period of secularization and even a cultural renaissance for non-Muslims. Christians were so dominant politically that many were convinced that the Mongol rulers would embrace Christianity. In fact, many Mongols did become Christians, including queens and military generals. Because of their medical and administrative skills, Jews were also prominent in the Mongol court. Two of the grand viziers under the Mongols were Jewish. Zoroastrians were not granted such political power, but they did benefit socially under Mongol rule. Like other non-Muslims, they were exempt from Muslim taxes. Zoroastrians also experienced a literary renaissance during this period, which contributed to the regeneration of Persian language and culture.

After a short period of Christian political dominance, Mongols realized they would be more acceptable to the majority of their subjects if they embraced Islam. Once the Il-Khans converted to Islam, Christians were heavily persecuted, as they were suspicious to Muslims, just as Muslims had been suspicious to the Mongols when they first conquered the Middle East. Because of the Crusades, there had already been a rift between Muslims and Christians.


Egypt and Syria remained independent of Mongol rule. In 1250, the Ayyubid dynasty was overthrown by one of its Mamluk regiments, which were made up of slave-soldiers who were servants of the sultan and part of a powerful military class. The Mamluks then unified Egypt with Syria, destroyed the remaining Crusader states in 1291, and ruled until 1517. Against the backdrop of warfare against the Crusaders, the Mongols, and the Ismailis, the early Mamluk period was marked by a continuation of the revival of Sunni Islamic religious activity that had begun in the 11th century. As a result, Jews and Christians faced hostility and some pressure to convert to Islam.


From the 15th century, Ottomans consolidated power over the Arab world and eastern Europe. The Ottoman Empire was the longest-lasting Muslim dynasty, ruling from the late 13th century until 1923. Although the rulers were Turkish Muslims, the ruling elite initially included Christians. Jewish refugees from Spain were also key figures in Ottoman trade in the 15th and 16th centuries. Similar to previous Muslim regimes, Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire generally enjoyed the traditional protected (dhimmi) status granted to them by Muslims and were exempt from military service in return for the payment of an extra tax. However, the Ottomans also upheld the devshirme system, which levied Christian boys who were forced to convert to Islam and become bureaucrats in the palace or soldiers in the Janissary regiments. This practice was never applied in the Arab provinces of the empire, and it died out completely by the end of the 16th century.

Throughout the 500-year period of Ottoman rule, there was a general sense of tolerance between each religious community, although intercommunal violence did occasionally break out. Inhabitants of the same city (such as Coptic Christians and Muslims in Egypt) often shared the same culture. Muslims and non-Muslims even inhabited the same living quarters, but almost every Arab city had quarters exclusively for non-Muslim communities. Quarters did not necessarily develop as a result of discrimination. Jews were obliged to live within walking distance to a synagogue, and Jewish quarters tended to develop near one. Muslims and non-Muslims worked together in trade guilds, although the head of the guild was almost always a Muslim. Even though non-Muslims had their own legal courts for cases involving members of their own sect, they would often prefer to have their cases tried in Muslim courts.

In the 18th century, the Ottoman Empire suffered from political decentralization. Napoleon attempted to capture Egypt in 1798, which set off a wave of anti-Christian rioting, and local Christian–Muslim relations deteriorated. In order to appease the European powers, which were now significantly stronger militarily than their counterparts in the Middle East, Ottoman officials issued two decrees in the 19th century that guaranteed equal rights to non-Muslims, which included religious freedom, civil equality, and fair taxation. However, these “Tanzimat reforms” were unequally applied, and their overall effect was debatable.


As Ottomans were establishing themselves as the dominant political force in the Arab world and westward, a rival Islamic power established itself in Iran, which became known as the Safavid dynasty (1501– 1722). The first Safavid ruler, Shah Ismail, proclaimed Shi‘i Islam as the state religion instead of Sunnism, which was supported by the Ottoman state. Shah Ismail sought to impose Shi‘ism on the Sunni population as well as the non-Muslim population. However, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians were able to remain independent for much of the Safavid period. The Safavids imported skilled Armenian Christians to fulfill some administrative positions. The majority of Georgian and Circassian Christians converted to Shi‘ism and provided military service to the Safavids. Zoroastrians were subject to discriminatory laws, which kept many of them poor and uneducated. However, like Iranian Jews, many Zoroastrians were able to negotiate their independent status and preserve
their faith.

By the end of the 17th century, Shi‘i religious leaders gained immense power and changed the Safavid state’s religious policy, which resulted in hardship for all non-Shi‘is. As a result, many Zoroastrians, especially in the capital city (Isfahan), were compelled to convert to Islam, the privileges of Armenian Christians were abolished, and Jews suffered financial extortion. The Safavids also attempted to rein in Sunni Afghans living on the periphery of the Safavid state, which provoked the Afghans to attack the heart of the Safavid Empire, bringing the dynasty to an end in 1722. Although the Afghan attack was directed
at Shi‘is, Jews and Christians also suffered from the invasion. As a result of the severe mistreatment they had suffered under the Safavids, Zoroastrians joined the Afghans and fought alongside them. This was the first time in nearly a millennium (since the 9th century) that Zoroastrians were active militarily in Iran.

The Baha’i Faith

In the 19th century a new religion, the Baha’i Faith, was born in Iran, where it has since become the largest religious minority. Although the Baha’i Faith has been heavily persecuted in Iran from its inception, it has become the second most geographically widespread independent religion in the world. The founder of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah, taught that all religions have a common foundation, asserted the harmony of science and religion, and proclaimed that “the earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.”

Early 20th Century

After World War I (1914–18), Britain and France were in a position to impose their will on the establishment of states that would succeed the Ottoman Empire, which fell in 1923. The settlement of the territory previously under Ottoman control was the result of a series of compromises between Britain and its wartime allies on one hand and between Europe and the Middle East on the other. Christians and Jews factored into the resettlement of the Middle East in a major way.

In 1920, France created a Lebanese state separate from Syria, partially as a result of Maronite Christian demands for a state in which Christians could control their own destinies. However, the territory of Lebanon drawn by France included Maronite, Greek Orthodox, and Greek Catholic Christians, Sunni and Shi‘i Muslims, as well as Druzes. Christians made up only 55 percent of the entire population. Eventually, Christian and Muslim politicians cooperated to claim Lebanese independence, which was achieved in 1943.

In addition to Arab claims on Palestine, the Zionist organization presented claims for a Jewish homeland to the European powers, and Britain promised its support for a “national home for the Jewish people” in the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. The Zionist movement encouraged Jews to settle in Palestine after World War I.

Zackery M. Heern
University of Utah

See Also: Mamluk Dynasty; Mongols and Il-Khans; Ottoman Empire (Summary); Ottoman Institutions, Devshirme; Shia; Sunni.

Further Readings

Arberry, A. J., ed. Religion in the Middle East: Three Religions in Concord and Conflict. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Braude, Benjamin and Bernard Lewis, eds. Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society. 2 vols. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1982.

Hatcher, William S. and J. Douglass Martin. The Baha’i Faith: The Emerging Global Religion. Wilmette, IL: Baha’i Publishing, 2002.

Khanbaghi, Aptin. The Fire, the Star and the Cross: Minority Religions in Medieval and Early Modern Iran. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2006.

Masters, Bruce. Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arab World: The Roots of Sectarianism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Writer, Rasha. Contemporary Zoroastrians: An Unstructured Nation. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1994.

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