Religion and politics in the Near East are inextricably linked. Islam in particular has had a significant impact on politics and culture in the region, as roughly nine-in-ten people living in the Near East-North Africa area today are Muslim, with a projected growth of 37% in the next 20 years.
Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was born in Mecca (today located in Saudi Arabia) in 570 AD. According to Islamic tradition, in Muhammad’s later years he began receiving revelations from Allah (God) conveyed through the archangel Gabriel. These revelations were recorded and compose the content of the Qur’an; Islam’s holy book. The Qur’an is regarded by Muslims as the sacred word of God that was revealed to correct religious texts considered erroneous, such as the Old and New Testaments. Other sacred sources in Islam include the Sunnah, which outlines the social and legal customs of the Islamic community, and the Hadith– the sayings of the prophet Muhammad. As Muhammad spread these revelations in Mecca, he encountered resistance from the local Arab population. Slowly Muhammad began gaining followers and they eventually took over Mecca, ultimately declaring the Kaaba temple the holiest shrine in Islam. To this day, Muslims direct their prayers facing the city of Mecca.
Inherent in Islam is both theology and jurisprudence. Tawhid defines what Muslims should believe while sharia dictates everything Muslims should do. Sharia covers everything from law to family and religious practices. The five basic beliefs in Islam are belief in: one god, the prophethood, the justice of God, the Imams, and the Day of Judgment. There are five pillars that every Muslim is directed to follow: shahada (to declare belief in God and Muhammad), salat (to pray five times a day), zakat (to give to charity), sawn (to fast during Ramadan), and haj (to make the pilgrimage to Mecca).
Like with any religion, there are many different interpretations of Islam. Sunni and Shia represent the two largest sects of Islam. After Muhammad’s death, Muslims were divided on the belief about who was the rightful successor. The majority of Muslims in the world today are Sunnis, who accepted Abu Bakr as the successor of Muhammad. Saudi Arabia is the largest Sunni power in the Near East. Shiite Muslims, however, believe that leaders must be descendants of Muhammad through his daughter Fatima and her husband Ali. Iran is the largest Shia power today. An additional sect, Wahhabism, is an extremely strict interpretation of Islam that is accused of promoting Islamic terrorism, although it is often discounted by Islamic scholars.
Islam has had a considerable impact on shaping the religious, political, and cultural practices within the Near East. Many non-Muslim communities in the region will even practice Islamic traditions, such as circumcision or eating halal, because it is so ingrained in their society.
But Islam has also been a source of instability and violence in the Near East. Certain interpretations of Islam have produced radical groups who’ve justified repression, persecution, destruction, massacre, and genocide all in the name of Islam. Islamic extremism inhibits religious minorities as well as Muslims who do not ascribe to that interpretation of Islam. Also, the Sunni-Shia divide has fomented sectarian strife throughout the region. Iran, the greatest Shia power, and Saudi Arabia, a great Sunni power, continually rival for regional hegemony and engage in geopolitical, economic, and proxy wars.
There is ongoing debate in the West about the nature of Islam, its adaptability, and whether it is inherently illiberal. Because Islam is seemingly illiberal, many Christians worry about the presence of a growing Muslim population in the West. Likewise, Christians are concerned about Islam’s negative impact on indigenous non-Muslim populations and minorities in the Near East.
The Philos Project makes a distinction between Muslims and Islam. Muslims are human beings made in the image of God who merit the same dignity and respect accorded to all human beings. Islam is a world religion, even a world civilization, with views about faith and politics that diverge from Christian views at key points. As Christians we recognize commonalities between our two religions: a shared patriarch in Abraham, a commitment to monotheism, and a joint affirmation of traditional values. We also recognize a tremendous range of opinion within the Muslim world.
As Christians, however, we reject the central truth claim of Islam – that God superseded prior revelations by giving one final revelation to Muhammad in the Qur’an – and disagree with those schools of Islamic interpretation that reject pluralism, denigrate non-Muslims, or seek to impose Islamic doctrine through violence. We respect and affirm the right of Muslims to practice their faith freely. But we respect a religion only until it forces itself on those who don’t believe. We are specifically concerned about minorities in Muslim-majority countries who remain subject to discrimination and even persecution without government protection. Ultimately, we seek to build lasting friendships with Muslims who share a commitment to pluralism and endorse the right of Jews and Christians to live as equals in the modern Near East. This engagement should begin by recognizing the real differences between Islam and Christianity and build understanding and respect despite those differences.
Further Resources on Islam
In Islamic Exceptionalism, Shadi Hamid provides insight on Islam’s past and present and how it relates to politics, particularly in the Near East.
Robert Nicholson interviews Shadi Hamid in “Is the Struggle with Islam Reshaping the Modern World?” The two address the lack of cross-cultural understanding in the West, the value of pluralism, the possibilities of democratic reform, and the potential for increased Christian engagement with Muslim neighbors.
To read about the earliest accounts of Muslim-Christian relations, read When Christians First Met Muslims. Syriac Christians wrote the first and most extensive accounts of Islam in the seventh century, the writings of which are detailed in this book.In “What Ilhan Omar’s Israel Affair Can Teach Americans About Respecting Islam,”Robert Nicholson explains how the proper way to deal with Islam centers around respect.
- Islam Is Not Hebraic Robert Nicholson | Providence Magazine
- How to Deal With Islam Robert Nicholson | Providence Magazine
- Islam in Politics and Culture and Christian-Muslim Relations Robert Nicholson | Providence Magazine
- The long struggle for supremacy in the Muslim world Yaroslav Trofimov | Wall Street Journal
- When Christianity Met Islam Robert Louis Wilken | First Things
- Islam’s Influence on Europe Robert D. Kaplan | The Atlantic
- What the Quran Meant and Why it Matters Gary Wills | Carnegie Council for Ethics & International Affairs
- The Essentials of Islam Middle East Studies
- Islam and Human Rights Dr. Anne Elizabeth Mayor | New Books in Middle East Studies
- The Story of the Shia-Sunni Split New Books in History
- Allah & Muslim Spirituality New Books in Islamic Studies
- The History of the Idea of the Muslim World Cemil Aydin | Ottoman History Podcast
- Political Islam and Islamism Middle East Studies | Ramadan
- Islamic Exceptionalism and the Role of Religion in the Public Drew Griffin | Shadi Hamid | Provcast
- Islam in Europe: Secularism, Migration and Radicalization Middle East Studies
- The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In Hugh Kennedy
- The Story of Reason in Islam (Cultural Memory in the Present) Sari Nusseibeh
- A History of the Arab Peoples Albert Hourani
- The Place of Tolerance in Islam Khaled Abou El Fadl
- Islamic Exceptionalism Shadi Hamid
Jerusalem Post Staff | The Jerusalem Post