Refers to a social or group identity based on socially perceived differences in origin, language, and/or religion.   For example, within Turkey, Kurds are perceived as a different ethnic group.  In Iran, Azeri Turks (compare the Copts in Egypt - not a different ethnic group).  People, especially from minority groups, may hold more than one identity: Azeri Turks may adopt Persian upper class mannerisms and speech, and identify primarily as Persian, but with their own ethnic group, will maintain their Azeri identity.  As the editors of our book point out, ethnic identity need not depend on a territorial component: Kurds all over the map: Turkey, Iraq, and Syria.


In the modern world, nationality often trumps ethnic identity. People can manipulate ethnic identity as a personal strategy: to get ahead in life and in society.  Traditionally, certain ethnic groups were identified with certain professional occupations; for example, as the book points out, Nubians from the Sudan were often employed as chefs/professional cooks in Egypt; Kurds often served as porters in the bazars; etc.  In the modern period, however with mass education, mobility, and with the growth of new occupations and professions, many of these ethnic distinctions are slowly being erased.


Not a meaningful category in the Middle East and North Africa; most of the people in this area are labeled as Mediterranean.  In the West, we tend to group people racially on the basis of the color of their skin.  Although a light skin in the Middle East is considered an element of physical attractiveness, particularly in women, it does not get associated with racial superiority.  Slavery existed in Arab societies in the pre-modern period, but it did not have racial overtones.  You had slaves both from Africa and Central Europe, for example.  And slavery was not the same institution as it was in the West.  Slaves and descendants of slaves could rise to very high positions in administration and government.  If slaves became Muslim, they were automatically free.  Slaves at the royal court were actually more servants of the sultan. Remember, we talked about the MAMLUKS (1250-1517).


A more realistic demarcator of identity is language: who is an Arab?  Consists of Copts, indigenous Africans, Bedouin Arabs, Mediterranean peoples, different religious groups: Christians and Jews.
Arabic: Semitic; Persian and Kurdish: Indo-Eur; Berber: Afro-Asiatic; Turkish: Altaic or Uralic languages; Persian: written in Arabic characters


Still remains the most important single source of personal and group identity.  Muslims are the large majority of the population of the Middle East and North Africa but there are also substantial Christian populations in some countries , although the Jewish population has dwindled considerably after the creation of Israel in 1948.   The relationship of Religion to other components of a person’s identity, such as ethnicity and nationality, is rather complex.  As our book points out, Sunni Arabs in Iraq have been fighting Sunni Kurds over possession of land and other assets such as oil.  So there is no guarantee that sharing the same religion will automatically create solidarity.  The map below displays the general demography of the religious landscape in the region with which we are concerned.

Religious Distribution

Map credit: University of Notre Dame OCW.

Jews and Christians: People of the Book; Abrahamic Faiths

Traditionally, allowed to practice their religion, in payment of a poll-tax, jizya.  Jews and Christians usually formed autonomous communities; headed by their own religious leaders, and in matters of family and personal law, could follow their own religious rulings.  They were known as "ahl al-dhimma": protected people.  True, they were not full citizens as Muslims were but they were usually left unmolested.  And individual Jews and Christians often rose to very high posts in ruling circles.  The famous Jewish philosopher, Maimonides (1135-d.1204), was a physician to Saladin.  Some of the Abbasid caliphs had Christian physicians who had a lot of influence in the court.  Now, the book misstates something: NOT not allowed to serve in the army; in return for the jizya, they did not have to serve in the military.  They had the option of not paying the jizya and serving in the army.  Also, women, poor people, monks and other religious leaders did not have to pay it.

St. Catherine's Monastery

St. Catherine's Monastery. Image
Courtesy of flikr user rich_w.
Some rights reserverd.

St. Catherine’s Fourth, while visiting the St. Catherine's Monastery at Mt. Sinai in 1979, I was shown a personal letter said to be signed by the Prophet Muhammad himself, guaranteeing the freedom of the monks and their monastery and dated 632. The document was issued because the monks honored Islam by building a small mosque within their walled fortress.  ‘Umar in Jerusalem refused to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre because he was afraid that later Muslims would wrongfully claim it as a mosque.  This anecdote illustrates a due concern for the rights of the “People of the Book,” particularly in the early period. The Arab Muslim armies were usually welcomed in the early period by the Egyptian Copts and the Syrian Christians.  Copts and some of the Syrian Christians, the Assyrians, the Nestorians, for example, were Monophysite Christians.  The Byzantines who ruled were Diophysites - that is, they believe in the two distinct natures of Christ.  After the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE which opted for the diophysite doctrine, the Byzantine rulers persecuted the Monophysites as heretics and taxed them heavily.

At a popular level, Jews, Christians, and Muslims often worshipped at the same shrines; for example, at the tomb of Rachel in Jerusalem, Jewish and Muslim women.  At Ephesus in Turkey to this day, there is a small church associated with the Virgin Mary where she stopped with the Christ child. I just visited it recently, and there were both Christians and Muslims praying fervently inside the shrine.

Ottoman Times:
MILLET: referring to autonomous minority religious communities

Jewish millet ruled by the haham basi, the chief rabbi   Grew due to Jews fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition. Before the 1940's, there were substantial Jewish populations in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

Christian millets: Armenian, Catholic, Orthodox, Assyrian Christians.  During the colonial period, the Christian communities were sometimes mobilized by European colonizers against the Muslim rulers.    One striking example is Lebanon.  The Maronite Christians (followers of St. John Maroun, d. 410)  belong to a Uniate church: they have their own patriarchs and retain internal autonomy but recognize the Roman Catholic Pope as the leader of their church and have adopted the Latin rites.  With the full support of the French, the Lebanese Maronites broke away from Syria and Lebanon became an independent country in 1946.  Lebanon is a real ethnic and religious mosaic. The Maronites held onto political control until the seventies when Palestinians arrived.  In 1975 (until 1988, Ta’if agreement), a strike by Shi’i fishermen working for Maronite boat owners; joined by Palestinians.  Not strictly a Christian-Muslim conflict: Syrian Muslim forces intervened on the side of the Christian Maronites.  In 1988, Maronite President but stripped of much of his executive powers, Sunni prime minister; Shi’i speaker of parliament.

Armenians: significant Christian minority primarily in Turkey and Lebanon.  Most belong to the Armenian Orthodox church, which has its own patriarch.  Under the Ottomans, they formed a separate millet as did other religious minority groups.  Most Armenians lived in rural Anatolia.  After World War I and during the breakup of the Ottoman empire, there was much insurgency in the Armenian community against the government.  Armenians attempted to set up an independent  republic in southeastern Turkey, leading to massacres and the forced deportation of Armenians from Anatolia.  Most Armenians left for Lebanon and Syria and Soviet Armenia.

Bahais: The Bahai movement originated in Shiraz, Iran in 1844 when a man called Mirza Ali Muhammad declared himself to be the “gateway [Bab] to heaven,” originally called Babism.  When the Bab was executed in 1850 for his “heresy,” his half-brother called Baha’ullah began to preach a somewhat revised version of the faith, emphasizing universalist aspects that combined the best of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Bahais emphasize social ethics above religious dogma, have no priesthood, and stress the oneness of humanity and religious belief.  The writings and spoken words of the Bab, Baha` Ullah, and 'Abd ol-Baha form the sacred literature of the Baha`i faith.   Bahai services may also consist of recitation of the scriptures of all religions. The Baha`i faith underwent a rapid expansion beginning in the 1960s, and by the late 20th century had more than 150 national spiritual assemblies (national governing bodies) and about 20,000 local spiritual assemblies. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, about 300,000 Baha`is there are often persecuted by the government.  Baha`i houses of worship exist in the United States, Europe, Africa, Australia and even in Panama City, Panama.

Citation: Afsaruddin, A. (2006, September 05). ETHNIC AND RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY. Retrieved November 26, 2014, from Notre Dame OpenCourseWare Web site:
Copyright 2012, by the Contributing Authors. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. Creative Commons License