THE MIDDLE EAST
A Brief Guide
This is the region known as the ‘Cradle of Civilisation’. Great empires came and went: Egyptian, Assyrian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine and – lastly – Ottoman. And a region where one cannot ignore the effect of the Crusaders who wrested parts of the Near East on the edges of the Mediterranean from Islamic rule and established kingdoms which lasted from 1099 to 1291.
Here is where we find what is known as the ‘Fertile Crescent’, arching from Arabia to Israel: that geographic span which enabled civilisations to develop and provided routes for traders and armies. And here, of course, developed Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Christianity flourished in the region for 600 years during the dominance of the Roman and Byzantine empires.
IRAQ was evangelised by Ss. Thomas and Thaddeus (Addai)
EGYPT by S. Mark
TURKEY by S. Paul
Christianity was not as we know it today. It was in a developmental process when arguments raged over the principle question – just who was Jesus? A man chosen by God? God in the appearance of man? God and man? And, if so, how? Various tribal and political groups adopted one or another theory and it wasn’t until 381 at the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea that the disparate churches adopted an agreed statement of Faith – the Nicene Creed. Even then some did not, notably the followers of Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul) from 428 to 431. They rejected the title of Mary as Theotokos – God-bearer because they believed that Jesus was not God AND man but God IN man.
Nestorian Christianity flourished throughout the East eventually reaching as far as China and it’s fairly evident that the development and acceptance of Islam was, in part, made possible because it inherited this view. Islam does not accept that Jesus is God-made-flesh, nor that he died and was resurrected and it is argued many Christians in that region, faced with the growing Muslim influence, accepted Islam as it seemed close to their understanding of Christianity.
Mohammed was born c. 570 in what is now Saudi Arabia. The experience he had which led to the writing of the Koran took place c.610 and, subsequently, he began to attract followers to his new ideology and gathered an army together which, eventually, forced most of Arabia to accept Islam. After his death in 632 the community was ruled by powerful caliphs (rulers) whose armies quickly took control of much of the Middle East.
A Muslim army, for example, invaded Egypt in 639 and the country fell under their control a year later. This was a time when the Byzantine Empire was becoming weaker through a series of invasions and Christians who did not convert were forced to pay a special ‘protection’ tax (the ‘Jizya’) which gave proof of their acceptance and subjection to the Islamic state. It is required by the Koran (9:29) and is still enforced in certain places. In fact, the tax is being demanded increasingly.
The basic teachings of Islam are to:
1) worship the one and only one God and believe in his oneness.
2) witness that prophet Mohamed as God's prophet and messenger.
3) believe in, and practice, ritual prayers, paying the compulsory charity, fasting Ramadan, and performing Pilgrimage if possible.
4) have faith in God, all His angels, all His holy books, all His prophets, day of Judgment, and destiny.
5) fully obey God and his messenger Mohamed by obeying what they order him/her to do and what they order not to do.
6) do good deeds for the benefit of his community, nature, and mankind.
7) observe the rules of the Quran and Islam morals.
But Islam did not remain a united force for long. After Mohammed’s death the question of his successor arose. Some soon rejected the view that he had appointed a successor and held that the position of caliph could be attained democratically. They held that Mohammed had appointed Abu Bakr, a friend of the Prophet and father of his wife Aisha. These became known as Sunni’s and form the largest denomination: in the Middle East they are a majority in Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey.
Those who believe Mohammed appointed his son-in-law, Ali, to be his heir and supporters became known as Shi’ite, or Shia, and believe their ayatollah’s (leaders) as God’s representative on earth.
Today, as a rough guide, Sunni’s account for 80% of the Islamic population and Shi-ite for 20%. In terms of countries, these are divided in the following ways:
LIBYA: Sunni 97%
EGYPT Sunni 90%
(Christian: 12 – 18%)
SAUDI ARABIA Sunni 95%
JORDAN Sunni 92%
IRAQ Sunni 40%
IRAN Sunni 10%
SYRIA Sunni 74%
(Christian: app. 10%)
LEBANON Sunni 50%
TURKEY Sunni 70%
(Population figures taken from a variety of sources)
From this it can be seen that only Iran has a majority Shia population. Egypt has a predominantly Sunni population and the Shi’ite community, along with the Christians (who form between 15-20% of the population), were increasingly persecuted under President Morsi with the backing of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood. The goal of the Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, follows the agenda of Sunni Islam – the restoration of the Caliphate and imposition of Sharia law over state and society.
Syria also has a predominantly Sunni population but Pres. Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect of Shia Islam.
Whilst both Sunni and Shia’s consider the Koran to be divine they differ over the traditions that have developed to interpret and define Islamic faith and many believe violent divisions between the two are growing, as witnessed by what is occurring in Syria at present. Some maintain that Sunni’s sense a loss of power and are seeking to regain their influence through violence and point out that both al-Qaeda and the Taliban are militant Sunni movements.
Whatever the outcome, the shadow of Islam has now stretched over the West and we need to understand it if we are going to live with it.