How can culture influence Islam

middle East

Stephan Rosiny

Dr. Stephan Rosiny is a political and Islamic scholar. He is a research associate at the GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies. Before that, he worked as a research assistant at the Institute for Islamic Studies at the Free University of Berlin. His research interests include power sharing in multiethnic societies; political Islam / Islamism, Sunna-Shia relationship as well as the relationship between religion and violence.
Contact: [email protected]

The Middle East is characterized by cultural and religious diversity. Islam, the majority religion, determines everyday life in different ways, but also social and political conditions. Islamists are now attracting particular attention as political actors.

Jerusalem is a holy place for the three monotheistic religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Temple Mount in the old town with the Western Wall, the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock is politically controversial among Jews and Muslims. (& copy Markus Kirchgessner / laif)

When speaking of the "Middle East" or, in terms of cultural geography, the "Near East", one usually thinks of countries in which Arabic is spoken and Islam is the majority religion that shapes the culture. But the Middle East in a broader sense also includes the non-Arab states of Iran, Israel and Turkey, as well as many other ethnic groups such as Kurds, Berbers and Circassians. In addition to the Muslims, there are larger Christian and Jewish communities as well as followers of smaller religious communities such as Zoroastrians, Yazidis and Baha'i. The three monotheistic religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam originated in what is now the Middle East and refer to Abraham as their common ancestor. They can be found up to the present day with numerous denominations, schools of law, church communities and sects.

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religious diversity

In the west, the Near and Middle East is perceived as largely Islamic. This is also true when looking at the demographic distribution of denominations. But even if Islam may be dominant today: the region is a religious mosaic. In addition to around two dozen Christian denominations that have emerged over the centuries, Jews, Yazidis, Druze, Baha'i, Zoroastrians and Mandaeans (Sabier), among others, live there - not to mention groups on the edge of the Islamic spectrum such as the Arab Alawis (sometimes also called Nusairians to distinguish them from the Alevis), the Turkish Alevis or the Kurdish Shabak.

The coexistence of Muslims and non-Muslims is characterized by a variety of rules, some pronounced, others unspoken. In most countries - with the exception of Lebanon and parts of Palestine - non-Muslims are reluctant to publicly display their religion. Interreligious relationships are mostly frowned upon. And often non-Muslims cannot rise to the top ranks of politics and administration - here, as in many other areas of life, religious discrimination takes hold.

Regardless of this, the situation of those religious minorities who are accepted by the Islamic side - according to popular opinion at least Jews, Christians, Mandaeans, Zoroastrians and Hindus - was not bad for long stretches of history. In the Ottoman Empire, larger religious communities were able to regulate their family status matters themselves, and this continues in the law of some states to this day [...]. Unrecognized groups like the Iranian Baha'i, on the other hand, often suffer from persecution. [...]

If the system is out of balance, it is usually the minorities who are the first to notice it. Political, economic or religious upheavals pose a fundamental threat to them, as they can be scapegoated more easily than others. [...]

Although the Arab Spring - the greatest upheaval in the Middle East in recent decades - did not bode well for religious minorities, a large number of non-Muslims supported the desire for change. In view of the electoral successes of Islamist parties in some countries and the militarization of the uprisings in other countries, however, the voices of those who warned of negative consequences for minorities or extolled the advantages of the old regimes: traditionally one of the survival strategies of minorities is to be close to seek the ruler; and the more secular ideology of Arab nationalism - from which most of these regimes arose - was particularly attractive to non-Muslims.

At the same time, their emigration has increased again since 2011. Many find emigration easier than Muslims: On average, Christians in the region are among the economically more successful strata; In addition, mission schools and Christian universities have given them an educational advantage and established contacts in Western countries. Some therefore believe that the final exodus of non-Muslims from the Near and Middle East - the cradle of three world religions - is inevitable.

Christian Meier, Religious Minorities, caution recommended. in: Atlas of the Arab Spring. A world region in transition, Bonn 2016, p. 28

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These ethnic groups, cultures and religions continue to have regional and local characteristics. Inhabitants of towns and villages, settled farmers or nomadic Bedouins have developed special ways of life that are adapted to their environment and have in some cases preserved them for centuries. All of this makes the Middle East a colorful mosaic of different religious and cultural forms of life. Knowing its history is essential to understand today's cultures and religions, but also the politics of the region.

Cultural history of the Middle East

The Middle East, along with China, India and Central America (Aztecs, Maya), is one of the cradles of human civilization. In what is now southern Turkey and in Mesopotamia, their traces go back to Neolithic antiquity 12,000 years ago. The ancient oriental empires of the Sumerians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites and Persians formed the region into a cultural area that was connected by trade routes such as the Silk Road or the Mediterranean and enabled an exchange of knowledge and technology. Mutual influences in religion, philosophy, architecture and art shaped the region. Some of their early cultures are still alive today in the collective memory of the peoples and are part of modern national historiography. Some contemporary dictators tried to use this to legitimize their rule and presented themselves as heirs to ancient rulers.

The civilizations of Mesopotamia, the Mesopotamian country around the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, once developed in the area of ​​today's Iraq. The first settlements and urban cultures of mankind emerged here in the seventh millennium BC, which brought about important inventions such as ceramics, tools and weapons as well as socio-political innovations in state administration. The Babylonian king Hammurabi (1792–1750 BC) created one of the first law books. In it he wrote down the punitive principle of equal retribution (Talio), which took the place of unbridled vengeance and which we encounter again in the Old Testament in the principle of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth".

Syrian historiography refers to the eponymous Assyrians (1500–626 BC) who ruled what is now northern Iraq and northern Syria. In Egypt the pharaonic empires are not only present architecturally with the pyramids and other monumental buildings. Their traces can be found in customs such as the popular tsar cult, a ritual of driving out spirits, as well as in the liturgy of Coptic Christianity. This ancient oriental church can be traced back to the evangelist Mark, who was succeeded by her own pope. After all, Egyptians - like Iraqis - derive their claim to an Arab leadership role, among other things, from the splendor of their ancient cultures.

No less proud of their early history are the Lebanese, from whose coastal cities Tire, Sidon and Byblos the Phoenicians, a seafaring people (~ 1200–146 BC), were the first to sail around Africa. The Mediterranean was their trading area, on the coast of which they founded colonies such as the city of Carthage near present-day Tunis. In contrast to what was customary for the great empires of this time, the Phoenicians expanded their sphere of influence primarily as a trading power and through treaties and only to a lesser extent through military conquest and occupation. They invented a 22-consonant alphabet that became the basis for the Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Arabic alphabets. Later the Greeks (~ 750–146 BC) and the Roman Empire (509 BC – 395 AD) conquered large parts of the Middle East and also used the Mediterranean as a trading and cultural area.

Iran sees itself in continuity with the empire of the Persians (550 BC – 651 AD), whose tightly organized bureaucracy was taken over by the Islamic caliphates. Many cultural peculiarities have been preserved despite the Arab conquest and Islamization of the country. In Iran, for example, there is a mixture of the pre-Islamic solar calendar (with the New Year at the solstice on March 20 or 21) and the Islamic Hijra calendar. This begins with the emigration of the Prophet Mohammed and his Muslim community from Mecca to Medina in the year 622 AD. It is based on the course of the moon, which is why its twelve months and thus the year are shorter than the year of our calendar following the course of the sun.

After the division of the Roman Empire in 395 AD, the Eastern Roman Byzantine Empire (395–1453) controlled the eastern part of the Mediterranean. In it, Orthodox Christianity was the state religion, from which various existing churches in the Middle East such as the Greek, Syrian and Armenian Orthodox Churches arose. Byzantium bordered the Arab-Islamic empire, which has expanded steadily since the founding of religion by Mohammed (570–632) and finally in 1453 conquered the entire territory of the Byzantine Empire. The Islamization and Arabization of the Middle East was not stopped by the Christian crusaders, who between 1095 and 1270 temporarily controlled the city of Jerusalem, which is holy to the three Abrahamic religions, and neighboring territories.

After the Turkish-Islamic conquest of Constantinople, the Muslim victors renamed the city in 1453 and made it the capital of the Ottoman Empire (~ 1300–1922 / 23). The Ottoman Sultan (Arabic; German: ruler) also took over the Islamic title of ruler of the caliph in 1517, thereby expressing his claim as head of all Muslims. His area of ​​rule decreased particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries during the course of the First World War, when nationalities such as the Greeks and various peoples of the Balkans gained state independence and European colonial powers brought almost all Arab states under their control as colonies or mandate areas. Turkey emerged from the remaining rump state in 1923. France and Great Britain and, from the second half of the 20th century, the USA and the Soviet Union or Russia have exerted significant influence on the region since then.

In the Middle Ages, Europe adopted the cultural and scientific achievements of the Middle East, such as medical knowledge such as the discovery of blood circulation or navigation instruments used in seafaring. During this period, many Arabic loan words such as algebra, alcohol, mattress, numeral and sugar came to Europe. During this time, Islam was much more progressive and open than Christianity, for example in the field of medical research or in the legalization of diplomatic relations with people of different faiths. Arab philosophers such as Avicenna (980–1037) and Averroes (1126–1198) had a lasting influence on the history of philosophy in Europe, Christian scholasticism, humanism and the Enlightenment with their comments on Aristotle.

But this relationship was increasingly reversed. As early as the 15th century, Europe switched from importing to exporting finished products such as paper, nails, textiles and glass. With European colonialism and the expanding world network through trade and communication, economy and culture, local, traditional communities in the Middle East were increasingly subject to the influences of the world market and the cultural and ideological dominance of the West. This influenced urban planning and architecture, infrastructure and media, education, health care, government administration and consumption habits. Western dominance emerged not least in political ideologies such as nationalism, socialism, liberalism and communism.

People from the Middle East who are in the West to study, work or to save themselves from the war in their home countries get to know Western behavior and values ​​here and reflect them back through family visits or as returnees in their countries of origin.
In the process of globalization, cultures and religions have merged into worldwide exchange communities: The "Orient" is present in Europe in migrant communities and specialty restaurants, among other places. New York's skyline is facing competition from the skyscrapers in Dubai, the Saudi capital Riyadh, or Doha, the capital of Qatar. Only in the area of ​​secularization does the Middle East seem to be resisting a western-dominated modernization: Here religion continues to shape everyday life, societies and in some cases also the politics of the region. This is particularly true of Islam as the majority religion, which has recently been reinterpreted by many believers as the politicized form of Islamism.