Languages, religions and cultures in the Middle East

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The region is characterized by its diversity, especially in terms of languages. There are three main families:

  • Ural-Altaic: Russian region, Azerbaijani, Turkish,...
  • Indo-European: Persian, Kurdish, Armenian,...
  • Semitic or Semitic: Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Assyrian,...

As everywhere else, many dialects are present. Approximately 20 minority languages are also spoken in the Middle East. For example, within Turkey, Turkish changes a lot. The same goes for Arabic, Kurdish, Armenian. Population movements as well as religion have strongly propagated the different languages. Since then, nation states have established one or more official languages on their territory and for their population. The effects of the imposition of a state language pushes both nationalism and the disappearance of other dialects, but at the same time it is in the interest of these "forbidden" languages.


In a broad sense, the Middle East includes Anatolia, Egypt and Mesopotamia. It is also the birthplace of the three monotheistic or revealed religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. This region also saw the birth of Zoroastrianism, which sums up life in the perpetual struggle between Good and Evil.


In the story, Abraham makes a covenant with Jahweh that promises him a promised land. He has a wife, Sarah, and a slave, Hagar. He has two children: Isaac, son of Sarah, ancestor of the Jews, and Ishmael, son of Hagar, ancestor of the Muslims. Isaac's son, Jacob, will create the 12 tribes of Israel and make up the Hebrews. They will settle in Egypt, but will be enslaved. That's when Moses enters the scene, wanting to bring them back to Canaan, the promised land. On Sinai, God gives him the Torah, the law...

In the 13th century B.C., the Hebrews return to Palestine. The king, Solomon, was to build the Temple there, where the law handed down to Moses would be deposited. It is also the period of the prophets. The first catastrophe, in 722BC, was the destruction of Israel by the Assyrians and the deportation of the Hebrews to Mesopotamia. The rabbis will elaborate the commentary of the Torah, the Mishnah, which they will improve, which will become with the Torah, the Talmud.

The second catastrophe occurred in 586 B.C. when the Mesopotamians destroyed the southern kingdom and the Temple. From -332 BC, the territory is under Roman domination, Romans who will destroy the rebuilt Temple and deport the Jews. From then on, the Jews will disperse in the world (etymology of the word " diaspora "). It should be noted that the Hebrews rather represent the people while the Jews could be considered mainly according to their religion.

Ashkenazi Jews settled in Europe and gave birth to a hybrid language between Hebrew and German (Yiddish), while Jews in Spain created Ladino. To this, we must add the character of the religion (orthodox, moderate...).


For Christianity, the prophet is Jesus, born in Bethlehem and crucified in Jerusalem. In the 4th century, the religion becomes that of the Roman Empire. In order not to be linked to the Romans for political reasons, some Christians detached themselves from the empire and the religion that accompanied it. The biggest debate rests on the nature of Jesus: is he a man? Son of God?

The Council of Nicea decides in 325 on the fact that Jesus is consubstantial with the Father generated and not created. This will proceed to the creation of several churches, in the East and in the West (two natures in one person: divine and human). These churches will also either accept the Emperor's version or reject it (Jacobites).

In 1054, Rome and Constantinople suffered the Great Schism, the Great Schism of the Eastern and Western Churches. In the 16th century, Protestantism made its appearance. In the meantime, some churches of the East will lend allegiance to Rome. While the religious diversity is surprising, Christians are, over the centuries, less and less numerous.


Islam knows a central person: Mohammed (570-632). He trades, knows the world and other religions. Aware of injustices, this explains the fundamental importance of justice in religion. As he receives God's guidance, it creates tensions with those close to him.

In June 622, he left Mecca to go to Medina. While he succeeded in his journey and gathered the world around him, he died in 632, leaving no successor. At this point the question arises as to who will guide the Ummah. From this division emerge the Sunnites (Sunna = tradition) and the Shiites (Bei "t" = from home). The successor is the Caliph, who will give birth to the Caliphate (the Muslim empire). This debate was agreed upon and the period of the elected caliphs began in 632-661.

In 641-42 the Battle of Nehavend (Ouradisia) between the Muslim Arabs and the Sassanid Empire took place. The Arabs were victorious and were able to conquer the Medie (north-western Iran) and spread Islam in Persia, while King Yazdgard III fled to the south of his empire. This battle is known by Muslims as "the victory of victories".

The Shiites are supporters of Ali (~600-661), cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, while the Sunnis favour a suitably appointed successor, Muawiya (602-680). The Battle of Siffin in 657 pitted the two sides against each other, without naming victors. Ali accepts arbitration, which creates a new branch: some of his supporters criticize him for his decision and thus form the Kharijites. Ali is killed, the Kharijites are accused and disperse. Muawiya argues that the succession to the Caliph will be hereditary after him and will repress Ali's family. His son, Yazid, always comes back as the villain in the Shiite world. Yazid goes after Ali's son, Husayn.

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In Kerbala (Iraq), in 680, a battle between the two branches takes place, Husayn and his relatives are going to be decimated. The dynasty founded by Muawiya lasts until 750, a caliphate called Umayyad, settled in Damascus.

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A revolt overthrew him to establish the Abbasid dynasty, representing the golden age of Islam (culture, law, science,...). The decline begins at the beginning of the Crusades, around 1090 until 1291. From 1250 onwards, in parallel, the Mongol invasions begin which weaken it on the other side. In 1258, the Abbasid Caliphate collapses, caught between two fronts: the Crusades in the west and the Mongol invasions in the east.

Between 1258 and 1500, the Muslim world remains very fragile between the Crusades and the Mongols. The creation of the Ottoman Empire and the Sefevid Empire (1501-1736) were to stabilize it.

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1517 marks the capture of Cairo by the Ottomans, claiming the title of Caliphate, which they will transfer to Istanbul. But at the end of the 19th century, although the empire was in decline, it retained the lexicon of the caliphate, devoid of any political connotation, but retaining its religious value. In 1924, Mustafa Kemal repealed the caliphate. Between 2014 and 2019, Abu Bakhr Al-Bagdadi proclaimed himself Caliph (Daesh).

Muslims make a separation both temporal and spatial. On the one hand, Jahiliya, a period of ignorance of Muslim customs - which characterized Arabia before the 7th century - and today. On the spatial level, Dar al Islam (country of Islam) and Dar al Harb (country of war). There is also a difference between people: those of the book (Al-Kithab), adhering to monotheistic religions and invited to adhere to Islam, and others (who disappear). The Muslim ruler undertakes to protect the adherents - Dhimmis, non-Muslim citizens - while believers of other religions will be subject to a tax.

The status of the people of the book does not aim at equality, but at tolerance.

Sunnism and Shiism

For the Shiites, the power was illegitimately appropriated. They will forge a culture of martyrdom. It is in this context that the Imams (descendants of the Prophet according to a bloodline), who are supposed to guide the Ummah, appear. The purpose of this hierarchy is to promote the Qur'an and its interpretations to the community. On the Sunni side, the idea that there is an intermediate authority between God and the believer is rejected.

Thus, for the Shiites, the religious is very important. The Zaydites (Yemenis) do not recognize the 6th Imam while the Ismailis reach the 7th Imam before considering the next one as illegitimate. The 12th Imam, after having disappeared (occulted in 941), reappeared in the Shiite world: this gave birth to a new ideology, duodecimal Shiism (90% of the current Shiites).

Sunni Islam also knows divisions, which are called Madhab (schools). There are 4 of them: Hanafite, Shafeite, Malekite, Hanbalite. Scholars had to provide an interpretation (jurisprudence) of the Koran, which led to these different branches. The practice of the Prophet influences the interpretation of the Qur'an.

There are other groups in the Middle East: Alawites in Syria, Qizilbash, Druze (Lebanon, Israel,...), Alevis (Turkey). They are syncretic, and therefore result from the fusion of different cults (or heterodox). They can be considered as the sub-branches of Shiism. In all cases, the dimension of the trinity between Muhammad, Allah and Ali is very present.