General Survey of Minorities in the Arab World

From the book Minorities in the Arab World , A.H. Hourani. Oxford University Press, 1947. 

This survey covers ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities in Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

All of them formed part of the Ottoman Empire for many centuries and the majority of their populations is Arabic in language and therefore to a great extent in culture. If they are taken as a whole, the majority of their population is Sunni Muslim.  

The minorities are those communities that have resided in these countries , or in other parts of the Middle East before coming to these countries, and are nationals of these countries, are Arabic speaking, but not Sunni Muslim by faith. Other communities are Sunni but not Arabic speaking, and others again that are neither Sunni not Arab.  

The Constitutions of Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq all contain written guarantees for the good treatment of minorities, each stating that all citizens  are equal before the law, enjoy the same civil and political rights, and shall not be discriminated against on grounds of religion, race or language.

List of Minorities

The minorities are almost innumerable, but some have very few adherents and little political importance. The following are the most important: 

A. Sunni Muslim, not Arabic speaking:
              (1) Kurds
              (2) Turcomans
              (3) Caucasians: Circassian, Chechen.

B. Arabic speaking but not Sunni Muslim:
         I. Heterodox Muslims:

        II. Chrisitians:
Greek Orthodox
                  Syrian Orthodox (Jacobites)
                  Coptic Orthodox
                  Armenian Orthodox
Nestorians (Assyrians)
Roman Catholics, Latin rite
             (5) Maronites
             (6) Greek Catholics
             (7) Coptic Catholics
             (8) Syrian Catholics
             (9) Chaldean Catholics
Protestants : Anglican, Presbyterian
      III. Jews and semi-Judaic sects:
      IV. Other religions:
C. Neither Arabic speaking nor Sunni Muslims:
           (1) Persian speaking : Shi'a
Kurdish speaking: Yazidis
                                            Syrian Orthodox
                                            Syrian Catholics
Syriac speaking:
                                           Nestorians (Assyrians)
                                          Chaldean Catholics
                                          Syrian Orthodox (Jacobites)
                                          Syrian Catholics
Armenian speaking: Armenian Orthodox (Gregorians)
                                             Armenian Catholics
                                             Armenian Protestants
          (5) Hebrew speaking: Jews 

 Notes on this list

(1)               Certain communities appear more than once, eg Syrian Orthodox are shown as speaking Arabic, Kurdish and Syriac. This is inevitable in a region like the Middle East where a number of communities live in close contact with one another in a particular district; where different sections of a community are widely separated from each other; and where multi-lingualism is common.

(2)               The position of Shi'is in Iraq is different from that of any of the other communities. They form the largest single community in the country, but they have had the  relation of a minority towards the government which until the elections of 2005 was mainly in the hands of Sunnis. But the problem of Sunni and Shi'is in Iraq is too vast and fundamental to be regarded as simply a minority problem. 

The Origin of Minorities

To explain why there are so many minorities in these countries, the following factors should be noticed:

(i)The  Arabian peninsula and the surrounding regions have always been peculiarly fertile in religious conceptions. It was here that the conceptions of the One God, the Personal God, the Revealed God and the Incarnate god first came to mankind's mind. Different prophets and teachers, various efforts to work out the implications of these conceptions, pagan nature-worship and religious systems form Persia and India are all factors that have led to a diversity of faiths. The same intensity of affirmation or denial which caused this diversity also ensured that each of the faiths should find adherents who clung to it through the generations. 

(ii)  The variety of linguistic and racial groups may be explained by another factor: the Middle East has always been a center and terminus of movement, tribal and individual. Some groups came from Central Asia by way of the Persian plateau (Turks, Kurds and Mongols); others form the Mediterranean basin by sea or by way of Anatolia; others again in endless successive waves form the Arabian peninsula, before and after the Arab conquest.The motives of these incursions have been various. Sometimes the purpose has been conquest: to sue these countries as bases for attack or defense, or to subjugate them for their geographical position, their wealth or the skill of their artisans. More particularly they have been desired as gateways to the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf and thus to some of the greatest trade and strategic routes in the world.

Also there has been the motive of pillage: an attraction alike for the nomads, eager for the produce of cultivated lands, and for kings, greedy for the wealth of the cities. Again, the cities have always drawn traders and artisans to them, whether it was Alexandria and Antioch under the Romans, Damascus, Baghdad and Basra under the Arabs, or Cairo and Alexandria in more recent times. Finally, religious or political persecution has driven refugees in smaller or larger numbers from surrounding regions into these countries of the Middle East, or else from one part of those countries to another.   

(iii) Another factor is localism –an intense local loyalty which preserved and strengthened religious and linguistic differences. In certain regions, localism is encouraged by the geo structure: this is particularly true of the mountains and valleys of Lebanon and the Kurdish areas, easily defensible, off the main routes of war and trade, and not worth the while of governments to control.  Another cause of localism was a deficiency of communications. With some exceptions, for example the Roman periods, roads were badly kept up, law and order were almost wholly absent outside the coasts an river valleys and means of transport were scarce. Thus the tendency to uniformity was limited. Groups could live their own live and develop their own community. This is less true of Egypt where the Nile links together virtually all the habitable regions, since almost all of them lie along its course. 

Preservation of Diversity

Political Ideas

Minorities were helped in preserving their distinctive character and life by the political conceptions which prevailed. For long periods of history the state or empire which dominated the Middle East was supra-national, based on loyalty to the person of the ruler. Different national groups very equally subjected to him. Also, the activities of the state were limited. They were confined to the towns, coasts, river valleys and more accessible plains. Communities which did not wish to be subjects of the state could withdraw to less accessible regions and live there undisturbed. The government confined itself to a small number of functions: it defended the country, maintained as ort of law and order, raised taxes and preserved the true religion. It was only for short periods that it tried to impose the religion on all its subjects. There were vast spheres of social and individual life with which the government did not try to interfere, and which therefore could be regulated by the customs of the community or the precepts of its religion.   

Except in Byzantine times, there was very little bureaucracy. The government imposed its will on the provinces by feudal delegation Its power of creating feudatories was limited and it was compelled to adjust itself to social power, to accept the existing leaders of tribes or communities  and to deal with the individual members of the community through their leaders only.  It was even in the interest of the government to have a large number of separate communities to pit against each other as a partial guarantee against a revolt 


Another factor which helped to preserve diversity was the attitude of Islam toward other religions and toward nationality.

Islam accords tolerance and protection to Christians and Jews, whom it describes as  ahl al dhimma (protected people)  or ahl al kitab (people of the Book). They are outside the full community of the state, since the state is theocratic, and they have certain disabilities: they must pay a special tax, are not allowed to carry arms, to give evidence against Muslims in the courts of law or to marry Muslim women. But they are allowed to retain their own religious organization, personal status, places of worship and religious trusts.

To a great extent these principles have actually been observed in Muslim treatment of Christians and Jews. There have been periods of persecution but on the whole there has been no attempt , except in Abbasid times, to convert them. Indeed, for the Nestorians and Monophysites, Muslim rule meant greater tolerance than they had received form orthodox byzantium. The intolerance of orthodox Islam was directed against the Shi'is and the sect on the fringes of the religion. It is clear, however, that minorities living in a sea of Muslims could not help being deeply affected by the way of life of the majority. For the most part they became Arabic in language and to a great extent in culture. They were also to a certain degree islamized in their social life and popular ethics. This is particularly true of the Copts in Egypt.

 As for nationality, Islam in principle recognizes no nations. The community of Islam is open to all on condition they profess the doctrines of Islam; tribal and national differences are secondary. There was a continual process of individual assimilation from one group to another, but on the whole Arabs, Turks, Persians and Kurds accepted one another's existence.

The Ottoman Empire

The diversities that all these factors produced were recognized and perpetuated by the Ottoman system of government. The Ottoman may be briefly summarized as follows:

(i)         The ruling power was vested in an absolute monarch, the Sultan or Padishah, ruling by hereditary right. Even the most turbulent of his subjects paid formal allegiance to him, regarding him not as one ruler among many but as the ruler of the whole world, the shadow of God on earth.

(ii)        His power was exercised though two parallel organizations. On the one hand there was the military organization, which maintained order and defended the frontiers. It was composed in the first place by the professional soldiery, the Janisseries, secondly on the feudal levies. In Egypt, almost absolute civil and military power, subject ot the formal suzerainity of the Sultan, was in the hands of the military oligarchy of the Mamlukes.

On the other hand there was a religious organization for the defense, interpretation, and application of the religion: the Muftis who decided whether or not the acts and enactments of the Sultan and his officials were in accordance with the shari'a Muslim religious law; the Qadis who dispensed Muslim law in the courts; the religious schools where the doctrine and tradition of Islam were preserved.

(iii)       There was practically no provincial administration. Each province had its appointed “Wali” who commanded the garrison, collected taxes and performed any other functions of government. But outside the larger towns hi authority was only exercised indirectly through the feudatories and other local notables. Many districts possessed virtually complete local autonomy under traditional dynasties or self-made rulers.

(iv)       The language of government was Turkish, of religion Arabic. There was therefore a natural tendency for members of other language groups to be assimilated to Turks or Arabs. But no pressure was put upon them to do so. Not only did they preserve their own language and traditions, but in many districts they were autonomous; for example the Turcoman tribes and Kurdish confederations in northern Syria and Iraq and in eastern Anatolia were autonomous under their hereditary chiefs.

(v)        The heterodox Islamic sects also possessed local autonomy in districts where they were strong enough to maintain it. This was particularly true of the Druze in Lebanon and later in Jebel Druze; also to a large extent of the Alawis who were, however, in certain parts subject to Sunni landowners. With autonomy they also possessed their own courts for deciding cases in accordance with their own customs and religious doctrines. In other regions heterodox Muslims were persecuted and forced to conform to Sunni religious law. Perhaps the Shi'is incurred harsher treatment than any other community, although in Iraq where they were very numerous they managed to preserve something of their tradition: their shrines and centers of learning. 

The Millet System

(vi)             The Christians and Jews did not form part of the community of the State, and had no share either in its military or its religious organization, although converted Christians could and did rise to the highest positions, and even unconverted ones could make themselves useful to the Sultan in many ways. But they constituted recognized communities of their own, with a considerable degree of autonomy. The recognition of such communities may go back beyond the birth of islam, but it was given religious sanction by the Islamic doctrine of “People of the Book”. It was adopted and carried further by the Ottoman Turks. After the fall of Constantinople, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror conferred upon the  Greek Orthodox Patriarch of the city of civil as well as religious headship of the millet, or nation of the Orthodox. Subsequently other autonomous Christian millets, each coterminus with the Empire, were recognized by the Government, until by the beginning of the twentieth century they numbered fourteen. The Jews also constituted a millet

The main features of the millet system have been well summarized as follows:

The heads, both central and local, of the millets were chosen by the millet, but the choice was subject to the Sultan's approval, communicated in the form of an Imperial berat, which alone enabled the nominees to assume their offices and take possession of their temporalities...they had their place – a high one-- in the official hierarchy of the State, of which they were regarded as functionaries...they were ex-officio members in the provinces of the provincial administrative councils, while those at the headquarters had the right of audience of the Sultan. The heads of the millets represented their flocks in their general and personal affairs vis à vis the Sublime Porte.  

The autonomy of the millets was based on ancient custom, which was reinforced in the nineteenth century by specific edicts. Their government was conducted by the head of the millet,generally assisted by a council composed of clerical and lay members. The millets were autonomous in spiritual and in certain administrative and judicial matters. In the religious sphere, their jurisdiction embraced clerical discipline, in the administrative sphere, the control of their properties including cemeteries, education and churches; in the judicial sphere, marriage, dowries, divorce and alimony, civil rights, and in some millets, testamentary dispositions. Sentences pronounced by the courts of the millets were executed on their behalf by the State. 

The Social Position of Christians and Jews

(vii)             The millet system made it possible for the Christians and Jews to maintain something of their communal life and social position. They played a great part in commerce, finance, and certain crafts, which the Muslims at first despised and at which they never became as adept as their subjects. This gave the Christian and jews a considerable place in the economic and social life of the towns. In some regions they also had a part in the administration: for example, Egyptian finance was by tradition in the hands of the Copts. In northern iraq, northern Lebanon and parts of Syria, Palestine and Egypt, Christian  peasants cultivated the land, and Christian landowners were not unknown. In spite of the tendency to Islamization, Christians and Jews still preserved much of their social structure, and they kept their beliefs and rites undamaged. 

The Closed Community

(viii)       The Ottoman Empire was not a military state, it was composed of large numbers of groups, local , tribal, linguistic and religious. On the whole, these groups formed closed communities. Each was a world, sufficient to its members and exacting their ultimate loyalty. The worlds touched, but did not mingle, and they looked upon each other with suspicion. Almost all were stagnant, unchanging and limited; but the Sunni world, although torn by every sort of internal dissension, had something universal, a self-confidence and sense of responsibility which others lacked. They were marginal, shut out from power and historic decision.