Middle East Society and Culture

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Middle East Society and Culture

  • Louay M. Safi
  • Executive Director ISNA Leadership Development Center

Where Continents Meet

  • The Middle East is not a geographical region, like Africa, Asia, or Europe.
  • Geographically, it denotes an area in which Africa, Asia, and Europe interconnect.

Soft and Shifting Boundaries

  • There are no natural borders that delineate the boundaries of the Middle East.
  • Egypt, Iran, Sudan, Turkey, North Africa are disputed parts of the region.

The Middle East

  • In fact the boundaries of the Middle East are political, and they keep shifting overtime.
  • Islam is the common thread that join Middle Eastern Country together

Presentation Outline

  • Islam
      • Who are Muslims
      • Concept of God
      • Islamic Belief and Practices
      • Attitude towards other Religions
  • History
      • Islamic Civilization
      • Crusades
      • Ottoman Empire
      • Colonialism
  • Society
      • Islam and Modernity
      • Middle East Culture
      • Women


Islam and Muslims

  • The world of Islam is as diverse as the world of Christianity.
  • Islam is experienced differently across cultures. In the words of a contemporary scholar of Islam: “Islam is like a river in that it takes its color from the cultural bed it flows through.”

What is ISLAM?

  • Islam is an Arabic word derived from the word peace, which also means submitting to a higher will.
  • Islam means seeking peace by submitting to the Divine Will.

Who are the Muslims?

  • Individuals who completely and peacefully submits to the will of God, believe in the Articles of Faith and practices the Five Pillars of Islam.
  • Muslims constitute 1/5 of world population, about 1.4 billion, and form the majority in 40 countries.
  • Most Muslims live outside the Middle East.

Who is God in Islam?

  • Say: He is God, the One ; God, the Eternal and Absolute; He begets not, nor is He begotten; And there is none like unto Him.
  • Qur’an (112 : 1-4)

Who is God in Islam?

  • “God is He, beside whom there is no other god; He knows (all things) both secret and open; He, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.”
  • “God is He, beside whom there is no other god; the Sovereign, the Holy, the Peace, the Guardian of Faith, the Preserver of Safety, the Exalted in Might, the Irresistible, the Supreme: Glory to God! (High is He) above the partners they attribute to Him. He is God, the Creator, the Evolver, the Form Giver. To Him belong the Most Beautiful Names: whatever is in the heavens and on earth, does celebrate His Praises and Glory: and He is the Exalted in Might, the Wise.”
  • (Qur’an 59: 22-4)

Who is Prophet Muhammad?

  • Born in Makkah (Mecca) in the year 570 (CE).
  • Received his first revelation from God at the age of forty, while engaged in a meditative retreat, through Archangel Gabriel (Holy Spirit).
  • Revelations continued for twenty-three years, and are recorded in the Qur’an.


  • The Qur’an is the record of the words of God revealed to Prophet Muhammad in Arabic through Archangel Gabriel. This revelation came in phases and continued for twenty-three years.
  • Qur’an is the primary source of Islamic guidance.


  • Sunnah, the practices, examples and saying of Prophet Muhammad.
  • A major source of Islamic guidance.
  • Illustrates Islamic faith in practice.
  • Collected in hundreds of texts known as “Hadiths” (narrations).

Articles of Faith

  • Belief in the Oneness or Unity of the Divine.
  • Belief in Angels created by God
  • Belief in the Revealed Books of God.
  • Belief in the Messengers and Prophets.
  • Articles of Faith
  • Belief in the Day of Judgment.
  • Belief in Divine Dispensation.

The Five Pillars of Islam

  • Islam is built on five pillars, the first of which is a statement of faith. The other four are major exercises of faith
  • Declaration of Faith (Shahadah).
  • Obligatory Charity (Zakah)
    • The Pilgrimage (Hajj)
  • Prayer (Salah)
    • Fasting (Siyam)
  • Hajj
  • Mecca

Spirit of Islam

  • O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted with all things.
  • Qur’an (49:13)

The Spirit of Islam

  • The leading features of Mohammedanism [Islam] involve this—that in actual existence nothing can become fixed, but that everything is destined to expand itself in activity and life in boundless amplitude of the world, so that the worship of the one remains the only bond by which the whole is capable of uniting. In this expansion, this active energy, all limits, all national and cast distinctions vanish, no particular race, no political claim of birth or possession is regarded—only man as a believer.
  • G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of History

Respect of Religious Diversity

  • Muslims, like Christians and Jews, trace their religion to Prophet Abraham. Israelites are the descendant of Isaac and Arabs are the descendant of Ishmael.
  • “Say (O Muslims), We believe in God, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) Prophets from their Lord: we make no difference between one and another of them: and we bow to God in submission.”
  • (Qur’an 2:136)

Respect of Religious Diversity

  • Salvation: Devotion Not Association
  • “Those who believe (in the Qur’an), those who follow the Jewish (scripture), the Christians, and the Sabians, anyone who believes in God and the Last Day, and works righteousness, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (Qur’an 2:62)
  • Search For Common Ground
  • "Say: O People of the Book! come to common terms as between us and you: That we worship none but God; that we associate no partners with him; that we erect not, from among ourselves, Lords and patrons other than God."(3:64)

Religious Diversity

  • Mention the glory of Spanish Jewry in the days before the Inquisition and what comes immediately to mind are the southern cities of Cordoba and Granada, where giants of Jewish history like Moses Maimonides and Yehuda Halevi lived and wrote, and where highly literate Jewish communities helped the Muslim leaders of Spain create a glorious civilization at a time when Christian Europe was slumbering in the Dark Ages. Another city where Jewish life flourished before the Inquisition is Toledo, the beautiful former capital of Castille, located near Madrid in central Spain, which, like Cordoba and Granada, is today much visited by Jewish tourists from around the world.
  • Walter Ruby, Off the Beaten Path in Tarazona, Spain, Jewish Heritage

Islamic Civilization

  • The Muslims of Spain were the most cultured people of the West. Literature and art became their glories, and learning flourished when rulers, often men of letters themselves, invited some of the best scholars of the Muslim East to settle in Spain. By the twelfth century scholars from northern Europe were flocking to Spain to study, and through them much of the learning of the Arabs was passed to Christian Europe.
  • T. Walter Wallbank, et. al., Civilization Past and Present.


The Expansion of Islam

Islamic Civilization

  • ▲ Alhambra Palace, Granada 715
  • ▲ Umayyad Mosque, Damascus 705
  • Khaju Bridge in Isfahan, built 1602 ▼

Islamic Civilization

  • ◄ Cordova University (Cordova 786)
  • Al Azhar University ► (Cairo 972)
  • The Blue Mosque (Istanbul 1603)

Social Mobility for All

  • Moses Maimonides (1135-1204)
  • The foremost intellectual figure of medieval Judaism, was born Moses ben Maimon in Cordoba, Spain to an educated, distinguished family. Maimonides began his study of medicine in Fez, Morocco, and later moved to Cairo, Egypt. Soon after their arrival Maimonides' father and brother died, and Maimonides began to practice medicine to support his family. His fame as a physician spread, and he soon became the court physician for Sultan Saladin and his family. Maimonides also lectured at the local hospital, maintained a private practice, and was a leader in the Jewish community.

The Crusades

  • A series of four campaigns between 1096 and 1270 urged by the Pope for recapturing Jerusalem.
  • The Crusaders controlled a long strip of land along the Mediterranean (50 miles wide and 500 long)
  • The fourth Crusade led to the sacking of Constantinople, and the weakening of the Byzantine Empire.

The Crusades

Ottoman Empire

  • Communal politics – The Millet System.
  • Limited government
  • Strong civil society – civil society institutions funded by foundations (waqf).
  • Law enacted by civil society.

Ottoman Empire

Ottoman Empire Dismemberment

  • The modernization of the Ottoman Empire.
  • Turkification of the Empire.
  • Centralization of political authority.
  • Arab revolt and the Sykes-Picot Agreement 1916.



Continuity and Change

  • Middle Eastern society has been in a state of flux for over a century, searching for a new direction and identity, and experiencing a great deal of tension as rivaling forces compete for its future.
  • The most pronounced tension is between modernity and tradition, that increasingly takes the form of struggle between Islam and modernity.
  • Islam is viewed by many Muslims not simply as a religion, but also as a cultural identity and heritage.
  • While cultures and traditions vary markedly, the following qualities are often shared by M.E. Culture.

Middle Eastern Culture

  • Honor (self-respect to self-pride) and expectation of equal treatment regardless of wealth, position, or rank.
  • Fierce sense of independence and resentment of imposed rules or decisions not sanctioned by social norms and customs.
  • Strong loyalty to extended family, friends, and locality, and a great expectation of solidarity.
  • Hospitality to guests and visitors.

Family Role

  • Family is often inclusive of cousins
  • Family loyalty and obligation is paramount
  • Family is seen as a person’s ultimate refuge and support system
  • Children are taught profound respect for adults

Men and Women

  • The public display of intimacy between men and women is considered offensive.
  • This code also applies to husbands and wives
  • The maintenance of family honor is one of the highest values.
  • In Middle Eastern cultures, promiscuous behavior can be more damaging to family honor.
  • Most Middle Easterners still prefer arranged marriage. The family always plays a major role in the decision of any member to wed.

Islam and Modernity

  • The Shock of Modernity
    • Colonialism and the Loss of independence
    • Modern State and the Loss of local autonomy and control
    • Westernization and the Loss of Tradition
    • Fragmentation and the Loss of Unity
  • Islamic Reassertion
    • Rejection: Radical Islam
    • Reconciliation: Reform Islam
    • Dualism: Traditional Islam


  • Islam was dismissed by the 1950s as Pre-Modern and obsolete:
  • Whether form East or from West, modernization poses the same basic challenge—the infusion of “a rationalist and positivist spirit” against which scholars seem agreed, “Islam is absolutely defenseless.”
  • Daniel Lerner, The Passing of Traditional Society

Traditional City

  • Narrow Allies, Plain External Design

Traditional City

  • Privacy
  • Open space is located within the traditional house.
  • All Houses look alike form outside – no decoration.
  • Court yard is located inside the house.

Traditional City

  • ▲ Umayyad Mosque built 705-715 AD.
  • ◄ Suq (Shopping Mall) Al-Hamiddiyyah.

Modern City

  • Modern Dubai
  • Modern Cairo
  • Multi-Story apartment buildings is the new residential pattern.

Middle Eastern Women

Middle Eastern Women

Status of Women

  • Statements on women’s status vary in applicability depending on the country involved. For instance, in Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, educated women have been very active at all levels of society.
  • In the Persian Gulf States, most women do not work. Those who do, work only in all-female environments such as schools and banks for women, except those in the medical profession
  • Traditionally-oriented men and women don’t see prevailing customs as restrictions-rather as protections

Women Social Participation

  • Traditional Muslim societies are patriarchic.
  • Modern Influence and Muslim feminism
  • Islamic Influence and Revisiting Islamic Sources:
  • Believing men and women are the guardian and protector of one another, they both enjoin the good and prohibit evil, establish prayers, give for charity, and obey God and His Messenger.
  • (Qura’n 9: 71 )

Politicization of Hijab

  • women attire (hijab) have been frequently viewed via a political lens.
  • Kemal Attaturk prohibited Islamic outfit.
  • Syrian government placed ban on the hijab in the 1980s.
  • Turkey and Tunisia persecutes women who wear hijab since early 1990s.
  • Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to enforce hijab.
  • France outlawed hijab in late 2003.

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