Minorities in the Middle East

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Zaydi tribesmen in northern Yemen

Groups such as the Yazidis of Iraq and Armenia; the Alawites of Turkey and Syria; the Druze of Syria, Lebanon and Israel and the Zaydi (Zaidi) of Yemen are groups that mostly have their roots in intra-Muslim religious-political disputes. Many of them of offshoots of Shia Islam. These groups generally share a history of political dissidence, defeat and persecution and as a result generally live in marginal areas beyond the reach of the ruling regimes. The communities tend to be tightly organized under the leadership of religious elders and tend to be secretive and unaccessible to outsiders.

Approximately 30 percent of the people in Yemen belong to the Zaydi (Zaidi) sect of Shia Islam. They believe that an imam should be the worthiest member of the Prophet’s family. The did not recognize Muhammad al-Baqir (d. 731) as the fifth imam, as most Shia did, but recognized his brother Zayd instead (hence their name.

In Yemen, northerners mostly follow the conservative Zaidi sect of Shia Islam and have traditionally been isolated and suspicious of foreigners and outsiders while southerners mostly follow the liberal Shafi sect of Sunni Islam and have been exposed ti people from all over the world who showed up in their ports.

The Zaydis of San’a, a dynasty founded in A.D. 897 by a descendant of the Prophet, Yabya bin Hussein bin asim ar-Rassi, ruled strong semi-independent states in Yemen. The Zaydis created a strong and stable state that endured under the Ottomans and Europeans. They managed to suvive into the 20th century and were not toppled for good until the revolution in 1962. In the meantime, the Kathiris established a strong and stable kingdom in the Hadramawt area that endured until 1967.

The Sleb were a Gypsy-like group similar to Ghorbat (See Below) that were widely dispersed and were primarily based in the Syrian desert and in Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. They traditionally hunted gazelles and ostriches and supplied much needed goods to pastoral people and wore distinctive hood clothing made of gazelle skin. They were frequently mentioned in the old days by accounts from travelers and researchers but are now for al intents and purposes are extinct. There may be a few camps still in existence.

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Shias, Sufis and Muslim Sects and Schools Divisions in Islam archive.org ; Four Sunni Schools of Thought masud.co.uk ; Wikipedia article on Shia Islam Wikipedia Shafaqna: International Shia News Agency shafaqna.com ; Roshd.org, a Shia Website roshd.org/eng ; The Shiapedia, an online Shia encyclopedia web.archive.org ; shiasource.com ; Imam Al-Khoei Foundation (Twelver) al-khoei.org ; Official Website of Nizari Ismaili (Ismaili) the.ismaili ; Official Website of Alavi Bohra (Ismaili) alavibohra.org ; The Institute of Ismaili Studies (Ismaili) web.archive.org ; Wikipedia article on Sufism Wikipedia ; Sufism in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World oxfordislamicstudies.com ; Sufism, Sufis, and Sufi Orders – Sufism's Many Paths islam.uga.edu/Sufism ; Afterhours Sufism Stories inspirationalstories.com/sufism ; Risala Roohi Sharif, translations (English and Urdu) of "The Book of Soul", by Hazrat Sultan Bahu, a 17th century Sufi risala-roohi.tripod.com ; The Spiritual Life in Islam:Sufism thewaytotruth.org/sufism ; Sufism - an Inquiry sufismjournal.org


The first identifiable sect of Islam was the Kharijite sect, one that remains relatively unknown among non-Islamic people. Zachery Brasier wrote in List Verse: “After Muhammad died, a string of caliphs followed him, but there was constant discussion and debate about how the religion should actually proceed. When an assassin killed the third caliph, Uthman, the Muslim community split between two factions, each fighting for control of the community and doctrine. The main debate was over who should be the next caliph. Eventually those two factions would form the Shi’ite and Sunni sects. During that time, a third group organized as a sect of Islam, separate from the other two factions. The chief doctrine of the Kharijites was the idea that anybody could be a caliph. [Source: Zachery Brasier, List Verse, April 8, 2016 ]

Arabia was the site for some of the conflicts on which the sectarian divisions of Islam are based, namely Shiasm (from Shiat Ali or "party of Ali"). One Shia denomination, the Kharijite movement, began in events surrounding the assassination of Uthman, the third caliph, and the transfer of authority to Ali, the fourth caliph. Those who believed Ali should have been the legitimate successor to the Prophet refused to accept the authority of Uthman. Muawiyah in Syria challenged Ali's election as caliph, leading to a war between the two and their supporters. Muawiyah and Ali eventually agreed to an arbitrator, and the fighting stopped. Part of Ali's army, however, objected to the compromise, claiming Muawiyah's family were insincere Muslims. So strong was their protest against compromise that they left Ali's camp (the term khariji literally means "the ones who leave") and fought a battle with their former colleagues the next year. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Saudi Arabia: A Country Study, U.S. Library of Congress, 1992 *]

The Kharijite movement continued to be significant on the Persian Gulf coast in the ninth through the eleventh century and survived in the twentieth century in the more moderate form of Ibadi Islam. The uncompromising fanaticism of the original Kharijites was, however, indicative of the fervor with which the tribal Arabs had accepted the missionary ideology of Islam. It was this fervor that made it possible for Arab armies to conquer so much territory in the seventh century. This same spirit helped the Al Saud succeed at the end of the eighteenth century and again at the beginning of the twentieth.*

Kharijite Beliefs

The most prominent quality of the Kharijite movement was opposition to the caliph's representatives and particularly to Muawiyah, who became caliph after Ali. Although the Kharijites were known to some Muslims as bandits and assassins, they developed certain ideal notions of justice and piety. The Prophet Muhammad had been sent to bring righteousness to the world and to teach the Arabs to pray and to distribute their wealth and power fairly. According to the Kharijites, whoever was lax in following the Prophet's directives should be opposed, ostracized, or killed.*

Zachery Brasier wrote in List Verse: ““While the rest of the Muslims argued over whether the caliph should descend from Muhammad or not, the Kharijites believed that anybody could be a caliph, as long as they received revelation from Allah. They held a democratic view of the caliphate, rejecting the idea that the caliphate should descend through family lines. Along with their views on the caliphate, the Kharijites held an extremely puritanical view of Islam. According to them, any major sin committed by a Muslim disqualified that person as a Muslim. [Source: Zachery Brasier, List Verse, April 8, 2016 ]

Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa: 1) dark green, where they are the majority; 2) green, where minorities are the majority within Arab states; 3) where they are a minority in Non-Arab states

“As they spread their beliefs, the Kharijites also evolved into a violent organization, conducting killings and terrorism against Muslims who did not agree with them. Over time, they split into various sects, some of which still exist in much less extreme forms. However, some scholars of Islam believe that although ISIS is not a literal descendant of the Kharijite movement, it bears many ideological similarities to the earlier sect.”


Alawite, (Arabic: Alawi, plural: Alawiyah) refers any member of a minority sect of Shia Muslims living chiefly in Syria. The Alawite community made up around 12 percent of Syria's pre-war population of 24 million. They traditionally been associated with Syria’s Assad regime. Both President Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s current leader, and his father, a long-serving dictator of Syria, are Alawites.

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: “The roots of Alawism lie in the teachings of Muhammad ibn Nusayr an-Namiri (fl. 850), a Basran contemporary of the 10th Shia imam, and the sect was chiefly established by Husayn ibn Hamdan al-Khasibi (d. 957 or 968) during the period of the Hamdanid dynasty (905–1004), at which time the ?Alawites had great influence in Aleppo. With the fall of Shia rule, however, the Alawites, with other Shia, became the victims of persecution. They were ill-treated by waves of Crusaders, by Mamluks, and by Ottoman conquerors, in addition to fighting a number of internecine wars. [Source: Encyclopædia Britannica]

Considered by many Muslims to be heretics, the present-day Alawites obtained a legal decision about their status as Muslims from the Lebanese leader of the Ithna Ashariyah (Twelver) sect of Shia Islam. The Alawite sect has become politically dominant in Syria, particularly since 1971, when Hafiz al-Assad, an Alawite, was elected president of the country. The sect is predominant in the Latakia region of Syria, and it extends north to Antioch (Antakya), Turkey.Many Alawites also live around or in Hims and Hamah. They are second in number within Syria to the Sunnite sect, which makes up about three-fourths of the Muslim population of mostly Muslim Syria.

The name Alawi is more generally used to refer to all the groups affiliated with one of the Alis; thus the Muslims usually refer to the Syrian Alawites as Nusayriyah, or Namiriyah. Though well established in Syria since the 12th century, the Alawites were not able to fully adopt the name Alawi until 1920, the time of French occupation of the area.

Alawite Beliefs

Alawites celebrating a festival in Banyas, Syria

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: “The basic doctrine of Alawite faith is the deification of Ali. He is one member of a trinity corresponding roughly to the Christian Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Alawites interpret the Pillars of Islam (the five duties required of every Muslim) as symbols and thus do not practice the Islamic duties. They celebrate an eclectic group of holidays, some Islamic, some Christian, and many Alawite practices are secret. They consider themselves to be moderate Shia, not much different from the Twelvers.” [Source: Encyclopædia Britannica]

Caroline Wyatt of the BBC wrote: The Alawites emerged in the 10th Century in neighbouring Iraq. Little has been confirmed about their beliefs and practices since then because, according to the leaders, they had to be hidden to avoid persecution. However, most sources say the name "Alawite" refers to their veneration of the first Shia imam, Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Muhammad. [Source:Caroline Wyatt, BBC, 3 April 2016]

“Alawites are said to share the belief of members of the main branches of Shia Islam, of which Ithna Asharis or Twelvers are the largest group, that Ali was the rightful successor to Muhammad as leader of the Muslim community following his death in 632. The Alawites purportedly differ from Twelvers in holding that Ali was a manifestation of God - a notion that some members of Syria's Sunni majority consider heretical.”

In a document published in 2016 “Alawite leaders insist that their faith is "solely based on the idea of worshipping God". They add that "the Qur’an alone is our holy book and a clear reference to our Muslim quality". While acknowledging that they share some formal religious sources, the leaders stress that Alawism is distinct from Shia Islam, and decline previous legal rulings, or fatwas, by leading Shia clerics that seek to "appropriate the Alawites and consider Alawism an integral part of Shiism or a branch of the latter". The leaders also acknowledge that Alawites have incorporated elements of other monotheistic religions into their traditions, most notably Judaism and Christianity, but say they should "not be seen as marks of deviation from Islam but as elements that bear witness to our riches and universality".

Baha’i Faith

Baha'u'llah's banishment from Iran then to Acre during the Ottoman Empire

The Baha’i faith is an offshoot of Islam that preaches the value of spirituality, truth and universal peace and believes in the essential worth of all religions. There are about 6 millions people who describe themselves as Baha’i. The largest numbers are India and Malaysia, each of which are home to around 1 million Baha’i. About 300,000 members live in Iran, making them the largest religious minority there.

The Bahai faith began a reformist movement within Shia Islam in Iran in 1844. The religion has gone through great changes and its members have endured more than their share of persecution. The Bahai faith developed from the Babis, an extremely militant sect made of members who were willing to die to convert people to their belief. It is not surprising that they were condemned and persecuted. Their leader, The Bab, was executed in 1850. The Bab’s successors transformed Babis faith into the peaceful Baha’i faith.

Bahai's believe that God is completely transcendent and is unattainable to human beings and all religions sprout from the same source and are therefore are equally valid. The Bahai's recognize 18 major prophets or messengers, who are regarded as reflections of God. These include Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Zoroaster, Buddha, Confucius and The Bab. Egalitarianism and equality of the sexes are emphasized and members are required to gather every 19 days.

In Iran the Baha’i are still persecuted because of their association with The Bab. Baha’i is not recognized as a religion and the Baha’i are not regarded as a religious minority. The notion that Muhammad was not the last prophet is regarded as heretical to Muslims.

Arab Jews

About 850,000 Jews lived throughout the Arab world before the state of Israel was created in 1948. That number has dwindled to fewer than 4,500. Jewish communities have virtually disappeared across North Africa and the Middle East, including Libya, Algeria, Egypt and Yemen. [Source: Kristen McTighe, USA TODAY, May 27, 2016]

Algerian Jew

Most Jews now living in the Arab world belong to communities dating back to Old Testament times or originating as colonies of refugees fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Arab-Israeli wars and hostility towards Jews has reduced the numbers of Jews in the Arab world from around 1 million to around 6,000 today. There were 850,000 Jews in the Middle East after World War II. After the creation of Israel in 1948, many Jews in Muslim countries emigrated there.

Jews in the Middle East and North Africa
Country or Territory — Core Jewish Population — Population per Jewish Person — Enlarged Jewish Population [Source: Wikipedia +]
Israel — 6,399,000 — 1.32 — 6,451,000
Turkey — 17,200 — 4,801 — 21,000
Iran — 8,756 — 9,186 — 12,000
Morocco — 6,000 — 13,745 — 6,500
Tunisia — 900 — 12,153 — 1,100
Lebanon — 200 — 29,415 — 200
United Arab Emirates — 100 — 91,570 — 500
Yemen — 40 - 50 — 289,467 — 300
Egypt — 18 — 5,259,277 — 40 - 50
Bahrain — 36 36,500 — 36

See Separate Article Under Jews on the Jews from the different countries listed above.

Arabic-Speaking Jews

The Jewish communities that lived in the Middle East have traditionally been Arabic-speaking. Their numbers were largest in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and southeastern Turkey. Their names were often associated with where they lived. In Syria, the Halabiye, for example, were from Allepo and the Shawan were from Damascus. Among Arabs, Arabic-speaking Jews were often called “Yashud awlad al-‘arab” (literally “Jews who are children of the Arabs”).

The number of Arabic-speaking Jews in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt was estimated to be 180,000 in 1917, 261,000 in 1947 and 5,200 in 1972 of whom 5,000 were in Syria and Lebanon. The figures are even lower today as almost all the Jews in these countries have emigrated. Many of the Arabic-speaking Jews emigrated to Israel. They and their descendants now largely speak Hebrew

Pre-Israel, Arabic-speaking Jews tended to mix Jewish customs with those of their Arab-Muslim neighbors. In the old days many were traders or artisans. Those that lived in the countryside often worked as traveling peddlers. In modern times they were associated with precious metals and were often goldsmiths or silversmiths.


The term “Ghorbat” is used to describe an itinerant people of low status that have traditionally been based mostly in Afghanistan but wandered throughout the Middle East, Central Asia and the Balkans. Similar to Gypsies and peripetics and also known as Ghurbat, Gurbet and Qorbat, they have traditionally worked as artisans, traders and peddlers. The origin of the word Ghorbat is unknown. It is believed to have been derived from Arabic/Persian word for “stranger,” “exile,” “the west” or even “poverty.”

The Ghorbat are believed to be of Persian origin. They traditionally followed the season and often showed up near the harvest season, supplying tools that were needed for the harvest and practiced folk medicine and performed bloodletting in the autumn. Their clients were often poor and they liked to show up around harvest tome because that is when they were most likely to have some money. They often bartered their services and good for food. .

Levant ethnic groups

In the 1970s, the Ghorbat were found mostly in Afghanistan. By one count there about 5,000 of them at that time. At that time there were about 5,000 Ghorbat. Fifty one percent of the families studied were entirely nomadic, 32 percent were entirely settled and 17 percent were partly settled. By this time they had largely given up on transport animals and used buses to get around.

Ghorbat Life

The Ghorbat speak Qazulagi, their own language, and Pasht and Dari. Those that traveled lived in camp tents surrounded by mud-and-stone walls aimed to keep rain out. The tents were organized around a common area and the rear tent flap was left open for security so that people in one tent could keep on eye on people in other tent.

The itinerant Ghorbat specialized in maing seves that were used to harvest crops but also made tambrones, birdcages and traditional cosmetics and other goods. Men were responsible for making the goods while women were responsible for peddling them. Most were Shia Muslim. Totting and dancing with tambourines were common.


Mandaeans are a non-Muslim have preserved ancient religious traditions that are related to gnosticism of according to A.D. third and forth centuries and is affiliated with both Judaism and Christianity. They believe that the human soul ascended by way of an inner illumination to reunion with a Supreme being and believe existence is shaped by duelist forces such good and evil, light and dankness fighting for control of the world.
Based on Mandaean language and literature, the Mandaeans believed to have migrated from the Jordan Valley to Haran on the present-day border of Turkey and Syria and then moved to southern Babylonia were they remained. Today they live along rivers and waterways in southern Iraq and in Khuzestan Iran, particularly along te lower Tigris and Euphrates. The Mandean language is related Aramaic There are few Mandaeans left and the have generally been left alone by their Muslim neighbors. An outbreak of cholera in 1830 wiped out their entire priestly class (it has since been replaced). There were worries that group might become extinct but renewed interest in Mandean traditions has led to a revival.


After the Muslim conquest when all religious groups were required to have a sacred book of be forcibly converted to Islamic, the Mandaeans proclaimed a book called the “Ginza”—a collection of hymns, myths and revelatory writings—as their sacred book and John the Baptist as their prophet.

Baptism and purification are important parts of the Mandaean religion. Water is regarded as a tool for washing away one’s sins and viewed as a lightworld reflection of the real world. Repeated baptism take place on Sundays and specific festival days. Lay members are baptism as may times as they want and many get baptized after the get married, after a childbirth (with women) and before death f possible. Baptisms and a secret ritual for the dead are performed by priests, Minor abulatiosn are performed by lay people.

Benja is a five-day religious holiday celebrated by Mandaeans. On the first day religious rites are conducted under a parasol.


The term “peripatetics” is used to describe nomads and traveler who do not live off the land or animals as most nomads do but rather earn money in other ways such as street performers, animal trainers, peddlers and tinkerers. They roam around the countryside and travel from town to town and having flexible skills and the ability to speak several languages. In the Middle East and Central Asia they often provided goods ad services to desert and steppe pastorialists. Itinerant entertainers, street acrobats, and traveling blacksmiths fall into the category of peripatetics. They are sometimes called Gypsies and known by a variety of names depending on the region they are from. .

Peripatetics are ethnically diverse and have traditionally been associated with India but are also found n Central Asia and the Middle East. There are believed to be only a few tens of thousand left. Most are members of groups that have a few thousand members. Most are Muslims. They generally speak the language of their home village or camp as their first language and also speak the languages of the places they travel in. The also are familiar with customs and economies of the places they work and try their best to fit in.

The existence of peripatetics is attributed the abundance of weekly markets, fair, and pilgrimages that brought large groups together and created markets that peripatetics could exploit. There status today is largely unknown and it is not even known whether peripatetic communities still exist. Some communities are believed to have originated in Iran. Others in India, Others are of local origin.

See RICH CASTES AND ENTERTAINER CASTES Under India, Minorities factsanddetails.com

Peripatetic Life

Most peripatetics in Central Asia and the Middle East are now sedentary. Traditionally, they traveled only part of the year and spent time at their “home villages.” Others were on the road throughout the year and had no real home village. While they were on the road they slept in their bullock carts or in cloth or reed tents. Some took shelter at mosques. They have traditionally been the busiest around the harvest season when they hoped to get grain as payment for their goods. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

Peripatetics that still practice their trade are good at sussing out the needs of the communities they service. Many practice several trades and have trades they can resort to if necessary. One group may specialize in household utensils and farm tools while another may specialize in hunting, trapping and fishing tools. Performers often have several specialities and can practice a trade if necessary. A man with a dancing bear, for example, may also be a passable singer and storyteller and have skills as a fortuneteller or a blacksmith. Some women work as prostitutes. Their flexibility and low overhead often allows them to out-compete non-nomads. If they have trouble making a living in one trade they switch to another. If all else fails they beg.

Often entire families travel together and all the members are involved in the trade. If they aren’t they usually lend support by doing things like domestic chores, setting up tents and fetching water. Often extended families travel and camp together. There are a wide range of marriage customs although unions are generally within a general trade group. Some groups have a council of elders that plays a role in social control and resolving disputes.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Levant map, Ya Libnan

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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