The Middle East can be described as a cradle of civilizations and culture. It is the home and birthplace of three of the most commonly practiced religions in the world: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Today, this region is commonly identified with its religious fervor and their resulting conflicts. The religions of the region are not confined to The Big Three alone, and although the variety of religions have been cause for conflict, further understanding of these religious traditions is a vital element to better comprehend the region as a whole. The word religion refers to the beliefs, rituals, moral codes for behavior, and the practices and traditions recommended by a particular faith.
Judaism, the oldest of the monotheistic religions, arose in the region of the eastern Mediterranean two thousand years before Christ was born and like Islam and Christianity, acknowledges Abraham as the first prophet. He is considered to have been the first Jew, and is supposed to have made a covenant with God. Judaism is one of the Abrahamic religions. It is the predominant religion of Israel, and has been the source of one of the most prolonged conflicts in recent history.
Communities of Jews had always been rather small in historic Palestine, however the Roman Empire scattered the community in 73 C.E. after a minor uprising. Until they established the country of Israel in 1948, Jews lived among other communities, always as a minority. When a large number of the Jewish population came together after the founding of Israel, different cultures, traditions, and practices were discovered among their own religion. Those from Eastern Europe and Germany were known as the Ashkenazim, a word that is derived from Ashkenazic, which is the Hebrew word for Germany. These people spoke Yiddish, a mixture of Hebrew and German. Many Jews took refuge in Palestine during the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th century to escape the discrimination they faced in Europe. From the Iberian Peninsula, the Sephardic Jews once spoke Ladino, a fusion of Spanish and Hebrew. The Iberian Peninsula is what is now known as Spain and Portugal, and the word Sephardic fittingly is derived from the Hebrew word for Spain. Finally there are the Mizrahi Jews, also called Oriental Jews, who came from North Africa and from Asia. Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews generally stay incorporated in their own societies.
Jews are of the belief that there is only one God, although they do give respect to Moses, whom they believe to have received laws or commandments from God. These laws are represented in the Torah, which is also known as the Pentateuch and contains 613 commandments given by God, and the Talmud, which was completed in the 15th century as a commentary on the Torah. Jews believe that they should follow the Torah. In the Jewish religion, dogma is not as important as actions are, meaning that human behavior and observance of rules are more important than any debate on belief. Judaism believes that the people of Israel are the chosen people, and that an individual's actions are only important since these affect the community that the individual lives in. There is also a belief that a Messiah will appear who will bring peace. Their common practices today include the Bar Mitzvah, keeping kosher, and traditional birth ceremonies, and marriage and funeral ceremonies.
Not only does the Jewish religion play a large role in politics, it was also only until recently that the Orthodox form of Judaism was the only form recognized legally and formally. Debate still exists about religion's place in politics, and although less traditional branches of the ancient religion have now been acknowledged, Orthodoxy retains its greater status, both legally and politically. A number of Israeli Jews describe themselves by the degree of their religious observance. About half consider themselves secular Jews, 15-20% are considered Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox Jews, and the remainder are considered traditionally observant though not to the extent of Orthodox Jews.
Starting as a derivative of Judaism, early Christian societies were often persecuted, and Christianity did not fully take off until the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 324 C.E. After this time, the Roman Empire came to be known as the Holy Roman Empire and its capital was relocated to Constantinople, which is now Istanbul. Due to political and doctrine difference, in 1054 C.E., the Orthodox Church split from the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope. Frustration with the corruption of the Catholic papacy led Martin Luther to begin the reformation movement in the 16th century, which eventually resulted in the birth of Protestantism. Christianity is largely practiced in every human inhabited continent on the Earth, although like Judaism, different regions differ in their practices slightly. Several ancient Christian saints lived in the Middle East, where monastic traditions and the denial of physical and materialistic pleasures developed. Groups of Christians in the Middle East include the Copts, Assyrians, Armenian Catholics, and even Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Protestants.
Like Judaism, monotheistic traditions are practiced in Christianity in which Jesus is considered to be the founder and following the laws of its holy scriptures the Old Testament which is essentially the Torah with some additions, and the New Testament (containing Jesus' life story written by his followers after his death). The main belief of the Christians is that God is revealed through the three dimensions, the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit. Born to the Virgin Mary, Jesus is the Son of God according to their beliefs, who came to Earth to redeem the sins of mankind. According to their beliefs, if a person lives a good life following the laws given by God, and performs good works, their souls will rest in heaven, whereas if they live an impenitent life, they will be punished in hell. In practice, they believe in giving thanks to God for everything, perform baptism for newborn children, confirmation when they are older, and in confession of their sins, and in doing penance to make up for their sins.
Islam grew from Christianity and Judaism, as well as from the cultural values of Arabian Bedouin tribes, and saw its rise in the early 7th century C.E. Islam expanded into areas governed by both the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanian Empire, and by the mid-8th century it had spread to North Africa, East and Central Asia, and Europe. Islam achieved further expansion to sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and South Asia over the centuries. As the expansion proceeded, different societies assimilated Islam to their traditions so that today, different regions practice slightly altered versions of Islam.
Muslim belief is that Allah sent his "revelation" through the Quran to the prophet Muhammad in the 7th century C.E. The Quran explains to mankind how to treat others properly, and commands them to worship one God, Allah. Another holy text is the Hadith, which was written after Muhammad's death by scholars, describing his life as a pious one. It also contains explanations regarding how certain rituals should be practiced and dictates law for the community based on the Quran using the example set by Mohammad. The five main principles of Islam also known as the five pillars of Islam, that must be practiced by observant Muslims include oral declaration of their faith, prayers five times a day, keeping a fast during the day during Ramadan, giving alms to the poor and doing charitable works, and traveling to Mecca in their lifetime at least once if they can afford it. Muslims believe in the Day of Judgment, which is when righteous souls are sent to heaven and when impenitent souls are sent to hell.
Different Islamic groups, which are well known today, include the Shiis, Sunnis, Alevis or the Alawites, Ismailis, and Druze. These different communities originate in differences in doctrines and politics.Some traditions practiced by Muslims include polygamy, the use of a veil or head scarf by the women to preserve their modesty, the importance placed on family and home, and strict family rules. Although the Quran does not necessarily require these practices such as the veil, it has been interpreted in this way by Muslim clerics, and severe punishment is given out to those who do not follow their laws in many countries in the Middle East such as Iran. The clerics often employ Sharia law to decide on punishments for crimes against their religion. Sharia is a body of laws based on the Quran, the Hadith, the Sunnah (which is the everyday religious practices of Prophet Mohammad), and the ijma, which is a universal agreement that interprets the meaning of the Quran and Sunnah.
The most prominent practiced religion in the Middle East today is Islam, a set of beliefs with potential to do a lot of good in this world. However, Islam is associated at present with the violent and inhumane acts of terrorism contributing to the deaths and casualties in Iraq and Iran, and across borders not in the Middle East, such as India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and even Spain, the UK, and the United States. Islam was built upon proper morals; but extremists who have misinterpreted the messages given about loyalty and pride to their culture and country have blown the situation out of proportion. Violence has been largely incorporated in many practices of the religion, but further understanding about the true principles it was built upon may help the Middle East and countries around the world to properly appreciate and value Islam the Middle East and its culture.