Religion in the Middle East

By Stephanie Elaine Cavanaugh -

Image by Jamieson Gordon

Image by Jamieson Gordon

Religion and mythologies of gods have a long and deep-rooted history in the evolution of mankind. This holds true across the Middle East as well, in present-day and throughout history. At times, religion has created a strong sense of unity, like a glue that holds a people and community together, while at others it has been the source of divide and conflict. From a Pagan world of polytheistic worship rose the primary religions of influence we see today across the Middle East: the three Abrahamic religions––Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; and to a lesser extent, Zoroastrianism (Zarathustra). 

Religious historian Karen Armstrong presented an interesting observation concerning the experience of thinking, an activity that we do in modern thought (Armstrong 2011, Ch 1). She went on to explain that, in contrast, “Plato envisaged it as something which happens to the mind: the objects of thought were realities that were active in the intellect of the man who contemplated them” (Armstrong 2011, Ch 1). In a similar vein to Socrates, Plato “saw thought as a process of recollection, an apprehension of something that we had always known but had forgotten. Because human beings were fallen divinities, the forms of the divine world were within them and could be touched by reason, which was not simply a rational or cerebral activity but an intuitive grasp of the eternal reality within us” (Armstrong 2011, Ch 1). This concept greatly influenced all three major faiths.

While these religions of the Middle East are each unique in their own right, there are certainly similar themes across them, and this should come as no surprise given the position of each on the historical timeline of emergence and reign throughout the region. To a large degree, these religions interacted with and influenced one another. Zoroastrianism came into the picture somewhere between 1,500-500 B.C. and had a significant influence on all three Abrahamic faiths; examples can be found in the story of the three wise men, the North Star, and the birth of Jesus. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all trace their origins back to Abraham and present-day Iraq, and it is for this reason they are termed the three Abrahamic faiths.

Judaism is the oldest (estimated at around 3,500 years old) of the three, Yahweh is its God, and its holy book is the Tanakh. Christianity emerged next (estimated at around 2,000 years old), holds the belief that God consists of a trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), is heavily influenced by the teachings of Jesus (the Son of God), and its holy book is the bible––which includes large parts of the Tanakh. Islam, the youngest of the three faiths (estimated at around 1,400 years old), was founded by the Prophet Muhammed when he is said to have encountered the angel Gabriel and the Qur’an is Islam’s holy book. Muhammed served as the messenger of God and it was during the formation of Islam that religion and politics merged. Succession disagreement at the time of Muhammed’s death cultivated the Sunni/Shi’a split that still exists today. Islam is the most dominant of the religions across the Middle East.

While wars, violence, and disagreement across and within different faiths can be seen throughout history, Armstrong highlighted that in all the Abrahamic faiths, God “has inspired an ideal of social justice, even though it has to be said that Jews, Christians and Muslims have often failed to live up to this ideal and have transformed him into the God of the status quo” (Armstrong 2011, Ch 1). She also referred to this theme further in her 2009 TedGlobal talk, Let’s Revive the Golden Rule, where she spoke of the “centrality of compassion” across major religious faiths around the world; a concept found not only in religion but inherent in the human condition (Armstrong 2009). But this idea of compassion for others is too often, in our modern world, overshadowed by the desire for power, a fear of difference, or a dangerous us versus them mentality. Armstrong rightly states that “the task of our time, one of the great tasks of our time, is to build a global society… where people can live together in peace” (Armstrong 2009). Religions in the Middle East and around the world can choose to come from a place of compassion or they can contribute to the divide. I hope compassion wins.


Armstrong, Karen. 2011. A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. New York: Ballantine Books.

Armstrong, Karen. 2009. Let’s Revive the Golden Rule. Accessed July 1, 2019.

About the Author:


Stephanie Elaine Cavanaugh is a writer, podcaster, artist, and nonprofit operations director. She currently resides in Houston, Texas, where she works to help the local refugee community and the general population navigate the job search arena. She is currently working toward a degree in Middle Eastern studies.

Interests, ever-evolving: photography, painting, art, science, medicine, astronomy, yoga, travel, the world, culture, language, education, politics, women's rights, human rights.