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Middle East

The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

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    Middle East

    The region that includes the lands of southwest Asia and North Africa is frequently called the Middle East. The term itself did not appear until the late 1800s, when European imperial planners used it to refer to the area between the “Far East” and the “Near East.” In the mid-1900s, the Middle East emerged as the most common label for a region with boundaries that varied according to the person or group describing the region. The broadest definition of the Middle East covers the region extending from Pakistan to Morocco; more limited definitions focus on the eastern Arab world, Turkey, and Iran. Although the term Middle East is relatively recent, this region with distinctive characteristics has been the center of the Islamic world since the Arab-Muslim expansion of the 600s.

    Spread of Islam

    Before the rise of Islam, Arabia consisted of various self-governing tribes and had no central leadership. In the early 600s, Muhammad unified much of the region under his rule. Muslim armies conquered other lands, and soon gained control over vast portions of the Middle East. Powerful caliphates emerged, but the region proved difficult to govern. Warfare and upheaval repeatedly divided the Middle East.

    The First Great Dynasties.

    By the time of Muhammad's death in 632 , Muslim forces controlled the entire Arabian Peninsula. During the next three decades, Arab armies conquered Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and most of Iran. In 661 the Syrian governor Mu'awiyah wrested control of the Islamic caliphate away from Muhammad's family. Mu'awiyah established the Umayyad dynasty, which was based in Damascus. Umayyad armies pushed through Iran to invade Central Asia and India. They also occupied North Africa and much of Spain. In less than a century, the Umayyad caliphate had united the Middle East and its neighboring regions under Muslim rule.

    The Abbasids seized control of the caliphate in 750 , choosing Baghdad as their new capital. Their supremacy did not last, however, and in the 900s, a powerful Shi'i sect broke away and formed the Fatimid dynasty. Claiming descent from Muhammad through his daughter Fatimah, the rulers settled in Egypt and took over Syria, Palestine, parts of Africa, and Sicily. They failed, however, to topple the Abbasids, who also struggled with the Iranian Buyids and Seljuk Turks. In 1258 Mongols from the northeast invaded the Middle East and captured Baghdad, overthrowing the Abbasids. A powerful Mamluk state headed by former military slaves emerged to occupy Egypt, Syria, and western Arabia.

    Clash of Empires.

    Mongol power waned in the 1400s, and two great empires reasserted Muslim control over the Middle East. The Ottoman Turks took Syria, Egypt, and Arabia away from the Mamluks. The Safavids arose in Iran and assumed control of the region. The two Muslim powers fought a long series of wars. One area of fighting involved control of Iraq, which became part of the Ottoman Empire after the collapse of the Safavid state in the 1700s.


    The Islamic empires controlled the Middle East until around the early 1800s, when the industrial nations of Europe invaded the region. Ottoman strength had declined by this time, and the Qajar dynasty, which had succeeded the Safavids in Iran, was too weak to resist the colonial advance. Great Britain exerted its will in Egypt and competed with Russia for control of Iran. France established influence in Syria and Lebanon. Europe remained the dominant political force in the Middle East until the mid-1900s.

    Islam and Reform.

    European colonization created new theological debates within the Middle East. Some Muslims believed that their regimes had grown weak through corruption and that a return to Islamic roots would enable them to reclaim the power that they had held during the Middle Ages. Most, however, asserted that only modernization based on Western models could bolster the Muslim states, giving them the force to challenge the Europeans. Islamic leaders adopted Western military technology and hired Europeans to train their armies and develop their scientific capabilities. They sought to balance tradition with the needs of the modern world.

    The Iranian scholar Jamal al-Din al-Afghani emerged as an important teacher in the late 1800s. He believed that reason, which had once served as a major tenet of Islam, had become distorted by fanaticism and tyranny. This resulted in stagnation within the Islamic world. Al-Afghani promoted a return to the original principles of Islam, maintaining that such a move would enable Muslims to modernize their states and vanquish the Europeans. Al-Afghani's student and colleague, Muhammad Abduh, continued the campaign for reform and rationalization in the early 1900s, serving as the grand mufti in Egypt.

    Muslim political leaders, however, did not look to Islamic principles to modernize their countries. They worked instead to create stronger central governments and to regulate religious practice. In Egypt, rulers placed the brotherhoods under strict state control. They banned such practices as ceremonial drumming, singing, and leaping, as well as several other practices. Egyptian and other Muslim leaders sent students to European universities, where they could study Western ideas and bring them back to Islamic countries.

    Rise of Arab Nationalism.

    Prior to colonial rule, most Muslim lands had existed in a loose structure. Nomadic tribes and agricultural villages had little direct involvement with the rulers who were based in the cities. Europeans divided the Middle East into separate countries, giving many Muslims a newfound sense of national identity. Campaigns for religious reform also brought Muslims together, promoting Islamic activism and pride. Leading reformers, such as Hasan al-Banna , formed organizations that encouraged a practical, goal-oriented religion and promoted the creation of strong Islamic states. In the mid-1900s, young officers, administrators, and intellectuals joined nationalist movements.

    Independence and the Future

    Most Middle Eastern countries gained their independence after World War II ( 1939 – 1945 ), when weakened European powers could no longer maintain control over them. Great Britain and France gave up their colonies in the 1940s and 1950s, creating boundaries that divided the region into self-governing states.

    In 1947 the United Nations announced a plan to partition Palestine, which had been under British control since the end of World War I. The plan called for the creation of two states—one for Jews and one for Arabs. Both sides rejected the plan. On May 14, 1948, Israel proclaimed its independence, and armed conflict between Arabs and Jews erupted. Thousands of Palestinians fled the region to seek refuge in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and other neighboring countries, as well as in the West Bank and Gaza. Many Palestinians continue to live in refugee camps.

    In the early years of independence, rulers of Muslim countries worked to strengthen their nations. They established Islam as the official religion, made primary education mandatory, developed industry and infrastructure, and worked to urbanize rural areas. Some leaders, such as Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser , pushed for secularization of the state.

    Islamic Revival.

    Israel's victory over Arab forces in the Six-Day War of 1967 discredited the secular ideas promoted by Nasser. Some Muslims, known as “Islamists,” urged a return to a strict Islamic government. Appealing to numerous discontented people, an Islamic revival swept across the region. The Islamists promoted economic fairness, the importance of family, and the veiling of women and criticized the corruption of secular governments. They pushed for the inclusion of Islamic principles in all aspects of society.

    Despite the popularity of the revival movement, only two Middle Eastern nations formally adopted strictly Islamic governments—Iran and Saudi Arabia. In 1979 the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led a revolution in Iran and gained control of the country. He sought to abolish secular and Western influences and created a constitution that mandates rule by divine law, as interpreted by Shi'i scholars. A Shi'i religious scholar heads the government, which includes a popularly elected parliament. Saudi Arabia has a Sunni monarchy with roots in a revivalist movement of the 1700s. The Saudi government differs from that of Iran, ruling by traditional Sunni law.

    Islamist parties have thus far failed to seize power in other Middle Eastern states, where government and military leaders oppose them. The rulers of Iraq and Syria, for example, have violently suppressed oppositional religious movements. In Turkey, the 2002 election gave the Islamically oriented party the majority in parliament, but that party does not propose to alter the secular constitution.

    The Twenty-First Century.

    The world's dependence on oil has secured a prominent role for the Middle East in the global economy. Vast petroleum resources have contributed to the wealth and political power of several Arab nations. Saudi Arabia owns around one-fourth of the world's oil reserves and is the largest oil exporter in the world. Iraq has the second largest oil reserve, and Iran, Kuwait, and several smaller Arab nations also export large quantities of oil and gas.

    Despite its petroleum revenues, the Middle East faces serious challenges. Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen struggle with rapid population growth, and many Middle Eastern nations suffer from water shortages, pollution, and overcrowded cities. Poverty grips large areas of the region as governments struggle to diversify their economies. Lebanon continues to recover from a 16-year civil war, and Israeli troops and Palestinians continue to clash in the Israeli-occupied territories. The United States toppled the regime of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in April 2003 , leading to further unrest in the region. See also Arab-Israeli Conflict; Egypt; Gulf States; Ibn al-Arabi ; Iran; Iraq; Israel; Jordan; Law; Lebanon; Saudi Arabia; Sufism; Syria; Turkey; Yemen.

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