D. Ethnic & Religious Groups

Culture, Religion, and Ethnicity
Defining factors affecting the Middle East
Many people do not have a clear understanding of the differences between culture, religion and ethnicity.  Before one can truly understand the diverse peoples that reside in the Middle East, it is important to have an understanding of these various terms and their differences.
Religion - can best be summed up as the belief in and worship of a god or gods.  It can also be a set of beliefs concerning the origin and purpose of the universe in some cultures. 
Ethnicity - can be described as a group of people who identify with each other through a common heritage, consisting of a common language, a common culture (often including a shared religion) and a tradition of shared ancestry.
Culture - is a term that can have many different meanings.  In this example we are using the meaning whereby culture is defined as "a set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an organization or group.  Religion and ethnicity and be values that help define a culture.
Ethnic groups do not align themselves by a particular religion.  Culture and race help to define a person's ethnicity, not religion.  For example the nation of India practices many different religions, such as Buddhism and Christianity. Likewise, religions are not based on ethnicity, but rather their beliefs.
The Kurds are an ethnic group that lives in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Most Kurds religious beliefs are in the Sunni side of Islam, rather than the Shia/Shiite side.  The Shia/Shiite commonly reside in Iran and is parts of Iraq.

Most Persians are Shia Muslim and most live in Iran. Persians are not Arab and do not speak Arabic.  They speak Farsi, a dialect of the language Persian.  These Persians follow the religion of Islam and the holy Qur'an.  90% of Persians are Shia Muslim while only 8% are Sunni. 
Arabs are the largest ethnic group the Middle East, living throughout North Africa and Southwest Asia.  They speak Arabic, a language which originated in the desert regions of the Arabian Peninsula.   Most Arabic people are Muslim, with Christians and Jews being the minority. The Islamic religion is followed by 95% of Arab people.

See example maps for additional ethnic and religious distribution information:

Map Iraq Ethnicity

Map Iran Ethnicity

Additional Ethnic and Religious distribution information can be found at PBS Global Connections - the Middle East.
 There are many religious, ethnic, and cultural differences in the many regions of the world.  These differences are very pronounced in the countries of the Middle East, more so than in many other parts of the world.  Religion is one factor affecting the relations within this diverse community.


Georgia Performance Standard

SS7G8 The student will describe the diverse cultures of the people who live in Southwest Asia (Middle East).

a. Explain the differences between an ethnic group and a religious group.

b. Explain the diversity of religions within the Arabs, Persians, and Kurds.

Quick Summary:
  • An ethnic group is a group of people that share a common and distinctive culture, race, and language.
  • A religious group is a group of people that share the same religious beliefs.
  • Culture can be defined as the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group.
  • Ethnic groups don't all follow the same religion.  
  • Religious groups aren't necessarily all the same ethnicity.
  • There are three major religious groups in Southwest Asia. They are Muslims, Jews, and Christians.
  • Three major ethnic groups in Southwest Asia include Persians, Kurds, and Arabs.

Written By
Team Noble Editors

Map Sources
www.mapcruzin.com  Free Maps (University of TX)
Global Connections of the Middle East