SOAS University of London

Department of Religions & Philosophies, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

Minority Religions in the Contemporary Middle East

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2017/2018
Year of study:
Year 2 or Year 3
Taught in:
Term 2

The purpose of this course is to provide an in depth study of the minority religions of the Middle East. To do so, it will commence by evaluating the concept of 'dhimmi' which Islam has applied to the 'Abrahamic' religions, notably Judaism and Christianity who share the same patriarchal ancestors. It will then analyse the two major groups of minority religions that are not considered to be of 'dhimmi' status:

  1. those which are not derivative from Islam [Samaritans, Zoroastrians, Mandaeans and possibly the Yezidis], and 
  2. the so-called 'minority religions within Islam [Alevites, Druze and Bahai]. 

The course also extends this definition to examine the situation of Muslim minorities within Islam, e.g the Sunni in Iran and the Shia in Saudi Arabia. Each of the minority religions will form a module, wherein the attributes of faith [ritual and belief] are identified and their historical and current socio-political situation is investigated. It is anticipated that students will have an opportunity to meet and discuss with representatives of some of the minority religions who may either be based in or visiting London during the course.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

The course challenges the overall assumption of the dominance of the 'Abrahamic faiths' in the contemporary Middle East. It aims to offer tuition on minority religions in the contemporary Middle East that are either

  • Not part of the mainstream 'Abrahamic faiths' i.e. Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
  • Faiths such as the Mandaeans and the Yezidis do not automatically fall within the category of 'ahl al-kitab' (translated as 'peoples of the book') as protected and recognised religious communities ('dhimmi').
  • Considered to be heretical within mainstream Islam and therefore lack the recognition accorded to protected religions communities. These include the Alevites, Druze and Bahai.

Upon successful completion of this course, a student should have:

  • Acquired an advanced knowledge of the religious topography of the contemporary Middle East.
  • Evaluated the application of 'dhimmi' by mainstream Islam.
  • Assessed the relationship between 'non-dhimmi' faiths, including the Mandaeans, Yezidis and Samaritans, with mainstream Islam.
  • Assessed the relationship between so-called 'heretical' religions within Islam (including the Alevites, Druze and Bahai) with mainstream Islam.
  • Compared the present situation of minority religions within different Middle Eastern countries, e.g. Syria and Iran.
  • Studied in depth at least one of the minority religions in the contemporary Middle East.
  • Expressed in both written and verbal form his/her knowledge and understanding of the issues pertaining to minority religions in the contemporary Middle East.

Method of assessment

1 essay (2,500 words) (40%), 2-hour exam (60%).

Suggested reading

  • Ahmad, S. The Yazidis, their Life and Beliefs, Coconut Grove, Miami (1975).
  • Betts, R. The Druze, New Haven (1988).
  • Hourani, A. Minorities in the Arab World, Oxford (1947).


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules