As the birthplace of many belief systems, the Middle East is an unusual region. It is not just the followers of the three main Abrahamic religions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity that need to coexist, but also adherents of the Bahai faith and Zoroastrianism, as well as followers of even lesser known creeds such as Mandaeism, Shabakism, Yazidism and more besides.

Perhaps the most difficult balancing act is in Lebanon, where there are 18 officially recognised religious groups, including four Muslim and 12 Christian groups as well as Druze and Jewish communities. The country’s fragile political system has stumbled along by allotting key political posts on the basis of confession. As a result, the president is a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim. Other important posts go to the Druze and the Greek Orthodox.

Census data

This separation of powers is based on the relative size of each group in the 1932 census and continues to work for as long as no one worries too much about how the numbers might have changed in the meantime. Lest they unwittingly provide ammunition for a new sectarian conflict, officials in Lebanon have not held a census in all the decades since then.

The intersection of religion, politics and society is not just an issue for Lebanon though. Across the region, census-takers are often wary about asking questions involving religion. Kuwaiti and Bahraini officials do not distinguish between Sunni and Shia, for example.

Even if detailed questions were asked, respondents would have plenty of reasons to be wary of the answers they gave. Some governments do not recognise non-believers and Saudi Arabia bans the public worship of any faith other than Islam. Others do not recognise certain groups as a distinct religion. According to the US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report, Syria does not recognise Kurds who profess the Yazidi faith as being distinct from Islam. Similarly, UAE census figures count the Bahais and Druze as Muslims, while on the other hand, Jordan does not recognise the Bahai faith as a religion.

The upshot of this is that data on the relative strength of religious groups around the region is often less than reliable when it exists at all. By necessity, statistics are often based on estimates by religious leaders of the size of their following.

In recent years, however, sectarian tensions in the region have been stoked by domestic and foreign officials. In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria, disputes between the ruling elite and opposition groups have often been cast as a battle between Shia and Sunni Islam. That simplified narrative may suit some, but it does little to aid a proper understanding of the conflicts and certainly does not help the chances of a peaceful settlement emerging.

Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Yemen suffer from very high social hostilities around religion

When pro-democracy demonstrations began in Bahrain in 2011, for example, both Sunni and Shia Muslims were on the streets calling for greater accountability from their leaders. Yet since then, the government has repeatedly tried to paint a picture of a Shia protest movement, inspired and led by Iranians intent on stirring up trouble on the island. The authorities have been just as consistent in their failure to back up assertions with any credible evidence and have, in any case, locked up opponents from both groups. Similarly, Riyadh has tended to depict protests in its Shia-dominated Eastern Province as acts of terrorism instigated by fellow religionists in Iran.

Islam dominates

One of the few facts beyond dispute is the dominance of Islam in the region. There are more than 315 million Muslims across the Middle East and North Africa. This equates to three out of every four people and represents about 20 per cent of the global Muslim population of 1.6 billion, according to the US’ Pew Research Centre.

Sunni Muslims dominate 16 countries in the region, but there are significant minorities of Shia Muslims in many of those, including Kuwait, Qatar, Syria, the UAE and Yemen. In three countries, Bahrain, Iran and Iraq, the majority are Shia, while in Lebanon the two groups are thought to be evenly balanced. Oman is slightly different, with another form of Islam, Ibadism, accounting for the majority of believers. There are also small Ibadi communities in Algeria, Libya and Tunisia.

In any case, the two main strands of Islam are not monolithic, but contain multiple divisions of thought and jurisprudence. In Saudi Arabia, for example, most Sunni Muslims adhere to the strict Hanbali school, while in Yemen, the group follows the Shafi school of thought. In Saudi Arabia, about 80 per cent of Shia are Imami, also known as Twelvers for their adherence to the Twelve Imams. Most other Shia in the kingdom are Ismailis, sometimes known as Seveners as they recognise a different seventh imam. In Yemen, most Shia belong to the Zaydi order, and are also called Fivers as they diverge over the identity of the fifth imam.

There are additional groups and practices beyond these, although they may not always be recognised as legitimate by other, more mainstream Muslims. In Western Sahara, Islamic practice is often characterised by maraboutism, the veneration of religious figures and their tombs, a practice also seen in other parts of the Maghreb and West Africa. In addition, there are small groups of Quranists in Egypt who generally reject the importance of the Hadith, central to other forms of Islam. In Syria, there is a significant minority of Alawites, a Shia sect from which the regime of President Bashar al-Assad comes.

Alongside the Muslim schools of thought exists a wide diversity of other religions. There is a Christian congregation in every country in the region, although in many cases it makes up only a tiny fraction of the population. Similarly, there are Jewish and Bahai groups in almost every country, although in some cases they may amount to no more than a few dozen adherents.

The Jewish communities are, in most cases, remnants of far larger groups that existed in the past. Prior to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, there were an estimated 40,000 Jewish people in Libya, for example, while today only a handful remain. There are also small communities in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the UAE and Yemen. Some of these are based around indigenous communities, while others are expatriate workers who do not always advertise their faith. There are more sizeable Jewish populations in Iran, Morocco and Tunisia, which the Jewish Agency for Israel estimates at 10,500, 2,800 and 1,000 respectively.

Other, smaller religions are scattered in pockets across the region, with Iran and Iraq being particularly fertile ground. Some of these groups have heterodox beliefs drawn from other religions, but some have developed independently.

The high number of expatriates in the Gulf countries means they also play host to a diverse mix of beliefs, particularly Eastern religions. For example, there are an estimated 600,000 Hindus in Kuwait alongside 100,000 Buddhists.

Religious freedom

Such religious pluralism is not always matched by religious freedoms, however. In a report released in September 2012, called the Rising Tide of Restrictions on Religion, the Pew centre identified the Middle East as the worst region in the world when it comes to people being able to freely practice religious beliefs without fear of government harassment or social hostility.

In particular, Pew identified Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen as having very high state restrictions on religion and Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Yemen as suffering from very high social hostilities around religion. The report shows that for most Middle East countries, restrictions have been tightening in recent years, a trend that seems likely to carry on if sectarian tensions continue to be stoked.