Citation for Lebanon

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"Lebanon." In The Islamic World: Past and Present. Ed. John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 20, 2022. <>.


"Lebanon." In The Islamic World: Past and Present. , edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 20, 2022).


A small country on the Mediterranean Sea, Lebanon shares borders with Syria and Israel. Lebanon has a population of 3.5 million, of which 70 percent is Muslim, and 30 percent constitutes a powerful Christian minority. Before the 1970s, Lebanon was a prosperous nation in which Muslims and Christians lived in relative harmony. A 16-year civil war, however, devastated the nation and left the Lebanese struggling to recover.

History and Government

Phoenicians settled in Lebanon around 3000 B.C.E. , where they became great explorers and traders. Throughout most of their history, Phoenician kings paid tribute to more powerful foreign rulers. Many empires laid claim to the region, including the Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Umayyad, Mamluk, Ottoman, and French.

Arab and Christian Influence.

In the 600s C.E., a Christian community identified with Saint Maron developed in northern Lebanon. Around the same time, both Sunni and Shi'i communities took shape in the area. Later a Shi'i offshoot group called the Druze attracted followers. Sunnis tended to settle in the towns and cities along the coast, while the Druze and various Shi'i groups occupied the mountains and rural areas in the south and northeast. Maronite Christians lived in both the towns and countryside.

Although Lebanon underwent a brief period of Christian rule after the First Crusade, it was mainly a province of the Muslim empires and was generally considered a part of its neighbor Syria. The Ottoman Turks conquered the region in the early 1500s. Under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, Beirut became a thriving international port, with silk as the main export. The French and other Europeans established trading posts throughout Syria, concentrating in Beirut. They sent missionaries who built schools for Christians, training them for top positions in the government and in society. The French influence grew in Lebanon, and Christian communities flourished. By the 1800s, some Sunni princes had even converted to the Maronite faith.

After World War I ( 1914 – 1918 ), the Christian presence in Lebanon became even stronger. During the war, the Ottomans had fought with the Germans and lost to the Allied forces led by Britain and France. French forces occupied Lebanon, and in 1923 , the League of Nations granted France a mandate to rule Syria and Lebanon. The Maronites welcomed the French, and the French rewarded them with high government positions. Many Muslims, however, resented French authority and wanted to unite Lebanon with the rest of the Arab world. They also struggled to create a balance of power within Lebanon that would accurately reflect the diversity of the region. In 1926 the Lebanese legislators created a constitution that began the division of power between the three largest religious groups. The president was to be a Maronite Christian; the prime minister, a Sunni Muslim; and the speaker of the assembly, a Shi'i Muslim.

Lebanon gained independence from France in 1946 . The country enjoyed a period of peace, although some Muslims resented the Christian leanings of the National Assembly. Civil war almost erupted in 1958 , when Muslims rioted for the inclusion of Lebanon in the United Arab Republic. President Camille Chamoun ordered the army to attack the rioters, but the commander refused, fearing that the army—composed of Christians and Muslims—would fall apart. The United Nations helped to resolve the conflict with the use of U.S. forces, and General Fouad Chehab became president in the next election. A relatively tranquil period followed, in which Chehab gave Muslims more seats in the government and helped to modernize the Muslim areas of Lebanon.

Civil War and International Conflict.

Despite President Chehab's efforts, tensions between religious groups continued. As increasing numbers of Lebanese moved from rural to urban areas, cities became filled with people of different sects who established their own communities. The gulf between rich and poor widened, and many Muslims resented the wealth and stature of their Christian neighbors. Muslims also fiercely opposed the government's decision not to take part in the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973 . These wars sent Palestinian refugees flooding into Lebanon, resulting in greater resistance of the Lebanese population against Israel and against their own government. By the early 1970s, Palestinian refugee camps crowded the Lebanese border. Impoverished and exploited for cheap labor, the Palestinians bonded with poor Lebanese Muslims and began to form militia groups.

Members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) staged raids into Israel, bringing Israeli reprisals. Frustrated with the inaction of the Lebanese government, Israel attacked PLO camps in Lebanon. Christian militias joined in the attacks. These compounded existing tensions with the Druze, who sought a greater share of power, and the Syrian government, which did not accept the separation of Lebanon from Syria. By 1975 Lebanon was engaged in a full-scale civil war with multiple factions and shifting alliances. Battles raged daily, and the central government, which had never had a strong grip on the region, all but dissolved.

Arab nations held a summit meeting in October 1976 to resolve the crisis. They established an Arab League peacekeeping force composed mainly of Syrians to try to halt the fighting. The peacekeepers failed to end the war, however, and PLO raids into Israel continued, causing the Israelis to invade Lebanon in 1978 and to occupy southern Lebanon in 1982 . In 1989 the Lebanese government met in Saudi Arabia and formed the Ta'if Accord, which guaranteed equal power for Christians and Muslims in government. The agreement ended the civil war, but much of Lebanon lay in ruins. Israeli troops remained in occupation in the southern part of the country. The war had crippled the economy, damaged the infrastructure, and led to the deaths of around 150,000 Lebanese and 20,000 Palestinians. Anti-Israeli forces continue to thrive in Lebanon, including the militant Hizbullah party, which led the resistance against Israeli occupation. Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in the summer of 2000 , although conflict continues between the two nations over the disputed territory of Shebaa Farms.

Lebanon's New Government.

The 1926 constitution that reserves political positions for each major religious group remains in effect. The Ta'if Accord, however, reduced the power of the president, giving more control to the cabinet. The prime minister serves as head of government, assisted by the cabinet, which he chooses after consulting with the president and members of the assembly. The National Assembly consists of one house with 128 members elected by popular vote. Voters choose parties rather than individual candidates, and each party wins a number of seats based on the percentage of votes it receives. Party leaders then choose members to represent the party in the assembly. The National Assembly elects the president for a six-year term.

Like many other countries in the Islamic world, Lebanon has separate courts for civil and criminal matters. Three national courts deal with civil affairs, and one handles criminal cases. Among the Muslim population, each sect has its own religious courts that deal with personal status issues such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

Islam in Lebanon

Lebanese society has a high level of religious diversity, and the Lebanese government officially recognizes 18 religious groups. Lebanon has five main Muslim sects: Sunni, Shi'i, Druze, Alawi, and Ismaili. Among those groups, only the Ismailis lack representation in the National Assembly. The others enjoy varying amounts of political and social influence.

Sunni Muslims.

Sunni Muslims constitute only about 20 percent of the Lebanese population, but they served as the country's dominant Muslim group until the 1980s. Sunnis live mainly in coastal cities, such as Beirut and Tripoli. The Ottomans favored the Sunnis in their administration, and the Sunnis led the drive for independence from France in the 1940s. Their historical dominance is reflected in the constitution, which calls for a Sunni to hold the powerful position of prime minister. A Sunni cleric also serves as the official leading jurist (mufti) of Lebanon, issuing formal opinions on legal and religious matters. Sunnis enjoy a high social and economic status in the country and have greater access to educational opportunities, health care, and sanitation services than do the other Muslim groups. Few Sunni leaders organized militia groups during the civil war.

Shi'i Muslims.

Until the 1900s, most Shi'i Muslims lived in rural areas of Lebanon. They mainly inhabited the mountains of southern Lebanon and the Bekáa Valley in the north. Those in the north lived as tribal nomads, while the southern Shi'i were farmers. During the 1900s, Shi'i numbers grew significantly, and large groups moved to the cities. By the 1980s, the Shi'is had become the largest religious group in Lebanon, calling into question the constitutional arrangement that gives more political power to Sunnis and Maronite Christians. Many Shi'is became part of the middle class and worked to create better schools for Shi'is in both rural and urban areas. In 1967 the Lebanese government voted to create a Supreme Shi'i Council, granting it authority independent of the Sunni mufti. Shi'i leaders also established the Movement of the Deprived, which serves as a dynamic force in Lebanese politics.


The Druze, an offshoot of the Ismaili sect of Shi'ism, make up about seven percent of Lebanon's population. Originally from Egypt, the Druze remained united during the Lebanese civil war, unlike other religious groups in Lebanon. In the Druze community, ajawids (religious leaders) handle moral and civic issues. Each Druze village meets weekly to pray and discuss local problems. Ajawids confer with one another to resolve major issues affecting the community. Although important in the local community, ajawids have not played a major role in national politics.


The Alawi are small in number but exercise some influence in Lebanon because they serve as the ruling group in neighboring Syria. In 1992 they won their first seats in the National Assembly. The Alawi venerate the fourth caliph Ali, observe Christian and Persian holidays, and use sacramental wine in their religious ceremonies. Because of these practices, some Muslims consider the Alawi apostates. Within Alawi society, amirs serve as political leaders, and imams guide religious services. See also Alawi; Arab-Israeli Conflict; Druze; Hizbullah; Palestine Liberation Organization; Refugees; Syria.

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