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Misconceptions and Myths About the Middle Eastern People, Culture, and Islam

Updated on July 11, 2013
Minaret of the Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia.
Minaret of the Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia. | Source

Myth #1: "Middle East" is a static term referring to a set list of countries.

The term "Middle East" does not have just one meaning. It is a general term that typically includes a small region from Egypt to Iran, but in recent years has been expanded to include countries from Morocco to Pakistan. The wider understanding of the term "Middle East" can be based on linguistic or religious similarities that unite the region, but this does not mean that all people in the region are linguistically, ethnically, religiously, or culturally homogenous. The cultural and ethnic differences between Pakistan and Morocco, for example, are vast, but they are united by Islam, which is the major religion in both countries, as well as most countries between them.

The map below shows the conventional definition of the Middle East, including all countries between Egypt, Turkey, Iran, and Yemen.

Map showing conventional or traditional definition of the Middle East, with Egypt, Turkey, Yemen, and Iran as border countries.
Map showing conventional or traditional definition of the Middle East, with Egypt, Turkey, Yemen, and Iran as border countries. | Source

The map below shows the wider definition of the Middle East.

  • The darkest green countries are the traditional countries.
  • The green countries include countries of North Africa and southern Asia, such as the Saharan countries, the Horn of Africa, and Pakistan.
  • The lightest green includes countries of central Asia that extend to the border of China.

Map of the Greater Middle East, including North Africa and Western Asia.
Map of the Greater Middle East, including North Africa and Western Asia. | Source
A 123 meter (404 feet) high fountain in Bahrain.
A 123 meter (404 feet) high fountain in Bahrain. | Source

"Middle East" is a "Eurocentric" term.

Imagine that you are living in Spain during the crusades. China and Korea are "The Far East", and the countries that you have to cross to get to China and Korea are "The Middle East" or "The Near East".

Now, imagine that you are living in Bahrain today. You understand that the world is round, so the term "Middle East" doesn't really mean anything to you, though if you're looking at a flat map, the Far East might look like North America, and the Middle East might look like Japan...

Today, many academics advocate using other terms to refer to the region, such as "Western Asia", which is oficially used at the United Nations.

When speaking about The Middle East in terms of language or religion, many people prefer to use terms such as "The Arab World" or "The Muslim World". This ties in a greater population outside of the physical region and can include people from all over the planet.

My thoughts? Educate yourself, but don't get too hung up on terms. When you're being specific, you can talk about North Africa (countries linked by the Sahara), the Gulf States (Arab countries bordering the Persian Gulf), or the Levant (four countries on the eastern Mediterranean). Otherwise, when describing something more general, such as the Arab Spring, I think it's ok to used the term "Middle East", as long as you understand the connotations.

A book that changed my life

Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village
Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village
This book completely changed my beliefs about the role of women in traditional middle eastern cultures. I think everyone should read it.
Flag of Pakistani resistance movement of the 1930s that fought the British. "Allahu Akbar" is written here.
Flag of Pakistani resistance movement of the 1930s that fought the British. "Allahu Akbar" is written here. | Source

Myth #2: "Allahu Akbar" is what Muslims say before a bomb explodes.

This phrase has been exploited by Hollywood since the 1960s in what some academics have called "Hollywood's Anti-Arab Campaign".

Called the Takbir, Allahu Akbar literally means "The is no God but God" or "God is great", and is used by Muslims on many occasions, such as during prayer, celebration, during an emotionally trying time, and, yes, by religious extremists. However, Hollywood has made this phrase synonymous with terrorism and suicide bombers, depicting men who recite this "Allahu akbar!" before a violent attack. While this is be one way that this phrase is used, it in no way represents the full depth and meaning of the Takbir to most Muslims.

Official portrait of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
Official portrait of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini | Source
Salman Rushdie, a Mulsim-born Indian author.
Salman Rushdie, a Mulsim-born Indian author. | Source

Myth #3: A Fatwa is a death sentence.

In 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran issued a fatwa sentencing an Indian author to death for blasphemy. This event was covered extensively by the international press, and led to the misconception that the term "fatwa" effectively is a death sentence.

In truth, a fatwa is an opinion issued by an Islamic scholar. In most cases, a fatwa isn't even legally binding, just a formal way of giving advice based on Islamic law. While a fatwa can be a death sentence, it is usually concerned with far less interesting details of life, like marriage, finance, and moral issues. Depending on the country and the level of importance that religion holds to the individual, a fatwa can have different connotations. Since the beginning of Islam, thousands of fatwas have been issued, and most have not been in favor of anyone's death.

By the way, that author that the fatwa was issued against? His name is Salman Rushdie, and he is still alive.

Myth #4: Jihad is a violent "holy war".

Jihad is mentioned many times in the Koran, and is translated into English as "struggle". While Jihad is not one of the five pillars of Islam, it is sometimes referred to as the unofficial "Sixth Pillar", and is considered an important spiritual duty.

In a religious context, jihad can mean an external struggle to improve society, an internal struggle to improve oneself, or a struggle to defend Islam. While jihad has often been used in reference to defending Islam in many ways, including with the use of violence, it usually does not have any violent connotations and has been misconstrued by the Western media to mean "holy war".

Originally, jihad was used in the early stages of Islam to represent the struggle to spread the religion, but separate words were used for actual fighting. In modern Arabic, jihad can mean any type of struggle, and has even been applied to fights for gender equality. Modern Muslims define the word differently, depending on their country and culture, but some of these definitions can include:

  • striving to live a moral life
  • sacrificing for God
  • fighting for a just cause
  • promoting peace
  • completing one's personal goals
  • living the principles of Islam

In modern times in which many Middle Easterners find themselves living in impoverished and oppressed conditions, it has been easy for people with political motivations to take advantage of desperate young people and convince them to partake in jihad as a form of "holy war", what we call terrorism. However, it is important to keep in mind that most news channels have miseducated viewers, and that most Muslims do not consider jihad to mean holy war.

Knowledge will set you free

Unveiling Islam: An Insider's Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs
Unveiling Islam: An Insider's Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs
The more we know about other cultures, the less hate and violence there is in the world.
"La Recolte Des Dattes", c. 1890, painting by Eugene Girardet. Orientalist art such as this painting have had lingering effects in Western psyches, depicting romanticized images of the Middle East.
"La Recolte Des Dattes", c. 1890, painting by Eugene Girardet. Orientalist art such as this painting have had lingering effects in Western psyches, depicting romanticized images of the Middle East. | Source

Myth #5: Countries in the Middle East are poor and violent

This is a stereotype that is also driven by the media, which generally covers countries in the Middle East that are involved in wars. The truth is that because of its strategic physical location at continental crossroads and the recent discovery of oil, the entire region has seen large amounts of conflict in recent history, coming from outside invasions and also from internal conflict over ethnicity and religion. Much of the internal conflict started after World War II, when England and France divided several Middle Eastern regions into countries arbitrarily, without heeding cultural, religious, or ethnic differences. The founding of Israel has also been a source of great struggle and animosity, with many Muslim and Arab middle easterners sympathizing with the Palestinians who have been displaced.

It is also true that there is widespread poverty in many countries in the region, as well as government oppression, as seen by the backlashes of the Arab Spring (now the Arab Autumn).

However, it is important to remember that there is endless variety in the region known as the "Middle East". A teenager from Amman, Jordan, will likely relate much better to teens from the United States than to a Bedouin teen from the same country. Some of the most developed countries of the world are in the region, such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, as well as some of the least developed, like Afganistan.

Palm Island Resort, Dubai
Palm Island Resort, Dubai | Source

Lonely Planet is my favorite

Lonely Planet Middle East (Travel Guide)
Lonely Planet Middle East (Travel Guide)
Of course, the best way to understand a place is to experience it!


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    • stephaniedas profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Das 

      3 years ago from Miami, US

      Hi there! I'll admit that the intention of the hub was to educate people on some of the more widely accepted mistruths associated with the Middle East. I agree that hate and fear are not going to solve any problems, and I think getting to know other peoples and cultures is the best way to dispel both fear and hate. Thanks for commenting.

    • profile image 

      5 years ago

      Stephaniedas and Nigham - I was turning it over in my mind to look into this topic and found your hub so my hat goes off to you for writing this. I've never believed HATE could achieve anything constructive, yet there is such a lot of it about... and FEAR which has made life harder for anyone with an association with the Middle East and Islam which you have so rightly pointed out is a lot more diverse than given credit for. Perhaps this is the intention and if it is, it is not very nice at all or fair or effective in terms of changing it for the majority of peace loving and hard working, not to mention gifted Muslims. We need to look at things that the GOOD people from Muslim backgrounds could do to turn it all around for the future, for their children and for their societies in general so the extremism doesn't get all the media attention!

    • Nigham AFZAL profile image


      6 years ago from Pakistan.

      Nobody's gonna believe that a non-Muslim wrote such a marvelous article...I, myself was searching to write on the same subject when found your hub...It seems you left nothing for me... :)

      It really hurts when some guy makes fun of your Religion, of your making films,sketches and stuff like that...but if people like "Stephaniedas" are present I can say loudly " No Harm Done...!!! "

      10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 likes for this hub...(have saved the rest of likes for your next hubs...) :)

      Stay blessed... :)

    • stephaniedas profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Das 

      7 years ago from Miami, US

      @Ctnahda- I'm assuming that you are muslim (right?), so it is nice to hear from you that the article is good! Unfortunately, people from many countries have ideas about all muslims that only apply to a small minority. This is harmful to muslim people. Even the recent shooting at the Sikh Temple in the US is an example of someone who assumed that the Sikhs, who wear turbans, were Muslims and therefore "bad". Thank you for your insight.

      @hummingbird- That is a great point, and one that I hadn't thought about! I think it can be applied to many different groups on people. When someone has little contact with a group, a small minority can represent the entire group. I appreciate your insightful comment and hope it helps others reading this hub!

    • Hummingbird5356 profile image


      7 years ago

      This is a very good article and shows the truth and not the narrow minded bigoted view of people who believe everything that is in the media.

      If a Muslim commits an offence it is said by many that that is the Islamic way. But if a Christian beats his wife or children they do not blame Christianity.

      It is not the religion which is bad. Individuals commit offences not religions.

      It takes many years to learn about a religion and I have many Muslim friends and as a result have learnt about Islam. I agree wholeheartedly with what you have written.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      @Stephaniedas- I found this as well written article by Non-muslim writer (I guess-no offence). I do strongly agree with you, and I do believe that misconception is far worst than WAR itself.It creates hatred towards the muslim's community all over the globe. Western mass media misinterpret the word "Jihad" as something destructive, but on the other hand, it is actually the act to strive to be a better person in terms of relations with the Creator,and the mankind.

    • stephaniedas profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Das 

      7 years ago from Miami, US

      Zubair Ahmed- I agree that the Western media portrays a one-sided portrait of the Middle East. I hope that people will see beyond that and will attempt to use the media to their advantage and learn more about other cultures. I appreciate your comment!

    • Zubair Ahmed profile image

      Zubair Ahmed 

      7 years ago

      Hi stephaniedas,

      A very good hub, tank you for taking the time to share. In this rather one sided world of Islanm/Muslim is bad - this certainly puts a different perspective on things. Middle East wasn't always like what is portrayed in the media in the West. But thanks to Western powers installing puppets into power over the generations has made the Middle East what it is.

      Anyway that ain't gonna change unless the people in the West wake up and ask fir it to change.

      All the best

    • stephaniedas profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Das 

      8 years ago from Miami, US

      @Paraglider- That is a great comment! I'm glad to know that people who have actually lived in the Middle East endorse this hub, as I have only been able to do research from far away. The misconceptions that westerners have are unfortunate, and they make foreigners' lives more difficult.

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 

      8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Stephaniedas - a pleasure to read this. All of it is familiar to me as I have lived in the Gulf States for the last ten years. But it is good to see it well documented here. Jihad is also quite a common given name in some parts. I have worked with several Jihads in my time here. And 'Allahu akbar' rings out from every mosque in town, as part of the call to prayer. No explosions there ;)

    • stephaniedas profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Das 

      8 years ago from Miami, US

      @Sauleha- I'm glad you liked this. After all, when the people who are already experts on the topic compliment how I've written about it, I know I've met my goal. I grew up in a really rural (white, protestant) area, and I was 11 when 9/11 happened. It was awful to hear the ignorant things coming out of so many people's mouth during the next few years. Things have calmed down a lot since then, but I think that even people who mean well can easily get confused. Don't quit trying to educate people about all cultures, religions, and ethnicities :)

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      This hub is extremely well made. As a muslim myself, its always a little offensive and quite saddening when people associate such innocent phrases with terrible things. Thanks!

    • stephaniedas profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Das 

      8 years ago from Miami, US

      @The Nerdy gardener- I'm glad you found it a good read. I hope more people see it too! Some of these are really common misconceptions that even people who are very educated aren't aware of. Thank you for commenting and appreciating it, it means a lot to me.

    • TheNerdyGardener profile image


      8 years ago from Brisbane, Australia

      Thank you, this was a very interesting read. Educational and easy to read, I hope more people see this.

    • stephaniedas profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Das 

      8 years ago from Miami, US

      @hush4444- Yes, it truly is. Just take a look around the internet to see what people believe because they are afraid of people who are different, or because they have been miseducated. It is so easy to see other cultures as 2-dimensional, which is why I wrote this. Thanks for the comment.

      @Cresentmoon- Of course it is! I'm glad you enjoyed this hub and hopefully learned something, as I did while I was researching it. Thanks for commenting and voting!

    • Cresentmoon2007 profile image


      8 years ago from Caledonia, MI

      It is saddening what misconceptions can do. A wonderfully written hub. Voted up.

    • hush4444 profile image


      8 years ago from Hawaii

      What a fascinating hub! Misconceptions can be so damaging. Thank you for shedding light on this very topical subject.


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