Country Listing

Lebanon Table of Contents



Figure 5. Distribution of Religious Sects, 1983


Shias during ashura, the commemoration of the martyrdom of Husayn
Courtesy As'ad AbuKhalil


A women in a Christian village works at home to help support her family
Courtesy United Nations/Photo by B. Cirone

Divisions within the Christian and Muslim faiths were considerable, but most observers accepted the Christian-Muslim dichotomy as the most salient in Lebanese society. Even so, identification by religious affiliation often blurs subtle social and economic considerations.

Religion in Lebanon is not merely a function of individual preference reflected in ceremonial practice of worship. Rather, religion is a phenomenon that often determines social and political identification. Hence, religion is politicized by the confessional quota system in distributing power, benefits, and posts (see The Basis of Government , ch. 4).

A sectarian group binds its members together on the basis of their professed allegiance to the teaching of the faith and their common location within the sectarian social and political map (see fig. 5, Distribution of Religious Sects, 1983). Ethnicity does not strictly apply to Lebanon's confessional communities, since more than 90 percent of all Lebanese are ethnically and linguistically Arabs. But the distinctiveness of Lebanon's confessional communities approximates the notion of sect to that of ethnicity. The exceptions are Kurds, Armenians, and Jews, who constitute ethnic groups in the classical sense. In sum, an understanding of the Lebanese mosaic requires an awareness of ethnicity and confessionalism because the similarity between the two concepts has become clearer in present-day Lebanon, where each sectarian group has its own agenda, political culture, and leaders.

The exact number of Lebanon's sects has always been disputed. In 1936, the French Mandate established the first official law regarding sects in Syria and Lebanon. The sects were enumerated as follows: nine patriarchal sects, one Latin church, the Protestant sect (including eleven Christian denominations) and five Muslim sects (Sunni, Shia, Druze, Alawi, and Ismaili). At that time, the Muslims rejected their division into separate sects, and consequently they were excluded from the appendix of the law.

Following independence, only non-Muslims were included in a 1951 law enumerating officially recognized sects in the following order: Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Armenian Orthodox (Gregorian), Armenian Catholics, Syrian Orthodox (Jacobites), Syrian Catholics, Chaldean Catholics, Nestorian Assyrians, Latins (Roman Catholics), Protestants, and Jews. The law specified that each sect was free to manage its waqf (religious endowment) properties, as well as its personal status laws for its members. The Alawi and Ismaili sects were considered numerically insignificant, which left them without legally sanctioned institutions. Other Muslim sects, Sunnis, Shias, and Druzes were considered still covered by the provisions of Ottoman Law.

Data as of December 1987