Lebanon is one of the most diverse, and torn apart, countries in matters of religion. In this tiny country, at least 4 groups have distinct identities and long histories of poor relations with the other. At least three of them are large enough to expect major influence on society and politics. Religions represent the major challenge to unity and stability of the country.
Although it could be stated that Lebanon is divided into ethnic groups as well, these division lines amount to far less than religious division lines. Religion not only determines identity, it affects the entire life of an individual, from the quality and direction of ones education, economy and living standards to political preference.
There are only two, smaller groups that understand themselves primarily according to ethnicity, Kurds and the Armenians.
Lebanon used to be dominated by Christians, today, Muslims form the majority. Still, Muslims are divided sharply, into mainly Shi'i and Sunni.
According to its constitution, Lebanon is a secular country, but matters like marriage, divorce and inheritance are administered by a person's religious authorities. Law states that the President must be Maronite Catholic Christian, the Prime Minister must be Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the parliament must be Shi'i Muslim. The president position has lost some of its powers, but remain commander of the armed forces.
Lebanon has a Muslim dominance of about 55%. Traditionally, official documents identify 5 branches of Islam: Shi'i, Sunni, Alawi, Isma'ili; and the Druze. All but Ismai'lis enjoy proportional representation in parliament. In the case of the Druze, they are not considered part of Islam by other Muslims, nor by scholars; in the case of the Isma'ilis, investigations into their faith make it impossible to consider them part of Islam, even if they are an offspring of Islam.
Shi'is of Lebanon are mainly Twelvers. They dominate South Lebanon; the northern part of the Baalbek area; the Hermel area; and the southern suburbs of Beirut.
Shi'is of Lebanon have suffered from much suppression through history, being treated as secondary compared with Sunnis and at times driven away from their homelands. But during the 16th century, Shi'i scholars of Lebanon travelled to Iran to aid the Safavids in making Shi'ism the state religion, and showed no more mercy for others than they had suffered themselves.
A peculiar and original form of Shi'ism is found with those of Persian descent. They follow the basics of Shi'ism, but also have reverence of the Semitic goddess Ishtar, who they call the Great Lady.
Sunnis are mainly residents of the major cities: western part of Beirut, Tripoli and Saida. They also live in areas like Akkar, Ikleem al-Kharoub and West Bekaa.
Sunnis of Lebanon belong to the Hanafi branch (madhhab) of law and theology (Sharia).
The history of Christianity in Lebanon goes back to the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, it is often claimed that Peter evangelized here; Paul did for sure. It spread, however, slowly in the early generations. First in the 4th century, did Christianity gain good ground with efforts of Saint Maron; it is from him that the Maronite church has its designation. Over the centuries, Maronite Christianity found refuge in the mountains, while empires fought wars over control of the Middle East.
In 1926, Christians counted to 84% of the Lebanese population, today emigration and lower birth rates have caused their percentage to fall to slightly less than 40%.
Christians are widely spread across most of Lebanon, in the eastern part of Beirut and its suburbs, northern part of the mountains, northern parts of the country, the town of Zahle in Bekaa Valley and Jezzine in the south.
Christians form numerous communities across Lebanon, the Maronites remain the most influential.
Monasteries in Lebanon are run by both the Maronites and the Orthodox Church.
A fourth group, the Druze, plays often an important part in the life of Lebanon, despite representing as little as 5.7% of the population. Druze form smaller communities in the south, and in particular in the Hasbayah region.
During the French mandate, the Druze were classified as a Muslim sect.
Reports indicate that there is a very small community of Isma'ilis remaining in Lebanon, counting less than 1,000. A much larger community is found in Syria.
There are still Jews left in Lebanon, but today counting no more than a few hundred, if so many.
There never were many Jews in Lebanon, in the 1940's, only between 5,000 and 6,000. For long they preferred to stay in their homeland, but with the Lebanese Civil War, those who could preferred to emigrate, mainly to Israel and the USA.