Muslims worldwide uniquely diverse yet united – report

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Worshippers representing as many as 30 countries pray at the Masjid As-Salam mosque on Wednesday during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. Photo – Brandon Dill/Commercial Appeal

Nearly all Muslims agree on the basic beliefs of Islam – oneness of God, finality of Prophet Muhammad as Messenger of God, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan and giving alms to the poor – according to a worldwide survey conducted by a leading US organisation.

Despite having widely differing views about many other aspects of their faith, including how important religion is to their lives and who counts as a Muslim and what practices are acceptable in Islam, a new report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life revealed that the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are united in their belief in God and the Prophet Muhammad and are bound together by religious practices such as fasting, charity and Hajj – the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Makkah.

The survey, which involved more than 38,000 face-to-face interviews in over 80 languages, found that in addition to the widespread conviction that there is only one God and that Muhammad is His Prophet, a large percentage of Muslims around the world share other articles of faith, including belief in angels, heaven, hell and fate (or predestination).

With 1.6 billion adherents, Islam is the world’s second-largest religion, behind Christianity, and accounts for one-quarter of the world’s population.

“There isn’t one single Muslim world. There are many Muslims around the world that share beliefs, but there are differences as well,” James Bell, director of international survey research at the Pew Forum, said in an interview.

Though broad, the report is not comprehensive. “Political sensitivities” and “security concerns” kept researchers out of some countries with significant Muslim populations, including China, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

However, Muslims across the 39 countries and territories surveyed differ significantly in their levels of religious commitment, openness to multiple interpretations of their faith and acceptance of various sects and movements.

The study said that Muslims are united by the “shahada” (the declaration of faith that there is only one God and Muhammad is his messenger, as well as specific religious practices and belief in angels, Judgment Day, and fate.

The survey asked Muslims whether they identify with various branches of Islam and about their attitudes toward other branches or subgroups. While these sectarian differences are important in some countries, the survey suggests that many Muslims around the world either do not know or do not care about them.

For instance, 95% of Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa said religion is “very important” to them. Solid majorities agreed in the Middle East, North Africa and the United States.

Meanwhile, former Communist USSR states like Russia and Kazakhstan, where much lower percentages of people (44% and 18% respectively) say religion is “very important.”

Generally, men and women worldwide held similar religious commitments. However, they differed greatly in mosque attendance, especially in Central Asia and South Asia, which is probably due to local or cultural norms, Bell said.

Younger Muslims worldwide were less religiously committed than older Muslims, with the biggest differences seen in the Middle East and North Africa. In Lebanon, for instance, Muslims older than 35 were 28% points more likely to pray several times a day than younger Muslims. Only Russia showed younger Muslims placing significantly more importance on religion.

In most countries surveyed in the region, at least 40% of Sunnis do not accept Shias as fellow Muslims. In many cases, even greater percentages do not believe that some practices common among Shias, such as visiting the shrines of saints, are acceptable as part of Islamic tradition. Only in Lebanon and Iraq – nations where sizeable populations of Sunnis and Shias live side by side – do large majorities of Sunnis recognise Shias as fellow Muslims and accept their distinctive practices as part of Islam.

The report also found a striking difference between Muslims worldwide and US Muslims. Basic practices like daily prayer and weekly mosque attendance, as well as the importance of religion in daily life, were lower among American Muslims.

Americans also showed a greater acceptance of denominational differences. Whereas 63% of Muslims worldwide believe Islam has only one interpretation, only 37% of American Muslims believe this.

Opinion also varies as to whether Sufis – members of religious orders who emphasise the mystical dimensions of Islam – belong to the Islamic faith. Sufis are widely seen as Muslims in South Asia while in other regions they tend to be less well known or not widely accepted as part of the Islamic tradition.

Fasting during the month of Ramadan, which according to Islamic tradition is required of all healthy, adult Muslims, is part of an annual rite in which individuals place renewed emphasis on the teachings of the Quran. The Pew Research survey found that many Muslims in all six major geographical regions surveyed observe the month-long, daytime fast during Ramadan. In Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa, more than nine-in-ten say they fast annually (94%-99%). Many Muslims in Southern and Eastern Europe and in Central Asia also fast during the month of Ramadan.

The expression “Inshallah” (“If God wills”) is a common figure of speech among Muslims and reflects the Islamic tradition that the destiny of individuals, and the world, is in the hands of God. The survey also found that the concept of predestination, or fate, is widely accepted among Muslims in most parts of the world. In four of the five regions where the question was asked, about nine-in-ten (88% to 93%) said they believe in fate, while 57% expressed this view in Southern and Eastern Europe.

Infographic – Pew Research Center
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