The World's Muslims: United in Faith; Diverse in Practice

Aug 09, 2012

 From its origin on the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century C.E., Islam has grown into a worldwide religion with more than 1.6 billion adherents – nearly a quarter of the world’s population.1 Today, Muslims live on all inhabited continents and embody a wide range of races, ethnicities and cultures. What beliefs and practices unite these diverse peoples into a single religious community, or ummah? And how do their religious convictions and observances vary?

This report by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life seeks to describe both the unity and the diversity of Islam around the globe. It is based on more than 38,000 face-to-face interviews conducted in over 80 languages with Muslims in 39 countries and territories that collectively are home to roughly two-thirds (67%) of all Muslims in the world. The survey includes every country that has a Muslim population of more than 10 million, except those (such as China, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria) where political sensitivities or security concerns prevented opinion research among Muslims.

Unity and diversity are themes that emerge naturally from the survey results. On what are often considered Islam’s articles of faith and “pillars” of practice, there is much commonality among Muslims around the world. But on other important questions, such as whether Islam is open to more than one correct interpretation or which groups should be considered part of the Muslim community, there are substantial differences of opinion. The survey also suggests that many Muslims do not see themselves as belonging to any particular sect: Fully a quarter of the Muslims surveyed identify themselves neither as Sunni nor as Shia but as “just a Muslim.”

The survey was conducted in two waves. Fifteen sub-Saharan African countries with substantial Muslim populations were surveyed in 2008-2009, and some of those findings previously were analyzed in the Pew Forum report “Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa.” An additional 24 countries in Africa, Asia and Europe were surveyed in 2011-2012; those results are published here for the first time. This report on religious beliefs and practices, however, is just the first of two planned analyses of the survey data. The Pew Forum plans to issue a second report, focusing on Muslims’ social and political attitudes, in late 2012 or early 2013.

Read the full report, The World's Muslims: Unity and Diversity, on the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life website

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