August 9, 2012

New Pew Forum Report Describes Unity and Diversity of Islam Around the Globe

Washington, D.C. – The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are united in their belief in God and the Prophet Muhammad and are bound together by such religious practices as fasting during the holy month of Ramadan and almsgiving to assist people in need. But they have widely differing views about many other aspects of their faith, including how important religion is to their lives, who counts as a Muslim and what practices are acceptable in Islam, according to a worldwide survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.


In addition to the widespread conviction that there is only one God and that Muhammad is His Prophet, the survey finds that large percentages of Muslims around the world share other articles of faith, including belief in angels, Judgment Day and fate (or predestination). While there is broad agreement on some core tenets of Islam, Muslims around the world differ significantly in their levels of religious commitment, openness to multiple interpretations of their faith and acceptance of various sects and movements.


Jemila Woodson
Communications Associate

Liga Plaveniece
Communications Associate

These are among the key findings of “The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity.” 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 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 is 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.

The Pew Forum’s global survey of Islam is part of a larger effort, the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project, which analyzes religious change and its impact on societies around the world.

Findings include:

  • In more than half of the countries surveyed, at least nine-in-ten Muslims say they fast during the month of Ramadan, which began in most countries on the evening of July 19 and is expected to end with the sighting of the crescent moon on Aug. 18.
  • The annual giving of aid to the poor (zakat), which also traditionally takes place during Ramadan, is almost as widely observed as fasting. The proportion of Muslims who say they give alms annually ranges from 98% in Indonesia to 36% in Kazakhstan.
  • Fully a quarter of the Muslims surveyed around the world identify themselves neither as Sunni nor as Shia but rather as “just a Muslim.” This nonsectarian identity is most common in Central Asia, Russia and the Balkans. By contrast, Muslims in South Asia and in the Middle East-North Africa region tend to be most keenly aware of the distinction between the two main branches of Islam, Sunni and Shia.
  • Muslim men are more likely than women to attend mosque in most of the 39 countries surveyed. This is especially true in Central Asia and South Asia, where majorities of women in most countries surveyed say they never attend mosque. However, this disparity appears to result from cultural norms that constrain women, rather than from differences in the importance that women and men place on religion. There are no consistent differences between Muslim men and women when it comes to frequency of prayer or participation in alms giving and fasting during Ramadan.
  • The survey asked Muslims whether they believe there is only one true way to understand Islam’s teachings or if multiple interpretations are possible. In 32 of the 39 countries surveyed, half or more Muslims say there is only one correct way to understand the teachings of Islam. (In the United States, by contrast, 57% of Muslims say Islam is open to multiple interpretations, according to a previous Pew Research Center survey.)
  • The survey finds that the vast majority of adult Muslims were raised as Muslims. Nine-in-ten or more in all but four countries surveyed indicate that they had the same faith as children. In South Asia and across the Middle East and North Africa, nearly 100% of adult Muslims surveyed say they were raised in the Islamic faith. In Central Asia and across Southern and Eastern Europe, conversion to Islam is more common, with 10% of adult Muslims in Kazakhstan, 7% in Russia, 6% in Uzbekistan and 5% in Albania saying they were not raised in the faith. Nearly all these instances of switching involve people who were brought up as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.”
  • The survey asked respondents about the imminence of two events that, according to Islamic tradition, will presage the Day of Judgment: the return of the Mahdi (the Guided One who will initiate the final period before the day of resurrection and judgment) and the return of Jesus. In nine of the 23 nations where the question was asked, half or more of Muslim adults say they believe the return of the Mahdi will occur in their lifetime, including at least two-thirds who express this view in Afghanistan (83%), Iraq (72%), Turkey (68%) and Tunisia (67%). The conviction that Jesus will return in their lifetime is most widespread among Muslims in Tunisia (67%), Turkey (65%) and Iraq (64%).
  • Both the Quran and hadith (accounts of the words or practices of the Prophet Muhammad) make reference to witchcraft and the evil eye, as well as to supernatural beings known in Arabic as jinn (the origin of the English word genie). In a majority of the countries surveyed, roughly half or more Muslims affirm that jinn exist and that the evil eye is real. Belief in sorcery is somewhat less common: half or more Muslims in nine of the countries included in the survey say they believe in witchcraft. At the same time, however, an overwhelming majority of Muslims agree that Islam forbids appealing to jinn or using sorcery.

The full report — including an appendix with comparisons to previous surveys of Muslims in the United States — is available on the Pew Forum’s website along with an infographic.


The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life conducts surveys, demographic analyses and other social science research on important aspects of religion and public life in the U.S. and around the world. As part of the Washington-based Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, non-advocacy organization, the Pew Forum does not take positions on policy debates or any of the issues it covers. 

Twitter: @pewforum