April 30, 2013

The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society

Chapter 6: Interfaith Relations

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Muslims around the world agree that Islam is the one true faith that leads to salvation. Many Muslims also say it is their religious duty to convert others to Islam.

Many Muslims say they know little about Christianity and other faiths. And few believe Islam and other religions have a lot in common. Even in countries where a substantial proportion of the population is non-Muslim, most Muslims report that all or most of their friends also are Muslim. And while interfaith meetings and classes of Muslims and Christians are fairly common in sub-Saharan Africa, few Muslims in other regions participate in such gatherings.

Few Muslims see conflict between religious groups as a very big national problem. In fact, most consider unemployment, crime and corruption as bigger national problems than religious conflict. Asked specifically about Christian-Muslim hostilities, few Muslims say hostilities are widespread.

Islam and Eternal Salvation

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In 34 of the 38 countries where the question was asked, at least half of Muslims believe that Islam is the one true religion that can lead to eternal life in heaven.

Overwhelming majorities of Muslims say that Islam is the only religion that leads to eternal life in heaven in most countries surveyed in the Middle East and North Africa, including Egypt (96%), Jordan (96%), Iraq (95%), Morocco (94%) and the Palestinian territories (89%). Somewhat smaller majorities take this view in Lebanon (66%) and Tunisia (72%).

In most countries surveyed in sub-Saharan Africa, more than six-in-ten Muslims say that only Islam can lead to eternal life. Somewhat fewer take this view in Cameroon (57%), Guinea Bissau (54%), Chad (50%) and Mozambique (49%).

Similarly, in all but one country surveyed in Central Asia, at least six-in-ten Muslims say that Islam is the only path to eternal life. The exception is Kazakhstan, where 29% say that Islam is the only path that leads to eternal life, while 49% say that many religions can serve this role.

At least half of Muslims in most Southern and Eastern European countries surveyed also say that Islam is the exclusive path to heaven. Albanian Muslims are the exception: 37% say Islam is the only faith leading to eternal life, while a quarter say many faiths can lead to heaven, and 38% offer no clear opinion on the issue.

In the majority of countries where the question was asked, Muslims who pray several times a day are more likely than those who pray less often to believe that Islam is the one true faith leading to eternal life. Differences by frequency of prayer consistently are large across the countries surveyed in Southern and Eastern Europe. For example, in Russia, Muslims who pray several times a day are 41 percentage points more likely than those who pray less often to believe Islam is the one true path to eternal salvation. Significant gaps on this question between those who pray several times a day and those who pray less often also are found in Kosovo (+34 percentage points), Albania (+28) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (+27).

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Converting Others

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In most countries surveyed, at least half of Muslims believe it is their religious duty to try to convert others to the Islamic faith. Only in Indonesia and some countries in Central Asia and Southern and Eastern Europe do a clear majority say Muslims are not obliged to proselytize.

The belief that Muslims are obligated to proselytize is particularly widespread in sub-Saharan Africa. Across the region, at least three-quarters of Muslims believe it is their religious duty to try to spread Islam to non-Muslims.

A majority of Muslims in the South Asian countries surveyed also say trying to convert others to Islam is a religious duty. This sense is nearly universal in Afghanistan, where 96% of Muslims believe proselytizing is a duty of their faith. In Pakistan, 85% of Muslims share this view, as do 69% in Bangladesh.

In the Middle East and North Africa, a clear majority of Muslims in most countries surveyed believe trying to convert others is a religious duty, including roughly nine-in-ten in Jordan (92%) and Egypt (88%). Lebanon is the one country in the region where opinion is more divided (52% say proselytizing is a religious duty, 44% say it is not).

In Southeast Asia, a strong majority of Muslims in Malaysia (79%) and Thailand (74%) believe trying to convert others is a religious duty. However, most Indonesian Muslims disagree (65% say it is not a religious duty, 31% say it is).

Many Muslims in Central Asia as well as Southern and Eastern Europe do not believe that their faith obliges them to try to convert others. Roughly half or more in Kazakhstan (77%), Albania (72%), Bosnia-Herzegovina (59%), Kosovo (55%), Russia (51%), Kyrgyzstan (50%) and Turkey (48%) do not believe Muslims have a duty to proselytize. Opinion is divided in Azerbaijan (42% say it is a religious obligation, 36% disagree). Only in Tajikistan does a clear majority (69%) agree that Muslims have a duty to spread their faith.

In general, Muslims who pray several times a day are more likely than those who pray less frequently to say proselytizing is a religious duty. For example, in Lebanon, where Muslims overall are fairly divided on the question, those who pray several times day are nearly twice as likely as those who pray less often to say it is their duty to convert others (63% vs. 33%). Large gaps on the question of proselytizing between Muslims who pray frequently versus those who pray less often also are found in Russia (+27 percentage points), the Palestinian territories (+22) and Tunisia (+22).

Religious Conflict as a Big National Problem

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In only seven of the 38 countries where the question was asked do at least half of Muslims describe conflict between religious groups as a very big national problem, and in most cases worries about crime, unemployment, ethnic conflict and corruption far outweigh concerns about religious conflict. But a substantial minority of Muslims in a number of countries surveyed do see religious strife as a major issue.

In the Middle East-North Africa region, a majority of Muslims in Lebanon (68%) and Tunisia (65%) say religious conflict is a very big problem in their country, as do more than half in the Palestinian territories (54%) and more than four-in-ten in Iraq (46%). Fewer Muslims see religious conflict as a pressing issue in Egypt (28%) and Jordan (13%).

Concern about religious conflict is relatively high among Muslims in the countries surveyed in sub-Saharan Africa, including Niger (64%), Nigeria (60%) and Djibouti (52%). More than one-in-five Muslims in all but one country surveyed in the region see religious conflict as a very big problem; Ethiopia (16%) is the exception.

In South Asia, a majority of Pakistani Muslims (57%) consider religious conflict a big national problem, while roughly a third or fewer Muslims hold this view in Afghanistan (35%) and Bangladesh (29%).

Among Muslims in Central Asia as well as Southern and Eastern Europe, fewer than four-in-ten consider religious conflict a very big problem in every country surveyed. About a third of Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina (35%), Turkey (34%) and Kazakhstan (33%) say religious conflict is a very big problem in their country. In the other countries surveyed in these regions, less than a quarter see religious conflict as a very big problem.

In Southeast Asia as well, relatively few Muslims see religious conflict as a serious problem. Roughly a third of Indonesian Muslims (36%) consider conflict between religious groups a very big national problem, a view shared by 27% of Muslims in Thailand and 26% in Malaysia.

Overall, the survey finds that opinions about whether religious conflict is a very big problem track closely with opinions about ethnic conflict as a problem. In every country surveyed, Muslims who see religious conflict as a very big problem in their country are more likely than those who see it as a less serious issue to consider conflict between ethnic groups to be a major national concern.

Views of Muslim-Christian Hostilities

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A minority of Muslims in 24 of the 26 countries where the question was asked say “most” or “many” Muslims and Christians are hostile toward one another. In Thailand, a small percentage of Muslims report hostilities between Muslims and Buddhists in their country.

Perceived hostilities between Muslims and Christians are on the higher side in Egypt, where half of Muslims say most or many Christians are hostile toward Muslims, and roughly a third (35%) say the same about Muslims’ attitudes toward Christians. By comparison, in Lebanon, which has a history of religious conflict, fewer than three-in-ten describe either Muslims (27%) or Christians (27%) as hostile toward the other group.

In sub-Saharan Africa, more than four-in-ten Muslims in Guinea Bissau say Christians are hostile toward Muslims (41%) and Muslims are hostile toward Christians (49%). At least a third of Muslims hold this view in Chad (34% say Christians are hostile, 38% say Muslims are hostile). Elsewhere in the region, less than a third of Muslims see mutual tension between the two faiths, although 37% of Muslims in the Democratic Republic of the Congo describe most or many Christians as hostile toward Muslims (just 18% say the same about Muslims’ attitudes toward Christians).

In nearly every country surveyed in Central Asia and Southern and Eastern Europe, fewer than a quarter of Muslims perceive widespread religious hostilities. This includes Kosovo and Albania, where less than 10% of Muslims believe either Christians or Muslims are hostile toward one another. In Russia, a fifth of Muslims describe Christians as hostile toward Muslims, while 13% say this is how most or many Muslims feel about Christians. Bosnia-Herzegovina is the one country in these two regions where more than a quarter (31%) perceive Christians as hostile toward Muslims – roughly twice as many as say the same about Muslims’ attitudes toward Christians (14%).

Familiarity With Other Faiths

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In only three of the 37 countries where the question was asked do at least half of Muslims say they know a great deal or some about Christian beliefs and practices. In Thailand, where Muslims were asked to rate their knowledge of Buddhism, less than one-in-five say they are familiar with the Buddhist faith.

However, substantial proportions of Muslims in the sub-Saharan African countries surveyed do say they know some or a great deal about the Christian faith. At least half of Muslims say they are knowledgeable about Christianity in Mozambique (61%) and Guinea Bissau (55%), while four-in-ten or more in Ghana (46%), Kenya (45%), the Democratic Republic of Congo (44%), Ethiopia (44%), Uganda (44%), Chad (42%) and Liberia (41%) say the same. Fewer than one-in-five Muslims say they are familiar with Christianity in only one sub-Saharan African country: Niger (17%).

Bosnia-Herzegovina is the only country outside sub-Saharan Africa where about half (51%) of Muslims say they know some or a great deal about Christianity. Elsewhere in Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as Central Asia, fewer than one-in-four Muslims are familiar with the Christian faith.

In the countries surveyed in the Middle East and North Africa, roughly four-in-ten Muslims in Lebanon (38%) say they are familiar with Christian beliefs and practices. More than one-in-five Muslims in Jordan (25%) and Egypt (22%) say they are familiar with Christianity. But fewer than one-in-five Muslims in other countries in the region say they know some or a great deal about the Christian religion.

Familiarity with Christian beliefs and practices is also uniformly low across the countries surveyed in South Asia and Southeast Asia; 15% or fewer Muslims say they know some or a great deal about Christianity (or, in Thailand, Buddhism).

Common Ground With Other Religions

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At least half of Muslims in most countries surveyed say that Islam and Christianity are very different. In Thailand, most Muslims see Islam and Buddhism as very different.

In general, Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa are more likely than their counterparts in other regions to say that Islam and Christianity have a lot in common. Roughly six-in-ten hold this view in Guinea Bissau (62%), Senegal (61%), Tanzania (59%) and Cameroon (58%), while roughly half agree in Liberia (53%), Ghana (51%), Mali (51%) and Nigeria (48%). Only in the Democratic Republic of Congo do fewer than three-in-ten (26%) share this view.

A majority of Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina (59%) and at least half in Kazakhstan (52%) say Islam and Christianity have a lot in common; in Russia, a plurality (46%) agrees. Elsewhere in Central Asia and Southern and Eastern Europe, no more than about three-in-ten believe the two faiths have a lot in common.

In five of the seven countries surveyed in the Middle East and North Africa, a majority or plurality see Islam and Christianity as very different religions. While Palestinian Muslims are split on the issue of how much the two religions share (42% say they have a lot in common, 39% say they are very different), a majority of Muslims in Jordan (60%), Lebanon (57%) and Egypt (56%) consider Islam and Christianity to be very different. In Iraq, 57% of Muslims are uncertain, compared with 27% who believe Islam and Christianity have a lot in common and 16% who say they are very different.

Most Muslims in South Asia and Southeast Asia say Islam and Christianity are very different, including at least eight-in-ten in Indonesia (87%), Malaysia (83%) and Pakistan (81%). Asked about Buddhism, 60% of Thai Muslims say it is very different from Islam.

Knowledge Related to a Sense of Commonality

Muslims who say they know at least something about Christianity are considerably more likely than those with less knowledge to believe the two faiths have a lot in common. For example, in Tunisia, 68% of Muslims who say they know at least something about Christian beliefs and practices say Islam and Christianity share a lot in common. But among Tunisian Muslims who say they are less familiar with Christianity, about a quarter (27%) say the two religions share common ground. Large gaps are also seen in Iraq (+39), Kyrgyzstan (+34), Bosnia-Herzegovina (+30), Russia (+30) and Turkey (+30).

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Relationships With People of Other Faiths

Relatively few Muslims count non-Muslims among their close friends. And in most countries surveyed, few are comfortable with the idea of their son or daughter marrying outside the faith.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the one region where the contact between Muslims and non-Muslims is often more frequent. For instance, substantial percentages Muslims in the region report that their families include both Muslims and Christians. In addition, Muslims in sub-Saharan African tend to participate in inter-faith classes and meetings at a higher rate than Muslims in other regions.

Close Friends

In every country where the question was asked, a large majority of Muslims say all or most of their close friends share their faith. The survey finds that even in countries with substantial non-Muslim populations, a large majority of Muslims say most, if not all, of their close friends share their faith. For example, in Lebanon, where non-Muslims make up nearly 40% of the population, 94% of Muslims describe their circle of close friends as exclusively or mostly Muslim.36 In Russia, where non-Muslims make up 90% of the population, 78% of Muslims say most or all of their close friends share their Islamic faith.37

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Marrying Outside the Faith

In 22 countries outside sub-Saharan Africa, the survey asked Muslims how comfortable they would be with the idea of their son or daughter marrying a Christian. Overall, relatively few Muslims find the idea of inter-marriage acceptable.

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Openness to marrying outside the faith is greatest in Albania and Russia, where at least half of Muslims (77% and 52%, respectively) say they would be comfortable with their son marrying a Christian. A majority of Albanian Muslims (75%) also would be comfortable if their daughter married a Christian, but significantly fewer Russian Muslims (39%) say the same.

Elsewhere in Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as in Central Asia, fewer than four-in-ten Muslims say they would be comfortable with either a son or daughter marrying outside the faith. After Albania and Russia, acceptance of interfaith marriage is greatest in Kazakhstan (36% are comfortable with a son marrying a Christian, 32% with a daughter doing the same), and lowest in Azerbaijan (8% son, 3% daughter).

In the other regions surveyed, three-in-ten or fewer Muslims say they would be comfortable with a son marrying a Christian (or Buddhist, in the case of Thailand), with single-digit acceptance in Pakistan (9%) and Indonesia (6%). Almost no Muslims surveyed in Egypt and Jordan would be comfortable with an interfaith marriage for their daughter. Elsewhere, fewer than one-in-four Muslims would be comfortable with their daughter marrying a Christian.

In the countries surveyed in Middle East and North Africa, Muslims consistently express greater acceptance of interfaith marriage for sons than daughters. Muslims in Egypt and Tunisia, for example, are 17 percentage points more comfortable with a son entering into an interfaith marriage than a daughter doing the same. Among the other countries surveyed in the region, attitudes differ in the same direction by nine to 12 percentage points.

In many countries surveyed, Muslims who pray several times a day are less accepting than those who pray less often of a child marrying outside the faith. This is especially true in Russia, where only a minority of Muslims who pray several times a day are comfortable with their son (35%) or daughter (12%) marrying a Christian. By contrast, 61% of Russian Muslims who pray less often say they would be very or somewhat comfortable if their son married a Christian. Roughly half express the same level of acceptance with the idea of their daughter (53%) marrying a Christian.

Views on Interfaith Marriage and Families in Sub-Saharan Africa

In sub-Saharan Africa, Muslims were asked how comfortable they would be if a child of theirs, regardless of gender, someday married a Christian. Overall, few Muslims in the region say they would accept such a marriage.

Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa were also asked about whether their immediate family includes Christians. Substantial proportions in a number of countries surveyed answer yes, including a majority in Mozambique (93%), Uganda (66%) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (62%), and more than a third in Tanzania (39%), Liberia (38%) and Cameroon (34%).

Interfaith Meetings

In most regions, few Muslims say they attend interfaith meetings or classes. But in sub-Saharan Africa, substantial proportions in several countries say they attend such gatherings with Christians. Interfaith interactions are especially common in Mozambique, Uganda and Liberia, where more than half of Muslims say they engage in organized meetings with Christians.

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Outside sub-Saharan Africa, Thailand is the only country where a majority of Muslims (56%) say they attend interfaith meetings or classes – in this case, with Buddhists. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, few Muslims report attending formal gatherings with Christians.

In other regions, the proportion of Muslims who take part in interfaith meetings does not exceed one-in-five and is often about one-in-ten or less. Participation in interfaith gatherings is especially low in the Middle East and North Africa, ranging from 8% of Muslims in the Palestinian territories to 3% in Jordan. Even in Lebanon, where Christians make up nearly 40% of the population, just 6% of Muslims say they participate in interfaith classes or meetings with Christians.


Footnotes:

36 See the Pew Research Center’s December 2012 report “The Global Religious Landscape.” (return to text)

37 See the Pew Research Center’s December 2012 report “The Global Religious Landscape.” (return to text)

Photo Credit: © Scott E Barbour