Chapter 5: Boundaries of Religious Identity
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counts as a Muslim, and who does not? Which beliefs and practices are Islamic,
and which are not? Many Muslims across the globe hold firm views on such
questions. Asked, for example, whether there is only one true way to
interpret Islam’s teachings or whether multiple interpretations are possible, half or more of the Muslims surveyed in 32 of the 39 countries included in the
study say there is only one true way to interpret their religion. Yet, at
the same time, opinion as to which groups or sects adhere to the true
interpretation – and which do not – varies significantly among Muslims around
status of Shia Muslims is a case in point. In some countries in the Middle East
and North Africa with predominantly Sunni populations, such as Egypt and
Morocco, the prevailing view is that Shias are not
members of the Islamic faith. In Iraq and Lebanon, however, overwhelming
majorities of all Muslims affirm Shias are Muslims. (For definitions of Shia
and Sunni, see the Glossary.)
factor that distinguishes Iraq and Lebanon is that, unlike other Sunni-majority
countries in the region, they are home to substantial numbers of Shias as well.
Rather than reinforcing perceived distinctions between the groups, living
side-by-side appears to increase mutual recognition: Solid majorities of Sunnis
in Iraq (82%) and Lebanon (77%) recognize Shias as fellow members of the
Islamic faith, while overwhelming percentages of Shias in both countries say
the same about Sunnis.
countries outside the Middle East and North Africa that are also home to
substantial Shia populations – such as Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and Russia –
Sunnis also tend to be more accepting of Shias.
some regions of the globe, sectarian divisions appear to have limited
importance. This is especially true in Central Asia and across Southern and Eastern
Europe (Russia and the Balkans), where respondents tend to be either unfamiliar
with the terms “Sunni” and “Shia” or do not have a definite opinion as to
whether these groups should be considered members of the Islamic community.
survey also asked about perceptions of Sufis, who embrace mystical or esoteric
dimensions of Islam and often mix standard religious practices with a range of
supplementary spiritual practices, including the chanting of God’s attributes,
ritual dancing or the veneration of Islamic saints. Opinions about Sufism vary
widely. Acceptance is broadest in South Asia, where seven-in-ten or more
Muslims view Sufis as fellow believers. In other regions, fewer than six-in-ten
share this view, although in no country does a majority reject Sufis as
Muslims. In many of the countries surveyed, substantial numbers of Muslims say
they are unfamiliar with Sufis or do not have an opinion about their status
in most of the 39 countries surveyed tend to agree that there is only one true
interpretation of Islam’s teachings, although this view is far from unanimous.
Southeast Asia and South Asia, roughly seven-in-ten in each country hold this
view. And in 10 of the 16 sub-Saharan
African countries surveyed, six-in-ten or more believe there is only one
interpretation of Islam.
the exception of Kazakhstan (36%), clear majorities of self-identified Muslims
across Central Asia also subscribe to the notion that there is a single
interpretation of their faith.
is more varied across Southern and Eastern Europe. While three-quarters of
Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina endorse the view that there is only one
interpretation of Islam, only about half in Russia (53%) and Kosovo (52%)
agree. Even fewer Albanian Muslims (41%) embrace this idea.
most diverse views on Islam’s interpretation are found in the Middle East and North
Africa. At one end of the spectrum, super-majorities in Egypt (78%) and Jordan
(76%) say there is only one true interpretation of Islam. At the other end of
the spectrum, only about a third of Muslims in Tunisia (35%) and Morocco (34%)
these regional variations, views on the interpretation of Islam also vary with
levels of personal religious commitment as measured by frequency of prayer. In
many of the countries surveyed, Muslims who pray several times a day are more
likely than those who pray less often to believe there is a single correct
interpretation of Islam’s teachings.
Acceptance of Sunnis
asked whether Sunnis are Muslims, more than half of respondents in 17 of the 23
countries where the question was posed say yes. There is particularly broad
agreement on this question in South Asia and the Middle East-North Africa
region, with more than nine-in-ten across both regions identifying Sunnis as
the Central Asian nations of Tajikistan (98%), Azerbaijan (91%) and Turkey
(91%), overwhelming numbers also recognize Sunnis as Muslims. Similar attitudes
are evident in Southeast Asia among Thai Muslims (94%). In Southern and Eastern
Europe, smaller majorities of Bosnian and Russian Muslims agree (74% and 56%,
the handful of countries where fewer recognize Sunnis as Muslims, substantial
percentages say either that they have not heard of Sunnis or that they do not
know whether Sunnis are Muslims. This tendency is most pronounced in Central
Asia and across Southern and Eastern Europe, where about four-in-ten or more
Muslims in Uzbekistan (72%), Kyrgyzstan (50%), Kazakhstan (42%), Albania (49%)
and Kosovo (38%) are either unfamiliar with the term “Sunni” or have no
In Iraq and Lebanon – two countries with significant
populations of both self-identified Sunnis and Shias – Shia Muslims almost
universally agree that Sunnis are members of the Islamic community (99% in
Iraq, 97% in Lebanon). In Azerbaijan, another country where both sects have
large followings, 78% of Shias agree that Sunnis are Muslims, while 18%
Acceptance of Shias
13 of the 23 countries where the question was asked, at least half of respondents
say that Shias are members of the Islamic faith. However, opinion on this
matter is far from universal, and in at least two countries – Egypt and Morocco
– the dominant view is that Shias are not Muslims.
Muslims in South Asia most consistently agree that Shias share their religion. At
least three-quarters express this view in Afghanistan (84%) and Bangladesh
(77%), while about half (53%) agree in Pakistan.
of Shias as fellow Muslims also is widespread in Southern and Eastern Europe.
The one exception is Kosovo, where 36% of Muslims consider Shias as belonging
to the Islamic faith. However, a substantial percentage of Kosovar Muslims
(43%) either have not heard of Shias or are not sure whether Shias are Muslims.
Only about one-in-five (21%) actually reject the notion that Shias are Muslims.
the Middle East and North Africa, distinctions between Sunnis and Shias appear
to be better known: in no country in the region do more than a quarter (23%) of
respondents say they are either unfamiliar with the term “Shia” or unsure
whether Shias are Muslims.
three of the countries surveyed in the region – Tunisia, Jordan and the
Palestinian territories – opinion is closely divided on whether Shias are
Muslims. In Egypt and Morocco, the prevailing view (52% and 51%, respectively)
is that Shias are not Muslims. Only in Iraq and Lebanon do overwhelming
majorities (92% and 88%, respectively) acknowledge Shias as Muslims.
part, these findings reflect the fact that in both countries Shias make up a
substantial portion of the population (51% of Iraqi Muslims surveyed self-identify
as Shia; 48% of Lebanese Muslims self-identify as Shia), and Shia views are
incorporated into these overall numbers.26
when the attitudes of Sunnis in these countries are examined separately, it
becomes clear that the Sunni communities in Iraq and Lebanon are much more
welcoming of Shias than Sunnis in other parts of the Middle East and North
Africa. Indeed, Sunnis in these two countries are at least 23 to 28
percentage points more likely than Sunnis elsewhere in the region to recognize
Shias as Muslims.
cases of Iraq and Lebanon suggest that the experience of living side-by-side
may increase, rather than decrease, mutual recognition between Sunnis and
Shias. And the survey findings indicate that these may not be the only
instances where this is true.
are also more likely to embrace Shias as fellow Muslims in Azerbaijan, Russia
and Afghanistan – countries where 6% or more of Muslims self-identify as Shia. Rates
of acceptance range from 90% in Azerbaijan, to 85% in Russia, to 83% in
Afghanistan. Overall, these three countries – along with Iraq and Lebanon –
represent five of the six countries where Sunnis are most accepting of Shias.
(The sixth is Bangladesh, at 77%.)
where 6% of Muslims surveyed self-identify as Shias, is the one exception to
this rule. Pakistan’s Sunnis are more mixed in their attitudes toward Shias:
half say they are Muslims, while 41% disagree.
five of the six countries where self-identified Shias make up more than 6% of
the Muslim population, the size of the Sunni population permits further
analysis by age and gender.27
Age differences in Sunni attitudes toward Shias are not statistically
significant, except in Lebanon. Lebanese
Sunnis ages 18-34 are 15 points more likely than those 35 and older to say that
Shias are Muslims. Lebanon experienced a civil war along sectarian lines from
1975 to 1991, and this history may help explain the generational difference.
Older Sunnis, who came of age during the conflict years, are somewhat less
inclined to view Shias as fellow Muslims than are younger Sunnis, who may not
have any firsthand recollection of the civil war. Still, a majority of Lebanese
Sunnis – of all ages – do accept Shias as Muslims.
the same five countries, gender differences in Sunni attitudes toward Shias are
statistically significant only in Russia, where Sunni women are more accepting
of Shias than Sunni men (+8 percentage points).
Attitudes Toward Sufis
varies as to whether Sufis – self-professed Muslims who emphasize the mystical
dimension of religious belief and practice – are part of the Islamic tradition.
In a few countries, they are widely embraced as fellow Muslims. In many
countries, however, substantial percentages of Muslims say they are unfamiliar
with Sufis as a group; those who are familiar enough to form an opinion are divided
in their views toward Sufis.
of Sufis as Muslims is most widespread in South Asia. Broad majorities in
Bangladesh (83%), Afghanistan (77%) and Pakistan (70%) agree that Sufis belong
to the Islamic tradition.
the Middle East and North Africa, half or more in four of the seven countries
surveyed agree that Sufis are Muslims. Moroccan views on the issue are the most
closely divided: 43% say yes, 41% say no, and 16% say they don’t know or they
have never heard of Sufis.
the regions of Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Southern and Eastern Europe,
only in Turkey (56%) and Tajikistan (52%) do more than half say Sufis are
Muslims. In most of the other countries in these regions, fewer than a quarter
believe Sufis are members of the Islamic faith. This finding reflects, in part,
the fact that large percentages of Muslims in these three regions are unfamiliar
both Iraq and Lebanon, Sunnis tend to be more willing than Shias to acknowledge
Sufis as Muslims. Iraqi Sunnis, for instance, are 49 percentage points more
likely to believe Sufis are Muslims than are Iraqi Shias; in Lebanon, the difference
is 18 points. In Azerbaijan, however, there is no significant
difference in how Sunni and Shia Muslims view Sufis.
Views of Other Groups
survey also asked about several groups and movements that are based in specific regions or
countries. These include Alevis, Alawites and Druze in the Middle East and
Central Asia, Ahmadiyyas in South Asia and Southeast Asia and two groups –
Islam Liberal and Aliran Kepercayaan – that are mainly present in Indonesia and
fall within the Shia tradition, and they are most numerous in Turkey. A 69% majority
of Turkish Muslims accept Alevis as fellow members of the Islamic faith; only
17% disagree, while 14% are unsure.
and Druze are centuries-old sects based in the Levant region of the Middle
East. The former group practices a form of Shia Islam. Among Lebanese Muslims, nearly six-in-ten
(57%) believe Alawites share the same faith as themselves, while 38% disagree. Opinion
of the Druze leans in the opposite direction: 39% say the sect is part of the
Islamic tradition, while about half (52%) believe it is not.
South Asia and Southeast Asia, Muslims tend to be skeptical of regionally or
locally based religious sects. For example, Ahmadiyyas, members of an Islamic
reformist movement founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in India in the late 19th
century, are not widely considered to be Muslims (see Glossary). Out of the five
countries where this question was asked, only in Bangladesh do more than a
quarter (40%) of Muslims believe Ahmadiyyas are Muslims. In Indonesia and
Pakistan, a majority of those interviewed state that Ahmadiyyas are not
Muslims, while in Malaysia and Thailand most either have not heard of the group
or do not know if it is part of the Islamic tradition.
Liberal is a movement in Indonesia that prioritizes ethics over textual
literalism. Only 16% of Indonesian Muslims think the movement is part of the
Islamic faith, compared with 58% who do not. About a quarter (26%) are either
unfamiliar with the group or do not know.
also surround Aliran Kepercayaan, a mystical movement centered in Indonesia
that combines elements of Islam with other religious traditions. In Indonesia,
relatively few Muslims (5%) say the group is part of the Islamic faith, while
fully 80% disagree. In Malaysia, just 9% say Aliran Kepercayaan falls within
the bounds of Islam, compared with nearly two-thirds (66%) who have never heard
of the group or do not know and 26% who think members of the movement are not
26 The percentages reported here reflect the results of the survey. These
results sometimes differ from the Pew Forum’s demographic estimates. For
example, the Pew Forum’s 2009 report, “Mapping
the Global Muslim Population” estimates that Shia Muslims in Iraq make up
65-70% of the population, while Shia Muslims in Lebanon account for 45-55% of
the population. (return to text)
27 The sample size of Sunnis in Azerbaijan is too small to be included in this
analysis. (return to text)
Photo Credit: © SZE FEI WONG / istockphoto