The world's 1.6 billion Muslims are united in their belief in God and the Prophet Muhammad; they share practices such as fasting during Ramadan and almsgiving. In addition, there are wide-ranging differences in matters of faith – including how important religion is, who is considered a Muslim and what one is allowed to do in Islam.
That's the finding of a global study by the Washington-based research institute Pew Resarch Center. For the study now published, the Institute had 38.000 adult Muslims surveyed in more than 80 languages. Their communities in 39 countries where the interviews took place represent a good two-thirds of the world's Muslim community. Virtually all of them name the confession to the one God and his messenger Mohammed as the central content of their faith. But judgments differ as to how important religion is for one's own life.
In the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, 75 percent or more of respondents across the board say faith is "very important" to them; Senegal peaks at 98 percent; the outlier at the bottom is multicultural Lebanon at 59 percent. By contrast, the level of conviction in formerly communist countries in southeastern Europe and the former
Soviet states: In Russia, 44 percent of Muslims find religion "very important". The most devout country in the region (with the exception of Turkey: 67 percent) is Tajikistan, with 50 percent; Bosnia-Herzegovina brings in 36 percent, and Albania a meager 15 percent. To
Comparison: In the USA, 69 percent of Muslims consider their faith indispensable.
In the Orient and North Africa, the importance of faith grows with age for Muslims. Respondents over age 35 were more likely to say they pray and read the Quran. In the rest of the world, the survey recorded no sharp generational difference. Only in Russia are young Muslims on average more committed than older ones.
Visiting places of worship is mainly a matter for men
Unlike Christian communities, in Islam attendance at places of worship is mainly a male affair. In Central and South Asia, the majority of Muslim women declared that they never visit a mosque. However, researchers see the reason for this less in a disregard for faith than in cultural norms that keep women out of public life. In religious practices such as prayer, fasting or almsgiving, there is no consistent difference between the sexes.
Muslims do not care much about differences between Sunnis and Shiites. In Middle Eastern and North African countries, at least 40 percent of Sunnis doubt that Shiites are true co-religionists. Outside this region, people see it more casually. Muslims in Central Asia and in Southern and Eastern Europe, for the most part, called themselves "simply Muslims". The same is true of Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim community in the world. Even in Lebanon and Iraq, where large groups of Sunnis and Shiites live side by side, mutual acceptance is higher.
In 32 of the 39 countries studied, there is only one interpretation of Islam for the majority of Muslims. Muslim respondents in the U.S. were more pluralistic: There, 57 percent believe that the word of God in the Koran can be interpreted differently. Only Muslims in Morocco and Tunisia are even more liberal (58 percent). Palestinians (49 percent), Lebanese and Senegalese (45 percent), Muslims in Chad (44 percent) and Iraq (43 percent) also believe in a certain span of the Islamic path to salvation.
The Koran is considered the word of God; however, the fact that it can only be understood literally is not shared by everyone: While 93 percent of Muslims in Cameroon subscribe to this statement, only 54 percent do so in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Differences are also evident in popular beliefs. The existence of angels is considered a given by 98 percent in Southeast Asia and 55 percent in Southeast Europe. In most countries at least half believe in ghosts or the "evil eye". In many places, there is also a widespread expectation of experiencing the beginning of the final judgment in person: 83 percent in Afghanistan, 72 percent in Iraq and 86 percent in Turkey.