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The World's Muslims: Unity and Diversity

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The global 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.

These are the findings of the latest survey of the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life. The survey titled "The World's Muslims: Unity and Diversity," was released on Friday, August 9.

The survey finds that while there is broad agreement on the core tenets of Islam Muslims across the 39 countries and territories surveyed but differ significantly in their levels of religious commitment, openness to multiple interpretations of their faith and acceptance of various sects and movements.

The PEW survey 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.

On what are often considered Islam's articles of faith and "pillars" of practice, there is much commonality among Muslims around the world, the survey said adding: 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 finds 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 (or Shiite) but as "just a Muslim."

Under the title "Sectarian Differences Vary in Importance," the survey finds that sectarian identities, especially the distinction between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, seem to be unfamiliar or unimportant to many Muslims. This is especially true across Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as in Central Asia, where at least 50% describe themselves as "just a Muslim" rather than as a follower of any particular sect of Islam. Substantial minorities in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia also identify as "just a Muslim."

Sectarian identities appear to be particularly relevant in South Asia and the Middle East- North Africa region, where majorities identify as Sunnis or Shiites. In the Middle East and North Africa , moreover, widespread identification with the Sunni sect is often coupled with mixed views about whether Shiites are Muslims, the study pointed out.

The PEW survey finds that the Central Asia along with Southern and Eastern Europe have relatively low levels of religious commitment, both in terms of the lower importance that Muslims in those regions place on religion and in terms of self-reported religious practices. "With the exception of Turkey, where two-thirds of Muslims say religion is very important in their lives, half or fewer across these two regions say religion is personally very important to them. This includes Kazakhstan and Albania, where just 18% and 15%, respectively, say religion is central to their lives."

It is important to keep in mind, however, that despite lower levels of religious commitment on some measures, majorities of Muslims across most of Central Asia and Southern and Eastern Europe nonetheless subscribe to core tenets of Islam, and many also report that they observe such pillars of the faith as fasting during Ramadan and annual almsgiving to the poor, the PEW survey concluded.

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Author and journalist. Author of Islamic Pakistan: Illusions & Reality; Islam in the Post-Cold War Era; Islam & Modernism; Islam & Muslims in the Post-9/11 America. Currently working as free lance journalist. Executive Editor of American (more...)
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