Study shows diversity of Muslims’ beliefs

Muslims worldwide are united in their belief in Allah and the Prophet Muhammad, but their views on other aspects of Islam vary widely, a study shows. Age plays a major role in determining a Muslim’s religious conviction.

Shoes on a prayer mat Copyright: Fotolia/prima

The cafes are empty, and the streets are remarkably quiet. People in Morocco’s capital Rabat are waiting for the sun to sink – only then are they allowed to eat and drink. It is Ramadan, a month in which many Muslims fast during the day as part of a holy ritual.

There are hold-outs, including a group of young Moroccans who go by the name “Masayminch” (“We don’t fast”).

“We want to show society that we are different. We don’t want to hide ourselves in order to live in piece,” 23-year-old Imad Iddine Habib, one of the co-founders of the movement, told the news agency AFP.

Morocco is a largely liberal and tolerant Muslim country, but breaking with religious rituals is taboo, and those rituals include the fasting period during Ramadan. Some 89 percent of Moroccans describe their Muslim faith as “very important” in their lives, according to a recent study by Washington-based think tank Pew Research Center. A total of 38,000 Muslims from 39 countries were surveyed about Islam in the study.

Researcher Neha Sahgal of the Pew Research Center

A topography of piety

Nearly every fourth person on the planet adheres to some form of Islam – adding up to a total of around 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, according to Pew’s research. Beyond beliefs centering on Allah and the prophet Mohammed, there are wide-ranging differences among Muslims, said Neha Sahgal, a co-author of the study: “We came to the result that Islam is not practiced with the same intensity everywhere. Muslims in various parts of the world feel committed to the faith to differing degrees.”

According to the study, the most pious Muslims live south of the Sahara. The researchers asked what role religion plays in daily life there and 98 percent of the respondents in Senegal, for example, said that their faith is “very important” to them. In contrast, 75 percent of respondents in countries in the Middle East and North Africa said the same. In multicultural Lebanon, around 60 percent of Muslims agreed.

Strikingly few call their faith as important in the formerly communist countries of Southeast Europe and former Soviet states. While 44 percent of Russian Muslims described their faith as “very important,” just 15 percent of Albanian believers said the same.

“Under communism, practicing your faith was forbidden, so Islam could not take hold in these countries,” said Sahgal. Generally speaking, she said, religious faith – whether Islamic, Christian or otherwise – was more deeply anchored in societies in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa than in Central Asia or Southeast Europe.

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The significance of rituals

Prayer, fasting and giving alms are among the most important religious obligations in Islam. But they do not have the same importance for all Muslims. While in countries in Southeast Asia, 99 percent of Muslims fast during Ramadan, just about half of the Islamic community in Central Asia does so. The Pew study found similar results when it came to giving alms. Devout Muslims are generally expected to donate 2.5 percent of their assets annually. In Southeast Asia, 93 percent said they put this tenet into practice, while 56 percent of Muslims in Central Asia and Southeast Europe said they do the same.

A key commonality

In one respect, however, diverse Muslim communities resemble each other: Older people are more religious than the youth.

Older generations are almost uniformly more religious

“In the Middle East and in North Africa, young people are increasingly being influenced by what’s happening in the West,” said Sahgal. Young people there are also more highly educated than members of older generations, which Pew researchers said is a trait that correlates with less religious belief.

Russia represents the sole exception to the trend. Young Muslims there adhere more firmly to Islam than their parents or grandparents.

“Religion has to do with identity, and, in Russia, the Muslim population is in the minority. So young people identify their religious practice with an individual, Muslim identity,” said Sahgal.