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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 7    Issue 16   01-15 January 2013

Unity and Diversity in Muslim Societies: The Pew Forum’s Survey (2012)

Professor A. R. Momin

The world’s Muslim population is estimated to be more than 1.7 billion, making up about one-fourth of the global population. Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion. Muslim communities are distributed across the globe, from Russia to Sri Lanka and from China to Brazil. In recent years there has come about a surge of academic and media interest, especially in the West, in the Islamic faith, Islamic history and civilization and Muslim societies. Major Western universities, including Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford and the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, have introduced courses on Islamic history and civilization and Muslim societies.

A good deal of academic research in the West has focused on the interface between unity and diversity in Muslim societies around the world. Most Western observers and commentators, and some Muslim scholars (such as Abdul Hamid el-Zein and Sami Zubaida), emphasise demographic, ethnic, cultural and political diversity as a distinctive feature of Muslim societies which overshadows their ideological homogeneity. On the other hand, some scholars, such as Hamilton Gibb, Ernest Gellner and Ali Shariati, have focused on the unmistakable threads of unity that pervade Muslim societies around the world, despite their evident diversity.

A serious limitation of the view that cultural diversity, rather than ideological uniformity and homogeneity, is the most salient feature of Muslim societies around the world is that it is embedded in a synchronic, ahistorical framework. This view focuses only on contemporary Muslim societies and leaves out those of the past, about which we have substantial information, provided by historians, chroniclers and literary writers. Furthermore, this view delinks present-day Muslim societies from their heritage, which is rooted in the past, and from their ideological moorings. In view of these limitations, generalizations based on this view appear to be superficial and one-sided.

The Pew Forum’s Survey

The Pew Research Centre, which is a subsidiary of the Pew Charitable Trusts, is a think tank based in Washington DC. Its basic objective is to provide authentic information on issues and trends that have a bearing on the US and the wider world. The Centre has several ongoing projects, including the Pew Global Attitudes Project and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. It brought out an important report on the global Muslim population in October 2009, titled “Mapping the Global Muslim Population: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Muslim Population.” 1 Another significant publication of the Centre was “The Global Religious Landscape,” which was brought out in 2010. The Forum’s latest report “The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity,” published in August 2012, focuses on the issue of unity and diversity in present-day Muslim societies around the world. The report is based on more than 38,000 face-to-face interviews conducted in over 80 languages with Muslims in 39 countries around the world that are home to roughly two-thirds of the global Muslim population. 2

The report sought to elicit the responses of Muslim respondents on six key questions: religious affiliation, religious commitment, articles of faith, other beliefs and practices, boundaries of religious identity and boundaries of religious practice. The salient features of the report are outlined in the following.

The overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world share the core Islamic beliefs. There are some variations in the degree of religious commitment among Muslims in different regions of the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia, for example, eight in ten Muslims said that religion was very important to their lives, whereas the proportion was six in ten in the Middle East and North Africa. About half of Muslims living in Russia, the Balkans and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia said that religion held a central place in their lives. In Turkey, 67% said that religion was very important to their lives.

The survey found that the practice of fasting during the month of Ramadan and giving charity (zakat) was widespread (94% to 99%) across the Muslim world. The level of religious commitment (judged by the observance of religious rituals) was found to be higher among Muslims aged 35 and older and less in the younger generation. However, in Russia, the younger generation of Muslims was found to be more observant than their elders. The survey found no significant differences between Muslim men and women in respect of religious commitment and observance of prayers and fasting. In Kazakhstan and Albania, only 18% and 15% of the respondents respectively said that religion was central to their lives.

Sectarian and denominational distinctions were found to be more accentuated in the Middle East and North Africa than in Central Asia and Europe.

One of the questions asked in the survey was about belief in the existence of angels. Belief in the existence of angels was found to be near universal in the Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia. In Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, more than seven in 10 said that angels were real.

The subject of the survey is undoubtedly important and relevant. However, the limited scope of the survey, the kind of questions formulated and asked and the methodology followed make the findings of the survey appear superficial and vacuous. The survey has been carried out in the framework of the empiricist methodology, which is the dominant social science methodology in the United States and which is routinely adopted in surveys and opinion polls in the country. The survey fails to adequately address the crucial question of the sources of unity in Muslim societies around the world. It disregards the historical dimension and the continuities between the present and the past and takes no cognizance of the highly significant social, economic and political changes in Muslim societies that have come about in recent times. Surprisingly, the countries covered in the survey include Thailand, where Muslims comprise a small fraction of the population, but not India, which has the world’s third largest Muslim population and where Islam reached more than 1000 years ago.

A nuanced, historically-sensitive discussion of the dynamics of unity and diversity in Muslim societies is offered in the following.

Dynamics of Diversity and Unity in Muslim Societies

Muslim societies around the world exhibit unmistakable diversities. These diversities are observable in racial and phenotypical features, the distribution and ethnic and social composition of population, social organization, family and kinship system, language, ethnicity, sectarian and denominational distinctions, form of government, modes of livelihood and occupational structure, stratification, settlement pattern, development, ethnic homogeneity, customary laws, status of women and gender relations, customs and traditions and folklore.

More than 62 per cent of the global Muslim population live in the Asia-Pacific region, 20 per cent in the Middle East and North Africa, 16 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa and around 6 per cent in Europe. Muslims are a majority in 49 countries where three-quarters of the global Muslim population are concentrated. Two-thirds of all Muslims worldwide live in 10 countries: Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Egypt, Nigeria, Iran, Turkey, Algeria and Morocco. Most Muslim countries are ethnically diverse, comprising heterogeneous ethnic groups among Muslims, as well as non-Muslim minorities. Variations in the settlement pattern and in modes of livelihood are indicated by the existence of villagers, inhabitants of cities, desert-dwellers, peasants, pastoralists, nomads, professionals, traders and shop-keepers, entrepreneurs and businessmen, the religious and political elite and the intelligentsia. There are scores of nomadic communities among Muslims in South Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.

There is enormous linguistic diversity in the Muslim world. Generally, Muslim communities speak the language or dialect of the region in which they are concentrated. Bilingualism is widely prevalent in most Muslim societies. Though the overwhelming majority of Muslims follow the patrilineal system of descent and kinship, there are some matrilineal societies in Indonesia, India and North Africa. The Minangkabau Muslims, concentrated in West Sumatra in Indonesia, are the world’s largest matrilineal society. The Koya Muslims of Kerala in India generally follow the matrilineal system. The Tuareg, one of the Berber ethnic groups in North Africa, are largely matrilineal.

A Minangkabau bride and groom. The Minangkabau are the world’s largest matrilineal society

The Arab region is widely and stereotypically, but incorrectly, perceived as socially, ideologically and politically homogeneous. This is far from the truth. The Arab region is characterized by a good deal of ethnic, religious, social, political and regional diversities. The Muslim population of the Arab region is differentiated along sectarian and ethnic lines. Shias constitute about 65 per cent of the population in Iraq, 70-75 per cent in Bahrain, 45 per cent in Yemen, 30 per cent in Kuwait, 27 per cent in Lebanon, 12 per cent in Syria and 10-15 per cent in Saudi Arabia. There is a sizeable minority Kurdish population in Iraq (15-20 per cent) and Syria (9 per cent). The Berber people, who have their distinctive ethnic and linguistic identities, number about 25-35 million and constitute the majority of the population in Morocco and Algeria, and have a sizeable presence in Tunisia and Libya. There are significant regional variations in respect of the strength and tenacity of tribal and ethnic identifications and networks. There are significant differences in the Arab region in respect of the character of state and government. Eight out of 22 Arab regions (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Jordan, UAE and Morocco) are hereditary monarchies.

A Berber family in Morocco

Though Muslims make up an overwhelming majority of the Arab region’s population, there are significant religious and ethnic minorities, such as Christians and Jews. Christians of different denominations make up about 5.5 per cent of the region’s total populations. They comprise about 39 per cent of the population in Lebanon, 16 per cent in Syria, 10 per cent in Egypt and about 9 per cent in Iraq. There are small but long-established Jewish communities in Tunisia, Morocco and Yemen.

Ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity is a conspicuous feature of Muslim societies not only globally but also within nations, regions and groups. The Muslims of China, for example, are ethnically heterogeneous and are divided into more than a dozen communities, including the Hui, Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tatar, Salar and Bonan. The Hui, who make up about half of China’s Muslim population, are the descendants of Arab, Persian and Central Asian traders and merchants who married Chinese women. The Hui culture represents a blend of Middle Eastern, Central Asian and Chinese traditions. The Muslims of Indonesia are divided into more than 100 ethnic groups who speak a variety of languages and dialects. The Berber Muslims of North Africa are divided into about two dozen ethnic groups.

The Great Mosque at Djenne in Mali

Mosques represent a central institution in Muslim societies across the world. However, there are significant and interesting variations in the architecture of mosques in the Muslim world. The architectural patterns of mosques in China, Indonesia and Africa, for example, are remarkably different from those of mosques in the Middle East.

The great mosque of Xian, one of China’s oldest mosques

Nearly 25 per cent of the world’s Muslim population live as minorities in non-Islamic countries. Large concentrations of Muslim minorities are to be found in India (170 million), China (25 million) and Russia (20 million). 3

Large numbers of Muslims live outside of their countries of origin. There is, for example, a sizeable Arab diaspora which is dispersed across Europe, USA, Canada, South and Central America and Australasia. The largest concentration of Arabs outside the Middle East is in Brazil, which has over 12 million people of Arab ancestry. There are large Arab communities in South and Central America. In Chile, for example, there is a 300,000-strong Palestinian diaspora. There are 100,000 Palestinians living in El Salvador. In the US there are about 3.5 million people of Arab descent. There is a substantial Arab diaspora in Europe. An estimated quarter of a million Palestinians live in Europe. There are an estimated 2.2 million Berber immigrants in Europe. Over one million Iranians have emigrated in recent decades to Europe, North America, Australia and Turkey. There are approximately 500,000 Iranians living in Los Angeles. There is a sizeable Kurdish diaspora, estimated at about 850,000, mainly of Turkish origin, in Western Europe. Muslim diasporas, like the global Muslim population, are characterized by a great deal of diversity in respect of nationality, ethnicity, language, cultural traditions, sects and denominations.

Unity of the Muslim World

The eminent British anthropologist and philosopher and a perceptive observer of Muslim societies, Ernest Gellner, has remarked that “for all the indisputable diversity, the remarkable thing is the extent to which Muslim societies resemble each other.” This uniformity is all the more puzzling, Gellner says, in the theoretical absence of a Church and hence of a central authority. Another eminent scholar, T. B. Irving, says that “one great characteristic of Islam has been its universal appeal to widely divergent peoples living all over the globe.” 4 It is instructive to explore the dynamics of the unity of Muslim societies around the world.

An overarching system of beliefs and doctrines, ideational and normative principles, institutions and cultural and behavioural patterns knit together Muslim societies of the present and the past. It is important to note that this system is firmly embedded in well-preserved textual sources. The common threads that are shared by Muslim societies around the world are universal and trans-ethnic in the sense that they transcend the distinctions of race, nationality, ethnicity and culture. The core Islamic beliefs and doctrines include the unity and oneness of God, belief in the Quran as the last divine revelation, the prophecy of Muhammad (SAAW) and the primacy of Shariah as an eternal source of guidance.

The “Five Pillars” (confession of faith, mandatory prayers, fasting in the month of Ramadan, charity (zakat) and pilgrimage to Makkah), which represent the cornerstone of the institutional structure of Islam and are an indispensable part of the individual and collective identity of Muslims, reinforce the unity of Muslim societies. The mosque occupies a central place in the spiritual and social life of Muslims around the world. It represents not just a sacred space for prayers but also serves as an institution that fosters social interaction, fellow-feeling and brotherhood. Attendance in mosques and participation in the congregational prayers reinforces religious commitment and identification. Another universal institution in Muslim societies (including the Muslim communities living in Europe, North and Latin America and Australia) is the madrasa or the Islamic school where basic Islamic instruction, particularly the reading and recitation of the Quran in Arabic, is imparted. The Hajj pilgrimage epitomizes the quintessential unity and brotherhood of the Muslim ummah. The Hajj has been a highly potent source of communitarian cohesion and dynamism in Islamic history. It has played a key role in deepening commitment to Islamic values and ideals, in fostering and reinforcing the doctrinal and institutional unity of the Muslim ummah and in the dissemination of Islamic learning. For centuries, the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah have been a cherished meeting place for scholars, sages and Sufis, teachers and students. Furthermore, Islamic movements of reform and rejuvenation have drawn inspiration from the holy cities.

Since the beginning of Islam, the Hajj pilgrimage has played a key role in fostering and reinforcing the doctrinal and institutional unity of the Muslim ummah

The term “ummah” (worldwide Muslim community) is a universal, trans-ethnic concept and institution. It connotes the fundamental unity and brotherhood of Muslims regardless of the distinctions of race, class, ethnicity or culture. The unity of Muslim societies is reinforced by the cherished tradition of reading of the Quran in the original Arabic language and by the universal use of Arabic as the language of prayer and worship. Most if not all Muslim societies have the institution of charitable endowments (awqaf), which support educational institutions, hospitals, inns and other institutions for the welfare of the disadvantaged and vulnerable sections of society.

Two major feasts, Id al-fitr and Id al-adha, are universally celebrated by Muslims all over the world. The practice of ritual circumcision of the male child is universally prevalent in Muslim societies around the world. A set of taboos, such as the prohibition of alcohol, pork, gambling and illicit sex, are universally avoided by Muslims. Ernest Gellner has rightly observed that Islam is not just a set of beliefs and doctrines but a “blueprint of a social order.” He perceptively and rightly speaks about “Islam’s social pervasiveness.” 5

A Hui family celebrating the feast of Id al-adha in Ningxia

In Muslim societies around the world, in the past as well as at present, the religious elite, particularly the ulama, and Sufis in many Muslim societies, have played a very important role in the interpretation of Islamic legal principles and precedents in the context of their times, in ensuring compliance with them among the Muslim masses, in the dissemination of Islamic learning, in fostering and reinforcing commitment to Islamic values and ideals, and in forging societal cohesion.

Belief in the prophecy of Muhammad (SAAW) is one of the cardinal tenets of the Islamic faith. In addition, Muslims around the world hold the prophet in exceptionally deep reverence and do not brook any derogatory or offensive remarks or insinuations about him. This was vividly brought out by the worldwide protests by Muslims against Salman Rushdie’s novel Satanic Verses and in the wake of the publication of the derogatory cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in some European newspapers in 2006.

Shariah as the Key Principle of Communitarian Integration

In Western discourse, the term Shariah is surrounded by a good deal of misunderstanding, obfuscation and misrepresentation. Noah Feldman, a professor of law at Harvard University, points out that, in the eyes of most Westerners, Shariah conjures images of oppression, enslavement of women and barbaric punishments (such as the cutting off of thieves’ hands and stoning an adulterer to death), reminiscent of the Middle Ages. 6

Most people, especially in the West, identify Shariah with a set of legal rules and prescriptions, particularly those relating to crime and punishment. This is a reductionistic view. The fact of the matter is that Shariah is much broader and deeper in scope. It is infused with spiritual and moral purposes. Essentially, it connotes a system of ideas, principles and prescriptions aimed at providing guidance, order and harmony to individuals and the wider society. Since the dawn of Islam, Shariah has been looked upon as a perennial source of guidance and inspiration and has been a central principle of unity and integration in Muslim societies of the past and present. Sir Hamilton Gibb eloquently brings out the place and role of Shariah in Islamic history in the following words.

    The Shariah always remained in force as an ideal and final court of appeal, and by its unity and comprehensiveness, it formed the main unifying force in Islamic culture. It permeated almost every side of social life and every branch of Islamic literature and it is no exaggeration to see in it, in the words of one of the most penetrating students of the subject, “the epitome of the Islamic spirit, the most decisive expression of Islamic thought, the essential kernel of Islam.” 7

Shariah has legal, political, social, moral and spiritual dimensions. Noah Feldman says that for most of its history, Islamic law (which is derived from Shariah) offered the most liberal and humane legal principles available anywhere in the world. He adds that for more than 1000 years, Shariah has functioned very effectively as the cornerstone of a legal and political system based on the rule of law and equality before law, in which everyone, rich and poor, high and low, men and women, the ruler and the ruled, were treated equally. It spawned a system in which “government is subject to and constrained by law.” It acted as a system of checks and balances against the violation of law and the abuse of human rights by the ruling establishment.

The universal and enduring appeal of Shariah can be seen in the current social and political scenario in the Muslim world. Feldman observes that “for many Muslims today living in corrupt autocracies, the call for Shariah is not a call for sexism, obscurantism or savage punishment but for an Islamic version of what the West considers its most prized principle of political justice: the rule of law.” Feldman adds that the majority of Muslims in the Arab world believe that Shariah should be the only source of legislation in their countries. And they are supported in this demand by large numbers of Muslim women. Feldman also observes that in the Muslim world, wherever free elections have been held, “people advocate a central role for Shariah in governance”, and political parties which make as “the central plank in their platform the making of Shariah into the source of law tend to do tremendously well in elections.” 8

The universal appeal for Shariah for Muslims around the world can be seen in the growing popularity of legal institutions or mechanisms through which disputes relating to marriage, divorce, succession and inheritance can be settled in accordance with the principles of Islamic Shariah. Such legal institutions are in existence in several countries, including India, Britain, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Thailand, Suriname, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. This is also evidenced in the growing worldwide salience and popularity of Shariah-compliant products and services, including halal food and Islamic finance. 9

Islamic Movements as an Agent of Integration

Since the beginning of the Islamic era, Islam has been a potent and enduring source of inspiration, renewal and regeneration. 10 This fact is conspicuously reflected in Islamic movements of renewal and reform, which regularly emerged in the course of Islamic history, harked back to the golden era of Islam, influenced generations of Muslims around the world and acted as a catalyst in the unification and integration of Muslim societies. Anti-colonial movements in Central Asia and Africa were spearheaded by the ulama and the Sufis. 11 The Sanusi Sufi movement, for example, played a highly important role in unifying Muslim communities and societies across the Sahara. Muslim thinkers and reformers such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1893-1897) invoked the idea of the Muslim ummah as a rallying call for the awakening and regeneration of Muslim societies. Global Islamic movements in the contemporary world, such as Tabligh, Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun, Jama’at-e Islami, the various movements inspired by Sufism, the Salafi movement and the movement of Fethullah Gulen, among many others, have influenced millions of Muslims from diverse national, ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Two Levels of Integration

The dynamics of unification and integration of Muslim societies can be observed and analyzed at two interrelated levels: at a universal level, encompassing the worldwide Muslim ummah, and in the regional context. Some scholars draw a distinction between the Islamic Great Tradition and the folk tradition, in which some of the core elements of Islamic beliefs, institutions and cultural features are blended or synthesized with folk, regional cultures. Ernest Gellner rightly points out that “among all the world religions, only Islam survives as a serious faith pervading both a folk ad a great tradition.” In Africa, for example, a fusion of Islamic beliefs and culture and the Arabic language with regional cultural traditions and languages produced distinctive Islamic regional identities, which in turn forged a sense of cohesion and solidarity among large tribal conglomerations. The Hausa-Fulani are one of the largest ethnic groups in west Africa. The Hausa language, which is one of Africa’s largest spoken languages with more than 43 million speakers, has been heavily influenced by Arabic. The Hausa adopted the Arabic script – called Ajami -- to write their language. The Hausa serves as a lingua franca in west Africa, and is spoken not only by the Hausa-Fulani but also by Muslims living in non-Hausa areas.

Another example of the fusion of Arabic with regional languages is provided by the Swahili language. Swahili or Kiswahili (the name is derived from the Arabic sawahil, plural of sahil, which means coast or coastal area), which is spoken by more than 60 million people in East Africa, is a composite of Arabic and Bantu languages. Nearly three-quarters of its vocabulary are derived from Arabic. It was originally written in the Arabic script, but is now written in Latin characters, which was introduced by Christian missionaries and colonial administrators. It is the national language of five African nations: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Comoros and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Swahili Arabic inscription on a coin from Zanjibar circa 1882

Such composite cultural traditions, which exemplify the harmonious synthesis of Islamic culture and regional traditions, have flourished in Andalusia in the Middle Ages, India and Southeast Asia and attest to the universal diffusion of Islamic civilization and its far-reaching, benevolent and humanizing impact on large parts of the world.


1. For a critical review of the report, see The Minaret, October 2009
2. http://www.pewforum.org/Muslims/the-world’s-muslims-unity-and-diversity-aspx
3. Syed Z. Abedin and Saleha Abedin: ‘Muslim minorities in non-Muslim societies’ in John L. Esposito (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Modern Islamic World. Vol. 3, pp. 112-117. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995; A. R. Momin: ‘Muslim minorities in non-Islamic milieus’ The Islamic World: Dynamics of Change and Continuity. New Delhi: Institute of Objective Studies, 2011, pp. 331-373
4. T. B. Irving: Islam Resurgent: The Islamic World Today. Lahore: Suhail Academy, 1983, p. 3
5. Ernest Gellner: Muslim Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, pp. 1-2
6. Noah Feldman: ‘Why Shariah?’ The New York Times, March 16, 2008
7. H. A.R. Gibb: Mohammedanism: An Historic Survey. London: Oxford University Press, 1949, p. 84
8. Noah Feldman: ‘Why Shariah?’ The New York Times, March 16, 2008; Noah Feldman: The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008; http://www.carnegiecouncil.org/resources/transcripts/0039.html
9. A. R. Momin: ‘Global Prominence of Shariah-Compliant Products and Services’ The Minaret, October 2012
10. Mona Abul Fadl: Toward Global Cultural Revival: Modernity and the Episteme of Transcendence. London: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1995, p. 9.
11. A. R. Momin: ‘The role of Sufis in anti-colonial resistance’ The Minaret, 1-15 August 2011

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