Muslims around the world are both united and diverse in their beliefs and practices

Survey sheds light on the world's 2nd largest religion

Published: Saturday, Aug. 18 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Muslims pray at Khadeeja Mosque for the start of Ramadan in West Valley City, Utah, Saturday, Aug. 14, 2010. (Matt Gillis, Deseret News)

Matt Gillis , Deseret News

Most of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims identify as either Sunni or Shia — the two main branches of Islam and a source of political and social strife in the Middle East.

But a growing number of faithful want to be known as "just Muslims," according to a global survey of the world's second largest religion, behind Christianity, by the Pew Research Center's Forum for Religion & Public Life.

While the report, "The World's Muslims: Unity and Diversity," shows differing views on Muslim identity, commitment and practices, the data gleaned from 38,000 interviews in 39 countries also reveals a universal solidarity in their belief in God and their adherence to Islam's key rituals such as Ramadan, a month-long fast that concludes Sunday, Aug. 19.

"Whatever their personal reasons are for participating or whether they believe in certain things or not, they're all part of a (global Muslim) community and I think that comes across in these findings," said Jim Bell, director of international survey research for the Pew Research Center.

The report released earlier this month did not delve into the political implications of the responses gathered over a four-year period from 2008-2012. But the findings do offer some insight into how generational and geographical circumstances influence how Muslims view themselves and practice their faith.

The Middle East and Northern Africa is where Muslims most strongly identify as either Sunni or Shia, the survey found, and where views are mixed on whether the minority Shia are accepted as Muslims. The two sects were created by a leadership succession dispute following the death of Islam's founding prophet Muhammad, but the political rift has widened over the centuries as it has taken on theological distinctions and differences in religious practices.

But the Pew report showed one-quarter of those surveyed were either unfamiliar with the Sunni-Shia distinction or found it unimportant.

"This is especially true across Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as in Central Asia, where medians of at least 50 percent describe themselves as 'just a Muslim,'" the Pew report stated. In Indonesia, where nearly 13 percent of the world's Muslims live, 56 percent of those surveyed did not identify with either sect.

Researchers were surprised, Bell said, to find that where one would assume strong animosity between the two sects — in Lebanon and Iraq, where large populations of both sects reside — is actually where Sunnis are at least 23 to 28 percentage points more likely than elsewhere in the Middle East to recognize Shias as Muslims.

"Our findings suggest that maybe living side by side with one another actually increases rather than decreases tolerance," Bell said.

Researchers also found that in Lebanon younger Sunnis are more accepting of Shias than Sunnis older than 35. "It may be that the generation that came of age during some of the most tense years of conflict in that country are less inclined to accept Shias as Muslims and that the generation that didn't have the same experience is more accepting," Bell observed.

Researchers were unable to survey in either Saudi Arabia or Iran — where the animosity between Sunni and Shia is particularly acute — or in Syria, China and India, because political sensitivities and security concerns prevented polling of those sizeable Muslim populations.

While there are differences in how Muslims identify themselves, they are united by their core beliefs and rituals, the survey found.

Belief in one God and his Prophet Muhammad, angels, fate or predestination and Judgment Day are nearly universal, as is the observance of the Ramadan fast. A large majority also said they participate in annual almsgiving to help the poor and needy.