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

Men and women also tend to be similar in expressing the role Islam plays in their lives and in their daily practice of praying and reading the Quran, Islam's sacred book.

"The one exception to this pattern is mosque attendance: women are much more likely than men to say they never visit their local mosque. This gender gap is largest in South Asia and Central Asia," the report said.

Differences emerged geographically and generationally when Muslims were asked how important religion is to them and how often they attend mosque, pray and read or listen to readings of the Quran.

In sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and South Asia, about 9-in-10 said religion plays an important role in their lives. Similar attitudes were expressed by large majorities in the Middle East, with the exception of Lebanon, where 59 percent said religion is important.

But stark differences appeared in Central Asia, Russia and the Balkans, where generally fewer than half of the Muslims living in the former communist countries said religion was important in their lives. Albanian Muslims had the lowest level of religious commitment at 15 percent, while Turkey, where Muslims did not live under communist rule, was the highest at 67 percent.

Hakan Yavuz, a political science professor at the University of Utah who has studied Islamic culture in Central Asia, said Muslims were small in number and isolated during the colonial and Communist reigns over the region, making sectarian distinctions largely irrelevant and minimizing the role of religion.

"The scientific atheism that was taught under the Communist system was somewhat successful" in purging belief and importance of religion in everyday life, Yavuz said.

As a result, he explained, the practice of Islam is more internalized and spiritual than outwardly through the practice of prayer, fasting and other measures of commitment Pew researchers used.

But Yavuz explained that since the breakup of the Soviet Union, a newer generation that is more knowledgeable about religion and more connected to the larger Muslim world is spurring a revival of Islam in the region.

In fact, the Pew researchers found that Russia was an anomaly among Muslims worldwide. In that country 48 percent of Muslims ages 18-34 describe religion as very important to their lives, compared with 41 percent of those 35 and older. Elsewhere in the world, younger Muslims were less religious than their elders, although in the Middle East the generation gap is narrow, with large majorities of young and old saying their faith is central to their lives.

The Pew Forum surveyed American Muslims in 2011 and found, as with their counterparts throughout the world, overwhelming acceptance of Islam's core beliefs. But the importance placed on religion in their daily life was less among U.S. Muslims, who were also less observant to the basic practices, such as prayer and mosque attendance.

Where American Muslims stood out from the rest of the world, however, was their openness to different interpretations of Islam. A majority of U.S. Muslims (57 percent) said Islam can be understood in more than one way, while the median in countries outside the United States was just 27 percent.

But Yavuz, author of the forthcoming book "Toward Islamic Enlightenment," to be published by Oxford University Press, predicts that gap will narrow in the future.

He explained that between the rigid interpretation of Islam that will thrive in less stable nations and the more flexible interpretations found in Turkey, Indonesia and the United States, numerous other trends will take hold as Muslims find ways to embrace modernity and hold on to their faith.

"The Muslim world is so diverse socially and economically that we will not have one trajectory, but multiple trajectories" of Islam in the future, he said.

email: mbrown@desnews.com

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