A new Pew Research Center survey of Muslims around the globe finds that most adherents of the world’s second-largest religion are deeply committed to their faith and want its teachings to shape not only their personal lives but also their societies and politics. In all but a handful of the 39 countries surveyed, a majority of Muslims say that Islam is the one true faith leading to eternal life in heaven and that belief in God is necessary to be a moral person. Many also think that their religious leaders should have at least some influence over political matters. And many express a desire for sharia – traditional Islamic law – to be recognized as the official law of their country.
The percentage of Muslims who say they want sharia to be “the official law of the land” varies widely around the world, from fewer than one-in-ten in Azerbaijan (8%) to near unanimity in Afghanistan (99%). But solid majorities in most of the countries surveyed across the Middle East and North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia favor the establishment of sharia, including 71% of Muslims in Nigeria, 72% in Indonesia, 74% in Egypt and 89% in the Palestinian territories.
Sharia is the Arabic word meaning “path” or “way.” Today the term is used most commonly to mean “Islamic law.” Sharia attempts to describe all possible human acts, dividing them into permitted (halal) and prohibited (haram). It subdivides them into various degrees of good or evil such as obligatory, recommended, neutral, objectionable or forbidden. This vast compendium of rules regulates all matters of devotional life, worship, ritual purity, marriage and inheritance, criminal offenses, commerce and personal conduct.
Islam teaches that sharia is God’s revealed law, and it is perfect and eternal. It is considered binding on individuals, society and state. Any criticism of sharia is considered heresy. Anyone who criticizes or finds fault with sharia is an infidel.
Discrimination on the basis of religion is fundamental to shari’a. By religious edict, Islam must be dominant; only Muslims are considered to be full citizens. Jews and Christians are defined as dhimmis, or permitted to live.
The Pew survey found that even in many countries where there is strong backing for sharia, most Muslims favor religious freedom for people of other faiths. In Pakistan, for example, three-quarters of Muslims say that non-Muslims are very free to practice their religion, and fully 96% of those who share this assessment say it is “a good thing.” Yet 84% of Pakistani Muslims favor enshrining sharia as official law. These seemingly divergent views are possible partly because most supporters of sharia in Pakistan – as in many other countries – think Islamic law should apply only to Muslims. Moreover, Muslims around the globe have differing understandings of what sharia means in practice.
The survey – which involved more than 38,000 face-to-face interviews in 80-plus languages with Muslims across Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa – shows that Muslims tend to be most comfortable with using sharia in the domestic sphere, to settle family or property disputes. In most countries surveyed, there is considerably less support for severe punishments, such as cutting off the hands of thieves or executing people who convert from Islam to another faith. And even in the domestic sphere, Muslims differ widely on such questions as whether polygamy, divorce and family planning are morally acceptable and whether daughters should be able to receive the same inheritance as sons.
In most countries surveyed, majorities of Muslim women as well as men agree that a wife is always obliged to obey her husband. Indeed, more than nine-in-ten Muslims in Iraq (92%), Morocco (92%), Tunisia (93%), Indonesia (93%), Afghanistan (94%) and Malaysia (96%) express this view. At the same time, majorities in many countries surveyed say a woman should be able to decide for herself whether to wear a veil.
Overall, the survey finds that most Muslims see no inherent tension between being religiously devout and living in a modern society. Nor do they see any conflict between religion and science. Many favor democracy over authoritarian rule, believe that humans and other living things have evolved over time and say they personally enjoy Western movies, music and television – even though most think Western popular culture undermines public morality.
Other key findings include:
- At least half of Muslims in most countries surveyed say they are concerned about religious extremist groups in their country, including two-thirds or more of Muslims in Egypt (67%), Tunisia (67%), Iraq (68%), Guinea Bissau (72%) and Indonesia (78%). On balance, more are worried about Islamic extremists than about Christian extremists.
- Muslims around the world overwhelmingly view certain behaviors – including prostitution, homosexuality, suicide, abortion, euthanasia and consumption of alcohol – as immoral. But attitudes toward polygamy, divorce and birth control are more varied. For example, polygamy is seen as morally acceptable by just 4% of Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Azerbaijan; about half of Muslims in the Palestinian territories (48%) and Malaysia (49%); and the vast majority of Muslims in several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, such as Senegal (86%) and Niger (87%).
- In most countries where a question about so-called “honor” killings was asked, majorities of Muslims say such killings are never justified. Only in two countries – Afghanistan and Iraq – do majorities condone extra-judicial executions of women who allegedly have shamed their families by engaging in premarital sex or adultery.
- Relatively few Muslims say that tensions between more religiously observant and less observant Muslims are a very big problem in their country. In most countries where the question was asked, Muslims also see little tension between members of Islam’s two major sects, Sunnis and Shias – though a third or more of Muslims in Pakistan (34%) and Lebanon (38%) consider Sunni-Shia conflict to be a very big problem.
- Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa are more likely than Muslims surveyed in other regions to say they attend interfaith meetings and are knowledgeable about other faiths. But substantial percentages of Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa also perceive hostility between Muslims and Christians. In Guinea-Bissau, for example, 41% of Muslims say “most” or “many” Christians are hostile toward Muslims, and 49% say “most” or “many” Muslims are hostile toward Christians.
- In half of the countries where the question was asked, majorities of Muslims want religious leaders to have at least “some influence” in political matters, and sizable minorities in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa think religious leaders should have a lot of political influence. For example, 37% of Muslims in Jordan, 41% in Malaysia and 53% in Afghanistan say religious leaders should play a “large” role in politics.
- Support for making sharia the official law of the land tends to be higher in countries like Pakistan (84%) and Morocco (83%) where the constitution or basic laws favor Islam over other religions.
- In many countries, Muslims who pray several times a day are more likely to support making sharia official law than are Muslims who pray less frequently. In Russia, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Tunisia, for example, Muslims who pray several times a day are at least 25 percentage points more supportive of enshrining sharia than are less observant Muslims. Generally, however, there is little difference in support for sharia by age, gender or education.