Islam: The Statistics

Islam emerged in the Arabian Peninsula about 1400 years ago. Central to the religion is the belief that there is one and only one god, Allah, and that Muhammad, a 7th century merchant-turned-religious leader, was his finest and last prophet. 

As things presently stand, slightly more than 23% of the world's population believes in Islam. This comes out to about 1.7 billion people as of the middle of 2015. What do Muslims believe and value? Polling conducted by the Pew Research Center has taken an introductory look at this question. 

While Pew's research has been carried out in almost 40 countries, it's worth noting that it did not include India, Western Europe, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and a number of other countries in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere. As such, their findings statistically represent the views of, at most, around 1.15 billion of the roughly 1.7 billion Muslims in the world. If we combine data from the Pew surveys with information about population sizes and the percentage of Muslims within the counties polled, though, it is possible to calculate how many Muslims believe something as a concrete figure. The results are below.

 

Commentary:

  • Sharia law is a set of ethical and legal principles based on what is written in the Quran and the hadith. While sharia covers a diverse range of topics, including marriage, divorce, inheritance, and religious observances, it is most notoriously known for prescribing severe punishments for theft, adultery, and apostasy.
  • Different Muslims may favor different aspects of sharia law, and simply knowing that someone favors "sharia law" does not tell you the particulars of what they approve of. For example, while one person might want all parts of sharia applied as the legal code within their country, others might simply want it to apply to property or family disputes (but not, for example, to criminal proceedings). 
  • The country with the greatest support for sharia applying to everyone (Muslim or not) among sharia advocates is Afghanistan (61%), while Thailand has the highest percentage of people wanting sharia to apply just to Muslims (57%). The world's largest Muslim country, Indonesia, is nearly evenly split on this question, with 80.3 million supporters wanting everyone in the country to be subject to sharia, and 75.9 million supporters wanting sharia to apply only to Muslims.
 
 

Commentary:

  • Apostasy is the religious crime of abandoning belief in Islam, while corporal punishments are physical punishments for criminal behavior, such as the removal of hands for theft. 
  • There are two ways to look at the statistics above: the "glass half full" approach, which focuses on the fact that significant numbers of Muslims reject the idea that adulterers and apostates should be killed, that thieves should have their hands cut off, and that family honor is worth killing for, and the "glass half empty" approach, which focuses on the fact that significant numbers of Muslims endorse those exact same punishments.
 
 

Commentary:

  • With Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Egypt as the largest exceptions by population, Pew's research indicates that Muslims are widely opposed to using terrorism against civilian targets in defense of Islam. Of 924.4 million Muslims represented with the survey question, 15% see terrorism in defense of Islam as sometimes or often justified, while 80% see it as either rarely or never justified. 
  • Support is highest as a percentage in the Palestinian territories, where 40% of the 4 million Muslims there see it as sometimes or often justified. The highest overall number of principle supporters of terrorism in defense of Islam is in Bangladesh, where just over 39 million of 151 million Muslims endorse it in principle. 
 
 

Commentary:

  • Wide consensus exists on the question of the immorality of unmarried sex and homosexuality. Out of more than a billion Muslims in 36 countries, 88% regard sex outside of marriage as immoral, while 89% regard homosexual sex as immoral. To put that into perspective, the only poll topics on which greater consensus exists among Muslims relates to the belief that there is one god, Allah, and that Muhammad is his prophet (97%) and that angels exist (92%). After that, the next most agreed-upon thing is that homosexuality and unmarried sex are immoral. 
  • For a comparison, research published in 2013 by Pew indicates that 60% of people in the United States, 80% in Canada, 79% in Australia, 76% in Britain, 60% in Brazil, 21% in China, and 16% in Russia think homosexuality should be socially accepted. 
  • The country with the most open and accepting view among Muslims of homosexual behavior is Bangladesh, where 24% see it as either moral or not a moral issue. 
 
 

Commentary:

  • While having more than one wife (polygamy) is allowed in Islam, having more than one husband (polyandry) is not.
  • The maximum number of wives a male can have in Islam is four. Historically speaking, Muhammad was granted exception and wasn't constrained by this limit. His wives were also treated differently from other women in a number of respects. For example, nobody was allowed to marry any of his wives after he died, and God promised his wives double the usual punishments for any sexually improper behavior on their part. 
  • Though permitted, the Quran says that a man should have more than one wife if he can treat them all fairly and equally. It then proceeds to say that they will not be able to do that, implying that a man should not actually have more than one wife.
 
 

Commentary:

  • While prohibitions against music, singing, sports, and poetry tend to be associated with the most austere and fundamentalist varieties of Islam—e.g. the Taliban and ISIS—Pew's research shows that a significant minority of Muslims in the survey's wide representation (38%) regard reciting poetry and singing for God as unacceptable. 
 
 

Commentary:

  • Although the majority of Muslims represented in the survey (68%) think that women should have the right to choose whether they wear the veil or not, an even greater majority (86%) completely or mostly agree that a wife must always obey her husband. These responses can be taken as evidence of a conflict or tension embedded in the values of Muslims concerning female autonomy.
  • It is worth emphasizing that these questions were asked of both male and female respondents, and hence do not simply reflect the views of men about the rights and entitlements of women.
 
 

Commentary:

  • Asked to choose between either strong leadership or democracy, a majority of Muslims (57%) favor democracy. The alternate preference for strong leadership over democracy was significant, however, with 37% of Muslims opting that way. Strong leadership was preferred over democracy the most in Kyrgyzstan (64%), Pakistan (56%), Russia (52%), Afghanistan (51%), and Bosnia-Herzegovina (51%). Given the preference of the majority of Muslims for both sharia law and democracy, this can be interpreted as indicating a desire for an overlap between democratic and Islamic values in the political, legal, and social frameworks governing societies. 
  • While this raises obvious questions concerning the viability of such an overlap, it is worth pointing out that complete separation of church and state (such as one finds in the United States and France) does not exist in every Western democracy. For example, Great Britain, Germany, and Norway all either have official state religions or provide state funding or support for officially recognized religions within the state. 
 
 

Commentary:

  • Jinn are genie-like supernatural creatures that Islam maintains as another of god's creations, alongside humans and angels.
  • 3% of Muslims did not report believing in one God, Allah, and the prophetic status of Muhammad. This may mean that they regard themselves as "cultural" Muslims but do not actually believe in the truth of the religion, or—less plausibly, perhaps—that they simply did not understand the question. 
 
 
 
 

Sources and Notes

The statistics appearing on this page were based on data published in the following studies by the Pew Research Center: 

  • "The World's Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society." Pew Research Center. April 30, 2013. Available here
  • "The World's Muslims: Unity and Diversity." Pew Research Center. August 9, 2012. Available here
  • "The Global Divide on Homosexuality." Pew Research Center. June 4, 2013. Available here.

The following was also used as a reference:

  • John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed. "Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think." Gallup Press, 2008. 

Information concerning the total size of a country's population and the total percentage of Muslims within it was needed to calculate many of the statistics above, and this was taken from the CIA World Factbook (here). In the few cases where the CIA World Factbook gave a range for belief in Islam as a percentage of the total population (e.g. 10-15%), a middle value was used (e.g. 12.5%). 

Note that the percentages don't total to 100% in most of the graphs because it was possible for someone to say they didn't know, to offer a different answer than those that the surveys were prepared for, or to refuse to answer a question. Also note that in some cases administrative error by Pew meant that the data for some countries was lost, and that in other cases particular questions were not asked in Sub-Saharan Africa as a region. More information about the sample sizes and the margins of error can be found in the Pew publications themselves, along with information concerning the methodology employed and difficulties encountered. In the case of the 2013 publication, however, the sample sizes varied by country—anywhere from 551 in Lebanon to 1918 in Bangladesh—with margins of error hovering roughly around ± 5 points for each country. 

When interpreting the numbers on this page, be conscious that the fact that a belief or value x exists for a given subset of Muslims does not by itself show that Islam is wholly or even partly responsible for that being the case. For example, the fact that 43% of 1182 million Muslims believe in witchcraft does not necessitate that Islam is part of the causal explanation (any more than the fact that x percentage of Muslims use Facebook necessitates that Islam is part of the reason why). By themselves, the statistics on this page say what is the case, not why.

Be also aware that someone might respond to a question with a particular answer not because they genuinely believe it, but because they think that is how they should answer it. For example, a Catholic might answer that they believe the bread and wine in communion literally transform into the flesh and blood of Christ not because they actually believe it does, but because they believe they should believe such things. (And keep in mind that the interviews carried out by Pew would often be conducted in front of one's family members in the family home.) Polls like those carried out by Pew find answers based upon what people report believing, not what they genuinely believe, and the two needn't be the same.

Finally, as alluded to at the start, the statistics on this page were gathered from samples that represent anywhere from 0.9 to 1.2 billion of the world's Muslims (with the figure varying by the particular question). While this is more than half of the world's Muslims, it is not all of them, and one must recognize that the totality of the views of the others (in Europe, America, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere) may or may not align with what is set out above.