Al Azhar Mosque. (Image Credit: Mohamed Hakem, via egyptianstreets.com)
Welcome to the Sunni Muslim Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. We wish you peace and blessings as you explore these pages, and hopefully become a part of what our chapter is doing for Muslims.
Through our Chapter’s pages you will learn about our organization and its work on behalf of the Muslim community. We suggest you start by clicking Welcome above, and read the letter from the Muslim Chapter Custodian. That page also discusses the purpose and goals of the chapter. A visit to the History, Core Doctrines, and Religious Vital Signs pages will be helpful for those who need a basic understanding of Islam. Finally, the Join This Chapter page provides contact information for those who want to be a part of this chapter as Muslims interact with other Muslims and non-Muslims around the world.
Thank you for visiting and learning more about the Sunni Muslim Chapter of FRD.
A LETTER FROM THE FRD CHAPTER CUSTODIAN
Welcome to the website for the Sunni Muslim Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. We wish you peace and blessings as you explore these pages, and hopefully become a part of what our chapter is doing for Muslims.
The Muslim Chapter’s purpose is twofold. First, we want Muslims to know about other religious traditions, and second, we want non-Muslims to come to understand the Islamic tradition.
In order to accomplish our purpose we have established three goals. These include engaging in education, establishing relationships, forming a network, and engaging in interreligious conversations in order to accomplish the following.
1. We want Muslims to be seen as good neighbors.
2. We want Muslims to be better understood as religious minorities in the West.
3. We want to improve the relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Let me introduce myself to you as your Chapter Custodian. I am a graduate of Yale Divinity School with a program of study on ethics, peace and justice in the Abrahamic traditions. I have spoken on the role of religion in the Arab-Israeli conflict before members of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in Washington D.C. I have also written and published articles, and have given lectures and speeches at places of worship in the U.S. and overseas on related topics. I have also spoken before members of the Egyptian Cabinet, the Palestinian Parliament, and the Israeli Knesset.
My book, Seek the Peace of Jerusalem: The Role of Religious Leaders in the Arab-Israeli Conflict, (Westbow Press, 2017) has generated discussion over the influence of religious beliefs on the political, economic and security issues in the Middle East.
I encourage you to take a few moments to learn about Islam by clicking on the tabs above if you are unfamiliar with this tradition. For Muslims, please take some time to learn about the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy and how it prepares people to develop relationships and enter into conversations about our differences in ways that do not compromise our convictions, but which are done in a spirit of peaceful contestation. You should also visit the Muslim Chapter’s blog for perspectives and discussion of issues of interest to Muslims.
Finally, if I can be of service to you, your imam, your local mosque or Muslim group, please do not hesitate to get in contact with me.
FRD Sunni Muslim Chapter Custodian
RELIGIOUS VITAL SIGNS
Survey data from August 9, 2012 by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life provides good contemporary information on global Islam. The report is titled “The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity.”
The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are united in their belief in God and the Prophet Muhammad and are bound together by such religious practices as fasting during the holy month of Ramadan and almsgiving to assist people in need. But they have widely differing views about many other aspects of their faith, including how important religion is to their lives, who counts as a Muslim and what practices are acceptable in Islam, according to a worldwide survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.
The survey, which involved more than 38,000 face-to-face interviews in over 80 languages, finds that in addition to the widespread conviction that there is only one God and that Muhammad is His Prophet, large percentages of Muslims around the world share other articles of faith, including belief in angels, heaven, hell and fate (or predestination). While there is broad agreement on the core tenets of Islam, however, Muslims across the 39 countries and territories surveyed differ significantly in their levels of religious commitment, openness to multiple interpretations of their faith and acceptance of various sects and movements.
Some of these differences are apparent at a regional level. For example, at least eight-in-ten Muslims in every country surveyed in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and South Asia say that religion is very important in their lives. Across the Middle East and North Africa, roughly six-in-ten or more say the same. And in the United States, a 2011 Pew Research Center survey found that nearly seven-in-ten Muslims (69%) say religion is very important to them. But religion plays a much less central role for some Muslims, particularly in nations that only recently have emerged from communism. No more than half of those surveyed in Russia, the Balkans and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia say religion is very important in their lives. The one exception across this broad swath of Eastern Europe, Southern Europe and Central Asia is Turkey, which never came under communist rule; fully two-thirds of Turkish Muslims (67%) say religion is very important to them.
Generational differences are also apparent. Across the Middle East and North Africa, for example, Muslims 35 and older tend to place greater emphasis on religion and to exhibit higher levels of religious commitment than do Muslims between the ages of 18 and 34. In all seven countries surveyed in the region, older Muslims are more likely to report that they attend mosque, read the Quran (also spelled Koran) on a daily basis and pray multiple times each day. Outside of the Middle East and North Africa, the generational differences are not as sharp. And the survey finds that in one country – Russia – the general pattern is reversed and younger Muslims are significantly more observant than their elders.
There are also differences in how male and female Muslims practice their faith. In most of the 39 countries surveyed, men are more likely than women to attend mosque. This is especially true in Central Asia and South Asia, where majorities of women in most of the countries surveyed say they never attend mosque. However, this disparity appears to result from cultural norms or local customs that constrain women from attending mosque, rather than from differences in the importance that Muslim women and men place on religion. In most countries surveyed, for example, women are about as likely as men to read (or listen to readings from) the Quran on a daily basis. And there are no consistent differences between men and women when it comes to the frequency of prayer or participation in annual rites, such as almsgiving and fasting during Ramadan.
The survey asked Muslims whether they identify with various branches of Islam and about their attitudes toward other branches or subgroups. While these sectarian differences are important in some countries, the survey suggests that many Muslims around the world either do not know or do not care about them.
Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa tend to be most keenly aware of the distinction between the two main branches of Islam, Sunni and Shia. In most countries surveyed in the region, at least 40% of Sunnis do not accept Shias as fellow Muslims. In many cases, even greater percentages do not believe that some practices common among Shias, such as visiting the shrines of saints, are acceptable as part of Islamic tradition. Only in Lebanon and Iraq – nations where sizable populations of Sunnis and Shias live side by side – do large majorities of Sunnis recognize Shias as fellow Muslims and accept their distinctive practices as part of Islam.
Outside of the Middle East and North Africa, the distinction between Sunni and Shia appears to be of lesser consequence. In many of the countries surveyed in Central Asia, for instance, most Muslims do not identify with either branch of Islam, saying instead that they are “just a Muslim.” A similar pattern prevails in Southern and Eastern Europe, where pluralities or majorities in all countries identify as “just a Muslim.” In some of these countries, decades of communist rule may have made sectarian distinctions unfamiliar. But identification as “just a Muslim” is also prevalent in many countries without a communist legacy. For example, in Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, 26% of Muslims describe themselves as Sunnis, compared with 56% who say they are “just a Muslim” and 13% who do not give a definite response.
Opinion also varies as to whether Sufis – members of religious orders who emphasize the mystical dimensions of Islam – belong to the Islamic faith. In South Asia, Sufis are widely seen as Muslims, while in other regions they tend to be less well known or not widely accepted as part of the Islamic tradition. Views differ, too, with regard to certain practices traditionally associated with particular Sufi orders. For example, reciting poetry or singing in praise of God is generally accepted in most of the countries where the question was asked. But only in Turkey do a majority of Muslims believe that devotional dancing is an acceptable form of worship, likely reflecting the historical prominence of the Mevlevi or “whirling dervish” Sufi order in Turkey.
Differing Views on Orthodoxy
The survey asked Muslims whether they believe there is only one true way to understand Islam’s teachings or if multiple interpretations are possible. In 32 of the 39 countries surveyed, half or more Muslims say there is only one correct way to understand the teachings of Islam.
This view, however, is far from universal. In the Middle East and North Africa, majorities or substantial minorities in most countries – including Tunisia, Morocco, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Iraq – believe that it is possible to interpret Islam’s teachings in multiple ways. In sub-Saharan Africa, at least one-in-five Muslims agree. In South Asia, Southeast Asia and across Southern and Eastern Europe, at least one-in-six in every country surveyed believe Islam is open to multiple interpretations.
In some Central Asian countries, slightly fewer Muslims say their faith can be subject to more than one interpretation. But in Kazakhstan (31%), Turkey (22%) and Kyrgyzstan (17%), the percentage that holds this view is on par with countries in other regions.
In the United States, by contrast, 57% of Muslims say Islam is open to multiple interpretations. On this measure, Muslim Americans look similar to Muslims in Morocco and Tunisia.
Traditionally, Muslims adhere to several articles of faith. Among the most widely known are: there is only one God; God has sent numerous messengers, with Muhammad being His final Prophet; God has revealed Holy Scriptures, including the Quran; God’s angels exist, even if people cannot see them; there will be a Day of Judgment, when God will determine whether individuals are consigned to heaven or hell; and God’s will and knowledge are absolute, meaning that people are subject to fate or predestination.
As previously noted, belief in one God and the Prophet Muhammad is nearly universal among Muslims in most countries surveyed. Although the survey asked only respondents in sub-Saharan Africa whether they consider the Quran to be the word of God, the findings in that region indicate broad assent. Across most of the African nations surveyed, more than nine-in-ten Muslims say the Quran is the word of God, and solid majorities say it should be taken literally, word for word. Only in two countries in the region – Guinea Bissau (59%) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (54%) – do smaller percentages think the Quran should be read literally. The results in those two countries are similar to the United States, where 86% of Muslims said in a 2007 survey that the Quran was the word of God, including 50% who said it should be read literally, word for word.
The survey asked respondents in all 39 countries whether they believe in the existence of angels. In Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Middle East-North Africa region, belief in angels is nearly universal. In Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa more than seven-in-ten also say angels are real. Even in Southern and Eastern Europe, a median of 55% share this view.
The expression “Inshallah” (“If God wills”) is a common figure of speech among Muslims and reflects the Islamic tradition that the destiny of individuals, and the world, is in the hands of God. And indeed, the survey finds that the concept of predestination, or fate, is widely accepted among Muslims in most parts of the world. In four of the five regions where the question was asked, medians of about nine-in-ten (88% to 93%) say they believe in fate, while a median of 57% express this view in Southern and Eastern Europe.
The survey also asked about the existence of heaven and hell. Across the six regions included in the study, a median of more than seven-in-ten Muslims say that paradise awaits those who have lived righteous lives, while a median of at least two-thirds say hell is the ultimate fate of those who do not live righteously and do not repent.
Along with the core beliefs discussed above, Islam is defined by “Five Pillars” – basic rituals that are obligatory for all members of the Islamic community who are physically able to perform them. The Five Pillars include: the profession of faith (shahadah); daily prayer (salat); fasting during the holy month of Ramadan (sawm); annual almsgiving to assist the poor or needy (zakat); and participation in the annual pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during one’s lifetime (hajj). Two of these – fasting during Ramadan and almsgiving – stand out as communal rituals that are especially widespread among Muslims across the globe.
Fasting during the month of Ramadan, which according to Islamic tradition is required of all healthy, adult Muslims, is part of an annual rite in which individuals place renewed emphasis on the teachings of the Quran. The survey finds that many Muslims in all six major geographical regions surveyed observe the month-long, daytime fast during Ramadan. In Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa, medians of more than nine-in-ten say they fast annually (94%-99%). Many Muslims in Southern and Eastern Europe and in Central Asia also report fasting during Ramadan.
There is more to the report for those who wish to read it in its entirety.
Those Muslims who are interested in learning more, or who want to get involved in the work of the Sunni Muslim Chapter of FRD should contact its Custodian, Omer Salem. He can be reached by email at: