With approximately 1.6 billion followers (about 23% of the total human population), Islam currently ranks as the second largest religion in the world. Globally, nearly one in four people are Muslim.
There are more Muslims than Catholics on the planet. There are more Muslims than Hindus on the planet. There may even be more Muslims on the planet than both Hindus and Buddhists combined (the Buddhist total population is slippery to pin down, but best guesstimates make this seem likely).
In addition to being the second largest religion, Islam is also among the fastest growing religions in the world. Polls can and do vary, but at least some pollsters have suggested that if current growth rates continue, then Islam may very well outstrip the total Christian population sometime later this century, displacing Christianity as the world’s largest religion.
Whether that prediction turns out to be correct or not, in any case Islam certainly does seem to be the fastest growing religion within the United States. A 2012 U.S. religion census identified Islam as currently the fastest growing religion in America. Between 2000 and 2010, the domestic Christian population actually lost ground, percentage-wise, as its own growth rate lagged well behind that of the total national population; by contrast, Muslims in America more than doubled their own numbers during that same period (increasing from 1 million to 2.6 million).
Of course, even with a spectacular growth rate compared with the lack of growth (and even some big losses) among Christian denominations, Islam is still such a tiny minority religion within America that Christianity is in little imminent danger from losing its immense lead as the largest U.S. religion by far.
In addition to being the world’s second largest religion, as well as one of the world’s fastest growing religions (and evidently the fastest growing currently within the U.S., although still one of the smallest there), Islam is also one of the world’s most misunderstood religions, suffering from widespread misperceptions and distortions of its true nature.
A disturbingly large proportion of Americans (and others) harbor an awful lot of inaccurate misconceptions and even damaging stereotypes regarding the 1.6 billion individuals who call themselves Muslim, too often judging that immense whole by the actions of a few radical extremists. But you cannot simply lump together nearly a quarter of the Earth’s population so tidily, assuming that all Muslims everywhere must necessarily believe exactly the same things, and behave in exactly the same ways.
Islam, like the rest of the world’s religions, is not one thing, but many. Islam is not homogeneous and monolithic, but variegated and diverse.
(To be continued, in Part Two.)