Religion 101

In my previous blog post, I cited Newsweek magazine’s 2007 “What You Need to Know Poll,” which stated the following:

“Roughly half (53 percent) are aware that Judaism is an older religion than both Christianity and Islam (41 percent aren’t sure). And a quarter of the population mistakenly identify either Iran (26 percent) or India (24 percent) as the country with the largest Muslim population. Only 23 percent could correctly identify Indonesia.”

My previous blog entry was devoted to addressing the first surprising statistic therein (that nearly half the adult U.S. population doesn’t know that Judaism is older than Christianity and Islam). So now, in this followup blog entry, it’s time to turn our attention to the second surprising statistic therein:

“And a quarter of the population mistakenly identify either Iran (26 percent) or India (24 percent) as the country with the largest Muslim population. Only 23 percent could correctly identify Indonesia.”

Most average Americans’ understanding of Islam is so limited that their lack of knowledge regarding the relative population sizes of the various Islamic countries is perhaps understandable. Islam may be the world’s second largest region, with perhaps 1.6 billion adherents worldwide; but here at home, Islam remains the faith of a very small minority. According to a 2010 Pew Research Center report, Muslims account for less than one percent of the U.S. population.

Americans, then, may perhaps be somewhat forgiven for not knowing very much about a major world religion that is represented domestically in such miniscule numbers. With only 0.8% of the U.S. populace identifying as Muslim, Islam in general may simply not be on most Americans’ religious radars.

However, many Americans often tend to lose sight of the fact that there is actually a much wider world out there, beyond our own shores and borders. And with its 1,600,000,000 followers (comprising some 23% of the total global population), Islam is a major part of that wider outside world.

As the 2007 Newsweek poll indicated, most Americans are in the dark when it comes to putting Islam into some sort of global perspective. According to that poll, 77% of American adults don’t know which nation on Earth has the single largest Muslim population.

Many might perhaps guess at Iran, or Iraq, or Egypt, or Saudi Arabia. If so, they’d be wrong. In fact, many would probably be very surprised to learn that the world’s largest Muslim country isn’t even in the Middle East, at all.

Of the 49 nations of the world that are dominated by Muslim majorities, the land with the single largest number of Muslims who call it home is Indonesia. Yes, Indonesia — that immense chain of tropical islands way off in Southeast Asia and Oceania, nowhere near the hot, dry deserts of the Middle East or northern Africa.

Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country. Some 88% of its 238 million people are Muslims. Those big numbers make Indonesia alone home to some 12.7% of the world’s total Muslim population.

If you didn’t know that Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country, don’t feel too badly. According to Newsweek, only about 22% of adult Americans are actually aware of that particular factoid.

But the second, third, and fourth largest Muslim-majority countries are not in the Middle East, either. Those honors go to Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, respectively.

Pakistan accounts for 11% of the world’s total Muslim population; India accounts for 10.9% of it; and Bangladesh for 9.2%.

Note that Pakistan and Bangladesh both used to be part of India, but only broke away from Hindu India to gain their independence as separate (and primarily Muslim) lands as recently as 1947. (Bangladesh was actually part of Pakistan — known as “East Pakistan” — until achieving its own separate independence in 1971.) Looked at as a single unit, the region of India/Pakistan/Bangladesh collectively accounts for some 31.1% of the total world Muslim population.

(Note also that India itself is actually 80% Hindu, with a minority Muslim population of only 13.4%. However, with the total population of India currently exceeding 1.2 billion people, that “minority” percentage [of “only” 13.4%] still adds up to some 177,286,000 Indian Muslims, or 10.9% of the total global Islamic population.)

By contrast, only about 20% or so of the world’s Muslims actually live in the Middle East (and North Africa). So much for stereotypes!

Egypt is home to a mere 4.9% of the world’s Muslims. Nigeria accounts for another 4.7%. Turkey is home to 4.6%, and Iran also comes in with 4.6%. Algeria has 2.1%, while Morocco has 2.0%. Iraq has 1.9%, and so does Sudan. Afghanistan has 1.8%, and Ethiopia does, too. Saudi Arabia has 1.6%, and Yemen has 1.5%. Syria has only 1.3%.

If about 20% of the world’s Muslims live in the Middle East, and another 30% or so in the greater Pakistan/India/Bangladesh region, then about half of the world’s Muslims live elsewhere, spread across the globe. China has 1.4% of them, and Russia another 1%. The rest are scattered, as very tiny minorities, throughout most of the rest of the world’s other countries. But, taken together, they all do add up — and to some pretty sizable numbers.

Again, and just to summarize: the total global population of Islam comes to about 1.6 billion Muslims, or roughly 23% of humanity. Only about 20% of that massive populace are Middle Easterners. The largest single national concentration of Muslims exists not in the Middle East at all, but in Indonesia. Taken collectively, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh (second, third, and fourth in ranking), when put together with Indonesia, account for over half of the world’s Muslims.

Now, you know more than what 77% of the adult American populace knows, when it comes to which country on Earth actually has the largest Islamic population(s).