Muslim diversity of belief, practice evident in Pew study

Baptist Press
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Posted: Aug 28, 2012 4:52 PM
Muslim diversity of belief, practice evident in Pew study
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) -- Westerners tend to assume most Muslims are strongly committed to the Quran and to establishing Islamic republics, but that isn't accurate, Mike Edens, a professor of theology and Islamic studies, told Baptist Press concerning a Pew Research Center study of more than 38,000 Muslims in 39 countries.

"About 20 percent of any Muslim population is actually committed to Islam having the leading role in their society," said Edens, who teaches at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary after serving 26 years in the Middle East with the International Mission Board.

"Most Muslims are committed to what we would call a secular Islamic worldview or a 'value' Islamic worldview," Edens said, describing "value Muslims" as are those for whom the values of Islam for family and protection of the young and security for women and living a conservative, moral life are much more important than establishing an Islamic republic akin to Iran's.

According to the Pew study, the world's 1.6 billion Muslims are united in their belief in Allah and the Prophet Muhammad and practice widely such religious requirements as fasting during the holy month of Ramadan and almsgiving to the poor, but they vary on how important religion is to their lives.

"The World's Muslims: Unity and Diversity," by Pew's Forum on Religion and Public Life, was conducted in more than 80 languages spoken by about two-thirds of the world's Muslim population. The United States was not included.

Among the results:

-- 97 percent of Muslims in the study declared faith in Allah and the Prophet Muhammad; 93 percent reported fasting during the month of Ramadan; 77 percent gave to charity; 63 percent said they pray five times a day; 9 percent had made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

-- The percentage of Muslims who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca declined with distance from Mecca and was no higher than 48 percent in any country surveyed, Pew found.

-- Traditional Islamic teachings such as belief in one God, belief in fate, belief in angels and belief that the Quran is the literal word of God are widely accepted across the countries included in the study.

-- Half or more of Muslims in 32 of 39 countries said there is only one true interpretation of Islam, Pew reported.

-- In the 39 countries surveyed, the percentage saying religion is very important to them ranged from 15 percent in Albania to 98 percent in Senegal.

Edens told BP, "Because Islam is defined by exterior behavior, it's not defined by belief structure so much as it is defined by what you do in your daily life: You go to the mosque on Friday at noon to pray, you stop in your business day and pray five times during the day, you fast during the daylight hours of the month of Ramadan, you give 2.5 percent of your income to advance Islam and to help the poor, you have sometime in your life taken the opportunity to go to Mecca on the pilgrimage."

Muslims want to be seen by those around them as devoted to Islamic values, he said, not necessarily as more extreme than fellow Muslims. They are careful to appear upright, respectful and honor-bearing.

"Islamic society is not based on innocence and guilt. It's based on honor and shame," Edens explained. "Having the Islamic behavior pattern is one way that honor is seen in your family."

As Christians share Christ with people who are strongly committed to living an honorable life in Islam, they need to point to Scriptures and to realities in the Gospel that are not just guilt/innocence-based but also honor/shame-based, Edens said.

"For instance, Jesus said, 'If you confess me before men, I will confess you before my Father and his holy angels. If you are ashamed of me before men, I will be ashamed of you before Him.'

"That's an honor/shame type of differentiation. We don't usually think of the Gospel that way, but when we incorporate some of those things in our witness, it helps people understand," said Edens, who also serves as the seminary's associate director of the Institute for Christian Apologetics and associate dean of graduate studies.

Peer influence plays a large role among Muslims, prompting them to observe as many of the five pillars of Islam as they can manage externally, Edens said.

"I remember a Muslim telling me that he was disturbed that he was going to have to fast through the month of Ramadan, which fell across Christmas and New Year's. I said, 'Why is that?' and he said, 'Well, I usually go dancing and drink alcohol on New Year's Eve.'

"I was struck by the fact that his life did not always conform to Islam but he wanted to be seen as conforming to the fast of Ramadan," Edens said.

"When behavior is compact, like 28 days, it's easier for that to be observed and compared than some of the other behavior patterns. Praying five times a day, for instance, you're doing that in private."

Nothing in the Pew study, which was released Aug. 9, necessarily surprised him, Edens said, adding that it may alarm American Christians that the task of sharing Christ with all peoples is a large task, "and it takes all of us."

"The Gospel wins in the world market of ideas, but God needs His people to be His witnesses. Jesus commissioned us to be His witnesses, and we need to be faithful to that commitment," Edens said.

One way for the Pew study to impact Christians' efforts among Muslims, Edens said, is that it can "encourage us all to pray for God to give insight in the hearts of individual Muslims to the truth of the Gospel and the power of the cross of Jesus Christ to transform lives."

"God is the only one who can do that. We cannot succeed in converting people. We are only witnesses. We need to be praying. We need to join God in His efforts of making Christ known among all people. This study can encourage us in our prayer lives," Edens said.

The Pew report, he said, also can challenge some people to witness to Muslims who are right at their door.

"There is no one who is going to read this article who is going to live very far from a Muslim. In fact, many of them are going to have a mosque somewhere in a neighborhood near them," he said.

"So it's no longer that you have to be called of God to go across the world to have a cross-cultural experience of sharing the Gospel with Muslims," Edens said. "All you have to do is be obedient to the Spirit and desirous to be a witness and step across the street in many cases. The Muslims are here in our neighborhood, in our community, in our country."

Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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