August 30, 2011

Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism

Section 2: Religious Beliefs and Practices

Most Muslim Americans say religion is very important in their lives, two-thirds pray every day (including 48% who pray all five salah daily), and nearly half attend religious services at a mosque at least once a week. U.S. Muslims’ religious beliefs tend to be highly orthodox; for example, 92% believe in the Day of Judgment and 90% believe in angels, both of which are traditional tenets of Islam. However, most Muslim Americans also say that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of Islam and that many religions, not just Islam, can lead to eternal salvation.

Islamic Affiliation and Converts to Islam

Most Muslims in the United States (65%) identify with Sunni Islam; just 11% identify with the Shia tradition. Roughly one-in-seven Muslims (15%) have no specific affiliation, describing themselves, for example, as “just a Muslim.”

Muslims who have no specific affiliation make up a much larger share of the U.S.-born Muslim population than of the immigrant population. About one-in-four native-born Muslims (24%) have no specific affiliation, compared with just 10% of Muslims born in other countries.

Among American Muslims, 20% are converts to Islam, saying they have not always been Muslim. The Pew Forum’s 2007 Religious Landscape Survey found that among the U.S. general population, an identical percentage (20%) currently belong to a major religious tradition different than the one in which they were raised.2

Among native-born Muslims whose parents also were born in the U.S., fully two-thirds (69%) say they are converts to Islam. And among African American Muslims who were born in the U.S., 63% are converts to the faith. The vast majority of Muslim Americans who are immigrants, or whose parents were immigrants, have always have been Muslim.

Sunni and Shia Muslims have similar numbers of converts within their ranks (17% among Sunnis and 13% among Shia). Among Muslims with no specific affiliation, 36% say they are converts to Islam.

Most See Religion as Very Important

Nearly seven-in-ten U.S. Muslims (69%) say religion is “very important” in their lives. On this measure, Muslims exhibit comparable levels of religious commitment to U.S. Christians, among whom 70% say religion is very important in their lives

The number of U.S. Muslims saying religion is very important in their lives is lower than in many of the Muslim publics surveyed recently by the Pew Global Attitudes Project. In such countries as Pakistan, Indonesia and Nigeria, 90% or more of Muslims say religion is very important in their lives.

Prayer and Mosque Attendance

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. Muslims (65%) say they pray the salah every day. About half of American Muslims (48%) report making the five salah prayers daily, one of the Five Pillars of Islam. An additional 18% say they pray daily, but not all five times. One-quarter (25%) of U.S. Muslims pray some of the salah occasionally or only make Eid prayers, while 8% say they never pray.

Respondents who have always been Muslim are somewhat more likely to pray five times a day (50%) than are converts (37%). There is little difference in the frequency of prayer between Muslims born in the United States (45% all five salah daily) and those born elsewhere (49%).

About half of American Muslims (47%) attend religious services at least once a week, while one-third (34%) attend services at a mosque once or twice a month or a few times a year; 19% say they seldom or never attend religious services. Muslims attend religious services more frequently than do Americans overall (36% weekly or more), about at the same rate as U.S. Christians (45%) and less frequently than evangelical Protestants (64%).

The survey shows that Muslim men attend mosque more regularly than Muslim women (57% of men report attending at least weekly, compared with 37% of women). This is in line with a common understanding among Muslims that attendance at weekly religious services is mandatory for men but optional for women.

Weekly attendance is also more common among native-born Muslims (especially African Americans) than among foreign-born Muslims. Only about one-in-five Shia Muslims (22%) attend religious services at least once a week, compared with about half of all Sunnis (52%).

About a third of U.S. Muslims (35%) report that they are involved in social or religious activities at a mosque or Islamic center outside of religious services. Among those who attend religious services at a mosque at least a few times a year, 41% also say they are involved in social or religious activities (outside of religious services) at the mosque.

Although Muslim men attend religious services more regularly than Muslim women, Muslim women are just as likely as men to report involvement in social or religious activities outside of religious services (34% of Muslim men vs. 36% of women).

Levels of Religious Commitment

A summary measure of religious commitment was created by combining responses to the questions about mosque attendance, daily prayer and religion’s importance. Overall, nearly three-in-ten Muslim Americans (29%) have a high level of religious commitment, which describes a respondent who attends a mosque at least once a week, prays all five salah every day and says religion is very important in their lives. About one-in-five (22%) have a relatively low level of religious commitment. This group includes those who attend mosque and pray only for the Eid or less often and generally regard religion as not very important in their lives. About half of Muslim Americans (49%) fall somewhere in between.

The religious commitment of Muslim Americans varies significantly by religious affiliation. Among Sunni Muslims, 31% are highly religious, compared with 15% of Shia Muslims.

Among those born in the U.S., African Americans have higher levels of religious commitment than others (46% of native-born African Americans vs. 27% of native-born Muslims who are not African American). Overall, men and women have roughly similar levels of religious commitment, and there are no differences in religious commitment across age groups.

Religious, But Not Dogmatic

Large majorities of Muslim Americans accept the basic teachings of Islam. Among American Muslims, 96% believe in God, 96% believe in the Prophet Muhammad, 92% believe in a future Day of Judgment and 90% believe in angels, all of which are traditional Islamic beliefs.

While there is widespread agreement on these core tenets of Islam, most U.S. Muslims (57%) also say there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of Islam; far fewer (37%) say there is only one true interpretation of Islam.

Compared with the U.S. population as a whole, more Muslims say there is only one true way to interpret their faith; among all Americans affiliated with a religion, 27% say there is just one true way to interpret their own faith.

By nearly two-to-one (61% to 31%), Muslim immigrants believe there is more than one true way to interpret Islam. By contrast, native-born Muslims are more evenly divided, with 46% saying there is only one true interpretation and 51% saying there is more than one interpretation.

The survey also shows that the belief that there is more than one true interpretation of Islam is most common among college graduates; more than seven-in-ten American Muslims with a college degree (71%) assert that there is more than one true interpretation of the teachings of Islam, compared with 57% of those with some college education but no degree and 49% of Muslims with a high school education or less.

The view that there is only one true interpretation of Islam is much more common among the most religiously committed Muslim Americans, who are evenly divided on this question, than among those with low levels of religious commitment, who say by an overwhelming margin there is more than one true way to interpret Islam.

Most U.S. Muslims (56%) believe that many religions can lead to eternal life, while 35% say Islam is the one true faith leading to eternal salvation. By comparison, a 2008 Pew Research Center survey found that among all U.S. adults who are affiliated with a religion, 29% say theirs is the one true faith leading to eternal life. Among evangelical Christians, fully 51% say theirs is the one true faith leading to eternal salvation, while 45% say that many faiths can lead to eternal life.

Four-in-ten (41%) Muslims who identify themselves as Sunni believe Islam is the one true faith; only half as many Shia Muslims say the same (21%). Lifelong Muslims are more inclined than converts to believe Islam is the one true faith that leads to eternal life. However, nearly half (48%) of all native-born African Americans (most of whom are converts to Islam) believe Islam is the one true faith leading to eternal salvation, compared with only a third (34%) of foreign-born Muslims.

Among the Muslims surveyed with the highest levels of religious commitment, a slim majority (52%) says Islam is the one true faith leading to eternal life. By contrast, majorities of those surveyed with medium and low levels of religious commitment take the opposite view, that many religions can lead to eternal life.

Religion and Gender

About half of all U.S. Muslims (48%) say that, when praying at a mosque, women should be separate from men, either in another area of the mosque or behind a curtain. A smaller percentage of Muslims say women should pray behind men but with no curtain (25%) or should pray in an area alongside men with no curtain (20%). Muslim American women and men mostly express similar opinions on this question.

Converts from other faith traditions are less comfortable with gender separation than people who have always been Muslim. About half of those who have always been Muslim (51%) believe women should be separate from men at the mosque, compared with slightly more than a third of converts to Islam (36%). The view that women and men should pray separately in the mosque also is more common among Sunnis (54%) than among Shia Muslims (38%).

Views on how women’s prayer spaces should be organized also are related to views on the role of women in society more broadly. Among people who believe that women should pray in an area alongside men, 82% completely agree that women should be able to work outside the home. By contrast, among those who think that men and women should pray separately in the mosque, 64% completely agree that women should be allowed to work outside the home.

About a third of Muslim American women (36%) report always wearing the headcover or hijab whenever they are out in public, and an additional 24% say they wear the hijab most or some of the time. Four-in-ten (40%) say they never wear the headcover.

Wearing the headcover is most common among those with the highest levels of religious commitment. Nearly six-in-ten (59%) Muslim American women who are highly committed say they wear the headcover all the time; that compares with 37% of those with medium religious commitment and 7% with low commitment.

Overall, more U.S. Muslim women say they never wear the hijab than do Muslim women in most of the predominantly Muslim nations surveyed by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2010.

  1. The questions used to measure religious switching in the Religious Landscape Survey are different than the question used to measure conversion in the 2011 survey of Muslims. In the Landscape Survey, respondents were asked about their current religious affiliation and, separately, to identify the faith in which they were raised. In total, 20% of the general public indicated that the broad religious tradition to which they currently belong (e.g., Christianity, Judaism, Islam, no religion, etc.) is different than the one in which they were raised.