Recent results of the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life multi-year survey of beliefs and practices by the world's Muslims that were published 8 August 2012 are remarkable in a number of respects. First of all, the broad scope of the project—based on 38,000 face-to-face interviews conducted with Muslims in 39 different countries and territories—ensured a wide range of opinions from a diverse sampling of Muslim communities.
The results, however, show a high level of agreement about one of the most debated issues concerning Islam: Whether Muslims believe Islamic teaching is subject to various "interpretations" or only one. As Islamic teaching is derived from the Qur'an, the Sira, and the ahadith (which together are the main sources for Sharia, or Islamic law), in essence this was a question about Muslim beliefs about the fundamentals of their faith.
According to the Pew survey results, a majority (more than 50%) of Muslims in 32 of 39 countries believes that "There is only one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion."
The highest levels of agreement with that statement were found in places perhaps not expected to score at or above the 75% mark: Bosnia-Herzegovina (in the heart of Europe) and Tajikistan (in Central Asia). Three of the most populous Muslim countries—Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pakistan—all scored above 70% agreement on the oneness of Islamic doctrine, a level of orthodoxy that tracks well with Pakistan's jihadist image, but may come as a jolt to those who still think that Islam's East Asian strongholds are somehow more willing to diverge from core Islamic doctrine than their Middle Eastern co-religionists.
In fact, Indonesian Muslims' 72% level of agreement that there is "only one true way to interpret" Islam places them just a few points behind Egypt and Jordan, with 78% and 76%, respectively. It was the Sub-Saharan African Muslims who posted the strongest display of Sharia adherence, however: All 16 survey countries from Mali and Nigeria in West Africa to Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania in the east scored above the 50% mark of agreement on the "one true" interpretation question.
Of course, Tawhid, meaning the oneness of Allah, the oneness of belief, and the oneness of the Muslim ummah, is a core identifying concept of Islam that would not come as a surprise to those who have studied authoritative Islamic doctrine.
The new Pew survey was conducted among global Muslims, but did not include interviews of American Muslims. The Institute, however, has conducted earlier, similar surveys among U.S. Muslims, specifically in 2007 and 2011.
The August 2011 "Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism" report stands out for the mind-boggling statistic that shows only 26% of all Muslims in America see themselves as American first, while nearly double that number (49%) see themselves as Muslim first and American second. An additional 18% see themselves as both American and Muslim equally.
There's another wake-up call in the August 2011 U.S. survey, where Pew asked essentially the same question about American Muslims' views on the "ways to interpret the teachings of Islam" as in the 2012 global survey. By a 57% to 37% margin, American Muslims said there was more than one way.
Of the minority (37%) who thought there was only one way to interpret Islamic teaching, however, native U.S.-born Muslims were more likely to believe there was only one way to interpret Islam than the foreign-born immigrant Muslims! Put another way, native-born American citizen Muslims are far more likely to be rigid about their Islamic faith than Muslim immigrants—by a whopping 46% to 31% margin.
This finding means that the Salafist indoctrination efforts of Muslim Brotherhood-dominated madrassas, mosques and Islamic Centers across the U.S. are successful at turning out home-grown, Sharia-adherent Muslims. Additionally, it correlates well with the results of the Summer 2011 Middle East Quarterly "Mapping Sharia" study by Mordechai Kedar and David Yerushalmi, which found that teaching at U.S. mosques is overwhelmingly (80%) of the hard core Salafi variety that advocates violence.
There is one more category of the 2012 Pew survey that deserves mention here: The number of Muslims who say that they pay zakat shows strongly in the "Yes" column. Muslims in 30 out of 39 countries responded affirmatively, that they "give a set percentage of [their] wealth to charity or the mosque."
Assertions of adherence to this major element of the Five Pillars unsurprisingly came in above the 50% level in all but three countries (Albania, Kazakhstan, and Russia), all of which lie geographically on the periphery of the Muslim world. Muslims in nearly half (16 out of 39) of the survey countries claimed compliance with their zakat obligations at the level of 80% or above.
Once again, the Indonesian numbers ought to give pause to those who like to cite this most populous of all Muslim countries for its "moderation": a full 98% of all Indonesian Muslims who responded to this survey told Pew that they pay their zakat. That is a remarkable level of compliance with a tax obligation that actually has no enforcement mechanism aside from societal pressure and would seem to indicate the effectiveness of that peer pressure on Muslim behavior.
Even though the wording of the questionnaire wrongly equated zakat merely with "charity," it is highly likely that many, if not most, Muslims who participated in the Pew survey know that zakat is an obligatory annual tax levied on all Muslims and Muslim companies. Indeed, zakat is one of the Five Pillars of the Islamic belief system and one that President Obama inaccurately singled out as one of his own "obligations" as U.S. President to help support on behalf of American Muslims.
Doubtless, most Muslims know that Islamic law demands a portion of zakat tax payments go to pay for jihad (Islamic terrorism). Once again, as with their understanding that Islamic doctrine, law, and scripture are not open to flavor-of-the-week personal interpretations, Muslims everywhere are taught to fulfill their zakat tax obligation, both for charitable purposes (for Muslims only) and for jihad (warfare to spread the religion).
Taqiyya-tossing apologists for Sharia Islam may wax rhapsodic about Islam's zakat dedication to the poor, but the same Muslims in this survey who know that both the Qur'an and Sharia forbid them from coming up with their own interpretations of Islam (Q 5:101-102), also know that one of the primary purposes of zakat is to fund those who fight fi sabilallah (in the way of Allah).
The next data release from the Pew Research Institute global survey is due out in late 2012 or early 2013 and will focus on Muslims' social and political attitudes. Stay tuned.