By Matija Šerić
Religion is an important component of the modern life of every human being and plays an important role in the understanding of the world for both individuals and communities. Religious views and religious institutions have directed and dictated political, social, economic and other trends for centuries. With the passage of time, the dominant global religions have changed. Once upon a time, before the spread of Christianity, paganism dominated in Europe, and elsewhere religions domintated local religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. Since its appearance more than two thousand years ago, Christianity quickly became the most popular Abrahamic religion in the world. And this has been convincingly since medieval times until the beginning of the 21st century. However, current trends show that Christianity will lose its position as the world’s most populous religion to Islam in the second half of the 21st century. Moreover, Islam is currently the fastest growing global religion.
Like other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity, Islam also appeared in the Middle East and is connected in a special way with the Holy Land (the areas of modern Israel and Palestine). There is a consensus among Islamic theologians, both Sunni and Shia, that the three holiest places in Islam are Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. Depending on the theologians, the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and the Ibrahim Mosque in Hebron alternate in the fourth holiest place. Muslims worship the same God, commonly referred to as Allah, as do Christians, Jews and Bahá’í believers. While Muslims acknowledge that spiritual figures such as Adam, Moses and Jesus were prophets, they believe that the prophet Muhammad was sent to convey the final teachings of God. These teachings are contained in the Koran, the Islamic religious text, which Muslims believe is the literal word of God, revealed to Muhammad. Muslims follow a specific religious rulebook known as Sharia law, a faith-based code of conduct that includes guidelines for almost every aspect of daily life.
There are five fundamental pillars of Islam, or the practical duties of a Muslim: Shahadat (revelation of belonging to Islam), Salah (praying five times a day), Ramadan fasting, Zakat (giving part of one’s wealth to charity) and Hajj (an individual must make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in his life). In addition to obedience to one God, belonging to Islam also implies following the way of life (Sunnah) of the last prophet of God, Muhammad, as the first and inevitable interpreter of God’s Word.
Although the Muslim population continued to increase in large parts of the world in the modern era (the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia), it’s interesting that the political power of the Islamic-dominated states, from the Mughal to the Ottoman Empire, gradually weakened. Mughal power on the Indian subcontinent disappeared in the middle of the 19th century, while the end of the Ottomans came after the First World War in 1918. At the beginning of the 20th century, Christianity had the largest number of followers, numbering almost 560 million, while Muslims then numbered 200 million. In 1900, Christians represented 34% of the world’s population, while Muslims made up only 12% of all believers worldwide. However, the difference between the Christian and Muslim populations changed dramatically during the 20th century in favor of Islam as Islam became the world’s fastest growing religion. This trend continued in the 21st century.
Studies by the American Pew Research Center from 2015 and 2017 present interesting data on current trends. If current trends continue, by 2050 the number of Muslims will almost equal the number of Christians worldwide. If this happens, for the first time in history, both religions will have an equal population. The Pew report predicts that in 2050, 30% (2.8 billion) of the population will identify as Muslim, as opposed to 31% (2.9 billion) Christians. Muslims will grow in percentages in all regions of the world except Latin America and the Caribbean, where a small number of Muslims live. Between 2010 and 2050, in Europe, Muslims will increase from 5.9 to 10.2% of the population, in the Asia-Pacific region from 24.3 to 29.5%, in the Middle East and North Africa from 93 to 93.7%, in Sub-Saharan Africa from 30.2 to 35.2%, North America from 1 to 2.4%. In the region of Latin America and the Caribbean, Muslims will remain at 0.1% of the population.
Although migration flows are not the most important and only generators of Muslim population growth, due to political and economic instability, many Muslims from the Middle East, Africa and Asia tend to migrate to majority Christian countries in Europe and North America, where they increase the share of the Muslim population. The same thing applies to developed East Asia where immigrants from Muslim countries come. This is exactly why Islam is the fastest growing world religion and in some majority non-Muslim countries. Estimates that in 2050 as many as 10% of Europeans will be Muslim, while in the USA Islam will then be the second largest religion (2% of the population) do not leave anyone indifferent.
Predictions by the Pew Center say that in the period from 2015 to 2060, the number of Muslims will increase by 70%, from today’s 1.8 billion to 3 billion. At the same time, Christianity will grow by 34%, and Hinduism by 27%. In that period, the total population of the planet should increase by 32%. In 2015, Muslims made up 24% of the world’s population, and in 2060, they are expected to make up 31% of the world’s population. Estimates are that sometime in the second half of the 21st century (around 2075), the number of Muslims will exceed the number of Christians. “By 2100, about one percent more of the population will be Muslims (35%) than Christians (34%),” concluded experts from the Pew Center.
According to data from 2021, Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country with about 231 million believers. The top 10 countries with the largest number of Muslims also include Pakistan (212 million), India (200 million), Bangladesh (153 million), Nigeria (103 million), Egypt (90 million), Iran (82 million), Turkey (74 million ), Algeria (41 million) and Sudan (39 million). Estimates by the Pew Research Center say that in 2050, India will become the country with the largest number of Muslims, 310 million, although it will still remain a predominantly Hindu country.
The main reason for the rapid spread of Islam is demography. Namely, Muslims have more children than members of the seven other major religions. Muslim women give birth to an average of 2.9 children, which is quite a higher number than the next largest religion, Christians, whose believers give birth to 2.6 children. The other seven major world religions have an average of 2.2 children per woman. It is evident that the fertility of the Muslim population exceeds the fertility of non-Muslims. Apart from the larger number of children, the Muslim population is the youngest religious population, on average seven years younger than the non-Muslim population. The median age of Muslims in 2015 was 24 years, Christians 30 years, and Hindus 27 years. The median age of other significant religious groups exceeds 30 years.
The conversion factor also favors the spread of Islam. It is predicted that in the area of Sub-Saharan Africa and Europe, in the period from 2010 to 2050, more people will convert to Islam than to other religions. The growth of Islam is also matched by religious indecisiveness or the decline of religiosity, which occurs primarily in the West, and not in the states that make up the “Muslim world”. The number of Christians is projected to continue to decline over the next several decades as a significant number of individuals who were born into Christian households cease to be practicing Christians or leave Christianity altogether. These individuals also tend to have fewer children. On the other hand, in Muslim countries, people from Muslim households very rarely stop being religious or convert to another religion. On the contrary, they continue to practice Islam all their lives.
The question of all questions is: why is Islam so attractive to Westerners and other people to whom Islam is not a close religion, given that they come from quite different cultural and social environments? It is well known that all the great religions of the world, including Islam, have laid the foundations for moral and ethical principles and beliefs that shape societies in a positive way. Essentially, Islam has enormous potential to solve problems such as social injustice, racism, social inequalities and national conflicts. Islam brings calmness and tranquility to its true believers, peace with God and other people. It’s about the fact that as time goes by, people are less prejudiced, they are more willing to listen and explore what Islam is in its essence. It is the appeal and quality of the content that has made Islam the world’s fastest growing religion. The simplicity, rationality and universal character of Islamic teachings attract many people who are either disillusioned with Christianity or were previously not believers at all.
The data that Islam is the fastest growing religion in countries such as Japan and Canada is surprising at first glance, but when you look a little deeper, such trends are logical. In Japan, between 112 and 230 thousand inhabitants accepted Islam. Despite Japan not being so hospitable to Muslims in the past, in recent years Japanese people have become more tolerant of different religions and cultures and this is the main reason for the spread of Islam. For example many restaurants offer halal food. Muslims come to Japan from different civilizational environments such as Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran. Most often, these are workers from the construction sector or IT experts. Some Japanese Muslims strictly follow their traditions such as prayers and fasting, while others are more liberal. In Japan, approximately half of Muslims have started a family, suggesting that in the future the country will be home to authentic second and third generation Japanese Muslims.
The situation is similar in Canada. Official statistics confirm that Islam is the fastest growing religion in that western country. StatCan stated that the Muslim population has more than tripled from 1996 to the present. Until 1985, there were so few Canadian Muslims that Islam was categorized as “other” in a federal survey. The Muslim population in Canada is 4.9% in 2021, up from 3.2% in 2011. In total, about 1.7 million Muslims live in the country. It’s interesting how Islam is spreading while overall religiosity in Canada is declining. In 2003, 71% of Canadians said that religious belief was important, while in 2019, only 54% of respondents said the same. Recently, there was an increase in anti-Islamic violence in the country, so Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself had to react, declaring that “Canada is not a place for Islamophobia.”
Despite Islamophobia and the often negative depictions of Muhammad’s faith in the Western media, the growth of Islam is steady and the faith is attracting new followers again and again. Islam is a religion that governs the entire life of the individual and the community, the private and public sphere. In a certain sense, it can be said that Islam doesn’t know the division into sacred and secular. Besides, of course, religious beliefs and rituals, with its teachings Islam regulates the entire social life, starting with family, business, civil and criminal law, nutrition, clothing and personal hygiene. In the Islamic worldview, there are few (if any) aspects of individual and social life that are not considered an expression of Islam as a complex civilization in which individuals, societies, and governments should reflect the will of God. That is why it can be said that Islam is much more than a religion, in fact it represents the totality of human behavior and actions.
Islam is a religion that, unlike Christianity, doesn’t try to adapt to current trends, but adheres to fundamental principles that have been in force for centuries. The principles of Islam such as strict rules, norms and prohibitions attract people who previously had no connection with Islam. Simple doctrine, equality of believers, practice of faith and clear religious hierarchy favor the attraction of new believers. Believers in Islam must follow the guidance of God’s law in order to get to heaven.
For many in developed countries, Islam can provide an attractive alternative because it gives meaning in this life and the afterlife. Such an alternative provides a new outlook on the world and spiritual peace in the modern world where uncertainty is the only constant. Islam, as a thoroughly elaborated religion, has a universalist character that can be accepted by people all over the world. With all the above, Muslim religious missionaries as well as ordinary believers strive to spread Islam more than Christians or Jews do in spreading their faiths. Also, Muslim communities are very happy to accept new members. All these are the reasons why Islam is the fastest growing world religion.
*Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.