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Will Islam soon be the world’s largest religion?

The answer can’t be reduced to mere numbers

Visitors walk past artwork by Andy Warhol at Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran, Iran Associated Press/Photo by Vahid Salemi

Will Islam soon be the world’s largest religion?

A Pew Research poll predicts that, based on current trends, the number of Muslims worldwide will be nearly equal to the number of Christians by 2050. In conversations, you might hear this statement as proof that Islam is growing and other religions (such as Christianity) are quickly declining. But such a conclusion is misleading and does not take into consideration a number of realities happening throughout the Muslim world.

Research reveals the cultural tendencies in Muslim families, not the attractiveness of Islam itself, explains the demographic surge. The growing number of Muslims is not primarily caused by conversion but is due instead to Muslim families producing more children. The higher relative birthrate occurs for various social and religious reasons, including the fact that, in most Muslim-dominant societies, women have few opportunities outside the home.

Of course, some converts are choosing Islam—but we should acknowledge recent research demonstrating that conversion works in two directions.

Consider the Muslim population in the United States. In January 2018, a Pew Research study declared that the number of converts to Islam almost equaled the number who abandoned the faith. Thus, there was virtually no net growth at all. This study also found that about 25 percent of adult Muslims raised in the United States no longer identified as Muslims.

What about the Arab world, especially the heartland of Islam? What are the patterns there?

On June 24, 2019, The Guardian reported a study—conducted by a Princeton University-based research group—that suggested Arab Muslims are quitting Islam in unprecedented numbers. The study compares the numbers of “non-religious” people between roughly 2014 and 2019. The numbers went from 11 percent to 18 percent.

Such a statistic is stunning because the Arab world is the stronghold of Islam. This study occurred during the rise of ISIS when militant Islamist groups were committing atrocities. Many Muslims, it appears, questioned their former beliefs. If more Muslims felt comfortable answering the study’s questions openly, the numbers might be even greater.

But some Muslims are open about their abandonment of Islam. Another secular study revealed that hundreds and thousands—depending on the country—of Muslims are now identifying as atheists and willing to declare their decisions online.

This claim of Islam as the “fastest growing” world religion needs more nuance than it usually receives.

Consider the number of Muslims worldwide. In September 2019, The Telegraph [London] posted an article titled, “Why are young Muslims leaving Islam?” The article provides several answers to the question. In many parts of the world, we are told, new generations of “educated” Muslims are asking hard questions about Islam’s origins, teachings, and foundations. The article points to waves of young Muslims abandoning Islam due to “crises of unbelief.” It emphasizes this as a phenomenon not only in Western liberal societies but in conservative Islamic countries, including Sudan, Iran, and Pakistan.

Speaking of Iran, while it is the most important and influential Shiite Muslim country, it is in an even tougher spot.

In September 2020, an academic study highlighted Iran’s secular shift. It stated that droves of Iranians are abandoning Islam for various reasons. We are told that currently, only 40 percent of Iranians identify as Muslim. This is shocking because Iran claims to be 99.5 percent Muslim. If this study reflects the reality on the ground, it is plausible to deduce that Iran is no longer a Muslim-majority country.

Unlike in previous generations, many of today’s former Muslims are bold about their abandonment of Islam, although they know that leaving the religion is punishable by death in some countries.

Online platforms have now developed bold hashtags, such as #AwesomeWithoutAllah, #ExMuslim, #FreeFromHijab, #Apostate, and others. There is even an organization named Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA) that advocates for freedom for former Muslims.

So, is Islam the fastest growing religion in the world? That answer depends on answers more nuanced than what current media talking points would imply.

A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.

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