August 25, 2016 3:06PM

The Religious Opinions of Muslim Americans

This is a follow-up to my post yesterday about Muslim American assimilation that focuses on religious differences between Muslims in the United States, between them and their co-religionists in their countries of origin, and their differences with other Americans.    

There are many different sects of Islam and most are represented in the United States.  Sunni Islam is the largest followed by Shia Islam at roughly 89 percent and 11 percent, respectively, which is similar to the global division.  African American membership in the Nation of Islam adds another wrinkle.  There are further sub-sects such as the Sufi, Druze, Ahmadiyya, Alevism, and others that disagree on virtually everything from doctrine to modes of practice.  In addition to those differences, there are five main schools of Islamic jurisprudence (four Sunni and one Shia) that reveal further differences to say nothing of how local cultures have altered practice and doctrine.  Islam is not a monolithic and uniform religion.  It is highly fractured and lacks a central religious authority. 

Based on a 100 point index pooling the responses from religious questions in the World Values Survey, Muslim immigrants in the West had a religiosity of 76 compared to 83 in their countries of origin and 60 in their destination societies.  According to Gallup, 80 percent of Muslim Americans say that religion plays a key role in life, which is more than the 65 percent of the general population but still less than the 85 percent reported by Mormons who agree with that statement.  Those figures are slightly lower for younger Muslim and non-Muslim respondents aged 18 to 29.  Pew also found that religion is about as important to U.S. Muslims as it is to Christians while both valued it more than the general population. 

Gallup and Pew found that compared to Muslims in Islamic countries, U.S. Muslims are the least likely to say religion is important to them.  Gallup found that Muslim weekly attendance at religious services in the United States is only just above that of the general population, 41 percent to 34 percent, and is 22 percentage points below Mormon attendance.  Among Muslims who said that “religion is important,” only 49 percent attend religious services once a week – lower than the U.S. general population and all other religious groups except Judaism.  For respondents aged 18 to 29, 41 percent of Muslims attend mosque at least once a week, the same percentage as Protestants, 27 points behind Mormons, and 14 points ahead of the general population.  Pew found that weekly attendance for Muslims and Christians was about the same and both were higher than the general population. 

According to Doug Massey and Monic Higgins, 68 percent of Muslim immigrants never attend religious services compared to 62 percent of all American Christians who say they attend religious services once or twice a month.  Chapter 7 of a National Academy of Science report on immigration assimilation analyzed New Immigrant Survey data and found a significant drop off in new immigrant Mosque attendance that likely rebounds over time.  

A 2011 poll by Pew found that 35 percent of Americans Muslims think their religion is the only true faith while 37 percent think there is only one true way to practice it.  For American Christians, the percentages are 30 and 28, respectively.  Pew also found that 56 percent of U.S. Muslims believe that many religions can lead to eternal life compared to 65 percent of all Americans and 64 percent of Christians.  Only 47 percent of African American Muslims said that many religions could lead to eternal life, a percentage lower than in any other demographic group.  The median finding in other countries is that only 18 percent of Muslims believe that many religions can lead to heaven.  The same poll found that 63 percent of U.S. Muslims and 64 percent of U.S. Christians do not say there is any tension in being devout and living in a modern society.  The global median for Muslims on this question was 54 percent.   

A 2016 poll by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) found that 45 percent of Muslim Americans favor a role for their religion in law.  In the same poll, 50 percent of Protestants said their religion should play a role in the law.  ISPU also finds that those Muslims with strong religious identities are also more likely to strongly identify as Americans, a finding similar across the religious groups surveyed.  A 2011 survey found that only 1 percent of American Muslim believed in the extreme Salafi approach to making Islamic decisions, down from 6 percent in 2005.  A majority of Mosque-goers, 55 percent, are also more likely to disagree with the statement that “all the different religions are equally good ways of helping a person find ultimate truth,” compared to 31 percent of attendees at other U.S. congregations. 

Related to religious belief, African American Muslims who are mostly converts or the descendants of recent converts and also disproportionately affiliated with the Nation of Islam, are more than twice as likely to think that America is immoral than immigrant and second-generation Muslims.  According to Gallup, Muslims are also less likely to strongly identify as American compared to other religious groups but they are also less likely to strongly identify with their own religion than Protestants and Mormons.  Only a small minority of Muslim Americans respondents in one study reported any conflict between being Muslim and American.  In another study, women who were more religious were also more involved in civil society and politics but that was also correlated decreased cultural and psychological integration into U.S. society.        

Educated, prosperous, and urbanized Muslim immigrants are less religious.  The concentration of Muslim immigrants among their fellow co-religionists and co-ethnics is positively associated with religious participation across a range of countries.  Endogamy also boosts religious participation.  In this regard, the greater diversity among American Muslims by ethnicity, race, and country of origin works against religious participation by limiting the scope of ethnic concentration and endogamy.  Shia Muslims, who are about 11 percent (page 23) of all U.S. Muslims, are especially fractionalized

How America Has Altered Islam

The lack of a state religion in the United States combined with a lively free-market in faith and high levels of belief have prompted Muslims to adapt.  They have had to create religious institutions from the ground up without U.S. government support, meaning that they end up copying the way that American churches are organized, staffed, funded, and operated. 

The different Western social, religious, and institutional landscape means that religious Muslims have to make a greater effort to actually practice.  Religion and religious institutions have often helped American immigrants assimilate.  That being said, conversion to other religions is uncommon among Muslims in the United States – 65 percent of those who do convert to another faith become unaffiliated while the rest choose another religion.  There is also some evidence that moving to the United States makes immigrants more observant but they tend to practice differently than in their home countries by, for instance, adopting a congregational style of mosque participation that is less ethnically divided.

Religion has also become more important as a source of identity for Muslim Americans in the second generation that often accompanied with a rejection of their parent’s ethnicity.  That’s partly a search for authentic or pure Islam untainted by culture, a notion present among some Muslim immigrants themselves.  A stronger religious identification can also push many marginal believers out of Islam, leading them to identify as non-religious.  This doesn’t appear to be at odds with broader integration.  Sociologists David Voas and Fenella Fleischmann sum up this section of their review by writing that: “[T]here is little evidence that religious socialization, current religiosity, or desire to maintain inherited traditions reduce the interest in adopting the mainstream culture.”


American Muslims have very different religious opinions and practices compared to their fellow co-religionists in Muslim-majority nations.  The difference in Muslim opinion between countries could be explained by the fact that those who choose to emigrate could have different opinions, America might change them, or both.  Interestingly, African-American converts to Islam, whether to the Nation of Islam or not, have the most negative opinions about America and American culture.  That should improve our relative view of Muslim immigrants and their assimilation.  Muslim Americans have religious opinions that tend to differ from those of other Americans but the gulf is not too wide.