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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 9    Issue 23   16-30 April 2015


An Overview

Professor A. R. MOMIN

About three-fourths of the world’s Muslim population – estimated at around 1.85 billion -- is concentrated in 49 Muslim-majority nations. The remaining one-fourth live as minorities in non-Muslim countries around the world. The existence of Muslim minorities dates from the early years of Islamic history. Faced with the increasing persecution of Muslims in Makkah, the Prophet advised some of his companions to migrate and seek refuge in Abyssinia, which was then ruled by a Christian king, Al-Najashi. When this small group of Arabs, who carried a letter of the Prophet addressed to the king, reached Abyssinia, they were treated with courtesy and kindness and granted the freedom to practice their religion. They were joined by over 100 companions in the course of time.

Population and Global Distribution

There is a dearth of systematic studies of Muslim minorities based on reliable and updated information in a comparative framework. A landmark event in the study of Muslim minorities was the establishment of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs in London in 1978 by Syed Zain al-Abedin. Since its inception the Institute has organized several international conferences and published books on Muslim minorities. Since 1979, the Institute has published the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, which carries scholarly articles on Muslim minorities from around the world. Currently, Saleha S. Mahmood is the Director of the Institute. Significant contributions to the study of Muslim minorities have been made by Syed Z. Abedin, Saleha Abedin, Ali Kettani, Omar Khalidi and Muhammad Khalid Masud, among others. 1

Writing in 1995, Syed Z. Abedin and Saleha Abedin stated that about one-third of the world’s Muslim population live as religious and political minorities in non-Muslim societies. A 2009 report of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life stated that about 20% of the world’s Muslim population lived as minorities in non-Muslim countries.

It is difficult to provide a reliable and accurate estimate of the size of Muslim minorities worldwide and their proportion in the global Muslim population due to legal restrictions on the enumeration of groups on the basis of religion in some countries. In France, for example, there are no official statistics on the population of Muslims because the French census does not record populations on the basis of religious affiliation. Similarly, Article 16.2 of the constitution of Spain prohibits the enumeration of religious confessions in the state census. The Chinese census enumerates population on the basis of officially designated nationalities, and not on grounds of religious affiliation.

A 2011 report of the Pew Forum revised and updated its earlier estimate of the size of Muslim minorities around the world and stated that roughly 25 per cent of the world’s Muslim population live as minorities in non-Muslim countries. This seems to be a plausible estimate. Since the current global Muslim population is estimated at about 1.85 billion, the number of Muslim minorities worldwide is approximately 450 million.

According to the 2011 Pew Forum report, about three quarters of Muslim minorities world-wide live in five countries: India (171 million), Ethiopia (38 million), China (22 million), Russia (20 million) and Tanzania (13 million).2 Muslim minorities make up over 6% of the population of the European Union and 0.6% of the population of the Americas. The population of Muslims in Australia is very small, comprising about 1.9% of the total population. In 20 out of 54 African nations, Muslims account for more than 5% of the population. Those among sub-Saharan Africa include Guinea-Bissau (43%), Cote d’Ivoire (35-40%), Tanzania (35-40%), Eritrea (36%), Ethiopia (34%), Benin (24%), Cameroon (21%), Mozambique (18%), Malawi (20%), and the Central African Republic (15%).

Substantial populations of Muslim minorities in South and Southeast Asia and the Middle East are found in India (14.6%), Israel (18%), Singapore (14.9%), Sri Lanka (8.5%), Thailand (5.8%), Philippines (5.1%), Nepal (4.2%) and China (2.1%). Europe is home to over 38 million Muslims, who make up more than 6% of the continent’s population. The largest Muslim populations in Europe are found in France (over 6 million), Germany (over 4 million), UK (2.9 million) and Spain (1.6 million). The population of Muslims in the Russian Federation is over 20 million and in Georgia about 440,000. The population of Muslims in the USA is estimated at 2.75 million and in Canada at 950,000. Many Latin American countries have sizeable Muslim populations. In Suriname, nearly 25% of the population are Muslim.


There are significant variations among Muslim minorities in respect of history, national origins, migration, size of population, relations with the dominant population, linkages with mainstream Muslim societies, integration or assimilation, social, political and economic conditions, ethnicity, religious commitment and cultural traditions. Some Muslim minorities have been living in certain countries for centuries. Palestinian Arabs, who have been living in their ancestral land for centuries, have become a marginalized minority in the state of Israel. The presence of Muslims in India dates back to more than a thousand years. The Hui Muslims of China are the descendants of Arab, Central Asian and Persian merchants who began arriving and settling in China since the 7th century. The Muslims of Western Siberia have been living in the region since the 14th century. Islam was brought to Western Siberia by Sufi travellers of the Naqshbandiya order in the 14th century. There are three main Muslim ethnic groups in the Siberian region: Siberian Tatars (who number about 180,000), Western Siberian Kazakhs (160,000) and the Volga-Ural Tatars (60,000). The large majority of Siberian Muslims live in rural areas and are engaged in the traditional modes of livelihood such as cattle breeding, hunting and fishing. Every Tatar and Kazakh settlement has a mosque and a religious functionary or imam, locally known as Mulla.3

Islam reached the Philippines in the 14th century with the arrival of Muslim traders from the Middle East, India and Malaysia. In the 15th century, several independent Islamic city state and sultanates were founded in the southern part of the country. Thousands of enslaved Muslims arrived in America from Africa long before the birth of the United States. An estimated 20% of the enslaved Africans who were brought to Africa by European slave traders were Muslim and many of them sought to recreate the communal life that they had left behind.4 Muslim minorities in the Balkans have been living in the region since the 15th century. Sizeable Muslim populations are found in Albania (38.8%), Bosnia-Herzegovina (41.6%), Montenegro (18.5%) and Bulgaria (13.4%).

A distinction should be drawn between Muslim minorities who are of indigenous origin or those whose ancestors have been living in certain countries or regions for several centuries, and Muslim diasporas, including recent immigrants and their descendants born and raised in the host countries. Muslim minorities in India, China, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, the Russian Federation, the Balkans and African-Americans belong to the first category. Muslim diasporas include a large majority of Muslims living in Europe, North America, Latin America, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong. A small but culturally significant segment of Muslim minorities, particularly in Europe, North America, Latin America and Japan, consists of converts.

Islam is spreading with amazing speed across several parts of Europe and the United States. A new study by Faith Matters, an inter-faith think-tank, suggests that the number of Britons who have entered the fold of Islam is as high as 100,000, with 5,000 new conversions each year. A study carried out at Swansea University showed that in the past ten years, some 10,000 Britons have converted to Islam, and three-quarters of them were women. Of the 5,200 Britons who converted to Islam in 2010, more than half were white and nearly 75% of them were women. Despite the wide prevalence of the stereotype that Islam is oppressive to women, a quarter of female converts were attracted to Islam mainly because they felt it treated women with honour and dignity.5

It is estimated that as many as 20,000 Americans convert to Islam every year. Many of them were drawn to the Islamic faith in the aftermath of 9/11. Most of the converts are women and a majority of them are Hispanics and African-Americans. Tens of thousands of Latinos in the US, mostly women, have embraced Islam in recent years. According to conservative estimates, the number of Latino converts in the US is between 100,000 and 200,000. The Latino converts have been drawn to Islam because they found a striking convergence and harmony between some of their cultural traditions and Islamic values and principles, including simplicity, communitarian unity and solidarity, family cohesion, supportive networks, an emphasis on spiritual and moral values, and respect for the rights of the poor. They are impressed by the Islamic ideals of equality and brotherhood and the Islamic belief that there is a direct and personal relationship between God and man, unhampered by any mediating clergy. Female Latino converts find a refreshing and reassuring sense of dignity and security in the fold of Islam and are impressed by the recognition of gender equality in Islamic tradition. In many areas, Latino women who have embraced Islam have formed communitarian and supportive networks, which reinforces their shared identity and solidarity and acts as a bulwark against mistrust and hostility from the wider society.

Muslim Diasporas

A fairly large number of Muslims live outside of their countries of origin. There is, for example, a sizeable Arab diaspora which is dispersed across Europe, USA, Canada, South and Central America and Australasia. The largest concentration of Arabs outside the Middle East is in Brazil, which has over 12 million Brazilians of Arab ancestry. There are large Arab communities in South and Central America. In Chile, for example, there is a 300,000-strong Palestinian diaspora. There are 100,000 Palestinians living in El Salvador. People of Arab origin have occupied important political positions in South and Central America.

There is a substantial Arab diaspora in Europe. An estimated quarter of a million Palestinians live in Europe. Approximately 100,000 Arabs live in Britain, forming 1.7 per cent of the population. About 80,000 Arabs live in Sweden. In Marseille, France, Arabs make up nearly 25% of the total population. Over one million Iranians have emigrated in recent decades to Europe, North America, Australia and Turkey. There are approximately 500,000 Iranians living in Los Angeles. Iranian expatriates number about 110,000 in Germany, 100,000 in the UK, and some 62,000 in France. There is a sizeable Kurdish diaspora, estimated at about 850,000, mainly of Turkish origin, in Western Europe. There are some 500,000-600,000 Kurds in Germany, 100,000 in France, and about 70,000 in the Netherlands.

Muslim diasporas, like the global Muslim population, are characterized by a great deal of diversity in respect of nationality, ethnicity, language, cultural traditions, sects and denominations. Muslims in the US, for example, have come from more than 80 national backgrounds. Muslim communities in Europe, North and Latin America and Australia have migrated from over 80 countries. A large number of asylum seekers from Iran, Afghanistan, Palestine, Albania, Bulgaria Chechnya and Bosnia have augmented the number of Muslim migrants in Western countries.

Muslim immigrants in Europe, USA, Latin America and Australia generally maintain close contacts with their countries of origin through visits and marriage alliances. Increased facilities for travel, modern information and communication technologies and the electronic and print media have reinforced the cultural links of diasporic Muslim communities with their homelands. Satellite television, telephone and the Internet have emerged as highly important instruments in strengthening such ties. Al Jazeera, an independent television channel started in Qatar in 1996, has become enormously popular not only in the Arab world but also among the Arabic-speaking diaspora in Europe, North America and Australia, with an estimated audience of more than 40 million. By and large, Muslim diasporic communities around the world maintain close links with their religious and cultural traditions and make efforts to safeguard their religious and communitarian identity. This is attested by the construction of new and larger mosques and the growing concern for providing Islamic instruction to children, the increasing demand for Islamic literature, the growing popularity of halal food and Islamic financial products and services and the increasing visibility of Islamic symbols such as the headscarf.

Muslim diasporic communities are often under pressure to assimilate into mainstream society. The second and third generations of Muslim immigrants born and raised in Western countries are particularly vulnerable to the pressures of assimilation and globalisation. Unlike their parents or grandparents, they have no emotional ties with their homeland. The influence of the surrounding environment is reflected in their language, peer group, lifestyle and attitudes. The children of the Syrian-Lebanese immigrants in Argentina, for example, no longer speak Arabic, their mother tongue, and are not interested in learning it. In our globalising era, the role of parents and other members of the family has been greatly reduced. Peer group, global media, school and networks in the wider society now play a much larger role in the socialization process. Muslim children and adolescents living in Western countries as well as in the metropolitan cities of Asia and Africa are being increasingly exposed to influences which are often at variance with Islamic values and traditions. Muslim youth are becoming increasingly influenced by the global culture, including individualism and consumerism, the free mixing of sexes and dating, hip hop culture and American rap music and discotheques and nightclubs. This has brought about a gap between the older and younger generations.

The descendents of immigrants born and raised in Western countries are faced with a peculiar predicament. While they identify themselves with the country of their birth and residence, they are not fully accepted by the wider society on account of their ethnicity and identity. On the other hand, their identification with the homeland and culture of their parents or grandparents is at best mixed and ambivalent. Consequently, they experience fragmented, confused identities.

In addition to exogenous challenges, Muslim minorities are faced with a set of endogenous or internal challenges and problems. The most insidious challenge faced by Muslims across the world is widespread social and cultural fragmentation and dissension and lack of communitarian unity and consensus. This fragmentation and dissension is largely due to ethnic divisions, national affiliations and sectarian and denominational differences. It is reflected in the structure and organization of mosques, madrasas and local organizations. In Australia, for example, mosques are designated according to the ethnic identity of the dominant segment in the local Muslim community. There is, for example, the Albanian Mosque in Victoria and the Lakemba Mosque built by the Lebanese Muslim Association in Sydney. The Lebanese Muslim Association, Bosnian Islamic Society and Islamic Egyptian Society in Australia betray the pervasive influence of regional, ethnic and sectarian divisions among Muslim minorities. Friday and Id sermons in many mosques across large parts of the world are delivered in the language of the dominant segment of the local Muslim community. In Hong Kong, the Wan Chai Mosque is mainly patronised by Muslims of Chinese origin while the Kowloon Mosque is used primarily by immigrant Muslims from India and Pakistan. A Chinese imam from China proper leads the prayers at the Wan Chai Mosque while an Indian or Pakistani person serves as imam at the Kowloon Mosque. In Suriname there are more than 150 mosques. Indonesian Muslims comprise nearly 65% of the Muslim population and Muslims of Indian origin comprise about 30% of the population. The organization of mosques in Suriname reflects the ethnic division in the local Muslim population. Since the Friday sermon and religious discourses at the Indian mosques are conducted in Urdu, Indonesians rarely pray in these mosques.

Challenges and Opportunities

The challenges and problems faced by Muslim minorities living in non-Muslim countries differ from nation to nation and region to region. In some parts of the world, particularly Israel, Myanmar, China, Sri Lanka, Central African Republic, France, Switzerland, Spain and Italy, Muslims have to bear the brunt of widespread prejudice and demonization, discrimination, exclusion and persecution. In other countries, such as South Africa, Singapore, India, USA, Canada, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Thailand and Japan, Muslims are comparatively better off. This is not to deny or underestimate the deeply entrenched undercurrents of racism and xenophobia in many Western countries.

Generally, the problems and challenges experienced by Muslim minorities include discrimination and exclusion in employment, housing and education, stigmatization and vilification, restrictions on Islamic symbols and religious and cultural practices (such as the ban on the wearing of veils in state-funded schools in France and on face-covering veils in public in France and Belgium, prohibition of constructing minarets in Switzerland and restrictions on fasting in some parts of China), forced ghettoization and persecution aided and abetted by the state (as in Israel and Myanmar), ethnic cleansing (as in CAR), and attacks on mosques and desecration of Muslim cemeteries (as in France and the UK).

On the other hand, many countries provide Muslims and other minority groups protection and security, freedom to practice their faith and follow their religious and cultural traditions, and opportunities for education and professional advancement. Most countries where Muslims live as minorities allow them to build mosques and Islamic schools, offer legal protection to their family laws, provide them with the freedom to offer prayers, fast during Ramadan and go on the Hajj pilgrimage and to slaughter animals according to the Islamic ritual. Muslim women generally have the freedom to wear the headscarf.

Many countries in which Muslims live as minorities, such as Russia, Singapore, Thailand, South Africa, Suriname, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, recognize Islamic family laws. The constitution of South Africa recognizes the Islamic personal law, including local Islamic courts. In the Russian Federation, Shariah courts for dealing with family matters are recognized in Chechnya and Ingushetia. In Singapore, the Shariah Court and Registry of Muslim Marriages were set up in 1958. In addition to settling divorce petitions, the Shariah Court also issues inheritance certificates relating to Muslim estates. In Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania, Islamic courts were established by the Kadhi Act of 1985. The courts have jurisdiction over all family and personal matters involving Zanzibar’s Muslim community.

In recent years some European countries have begun to informally recognize the loosely constituted religious courts of Muslims for the settlement of family disputes. In the US and Canada, the family courts recognize the Islamic marriage contract as a valid legal document. Loosely structured arbitration councils, sometimes described as Islamic or Shariah courts, have been in existence in Britain over the past two decades. Under Britain’s 1996 Arbitration Act, Islamic tribunals or councils can give rulings which can be enforced by county and High Courts.


1. Abedin, Syed Z. and Saleha M. Abedin (1995) ‘Muslim minorities in non-Muslim societies’ In John L. Esposito, ed. (1995) The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Modern Islamic World. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 112-117; Kettani, Ali (1986) Muslim Minorities in the World Today. London.


2. http://www.pewforum.org/files/2011/01/FutureGlobalMuslimPopulation


3. Selezner, Alexander G. (1999) ‘The Northern-most outpost of Islamic civilization’ ISIM Newsletter, March.


4. Mansea, Peter (2015) ‘The Muslims of Early America’ International New York Times, 9 February 2015.


5. www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/the-islamification-of-britain-record-numbers

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