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In my recently published book, Christianity and World Religions: An Introduction to the World’s Major Faiths, I discuss the six major non-Christian “stories” or religions of the world. As I teach these religions in classrooms and churches and discuss them with friends and neighbors, I have consistently uncovered several myths many Christians believe about each of these religions. 

In the first two blogs, I wrote about the false belief that Christianity is the only religion with a Savior as well as the common notion that Hinduism believes in many gods. As I showed, both of these assumptions are not true. 

In this blog, I will discuss the third myth: All, or at least most, Muslims are Arabs.

Of all the different religions today, Islam is the one that receives the most attention. No matter whether you are listening to the radio, reading a newspaper, or watching the local news, reports of Muslims, ostensibly violent ones, are rampant. Many of these reports focus on Arab Muslims, especially in light of the recent Arab Spring and the Syrian war. Because of such media attention in the Middle East, coupled with the basic knowledge most people have that Muhammad, the father of Islam, was Arab, many assume that Islam must be an Arab religion. 

Now, of course, it is true that Muhammad was Arab and that Islam is the dominant religion, by far, in the Middle East. However, nobody assumes that because Jesus was Jewish, Christianity is exclusively, or even predominantly, a Jewish religion. Nor do most people regard Buddhism as an Indian religion despite the fact that the Buddha was Indian and that Buddhism emerged out of India. Instead, most people assume that Christianity is a non-Jewish religion—mostly European—and that Buddhism is a southeastern or eastern Asian religion, originating perhaps in China or Tibet. 

In point of fact, I must first clarify that the Middle East does not equal Arab. Two of the largest countries in the Middle East—Turkey and Iran—are not Arab at all. The term Middle East is unfortunately amorphous; if we reasonably broadened it to include Central Asia, the percentage of Muslim Arabs would dwindle even further in relation to the non-Arab population in countries like Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan. 

Here are the facts. Nearly 80% of Muslims are Asian or African. Stated differently, of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, less than 20% are Arab. In fact, the countries with the five largest numbers of Muslims worldwide are all non-Arab countries. 

Ranking by Size

Country

Population by Millions

1

Indonesia

205

2

Pakistan

178

3

India

177

4

Bangladesh

148

5

Nigeria

78

As these statistics indicate, it is more accurate to conclude that Islam, if anything, is an Asian religion. In fact, according to the Pew Forum on Religion (pewforum.org), predictions for the next couple of decades indicate that Asian countries will continue to boast the largest populations of Muslims worldwide. Of the ten countries to have the largest Muslim populations, only two of them—Egypt and Iraq—contain sizeable Arab populations which speak Arabic. 

Throughout Islamic history, it is indisputable that Arabs—including their Arabic culture, thought, and language—have played a significant role in the development of Islam. And the very fact that the Qur’an was given (and later recorded) in Arabic and that the Kaaba, a holy shrine in Mecca, is located in Saudi Arabia ensures Arabic influence. Yet Arabs are today a small percentage of Muslims in the world today. 

Truth be told, much of the historical antagonism between Muslims and Christians during the medieval and modern periods did not necessarily pivot on an inherent antagonism between say, European Christians and Arab Muslims. In many ways, today as in the past, Islam has been an Asian religion. For it was Central Asians like the Turks who ultimately wrested Christian control out of the eastern Mediterranean, and it was the Mongols who were the architects of one of the largest and most powerful empires in world history, stretching from Japan to Russia, and wiping out the (Nestorian) Christian population in the process. 

In the future, Christianity and Islam will continue to be the two most influential religions on the planet. Because these religions both believe in their universality and that they alone convey the truth about God, humankind, and the world, competition between them will fiercely persist. The tension, in other words, has less to do with ethnic differences and more to do with their common and singular vision for universality. In the end, and unlike inclusive religions like Hinduism or Baha’i, either Christianity or Islam is true. 

In this three-part series, we have dispelled three common myths many people believe about world religions. If you would like to read more about other religions and learn how to respond to them as a Christian, I encourage you to read Christianity and World Religions. You won’t be disappointed!


Dr. Derek Cooper is assistant professor of World Christian History at Biblical, where he also serves as the associate director of the Doctor of Ministry program. Derek’s most recent book, which was written for classroom use, church groups, and for lay readers, is titled Christianity and World Religions: An Introduction to the World’s Major Faiths. His faculty page can be found here.

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