washington - Large majorities in the Muslim world want the Islamic legal and moral code of sharia as the official law in their countries, but they disagree on what it includes and who should be subject to it, an extensive new survey says.

Over three-quarters of Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia want sharia courts to decide family law issues such as divorce and property disputes, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life said on Tuesday. Views on punishments such as chopping off thieves' hands or decreeing death for apostates is more evenly divided in much of the Islamic world, although more than three-quarters of Muslims in South Asia say they are justified.

Those punishments have helped make sharia controversial in some non-Islamic countries, where some critics say Muslims want to impose it on western societies, but the survey shows views in Muslim countries are far from monolithic.

"Muslims are not equally comfortable with all aspects of sharia," said the study by the Washington-based Pew Forum. "Most do not believe it should be applied to non-Muslims." More than four-fifths of the 38,000 Muslims interviewed in 39 countries said non-Muslims in their countries could practice their faith freely and that this was good.

This view was strongest in South Asia, where 97 per cent of Bangladeshis and 96 per cent of Pakistanis agreed, while the lowest Middle Eastern result was 77 per cent in Egypt.

The survey polled only Muslims and not minorities. In several Muslim countries, embattled Christian minorities say they cannot practice their faith freely and are in fact subject to discrimination and physical attacks.

The survey produced mixed results on questions relating to the relationship between politics and Islam.

Democracy wins slight majorities in key Middle Eastern states - 54 per cent in Iraq, 55 per cent in Egypt - and falls to 29 per cent in Pakistan. By contrast, it stands at 81 per cent in Lebanon, 75 per cent in Tunisia and 70 per cent in Bangladesh.

In most countries surveyed, Muslims were more worried about extremism than any other form of religious violence. Suicide bombing was mostly rejected, although it won 40 per cent support in the Palestinian territories, 39 per cent in Afghanistan, 29 per cent in Eygpt and 26 per cent in Bangladesh.

Three-quarters say abortion is morally wrong and 80 per cent or more rejected homosexuality and sex outside of marriage.

Views on whether women should decide themselves if they should wear a headscarf vary greatly, from 89 per cent in Tunisia and 79 per cent in Indonesia saying yes and 45 per cent in Iraq and 30 per cent in Afghanistan saying no.

Majorities from 74 per cent in Lebanon to 96 per cent in Malaysia said wives should always obey their husbands.

Only a minority saw Sunni-Shi'ite tensions as a very big problem, ranging from 38 per cent in Lebanon and 34 per cent in Pakistan to 23 per cent in Iraq and 14 per cent in Turkey.

Conflict with other religions loomed larger, with 68 per cent in Lebanon saying it was a big problem, 65 per cent in Tunisia, 60 per cent in Nigeria and 57 per cent in Pakistan.