WASHINGTON - The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are united in their belief in God and the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) and are bound together by such religious practices as fasting during the holy month of Ramazan and almsgiving to assist people in need, a new American poll finds.

But they have widely differing views about many other aspects of their faith, including how important religion is to their lives, who counts as a Muslim and what practices are acceptable in Islam, according to a worldwide survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Pew said the survey, which involved more than 38,000 face-to-face interviews in over 80 languages, finds that in addition to the widespread conviction that there is only one God and that Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) is His last Prophet, large percentages of Muslims around the world share other articles of faith, including belief in angels, heaven, hell and fate (or predestination). While there is broad agreement on the core tenets of Islam, however, Muslims across the 39 countries and territories surveyed differ significantly in their levels of religious commitment, openness to multiple interpretations of their faith and acceptance of various sects and movements, it said.

Some of these differences are apparent at a regional level. For example, at least eight-in-ten Muslims in every country surveyed in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and South Asia say that religion is very important in their lives. Across the Middle East and North Africa, roughly six-in-ten or more say the same. And in the United States, a 2011 Pew Research Center survey found that nearly seven-in-ten Muslims (69 per cent) say religion is very important to them. But, the survey said, religion plays a much less central role for some Muslims, particularly in nations that only recently have emerged from Communism. No more than half of those surveyed in Russia, the Balkans and the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia say religion is very important in their lives.

The one exception in Eastern Europe, Southern Europe and Central Asia is Turkey, which never came under Communist rule; fully two-thirds of Turkish Muslims (67 per cent) say religion is very important to them, it said.

Generational differences are also apparent. Across the Middle East and North Africa, for example, Muslims 35 and older tend to place greater emphasis on religion and to exhibit higher levels of religious commitment than do Muslims between the ages of 18 and 34, the report added.

In all seven countries surveyed in the region, older Muslims are more likely to report that they attend mosque, read the Holy Quran on a daily basis and pray multiple times each day. Outside of the Middle East and North Africa, the generational differences are not as sharp. And the survey finds that in one country – Russia – the general pattern is reversed and younger Muslims are significantly more observant than their elders.

There are also differences in how male and female Muslims practice their faith. In most of the 39 countries surveyed, men are more likely than women to attend mosque. This is especially true in Central Asia and South Asia, where majorities of women in most of the countries surveyed say they never attend mosque. However, this disparity appears to result from cultural norms or local customs that constrain women from attending mosque, rather than from differences in the importance that Muslim women and men place on religion.

In most countries surveyed, for example, women are about as likely as men to read (or listen to readings from) the Holy Quran on a daily basis. And there are no consistent differences between men and women when it comes to the frequency of prayer or participation in annual rites, such as almsgiving and fasting during Ramazan.

PEW said it asked Muslims whether they identify with various branches of Islam and about their attitudes toward other branches or subgroups. While these sectarian differences are important in some countries, the survey suggests that many Muslims around the world either do not know or do not care about them.

Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa tend to be most keenly aware of the distinction between the two main branches of Islam, Sunni and Shia. Opinion also varies as to whether Sufis – members of religious orders who emphasise the mystical dimensions of Islam – belong to the Islamic faith.  The survey asked Muslims whether they believe there is only one true way to understand Islam’s teachings or if multiple interpretations are possible.

In 32 of the 39 countries surveyed, half or more Muslims say there is only one correct way to understand the teachings of Islam.

This view, however, is far from universal.

In the Middle East and North Africa, majorities or substantial minorities in most countries – including Tunisia, Morocco, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Iraq – believe that it is possible to interpret Islam’s teachings in multiple ways. In Sub-Saharan Africa, at least one-in-five Muslims agree. In South Asia, Southeast Asia and across Southern and Eastern Europe, at least one-in-six in every country surveyed believe Islam is open to multiple interpretations.

In the United States, by contrast, 57 per cent of Muslims say Islam is open to multiple interpretations.  The expression “Inshallah” is a common figure of speech among Muslims and reflects the Islamic tradition that the destiny of individuals, and the world, is in the hands of God.

The survey also asked about the existence of heaven and hell. Across the six regions included in the study, more than seven-in-ten Muslims say that paradise awaits those who have lived righteous lives,while at least two-thirds say hell is the ultimate fate of those who do not live righteously and do not repent. Fasting during the month of Ramadan, which according to Islamic tradition is required of all healthy, adult Muslims, is part of an annual rite in which individuals place renewed emphasis on the teachings of the Holy Quran.

Annual almsgiving, which by custom is supposed to equal approximately 2.5 per cent of a person’s total wealth, is almost as widely observed as fasting during Ramazan.