When you think of Muslim majority countries, you’re probably thinking about somewhere in the Middle East or North Africa. Veiled women and terrorists. But, the Muslim world is a lot bigger than you’d ever suspect if you only followed the mainstream news. In North America, Islam is pretty much automatically associated with the Arab world and its typically very strict and fundamentalist version of the religion. It’s probably not a coincidence that most of what is thought of as the Islamic world by the West has to do with oil producing nations.
Islam is much broader than that, extending its influence to the south, north, and east of its origins in what is now Saudi Arabia. Wherever it went, the religion blended with local cultures and sometimes even beliefs. There are many different variations of the religion that have developed in different regions of the world.
Let’s face it, our view of the world from North America is pretty selective. Some regions only hit the news when there’s something terrible going on, and context is something that quickly gets lost in the shuffle. Here’s a list we’ve compiled of countries that you probably never even suspected were largely Muslim – and maybe that you’ve never even heard of at all.
It’s a sad fact, but probably, for most North Americans, any knowledge or awareness of Albania or it people have come from movie depictions of Albanian organized crime gangs, who have become stock Hollywood villains. All religious practice was banned by the previous (and brutal) communist regime in Albania between 1967 and 1991. The most recent census figures put the number of Muslims at over 56 percent of the population or about 1.55 million, forming the majority in this nation in the mountainous Balkan region of Eastern Europe. To be specific, most Albanian Muslims are considered to be secular — as in, not fundamentalist — Sunni Muslims who are pretty lax about strict religious protocols. Women may or may not cover their hair. That probably goes back to the country’s origins as part of the Ottoman Empire in the 1600s. The ruling Ottomans, based in Turkey, wanted the public’s loyalty, so they persuaded them to convert to Islam by hiking up the head tax on Christians. The Muslim majority, however, has always co-existed peacefully with a sizable Christian minority, which includes Catholics and Greek Orthodox.
If you don’t know much about Senegal, it’s likely because the West African nation doesn’t hit the North American news very often. Senegal has been one of Africa’s most stable democracies for decades since its liberation from French colonial rule in 1960. More than 95 percent of this West African country’s population is Muslim, or about 13.7 million people. Most of them belong to one of the four principal brotherhoods of the Sufi branch of Islam. In Senegal, Muslim practices evolved to include local religion. The Sufi branch of Islam emphasizes mysticism, and in Senegal, a unique suborder of the Mouride Sufi brotherhood arose. The Baye Fall, (or Yaye Fall for the ladies,) emphasize spirituality and service based on physical labor, and you’ll recognize them by the patchwork clothes they prefer, and their long dreadlocked hair. Several of the Baye Fall are also prominent musicians.
13. Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region – China
The Muslim population of China amounts to only about 1 or 2 percent overall, but that jumps to the majority in Xinjiang. The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, to be specific. is a provincial-level autonomous region of China in the northwest of the country. It is the largest administrative area in China and covers over 640,000 square miles of mountainous territory in the northwest corner of the country. Muslims form about 58 percent of the population in the multicultural region, or over 13.6 million people, including the majority Hui Muslims, a Sufi sect, and the Uyghurs, a Turkish ethnic group to a lesser extent. Islam came to China about 14 centuries ago along with Arab traders on the Silk Road, a trading route to China. The region was known as the Muslim Frontier during the Qing Dynasty, and its fortunes have been mixed since the end of the imperial era in 1911. Under Communist rule, mosques, like other religious institutions, were often persecuted. The Uyghurs, many of whom support a separatist movement, have sometimes come under fire from the authorities. Chinese Muslims are the only nation to have a long tradition of women-only mosques with female imams.
Guinea, a country that extends inland from the West African coast inland, is a former French colony. About 87 percent of its population or about 10.5 million of its 12,090,000 populace, is Muslim. Like most of West Africa, Guinea became a largely Islamic region in the 12th century as part of the Malian empire – the one that inspired Disney’s Lion King. Also like most other West African nations, in Guinea, Islam coexists with earthy indigenous religions, and its practice is usually non-fundamentalist. Guinea itself is a secular state that guarantees freedom of religion. The first of the West African nations to declare its independence from France in 1958, the mineral-rich fortunes of the country have been hampered by politics, including an authoritarian rule, political scandals – including one involving the drug-dealing son of a former president – and sometimes violent confrontation between civilians and the military. Through it all, though, Guinea is most famous in the region and throughout the world for its music and dance; not necessarily what you expect from a predominantly Muslim nation.
Azerbaijan is a former Soviet republic located in the southern Caucasus Mountain region. That’s right, the region where the Caucasian or white race was born is majority Muslim – and that’s a solid 97 percent majority. It’s located in a part of the world where Europe and Asia meet, and Islam came along with the conquest by Arab rulers in the 7th century. In Azerbaijan, Muslim identity tends to be more of a cultural than a religious thing, and despite a very small radical minority, it doesn’t enter much into the political landscape. Only about 7 percent of Muslims consider themselves fundamentalists. It was the first Muslim country to institute Western customs like theater and the opera, and has a long tradition of secularism, or non-religious social life.
Bangladesh has the fourth largest Muslim population in the world, at about 140 million, or 89 percent of its population. Even so, it’s a secular democracy, with religious freedoms guaranteed. It’s been a largely Muslim country since about the 8th century and the arrival of Persian traders. It’s a beautiful, green countries with 700 rivers and 5,000 miles of inland waterways, and is located on the Bengal delta, the largest in the world. Part of the British empire, it actually became part of Pakistan when the Muslim part of India was partitioned off in 1947. Bangladesh became an independent country after a war of independence in 1974. While Bangladesh has been a largely secular country for most of its history, there has been a push towards conservatism in recent years.
If you’ve heard of the Maldives, it’s probably from a travel brochure. The tropical island nation is made up of 26 atolls in the Indian Ocean and is renowned for beautiful white sand beaches and coral reefs. Islam is the Maldives’ state religion, meaning it is the official faith of all of its 392,000 citizens. While the tourists may sport bikinis, most local women opt for the covered look, albeit with a fashion sense. The Maldives converted from Buddhism to Islam in the 12th century, and it’s said to be the work of a Moroccan Berber who made the trip from North Africa. Although, ostensibly, the entire population is Sunni Muslim, religious practice varies among the people, about a third of whom live in Malé, the capital city. In recent years, there’s been a push towards conservatism in Maldives society.
Legend has it that Islam first arrived in Chad, a central African country, with Uqbah ibn Nāfi, an Arab general who spread the faith through North Africa and beyond, wherever he traveled. Those early beginnings in the 7th century were bolstered when Arab migrants began arriving in serious numbers in the 14th century. Chad became a majority Muslim country gradually, and the faith now makes up about 59 percent of the population or almost 6.9 million. Religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution, but that hasn’t prevented some friction between Christian and Muslim groups. Chad has also been subject to terrorist acts by the radical Muslim group Boko Haram, adding weight to the assertion that the biggest targets of Islamic extremists are other Muslims.
Kyrgyzstan is located in Central Asia, now a republic and once part of the Soviet Union. About 75 percent of its 5.7 million people are Muslim. Islam first came to the mountainous region along with Arab traders who established the route through the Tian Shan mountains known a the Silk Road, which led eventually to China. Another wave of Muslim migrants came in the 17th century. Here, though, Islam has always blended with the strong traditions of the tribal, nomadic Kyrgyz people. Even today, some Kyrgyz practice Tengriism, a pre-Islamic spiritual belief, alongside their Muslim faith. This beautiful region is home to many singular traditions, like the hunter who tame golden eagles, or the game of buzkashi, a kind of polo played on horseback, using the body of a dead goat instead of a ball.
Comoros is a tropical island country, technically an archipelago in the Indian Ocean where it meets the Mozambique Channel. The population of about 795,000 is about 98 percent Muslim. Waves of settlers from the Arabian Peninsula and the east coast of Africa began arriving from the 6th century. Local legend puts the conversion of the islands down to one man who left Comoros on a pilgrimage, but arrived in Mecca too late to see Muhammed in person. The islands had become prosperous centers for trade, and it seems more likely that the religion was spread by the many Arab and Persian traders who passed through. At one time, the islands were a haven for Portuguese pirates. Here, Swahili culture blends with the Muslim faith in a palm tree paradise, with beaches and a large active volcano – the one that spit out the islands in the first place – Mt. Karthala, in the center of Grand Comore, the largest of the islands.
Niger sits at the edge of the Sahara Desert, a pivot between North, Central, and West Africa. Its population of about 18.6 million is 80 percent Muslim, a conversion that came about because of the Saharan trade routes through to Egypt in the 15th century. Of the Muslims of Niger, there’s a significant – and interesting – minority of Tuaregs. The Tuareg version of Islam turns pretty much everything you thought you knew about it on its head. In the nomadic Tuareg tribes, the men veil their faces and the women do not. Unmarried women choose their sexual partners, and it’s the women who decide on divorce, property, and other matters. There are many famous Tuareg musicians who play electric guitar in a style called desert blues.
4. Bosnia And Herzegovina
Ethnicity and religion are closely connected in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Muslim majority is about 50 percent of the country’s 3.8 million people, almost exactly the number of ethnic Bosniaks. The other two large groups are the Serbians/Eastern Orthodox at about 30 percent and Croatians/Roman Catholics at just under 15 percent. The three groups have a history of bloody conflict in the Balkan region, with Bosnia and Herzegovina splitting from the former Yugoslavia in 1995 after a three-year civil war. Islam came to the area by way of the Ottoman empire in the 15th century. Settled since the Neolithic age, the country has now become something of a tourist hot spot.
3. Cote D’Ivoire
Cote d’Ivoire, Ivory Coast in English, is Muslim by a slim majority over various Christian sects. Before European colonization, the country was actually several different kingdoms. Often both Islamic and Christian practices are blended with the older West African religions. In fact, the numbers on the country’s religious divisions are somewhat fuzzy, and some sources say that up to 60 percent actually follow the old animist religion that believes the physical and spiritual worlds are one. Islam first came to Cote d’Ivoire in the Middle Ages via the Malian Empire. There has been religious strife over the years, but the mishmash of practices does tend to weed out extremism. Fun fact: Cote d’Ivoire is the world’s largest single producer of cocoa.
About 70 percent of Kazakhstan’s population of 18.3 million is Muslim. Once a part of the Soviet Union, the republic now borders both China and Russia, and it’s the northernmost Islamic country in the world. The religion came as part of the lasting fallout from Arab traders on the way to China. It was helped along the way by missionary efforts of the Mongolian Empire during the Middle Ages. The Russians entered the scene for real from the 18th century on, and generally viewed the native Kazakhs as an inferior race. Often persecuted during Soviet rule, the Muslim faith has become more important since the collapse of the Union in 1991. Islam is considered part of the region’s cultural heritage, although it is a secular state. Religious political parties are actually banned by their constitution.
1. The Gambia
The Gambia is located on the West African coast, with a population of only just over 2 million. It’s been one of the more stable countries in the region. On the map, it looks like a finger that extends into Senegal from the Atlantic coast. About 96 percent of Gambians are Muslim. As in most West African countries, Islam frequently blends with the older indigenous religion, a practice that is tolerated even by religious leaders. The so-called marabout tradition is an example. The marabout is a holy man who, in Arab traditions, studies the Quran and spreads his knowledge by traveling and teaching. In The Gambia, the tradition includes fortune telling and making amulets and charms. Former president for 22 years Yahya Jammeh was said to be a huge believer in the powers of marabout and juju, including wild rumors of human sacrifices.