You’ve probably heard that Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world. Based on current trends, the Pew Research Center projects that by 2050 the number of Muslims will be nearly equal to the number of Christians around the world.
To some, this implies Islam attracts multitudes every year and the number of its adherents is growing. When Christians encounter such analysis, they assume the claim is true and can become discouraged—especially when we compare this with statistics of nominal Christians abandoning their faith.
Many assume Islam is ascendant among world religions while Christianity is declining—that Islam is persuasive and convincing while Christianity is not. But these statistics can be misleading because the increase isn’t caused by people converting to Islam. Also, these stats don’t reflect the growing number of Muslims leaving their faith.
The growing number of Muslims is mainly due to higher birth rates in Muslim families, not new converts to Islam. Consider that a Muslim man can marry up to four women, which often leads to more children. Consider also that in many Muslim circles, women aren’t allowed to work outside the home, which usually results in more children than the average non-Muslim family.
The growing number of Muslims is mainly due to higher birth rates in Muslim families, not new converts to Islam.
Some Muslims openly admit that Islamic society oppresses women, to the extent of viewing them primarily as child bearers. Traditional Muslims often view having many children as a sign of devotion to Muhammad—by expanding Muhammad’s umma (community). Since these children are considered Muslim by birth, this automatically adds to Islam’s total number.
Furthermore, while Islam adds many through birth, the death penalty for apostasy from Islam discourages many from abandoning the religion. Some apostates, to avoid being murdered, may resort to remaining “Muslim” in name only. When Christians hear that Islam is the fastest-growing religion, they must put this into perspective. The growing number of Muslims doesn’t necessarily reflect Islam’s persuasiveness.
In recent years, ample studies have revealed waves of apostasy among Muslims. In the United States, according to analysis of a 2017 Pew Research Center study, the number of converts to Islam is similar to those who abandon it. The net gain is almost zero. Researchers observe that almost a quarter of adult Muslims who were raised in the States no longer identify as Muslims. I don’t share this statistic to boast or gloat but to question the initial claim that Islam is the fastest-growing religion.
Consider Iran’s Muslims: In September 2020, findings from an academic study of Iran’s secular shift appeared in The Conversation. Droves of Iranians are abandoning Islam. While Iran’s official census claims 99.5 percent of the population is Muslim, the survey found only 40 percent of Iranians identified as Muslim. If true, this suggests Iran may no longer be a Muslim-majority country.
What about Muslims worldwide? In September 2019, an article in The Telegraph Online titled “Why Are Young Muslims Leaving Islam” highlighted new generations of educated Muslims—not only in the United States but in many parts of the world—who dare to ask hard questions about Islam’s foundational claims. The article points to waves of young Muslims abandoning Islam in a crisis of unbelief, and it emphasizes this as a phenomenon not only in Western liberal societies but in conservative Islamic countries, including Sudan, Iran, and Pakistan. (Note that anti-apostasy laws are strongly enforced in these countries.)
But what about Muslims in the Arab world? On June 24, 2019, the British news outlet The Guardian reported on a study conducted by a Princeton University–based research group. The study detailed how Arab Muslims are abandoning religion. This is in the heartland of Islam. In comparing people who identified as “nonreligious” between roughly 2014 and 2019, the number rose from 11 percent to 18 percent. Similarly, an article in The New Republic from April 2015 reported on the invisible spread of disbelief in the Arab world.
The number of converts to Islam is similar to those who abandon it.
One might think a 7 percent increase in those abandoning Islam specifically—or religion in general—within five years isn’t a major indicator. But this would be incorrect. This shift is happening in the Arab world, the stronghold of Islam, where its sacred texts are taught and its history cherished. Furthermore, these numbers reflect only those willing to speak openly about being nonreligious—a risky act in Muslim-majority lands. The numbers could very well be greater.
Does this data reflect a persuasive religion? It appears to suggest the opposite. Many Muslims are ready to abandon Islam even though they could face capital punishment for apostasy.
Clearly, the rise of the nones isn’t only a Western phenomenon. The growth of disbelief and nonreligion is a serious concern for Islam as well. But how should Christians respond to these trends?
We should humbly pray for Christ to use us as his laborers among Muslims. While some of us are called to go to the ends of the earth—including Islamic countries—others have Muslim neighbors where they live. We should be encouraged by the work of the Holy Spirit among Muslims today as we realize that now is a great time to proclaim the gospel among them.
Although the above statistics (which primarily appear in secular outlets) describe Muslims abandoning Islam in favor of atheism or agnosticism, we have ample reports from Christian workers evangelizing Muslims around the world that God is at work in marvelous ways. Many are coming to Christ. This should encourage us that the gospel of Jesus remains persuasive and powerful to save.
This article is adapted from Reaching Your Muslim Neighbor with the Gospel by A. S. Ibrahim (Crossway, November 2022).