Published in Malay Mail Online
It has been said over and over again by its adherents that Islam is the world’s fastest-spreading religion.
Over the past few years, there has been little data to support the argument, save for the irrational fear spread by right-wing politicians in some European countries to further their xenophobic policies and ideologies.
However, a study by Washington-based pollster Pew Research Forum released this week confirmed this fact.
According to Pew, the number of Muslims will equal Christians by the year 2050. By 2070, Islam is poised to take over as the world’s biggest religion.
But the reason Islam is spreading sporadically might surprise you.
Its adherents would claim that a lot of people are embracing Islam, claiming its attraction as further proof of its divinity. This is however hardly the truth.
The reason Islam is growing so fast, according to Pew, is only because of the young age and high fertility rate of Muslims. On average, a Muslim woman has three children, well above the level typically needed to maintain a stable population.
More Muslims are concentrated in areas with high fertility rates, especially in sub-Saharan Africa: Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, Mali, Rwanda and Malawi — where a woman usually has more than six children on average.
The same goes here in Malaysia, where Muslims are expected to make up 72.4 per cent of Malaysia’s population in 2050, compared to just 63.7 per cent in 2010.
The report also showed a significant increase of Muslims in neighbouring Singapore, from 14.3 per cent in 2010 to 21.4 per cent in 2050 ― replacing Christianity as the island state’s second largest religion after Buddhism.
In comparison, there is little change among Muslims when it comes to religious switching — or when somebody converts into Islam. Most of the gains will also be in Sub-Saharan Africa.
While over 12.6 million are expected to convert into Islam, 9.4 million will also be leaving Islam by 2050.
Instead, the biggest change in the next 40 years will see more and more people globally leaving their religion altogether to become the unaffiliated: the atheists, and the agnostics, according to Pew.
While 35.9 million of the unaffiliated will embrace a religion, over 97 million will leave their religion to become unaffiliated in the next 40 years. The unaffiliated will see a net increase of 61.5 million people.
Most of those who leave are Christians where such coercion is not practised. It is estimated that Christianity will see a net loss of 66 million adherents by 2050.
In terms of population, however, the unaffiliated will shrink from 16 per cent to 13 per cent in the next 40 years as most of them are heavily concentrated in places with low fertility rates and ageing populations, such as Europe, North America, China and Japan.
However it is worth noting that apostasy is considered a major crime in Islam, with some advocating a penalty of death for apostates.
Even advocating for freedom to choose and to leave Islam will see you threatened by the mob with death, as PKR MP Nurul Izzah Anwar can attest to.
Similarly in Malaysia, it is almost impossible to leave Islam even if you are no longer practising.
According to Minister in charge of religious affairs Jamil Khir Baharom last year, the Shariah courts only approved 135 out of 686 applications by Muslims seeking to change their religious status between 2000 and 2010.
Most of these applications, however, are by those who had converted into Islam, mostly because of marriage, since in Malaysia it is mandated for you to convert just to marry a Muslim. When the marriage falls apart, it is only natural for the convert to return to his original religion.
The second biggest category are those who were unilaterally converted by one of their parents who converted into Islam, an injustice that continues to plague Malaysia.
Shariah courts across the country prescribe various punishment for apostasy, from up to three years’ detention in Islamic rehabilitation centres, to jail time of up to three years, to fines up to RM5,000.
In Kelantan and Terengganu, under their hudud laws, apostates might get their property forfeited and sentenced with hudud if they do not repent in three days — a punishment that essentially means death.
In comparison, Muslims are allowed to proselytise to those from other religions but never vice-versa.
In the past years, we have seen a marked increase of aggressive conversions especially in the Orang Asli community and Bumiputeras, particularly in Sabah and Sarawak.
In short, it is always easy to embrace Islam in Muslim-majority countries, but once you do, you can never officially leave it. As long as you live.