Survey to explore sources of religious influence among Muslim university students in UK, US

02 May, 2018

ODID researchers have launched a major new survey that seeks to reveal the most important sources of religious influence over Muslim university students in the UK and US, and where they turn to for religious guidance.

The Muslim Youth and Islamic Knowledge survey is being conducted across 75 universities in the two countries and aims to contribute to a stronger evidence base for policy.

‘There are many assumptions about high levels of religiosity among Muslim youth in the West, but we have no reliable data to support such claims’, said Associate Professor Masooda Bano, who is leading the project.

‘Further, high religiosity is often equated with radicalisation or support for Islamic militancy. In reality, Islam is a very pluralistic intellectual tradition and high religiosity can find expression in many different ways. This survey is one of the first attempts to understand how young British and American Muslims approach their religion, which Islamic scholarly platforms are most popular among them, and why’.

The online survey is being carried out with the help of Islamic Student Societies in British universities and their counterparts in the US, Muslims Student Associations, which will be asked to circulate the survey to members.

Existing research on young Muslims in the West has focused on understanding their religion using indicators such as religious attendance or religious adherence – for example, fasting during Ramadan, or attendance at daily prayer.

The new survey focuses on providing Muslim youth with their own voice in explaining how they make sense of their religion.

Survey questions seek to elicit information about who young Muslims turn to when they have questions related to Islam or everyday practices, how they choose between competing Islamic scholars, which mosques they go to and why, how much time they spend in these mosques, and how they educate themselves about their religion.

The survey also asks a series of detailed questions about their attitudes to Sharia law, the interpretation of Quranic texts, Western culture and the appeal of Islam.

 ‘The results will help us develop a more nuanced understanding of young Muslims' engagement with their faith and also help policy-makers make more informed decisions,’ Dr Bano said.

The survey also seeks to explore possible links between students’ socio-economic backgrounds and their conception of Islam.

The survey covers the Ivy League universities in the US and their UK counterparts, such as Oxford and Cambridge, as well as including institutions in the middle and lower tiers in the academic ranking in the two countries.

‘Selecting universities from across the three tiers is meant to capture variation in the socio-economic profile of university-going Muslim youth, as often better socio-economic background and access to leading universities have a strong correlation’, Dr Bano said.

The results of the survey, which Dr Bano is carrying out with Research Officers Arndt Emmerich and Patrick Thewlis, are likely to be available in late summer 2018.

The survey is part of the second phase of a larger European Research Council-funded project, titled Changing Structures of Islamic Authority and Consequences for Social Changes: A Transnational Review (CSIA).

The project focuses on mapping the theological debates and positions taken on core contemporary issues by a selected group of Islamic ‘authority structures’ – institutions, influential individual scholars and schools of thought – in both the West and in Muslim-majority countries, and combining this with an analysis of their followers’ motivations and aspirations.

The findings of the first phase have recently been published in two volumes by Edinburgh University Press: Modern Islamic Authority and Social Change, Vol 1: Evolving Debates in Muslim Majority Countries and Vol 2: Evolving Debates in the West.