The main ethnic groups of Mali are the Mande, including the Bambara, Malinke, and Sarakole, accounting for 50% of the total population. Other groups include the Peul (or Fulani), accounting for 17%; the Voltaic, making up 12%; the Songhai, constituting 6%; the Tuareg and Moor 10%; and other groups 5%. The Bambara, mostly farmers, occupy all of central Mali bounded by the Côte d'Ivoire frontier in the south and Nara and Nioro in the north. Malinke live chiefly in the regions of Bafoulabé, Kita and Bamako. The Peul (or Fulani), semi-sedentary herdsmen, are to be found throughout the republic, but mainly in the region of Mopti. The Songhai – farmers, fishermen, and merchants – live along the banks and islands of the Niger River, east of the inland delta. The nomadic Tuareg, of Berber origin, are mainly in the north, in the Adrar des Iforas. The Minianka, largely farmers, populate the region of Koutiala, and the Senufo, also farmers, are found principally in the region of Sikasso. The Dogon, often considered to be the first occupants of Mali, are believed to have survived owing to the inaccessibility of their villages in the Hombori cliffs. The Dogon have won international esteem for their unique ceremonial artefacts. The majority of the peoples in Mali are Negroid; the Tuareg are classified as Caucasoid; and the Puel (Fulani) are of mixed origin.
French, the official language, is the language of administration and of the schools and is the main unifying tongue for the country's diverse population elements. There are virtually as many languages as there are ethnic groups. However, Bambara – widely spoken in western, central, and southern Mali – is understood by about 80% of the population. The Semitic-speaking Arabs and Hamitic-speaking Tuareg are the only groups with a traditional written language, although in recent years other languages, most of which belong to the Niger-Congo group of African languages, have come to be written. Fulani is spoken in the Niger delta, and Songhai in the east and northeast.
An estimated 90% of Malians are Muslim (mostly Sunni and Sufi), approximately 5% are Christian (about two-thirds Roman Catholic and one-third Protestant) and the remaining 5% adhere to indigenous or traditional animist beliefs. Atheism and agnosticism are believed to be rare among Malians, most of whom practice their religion on a daily basis. Islam as practised in Mali is moderate, tolerant and adapted to local conditions; relations between Muslims and practitioners of minority religious faiths are generally amicable. The constitution establishes a secular state and provides for freedom of religion, and the government largely respects this right.