Conflict, theology and history make Muslims more religious than others, experts say
A recent global survey suggests that Muslims are more religious than Christians and Hindus.
December 3rd, 2011
10:00 PM ET

Conflict, theology and history make Muslims more religious than others, experts say

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN

(CNN) - Every religion has its true believers and its doubters, its pious and its pragmatists, but new evidence suggests that Muslims tend to be more committed to their faith than other believers.

Muslims are much more likely than Christians and Hindus to say that their own faith is the only true path to paradise, according to a recent global survey, and they are more inclined to say their religion is an important part of their daily lives.

Muslims also have a much greater tendency to say their religion motivates them to do good works, said the survey, released over the summer by Ipsos-Mori, a British research company that polls around the world.

Islam is the world's second-largest religion - behind Christianity and ahead of Hinduism, the third largest. With some 1.5 billion followers and rising, Islam's influence may be growing even faster than its numbers as the Arab Spring topples long-reigning secular rulers and opens the way to religiously inspired political parties.

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But while there's no doubt about the importance of Islam, experts have different theories about why Muslims appear to be more religious than members of other global faiths - and contrasting views on whether to fear the depth of Muslims' commitment to their faith.

One explanation lies in current affairs, says Azyumardi Azra, an expert on Islam in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim majority country.

Many Muslims increasingly define themselves in contrast with what they see as the Christian West, says Azra, the director of the graduate school at the State Islamic University in Jakarta.

"When they confront the West that they perceive or misperceive as morally in decline, many Muslims feel that Islam is the best way of life. Islam for them is the only salvation," he says.

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That feeling has become stronger since the September 11 attacks, as many Muslims believe there is a "growing conflict between Islam and the so-called West," he says.

"Unfortunately this growing attachment to Islam among Muslims in general has been used and abused by literal-minded Muslims and the jihadists for their own purposes," he says.

But other experts say that deep religious commitment doesn't necessarily lead to violence.

"Being more religious doesn't necessarily mean that they will become suicide bombers," says Ed Husain, a former radical Islamist who is now a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

In fact, Husain argues that religious upbringing "could be an antidote" to radicalism.

American Muslim women who cover explain their choice

The people most likely to become Islamist radicals, he says, are those who were raised without a religious education and came to Islam later, as "born-agains."

Muslims raised with a grounding in their religion are better able to resist the distortions of Islam peddled by recruiters to radical causes, some experts like Husain argue, making them less likely to turn to violence.

But he agrees that Muslims are strongly attached to their faith, and says the reason lies in the religion itself.

"Muslims have this mindset that we alone possess the final truth," Husain says.

Muslims believe "Jews and Christians went before us and Mohammed was the last prophet," says Husain, whose book "The Islamist" chronicles his experiences with radicals. "Our prophet aimed to nullify the message of the previous prophets."

The depth of the Muslim commitment to Islam is not only a matter of theology and current events, but of education and history, as well, other experts say.

"Where religion is linked into the state institutions, where religion is deeply ingrained from childhood, you are getting this feeling that 'My way is the only way,'" says Fiyaz Mughal, the director of Faith Matters, a conflict-resolution organization in London.

The Ipsos-Mori survey results included two countries with a strong link between religion and the state: Legally Muslim Saudi Arabia, which calls itself the guardian of Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina; and Indonesia, home of the world's largest Muslim population.

The third majority Muslim country in the study is Turkey, which has a very different relationship with religion. It was founded after World War I as a legally secular country. But despite generations of trying to separate mosque and state, Turkey is now governed by an Islam-inspired party, the AKP.

Turkey's experience shows how difficult it can be to untangle government and religion in Muslim majority countries and helps explain the Muslim commitment to their religion, says Azyumardi Azra, the Indonesia expert.

He notes that there has been no "Enlightenment" in Islam as there was in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, weakening the link between church and state in many Christian countries.

"Muslim communities have never experienced intense secularization that took place in Europe and the West in general," says Azra. "So Islam is still adhered to very strongly."

But it's not only the link between mosque and state in many Muslim majority countries that ties followers to their faith, says professor Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani diplomat who has written a book about Islam around the world.

Like Christians who wear "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelets, many Muslims feel a deep personal connection to the founder of their faith, the prophet Muhammad, he says.

Muhammad isn't simply a historical figure to them, but rather a personal inspiration to hundreds of millions of people around the world today.

"When a Muslim is fasting or is asked to give charity or behave in a certain way, he is constantly reminded of the example set by the prophet many centuries ago," argues Ahmed, the author of "Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization."

His book is based on interviews with Muslims around the world, and one thing he found wherever he traveled was admiration for Muhammad.

"One of the questions was, 'Who is your role model?' From Morocco to Indonesia, it was the prophet, the prophet, the prophet," says Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington.

But while Ahmed sees similar patterns across the Islamic world, Ed Husain, the former radical, said it was important to understand its diversity, as well.

"There is no monolithic religiosity - Muslims in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are following different versions of Islam," says Husain. "All we're seeing (in the survey) is an adherence to a faith."

Political scientist Farid Senzai, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington, raised questions about the survey's findings.

"Look at the countries that are surveyed - Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Turkey," he says. "There are about 300 million Muslims in those three countries, (who make up) about 20% of Muslims globally."

Islam is "incredibly important" in Saudi Arabia, he says.

"But in Tunisia or Morocco you could have had a different result. It would have been nice if they had picked a few more Arab countries and had a bit more diversity," says Senzai.

The pollster, Ipsos-Mori, does monthly surveys in 24 countries, three of which are majority Muslim – Turkey, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. The other countries range from India to the United States, and Mexico to South Korea, and are the same each month, regardless of the subject the pollsters are investigating.

In the survey released in July, about six in 10 Muslims in the survey said their religion was the only way to salvation, while only a quarter of Hindus and two out of 10 Christians made that claim about their own faiths.

More than nine out of 10 Muslims said their faith was important in their lives, while the figure was 86% for Hindus and 66% for Christians.

Ipsos-Mori surveyed 18,473 adults via an online panel in April and released the findings in July. Results were weighted to make the results as representative as possible, but the pollster cautioned that because the survey was conducted online, it was harder to get representative results in poorer countries where internet access is not widespread.

CNN polling director Keating Holland also warns that in an "opt-in" survey, where respondents actively choose to participate, results tend to come from "people who are confident in their opinions and express them openly... not good for intensely private matters like faith or income or sex."

Online surveys in countries that are not entirely free are also open to the possibility that pollsters get "the approved response" in those nations, "where the people who are most likely to be willing to talk about such matters are the ones who hold, or at least verbalize, opinions that won't get them in trouble if they are expressed," Holland says.

That may have been an issue in Saudi Arabia, where respondents were given the choice of not answering questions on religion due to their potential sensitivity in the kingdom. The Saudi sample was the smallest, with 354 participants, meaning "findings for Saudi Arabia must be treated with caution," Ipsos-Mori said.

About 1,000 people participated in most countries, but sample sizes were smaller in the three majority Muslim countries and in eight other countries.

The survey participants did not reflect the true percentage of Christians and Muslims in the world. Christians were over-represented – as were people who said they had no religion – and Muslims were under-represented.

Nearly half the respondents identified themselves as Christian. Eleven percent were Muslim, 4% were Buddhist, 3% were Hindu and 3% were "other." A quarter said they had no religion and 6% refused to say.

Fiyaz Mughal, the interfaith expert, argues that even though the countries surveyed might not be representative of the entire Muslim world, the findings about Muslims rang broadly true. Muslims in different countries were committed to their faith for different reasons, he says.

"Saudi Arabia is an institutionally religious state. Indonesia has religion tied into its culture," says Mughal.

But Muslim immigrants to Europe also show strong ties to their religion, either as a defense mechanism in the face of a perceived threat, or because of an effort to cling to identity, he contends.

He detects a link between insular communities and commitment to faith regardless of what religion is involved. It is prevalent in Muslim Saudi Arabia, but he has seen it among Israeli Jews as well, he says.

"The Israeli Jewish perspective is that (the dispute with the Palestinians) is a conflict of land and religion which are integrally linked," Mughal says.

"What does play a role in that scenario is a sense of isolationism and seclusion in Israeli Jewish religious communities, a growing trend to say, 'Our way is the only way,'" he says.

Religious leaders of all faiths need to combat those kinds of attitudes because of the greater diversity people encounter in the world today, he argues.

They have a responsibility to teach their congregations "that if they are following a religion, it is not as brutal or exclusive as possible," Mughal says. "Things are changing. The world is a different place from what it was even 20 years ago."

Politicians, too, "need to take these issues quite seriously," he says.

"In the Middle East there are countries - the Saudi Arabias - where you need to be saying that diversity, while it may not be a part of the country, is something they have to deal with when moving in a globalized area," he says.

But Senzai, the political scientist, says that it's also important for the West to take the Muslim world on its own terms.

"Many Muslims want religion to play a role in politics," he says. "To assume that everyone around the world wants to be like the West - that they want liberal secular democracy - is an absurd idea."

- CNN's Nima Elbagir and Atika Shubert contributed to this report.

- Newsdesk editor, The CNN Wire

Filed under: 9/11 • Islam • Middle East

soundoff (5,459 Responses)
  1. peace

    Islam is indeed a practicing religion all over the world except in India where Muslims have become like Hindus and have started following Hindu rituals. Especially Indian Bollywood actors like Shahrukh Khan and Salman Kha. These people should be the representatives of Islam but Shahrukh Khan raising his kids as Hindu taking them to Hindu temples. Same with Salman Khan who regularly attends these Hindu temples. This is quite sad to know that Muslims of India are becoming more attracted towards Hinduism which is not even a religion or a part of an Abrahamic religion.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:36 am |
    • Realpeaceful

      Indian Muslims are more liberal and peaceful than other Muslims around the world. Its probably because they are influenced by liberal Hindus and their culture to accept everyone as one.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:50 am |
  2. RB

    It is clear that as societies are more educated the less devout they become. the science just does not match the religion. Supreme being? Maybe? Religion is man made. Peace comes to those that seek it.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:36 am |
    • JohnnyCakes

      well said sir!

      December 4, 2011 at 12:44 am |
  3. Chris

    Westerners are stupid..... USA should be the leading country with church and state together !

    December 4, 2011 at 12:35 am |
    • Observer

      Separation of church and state has likely been a major factor in making the US great.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:37 am |
    • Skepgnostic

      Ahhh....which church? You theistic egg-heads fight amongst yourselves more than you do with atheists. How many denominations of Christianity are there? Hundreds? Yes, hundreds.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:41 am |
    • Jose M. Pulido

      And how many factions are there of Islam? Hundreds upon hundreds? Islamists factions have killed each other just like they have murdered thousands of people who rejected Islam. A least, in Christian denominations the differences are minor such as church type of administration and baptism but what is mutual is the fact that Jesus, the Son of God is the only way to reach His Father God.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  4. Dan

    Islam came along after Judaism and Christianity. It has had the luxury of learning from other religions' mistakes and successes, thus honing its approach. The same can be said for Christianity; after all, belief in Thor and Horus didn't seem to be very enduring. But, as societies progress, religions tend to fold. We are seeing it now with Judaism and Christianity. The same will eventually happen with Islam. Hopefully Islam will be the last of the religious mumbo-jumbo.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:35 am |
    • Maxx


      Your proposition does not hold up. Christianity is exploding in Asia, Africa and South America. Islam stands as the fastest growing enforced religion in the world. It has been said that the war of the 21st century will be an ideological war between these two schools.

      Looking around the world, I don't see any evidence that either are going away any time in the foreseeable future.

      Good evening.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:39 am |
    • ilovefarts


      December 4, 2011 at 12:46 am |
    • D

      But of all the "mistakes" Christianity and Judaism made, they did not advocate killing the "infidels" to get 72 virgins in heaven!

      December 4, 2011 at 12:46 am |
    • Dan

      Good point Maxx. As Christianity is growing in some areas, it's dwindling in others, mainly in developed nations. And we're already seeing "moderate Islam" take hold in developed Middle Eastern countries. When you speak of Christianity growing in Asian countries, it's a reformed version of the old "animal sacrifice, fire and brimstone, kill non-believers, stone gays to death and beat your slaves" flavor.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:53 am |
    • Dan

      D, the Old Testament does advocate slaughtering non-believers and their families, it just didn't one-up the reward of virgins as Mohammed did.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:56 am |
    • News Flash

      Do women martyrs get 72 male virgins ?

      December 4, 2011 at 1:13 am |
    • Jose M. Pulido

      Isalm came along after Judaism and Christianity? Do you mean to say Islam came along 600 years after Jesus? ha ha ha. You try to equalize the ideology of Islam to Christianity and Judaism. Islam is useless and worthless to humankind. God sent His Son Jesus to Earth and that is all humankind needs to be saved for eternal life.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • Jose M. Pulido

      In the Old Testament God instructs Israel to take the land of Canaan because the Cannanites were so corrupted that God decided to remove them from such land. God even said to Abraham 400 years earlier that the Cananites' sins were reaching Him. God told Abraham that He will give his descendants the land of Canaan.
      God gave the Israelites specific boundaries of the land to be taken. Therefore, the Israelites went to such land not to convert the local inhabitants to jehovah by the sword; they went to take posession of the land God gave them. God never told the Israelites to go and slaughter the people of all other nations who do not follow Him. Contrary to that, Islam has imposed its ideology by the sword in many countries; on topof that, they are inflitrating the USA in order to gain more power and control of the country. Therefore, the fact that the OT mentions killing others, does not mean Israel is trying to slaughter all "infidels" like Islamists do to all those who reject Islam and child-molester Mohammed.

      December 11, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  5. marinedad05

    Indoctrination, and frequent threats will do the trick.

    For a long time it was conversion by the sword, and those who practice Islam have little or no tolerance for any other faith or belief. Look at any Islamic country, and compare it to the Vatican. You can't carry a Bible into Saudi Arabia ( it's your head or the Bible). In the Vatican, they don't care.

    Lastly, most of the Muslim population are in poor countries, and have little or no education to think beyond what a Mullah may dictate.

    While every other religion has adapted to modern ways and thinking, Islam has remained extremely rigid, and does not brook any argument or theological discussion. Remember Salman Rushdie and the Danish cartoonist.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:35 am |
    • SK646

      marinedad05, you clearly know nothing about Islam or the world. Muslim not only believe in the Quran but the Old and New Testaments as well. They would not cut off your head, as you suggest for having a Bible.
      In addition the state with the highest GDP per capita (do you even know what that is?) is Qatar, A MUSLIM MAJORITY COUNTRY! Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Saudia Arabia, Libya, Malaysia, Turkey, Kazakhstan and Iran, all Muslim majority countries rank in the top half of the world in GDP per capita as well. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan, all Muslim majority countries have HIGHER literacy rates than the US.

      If any one needs to adapt to modern ways and thinking, its YOU.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:56 am |
  6. JohnnyCakes

    Does this article make anyone wonder what the average educational attainment in the muslim world is? Education vs. religiosity is a correlation undeniably present in all cultures, so parts of the world lacking one would be expected to exceed in the other – no?

    December 4, 2011 at 12:33 am |
    • News Flash


      December 4, 2011 at 1:17 am |
  7. Jez

    "more religious"? The women are just largely uneducated and walking on women works for the men. Get the facts straight.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:33 am |
  8. Kregg

    its all a front. every muslim girl I known always asks if I want nakked photos of them. dont believe me? hit up an islamic chat sometime and talk to some. youll find out their more dirty minded then us LOL

    December 4, 2011 at 12:32 am |
    • Askn

      Oh Really! I don't believe on the S*** you are talking about!

      December 4, 2011 at 12:39 am |
  9. Agha Ata (USA)

    Muslims are more religious because it appeals to a basic human instinct, to fight.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:32 am |
  10. iloveIslam

    I don't like how people pick and choose verses of the Quran that sound negative without considering the context of it. How ignorant.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:32 am |
    • marinedad05

      But you are going to tell us all about it.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:43 am |
  11. ....

    I do NOT care about any particular religion(s), stop using my name to claim that religion 'A' is more important than religion 'B' and vice-versa.

    And STOP killing each other over ignorance when attempting to comprehend the "greater meaning of life".

    Thank you for your precious time.



    December 4, 2011 at 12:32 am |
    • Pastafarian


      December 4, 2011 at 12:35 am |
  12. Pastafarian

    This is like a contest to decide which group is more blindly ignorant. Not a contest I'd be looking to win, thank you.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:32 am |
  13. Nate

    The more they brainwash the people the more likely the people will follow idiots into battle? I'd lump Mormons into the same pot.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:31 am |
  14. Kathie Hansen

    well the fact that you can die any day of the week for breaking the rules helps a lot in 'keeping' the faith too. I agree it's a cult

    December 4, 2011 at 12:30 am |
  15. Jim

    Few religions punish their followers for leaving.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:30 am |
  16. Seyfullah

    Muslims are more closely attached and more keen on their faith (whether explicitly practicing or not) because although at this time we are far behind the earlier generations in terms of understanding and living in accordance with our religion Islam, Islam through its authenticity protected by the Almighty Allah (God) is perfect and in harmony with the creation of human beings, resonating with our hearts and minds, sincerely open ones that is.
    This is also the reason behind these statistics:
    And while reflecting on the above statistics please keep in mind that there is no organized conversion (or reversion) practice in Islam such as those of missionaries.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:30 am |
    • Kathie Hansen

      ha! They just butchered and killed and took over entire countries. Any religion that so many people are in fear of can't be a religion of love

      December 4, 2011 at 12:32 am |
    • Pastafarian

      Kathy: all religions are based on fear. If there is any love at all, it's very conditional – "follow all my stupid rules and have eternal salvation – otherwise, burn in the eternal fires of hell." If that's your definition of "love", you can have it.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:40 am |
    • Seyfullah

      The fear is due to ignorance, not knowing the truth about Islam.
      In brief, Islam asks Muslims to obey and worship Allah (God) and be merciful to His creation. As such, Islam is indeed a religion of peace and love.
      Coming back to the spread of Islam and how it happened, for sure no one with a sincere mind and with some knowledge in the matter can call it butchering. In the history, before it came to the point of an armed struggle, for the spread of Islam there were always the preceding steps of invitation and an attempt to negotiate a ruling authority aiming peaceful means. When it came to the point of an armed struggle (jihad) one found the Muslim fighters with the best conduct towards their opponents both during the war and after. The occupants of the land, their belongings and the land were never abused.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:01 am |
  17. Samah bin Saeed

    I disagree with:

    "Muslims believe 'Jews and Christians went before us and Mohammed was the last prophet,' says Husain, whose book 'The Islamist' chronicles his experiences with radicals. 'Our prophet aimed to nullify the message of the previous prophets.' ".

    In Islam, the Prophet (peace be upon him) was not sent to nullify the message of the previous prophets. This is *entirely* incorrect. Rather, it is taught that Muhammad (peace be upon him) was the last prophet sent by Allah. This does not mean that Muhammad (pbuh) is proving the other prophets were false. He actually showed what the previous prophets' true message was, and that the Jews and Christians were misled.

    Ed Husain should reeducate himself about Islam.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:30 am |
    • Pastafarian

      What's the difference, really? It's all a bunch of mythical fairy tales to keep ignorant people controlled through fear, guilt, and intimidation.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:34 am |
    • tjhawk

      The fundamental message of Jesus, and his concept of god has more to do the with love, acceptance, and forgiveness. The way I saw the fundamental message of Mohammed and the concept of god from reading the koran was one of vindictive retribution upon the unbelievers. The muslim god is is insecure or he wouldn't demand constant submission.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:41 am |
    • News Flash

      Why do you have to keep saying "peace be upon him" ? Are you afraid that peace is not upon him, of that Allah won't grant that unless you keep repeating yourself ? Sound like you don't have much faith in things.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:19 am |
  18. ProudMuslim

    Many Christians talk about how Jesus Christ will bring peace to the world, once and for all. But they often neglect to mention how this world “peace” is obtained. It is only after slaughtering his opponents and subduing “the nations” (the entire world?) under the foot of the global Christian empire that the world will have “peace”. Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible explains:
    There shall be no more war; horses and chariots shall be no more used in a hostile way; but there shall be perfect peace, all enemies being destroyed, which agrees with Micah 2:3 Zechariah 9:10.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:29 am |
    • Skepgnostic

      Wow. The ignorance and Irony here is just astounding. I'm almost positive you haven't read the Qu'ran or the Hadith.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:34 am |
    • ProudMuslim

      My post is from the point of view of the Christians. As a Muslim, Jesus (AS) will be a great and just ruler.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:39 am |
    • Jose M. Pulido

      Islam is useless to humankind. Only a fool would follow such a deadly ideology. The only way to salvation of the soul for an eternal life and to reach God, is through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Mohammed was just a pedophile child molester.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  19. peace

    Islam teaches strict monotheistic concepts which is quite straight forward than compared to the Christian beliefs of trinity. Christians and other faiths do not believe in the oneness of God concept in real sense. Especially trinity is very complicated concept to understand. On the other hands Tawheed (Oneness of God) is the first and the most important pillar of Islam and Muslims believe that associating partners with God is the only sin that is never forgiven in Islam. Also Muslims believe in both religions Christianity and Judaism and Jesus and Moses as the great prophets of God.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:29 am |
  20. ProudMuslim

    "Then I heard the LORD say to the other men, "Follow him through the city and kill everyone whose forehead is not marked. Show no mercy; have no pity! Kill them all – old and young, girls and women and little children. But do not touch anyone with the mark. Begin your task right here at the Temple." So they began by killing the seventy leaders. "Defile the Temple!" the LORD commanded. "Fill its courtyards with the bodies of those you kill! Go!" So they went throughout the city and did as they were told." (Ezekiel 9:5-7 NLT)

    December 4, 2011 at 12:29 am |
    • Jose M. Pulido

      So? That was 1000 years before Islam. Don't tell me you believe that message was directed to kill Muslims because child molester Mohammed was not even there yet.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.