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.

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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. hawaiiduude


    December 5, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  2. El ShiBagg ShieBang

    F U infidel. I cut off your D!CK and feed it to the scorpion.

    December 5, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • qwedie

      I laugh at you, dung eater. You most likely will bring your knife to a gun fight and you will not know why you loose.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  3. catholic engineer

    Even as a catholic, I appreciate a good catholic joke. So how about a Muslim one. Every time I see the Muslims in prayer, I can't help but think "won't they ever find that contact lenz?"

    December 5, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  4. Load of Bullcrap

    This article is nonsense. They are trying to make Islam look like what it is not. It is not a religion of peace. They are herd of blood thirsty, power hungry, unintelligent, narrow-minded, people who do not like freedom. They are taking over, America and the rest of the West. Look out. Our freedom is at stake. Catholicism and Islam are threats to our freedom of conscience. Both believe in convert or die, and the unity between church and state. Open your eyes. There is no such thing as moderate Islam and Catholicism. Given a chance, they would both send the world into another dark ages and persecution of people who do not believe what they believe.

    December 5, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • mrez

      Way to prove that you are an intolerant bigot who apparently knows nothing about the central teachings of the Christian faith. Its called the Golden Rule moron!

      December 5, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • moas786

      wow, now I know Moses did not teach you to belittle yourself or Lie in the presence of God and his angels. Last friday the entire sermon in the mosque was about Prophet Moses and his brother and the good work he did. their is a segment of jews that believe the muslims are their Boogy-man and they are very afraid..will don't be because we don't be we are the "chosen" ones but we do believe it is your deeds and Honesty on earth that will determine your spot in the after life. so relax your lying habits for a while if you can?

      December 5, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  5. Hashim

    For a deeper insight into Islam in Saudi Arabia read the best selling novel -- king of Bat'ha

    December 5, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • Islam Fail

      A deep insight into Islam? Must be a quick read.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • amused123

      For a deeper insight, read all you can about how to justify killing anybody who doesn't believe what you believe.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  6. Cheri

    Please don't confuse being religious with being fanatic.

    December 5, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • hawaiiduude

      best description of zionist jews EVER! Fanatic racists!

      December 5, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • The 666 Club

      I don;t confuse them as they are one in the same.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • moas786

      well said Cheri.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  7. Randy

    We don't need no scientist to tell us why Muslims are more religious than other people, because we all know the answer. The answer is simple. If you are a muslim and you're not religious, they kill you. Any questions?

    December 5, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • moas786

      Randy, toooo much weed destroys the brain, PLEASE stop smoking the bad-weed. also layoff Fox-noise and Rush and co.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  8. qwedie

    Because they are the poorest people of all religions. They look to god to take care of them and to smite there enemies both foreign, domestic and imagined.

    December 5, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • husanbig

      I dont think so, they have a lots of oil and they are pretty rich

      December 5, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • qwedie

      Husenbag: Only a few have the oil money. Most of the average people have little to nothing. It's like .03% have 95% of the wealth. That's why the people don't have toilet paper, just use there left hand and clean it with sand.lol

      December 5, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • lathebiosas

      Those riches you speak of are not shared with the populace, only a select few are rich. Some mihgt say kind of where we're headed....

      December 5, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • hilreal

      Saudi's poor? Can I trade bank accounts with them?

      December 5, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  9. dugee

    Basically, most muslim countries are about 50yrs behind the west socially. Most were very rural with subsistence agriculture or pastoral until the 20th century. If they never found oil there , they would be at best a study group for sociologists and Indiana Jones.

    December 5, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • Islamcrap

      More like 2000 years behind.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • amused123

      50years? ONLY?! Perhaps you don't have cable, or eletricity or perhaps you have never been to the abject poverty stricken areas that time and progress hs forgotten.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • hilreal

      Been to Appalachia lately? Mississippi? Harlem? An evangelical church anywhere? They are socially and scientifically behind.

      Don't confuse behind with a choice to be different.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • Islamcrap

      @hilreal, by choice or whatever, the fact remains they are still behind socially and scientifically, period.

      December 5, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  10. GOP Hate America

    they are more religious because they are stupid. thats not to give a pass to all other religions either. they are stupid people too.

    December 5, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Islam Fail


      December 5, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • hawaiiduude

      they are not as stupid and racist as jews are...

      December 5, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • RainnMakerr

      Would you care to share your opinion as to which path to follow? A path that can be legislated on a global level and not on an individual level. Or are you one of those who believe in 'make your own rules as you go'? It is very easy to say that 'they are stupid' and leave the room. Anyone can do that. Can you explain how the number of americans accepting islam trippled after 9/11? If you don't believe in religion you can atleast believe in statistics which should lead you to inquire about the religion instead of condemning it without reasoning.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  11. BN

    Islamic societies were among the first civilized societies to grant women their rights. They were allowed to own land, vote and perform other tasks men did. Meanwhile, If a women expressed her feeling in another society she would probably be considered a witch.

    December 5, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Islam Fail

      What happened?

      December 5, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  12. farcry228

    Well at least god shows up in are GRILLED CHEESE SANDWICH, HA.

    December 5, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  13. Moo Ham&Eggs

    Bring to me now a warm glass of goats milk.

    December 5, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  14. Pigeon

    Page 100 boyyyy!

    December 5, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  15. RIchard

    Islam, like all "works" based religions are false...
    You can't work, or be good enough to get to heaven,
    we are all sinners... I don't care how many times you pray,
    you can't build a tower of good works to heaven (just ask the folks at Babel)

    December 5, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • hawaiiduude

      jews hate jesus and are the antichrist

      December 5, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • lathebiosas

      hawaiiduude, you do realize Jesus was a Jew, right?

      December 5, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  16. Ayetollah Kermit Khomeni

    Worship you evil doers. You rag tag band of oil glutons. I, Ayetollah Kermit, will cut the oil supply until you ALL recognize moo-ham-ed as the only true God.

    December 5, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • moas786

      wow what an idiot, please do not have any kids, the world would thank you for not littering.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  17. Shangheyed

    Fear and Stupidity...

    December 5, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  18. Sam Dizzle

    For world news on this backwards religion go to thereligionofpeace dot com. It's time to stop giving this barbarians more credit than they deserve.

    December 5, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  19. peace

    The quote that Mohammed (pbuh) came to nullify the message that came with the previous Prophets is totally wrong, and the moron ex-radical who said it has no understanding of islam. You can draw your conclusion why he was a radical, simply because he had no understanding of islam.
    As a muslim you are to believe in all the holy books (Bible and Torah) and all the messenger that came before. If you don’t believe in that then you are not a muslim because this is a fundamental belief of islam. The Prophet Mohammed also called all the Messengers that came before him his brothers an that He came to CONFIRM the message of the previous Prophets. It does not make sense that a Prophet will come to nullify God’s message. God delivered his message tailored to the nations at that time so they can relate and understand it better, furthermore His message came in increments. Therefore the Prophet Mohammed came to confirm the message of God which came through previous holy books and also to complete that message and make is universal rather than tailored toward a specific nation.

    The person how said that muslims don’t convert to other religions because of fear of being killed is false. There are millions of muslims living in the west where they have the freedom to do whatever they want but rather then leaving their religion they are becoming more religious.

    December 5, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • bbbbbbbb

      Isn't it amazing how this guy can sit here and LIE about this stuff when so many people know he is lying?
      This Muslim liar is so stupid it just amazes me no end! EVERYBODY knows that they kill people who want to leave Islam!!!!

      December 5, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • Load of Bullcrap

      Islam is not real. If terrorists and suicide bombers were not accepted by muslims, why don't muslims do more to fight against them? Instead, you just sit back and let it happen. Thousands of innocent people die at the hand of your terrorists. And you know, as a muslim, you are happy when you see westerners hurt. Even if you live in America, you know who are happy when you see Americans being killed by your muslim brothers. Don't give us that load of nonsense. Your muslim actions speak louder than your words and it is enough to prove to me what islam is truly about.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • William Shelton

      bbbbbb and Load of Bullcrap, your posts do not merit a response. Load, at least you live up to your monicker.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  20. Johnny Hands

    ...Muslims are more religious because they're more tribalistic?

    December 5, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Islam Fail

      No, it's because the average IQ is room temperature.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • Medardus

      @Islam Fail – So explain to me why the average American isn't more religious.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:47 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.