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. Sir Ivanhoe

    Return of Ivanhoe due in 2012 will depict Islam vs. Christianity and the upcoming holy war that both the Bible and Quran are predicting. Look for this in "Tales from the East"

    December 5, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Betsy

      Religion is a tool to thwart lives and disrupt the natural development of a person. Just ask the gay communities all over the world.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • Karen

      When a conservative Republican president is elected in the United States, the Muslim world takes a deep breath and says a little "God help us all" prayer. If countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and others succeed in getting an Islamic theocracy, the Christian world will say a little "God help us all" prayer. Secularism is our only hope.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Emma

      Six in 10 Muslims say that their religion is the only path to paradise. This rigid thinking is a recipe for disaster that even the so-called moderates believe. This finding is evidence that there are very few moderates within this religion.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • Kevin

      For those like me that didn't get the religion gene that allows you to speak to a creator that you have never seen and trust with blind faith, religion is a wildly crazy concept with zero proof.

      December 5, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Cindy

      Praying like that 5 times a day puts a lot of methane gas in the air. If there is a God, he doesn't want you bowing to him all day. He surely wants you busy finding the cure for cancer or something else productive. If you think your God wants you kissing his shoes all day, you don't understand God one single bit.

      December 5, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
  2. batteryinme

    Religion is bunk.....all of it....always. When its gone, and only then, can humanity begin to be as one towards justice and equality......

    December 5, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Gregg

      No one in a Muslim country could be expected to answer correctly. They did mention Saudi Arabia as being a place where you could get wrong answers, but Pakistan has "blasphemy laws" that could get you thrown in jail and killed for a wrong answer. A religion that makes you believe through violence and imprisonment is no religion at all. If the authorities don't get you for saying something wrong about religion, your neighbors will. Pakistani government officials have been killed recently by religious thugs for speaking out against the blasphemy laws. There is not an ounce of real religion in forced religion.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • buddget

      careful or they will remove your post

      December 5, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  3. Jerry

    Muslim fanaticism is the result of a religion that offers NO assurance of salvation.

    December 5, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Elaine

      The writer forgot to include the phenomenon of people saying that they hold a religion during interviews when they do not. It is possibly a knee-jerk answer for inclusion or not wanting to rock the boat. It is a legitimate and commonly occurring phenomenon that wasn't mentioned.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  4. csnord

    You'd be more religious too if the consequences of not overtly displaying your religious fervor was having your head separated from your shoulders. The symbol of Judaism is a star. The symbol of Christianity is a cross. The symbol of Islam is a sword - there's a reason for that.

    December 5, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Dan

      Yep. What he said.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  5. Meki60

    because they are brainless puppets and don't know any better

    December 5, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  6. disgusted

    Of course Muslims are more religious – it is drilled into them from birth and many receive little else by way of eduction. It is a great tool for control (if you are a Muslim man). Do NOT allow their religion to play any role in politics in the US!

    December 5, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  7. leelanau

    Might have something to do with getting your arms hacked off, or your tongue cut out if you express independent thought......

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

      Agree.. also with religion being completely for those that can't think for themselves... of course Islam would be gaining popularity.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
  8. RainnMakerr

    It is very easy to condemn without reasoning. People who usually condemn Islam hardly read their own book. It is either they don't have the time or they were never taught to give religion importance. I am not blaming them... since people usually follow what they are born into. These people exist in every faith including islam but living in modern time one should atleast understand the power or reasoning. Please bring up arguments on an academic level. Condemnig other religions will not stop a religion from spreading. Number of mulisms converting to Islam has trippled in U.S after 9/11even after the media has tried to condemn Islam. This is a best live proof available. So one should atleast stop and think for few seconds as to why those statistics exist.

    December 5, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • redragon

      Please don't ever use "reason" and "Islam" in the same paragraph... or any other religion for that matter.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • disgusted

      I wonder how many new recruits to Islam are former or current criminals?

      The following is taken from the FBI website –

      FBI and the Bureau of Prisons analysis shows that radicalization and recruitment in U.S. prisons is still an ongoing concern. Prison radicalization primarily occurs through anti-U.S. sermons provided by contract, volunteer, or staff imams, radicalized inmates who gain religious influence, and extremist media. Ideologies that radicalized inmates appear most often to embrace include or are influenced by the Salafi form of Sunni Islam (including revisionist versions commonly known as “prison Islam”) and an extremist view of Shia Islam similar to that of the government of Iran and Lebanese Hizballah.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • csnord

      People adopt religion because they need a crutch. They need to know that someone is in charge of their life because they cannot accept the fact that they are responsible for themselves. That way they can lay off bad things on "God's Will", or some other nonsense. Only when people are taught to be responsible for themselves will religion no longer be needed, but the major religions of the world will not let that happen - there's too much money in it.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  9. Return To God

    The truth is that Islam is compatible with tolerance, democracy, personal
    rights and equality before the law...

    When moderate Americans remain silent, the extremists carry on.

    Moderate Americans must ask themselves: How can the second-largest
    religion, followed by one fifth of the population of the world, be
    terroristic, uncivilized, ignorant and a threat to the West and world peace?

    Islam's 1.3 billion people live in all corners of the world, so there must
    be something inherently profound for it to reach that far and last more
    than 1,400 years…

    Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy understood this call to moderate
    America. In December 1999, he said, "I hope that in the next century we
    will come to terms with our abysmal ignorance of the Muslim world.

    "Muslims aren't a bunch of wackos and nuts. They are decent, brilliant,
    talented people with a great civilization and traditions of their own,
    including legal traditions.

    "America knows nothing about them. There are people in that part of the
    world with whom we are simply out of touch. That is a great challenge for
    the next century."

    That next century is here. Let each one of us get actively engaged in
    learning about and cherishing the best in each other.

    December 5, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • Load of Bullcrap

      They survived this long because of that convert or die mentality.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • buddget

      So they make the women cover themselves because Muslim men can't control themselves? Well this is what a Muslim women said (para phrase) when she was ask why she was covered from head to tow.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • csnord

      Islam is appealing to the weak-minded (most of the population) because it is a complete framework for how to live. It has an answer for everything, which absolves the believer from any responsibility for their actions. All they have to do is ask "what would Mohammed do?" and then do that. It is a religion, a political system, and a judicial system all in one package. It makes life easy because it removes the necessity to think. THAT is why it spreads so easily. Also, like any other cult, there are dire consequences for leaving the fold.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Hob

      Just because you have lots of people who prefer to pretend to others that they are believers does not mean that they actually believe. And truth is not determined by greater numbers. Forced religion is not peaceful and never will be.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  10. grumpy

    They're more religious because they're less intelligent.

    December 5, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • RainnMakerr

      and making a comment about others without examining what the believe in is very Intellgent?

      December 5, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Islam Fail

      When one invokes religion there is no need to examine the beliefs any further. They, by default, remove themselves from the discussion of the intelligent.

      December 5, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  11. Mike from CT

    "Muslims are much more likely than Christians... to say that their own faith is the only true path to paradise, according to a recent global survey, "

    Mathematically impossible given Matthew 10:32-33 and the scariest verses in the Bible Matthew 7:21-23

    ... unless by Christian you mean everyone that checks off a box under religion

    December 5, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
  12. TheAgingPhilosopher

    Muslims are more religious because they are more brain washed. Islam is a religion that is meant to break a person down. It teaches you to go against what makes you a person. But also, everyone just needs to remember, Muslims are just people like everyone else. It's just that a lot of the Muslims in third world countries are uneducated and sometimes easily manipulated. I personally feel that North American Muslims are for the most part not a threat at all.

    December 5, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • csnord

      North American Muslims are not a threat, except for the ones that are. Just like Christians.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Hob

      Even in America there are "honor" killings and mutilations, beatings, murder, ra.pes, and plenty of terrorism amongst the Muslim populace. You might think they are not a threat but they are and should be forcibly ejected. All of them.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  13. mira

    I think the reason is because christians did not understand their religious until now.

    December 5, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
  14. catholic engineer

    Muslims and Catholics have at least one thing in common (besides high regard for Jesus and Meriam): their critics all get to be experts without knowing a d@mned thing.

    December 5, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • redragon

      I've seen the way the catholics march those little girls down for first communion in those bride's dresses... SICK... As for knowing the christian bible... let's just say I hope you don't have a "CHristmas Tree" in your house because that's against the rules!

      December 5, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • leelanau

      @reddragon, why are you such a hater? And why not mention the boys down the same aisle in black suits? The Sacrament of the Eucharist is applied pretty equally in my observation.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Daddy2010


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

      So you are saying that someone who is well educated in Christianity, particularly Catholicism, and Islam would not be critical of them. Well, I'm well educated in both. I've read the Bible, the Koran, and the Sharia. I actually do know more than a d@mned thing, and I'm highly critical of both religions. So much for generalizations.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • Hob

      To make common cause with Muslims is to be the greater fool. As a non-Muslim, you are already sentenced to death and hellfire and can be treated badly without bothering the conscience. Muslims will always lie about their religion.
      And I've seen plenty of posts by ex-Catholics who know VERY well everything about the CC. There's a lot of nasty details to your church, catholic. I guess you are hoping for some Muslim support, but it will only be empty lies like your religion.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  15. Musa

    It may be true in some regions of the world that Muslims are more religious than many Christians. This is not surprising, as Christianity is not just about being religious. Being a Christian, not just a cultural Christian, is about a relationship with the living Son of God, Jesus Christ, Who is "the way, the truth, the life." (John 14:6) These are not just my words, but the words of Christ himself. He calls us to follow. My good friend is a former muslim. Over and over he tells me that Islam could never bring him into a relationship with God—only Jesus Christ could do that—but it did keep him busy with religion.

    December 5, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  16. Notbuyingit

    This is an easy one. Muslims are more religious because, in general, they are less educated. Especially scientifically. Many Muslims are educated with little more than religious teaching. Of course you're going to buy into the nonsense of salvation, etc if all you're ever taught is religion. Look at cultures around the world, the more educated and the more science is a part of their education, the less religious.

    December 5, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • Kevin

      Have you ever been into a university campus and saw how many people there are from pakistan, bangladesh, arab countries, etc. In my last term at U of waterloo (internationally people think UofT is best in canada for engineering, but if your from canada then you know its waterloo) about 1/3 to 1/2 of my TAs and professors were muslims. I myself know more muslims in this University with phd's and studying to phd's than i even have numbered in my head. In other universities around Canada, its pretty much the same story.

      December 5, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • Kevin

      I would guess something like 99.9 % are religious enough to come to Friday prayers. Maybe something like 65% religious enough so that they believe and pray 5 times daily. (not from a poll, just my opinion on what i know from my fellow students)

      December 5, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  17. blake

    Because Islam is all about religion, as is nominal Christianity. Most evangelical Christians understand that be a Christ follower is not about being religious, it is about cultivating a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and joining with Him on His mission in the world.

    December 5, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • bill


      December 5, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • Hob

      You are woefully ignorant.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  18. hawaiiduude


    December 5, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  19. Tony Baloney

    You mean more fanatic...from the day they are born, they are lock in rooms and required to recite (not read, cause many are not taught) the korcrap...over and over...women rights?...shut up and recite your crap...education...shut up and recite your crap...more religious...no...more F'ed up...you bet!

    December 5, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  20. Gunney sarg

    LOL !!! Now that's a good one. I'll kill you, :>)

    December 5, 2011 at 12:13 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.