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. gliese42

    The only good thing about Islam is that it prevents abortion, gay rights, protects women from men from observing them with burqas and permits polygamy unlike western values which only permits you with 1 wife. They also promises you 88 virgins in heaven. The bad news is that you can kill and lie in the name of god

    December 5, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
  2. Reuven Schlenker

    Thank you Sam. I can vouch for you. Osama bib Laden was one of our opratives. We secretely went over the border to film and report on our 'mujhaddin' allies in their freeedom fight against the Soviet oppressors. We had CIA support but not Mossad. The Israelis wisely decided to stay out of this one. December 1979

    December 5, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
  3. Ahmed

    This article is indeed correct. At this very moment, in a city called Karbala located in Iraq, approximately 10million Muslims are gathering around the shrine of an important figure in Islamic History named Imam Hussein. He sacrificed his family and his own life in a treacherous battle to save Islam.

    Also, during Hajj (which I'm sure you've hear of) millions of people gather to fulfill the requirement of every Muslim (to complete at least one Hajj during their lifetime if they can).

    December 5, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
  4. Hannan

    Islam is The Truth! whither you like it or not.
    Wait till death reaches you, and you will be too late, to submit your heart to Allah(swt).
    When the angel of death, the one with eyes like lightning, and so dark, you will all be screaming.
    Yes ! you dont want the truth!
    Because your hearts are full of Ignorance & pride.
    I dont care what you do.
    I care what I do, because Im answerable to Allah (swt) Not You.
    So Read! The Noble Qur'an if you are Truthful.

    December 5, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
  5. James

    My only problem with Islam is the unsustainable rituals. Most Muslims i know don't bother to pray 5 times a day and perform their cleansing procedures every time they go to toilet, and then they have a really long list of stuff to do and not to do, its very ritualistic and very hard to maintain unless you are v devoted. If you don't do the rituals, you go to hell. Its not enough to believe, and do good things.

    December 5, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  6. gooddaysir

    i pooped a lung. I think my bowls are clean now

    December 5, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  7. Dan Botica

    All the young and old muslims want to be like the prophet Mohammad. Let's see, which part of his life? The 16 or more wives? The abductions and the violence? The fact that he could not read or write, at least when he claimed that received the Koran? The violence and murderous strife that his death unleashed among his closest followers? The truth of a religion is validated by the character of its founder!

    December 5, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  8. Mycology

    Pretty clear that islam is a cult,

    it is cults that KILL others for believing differently

    it is cults that KILL others for leaving their cult

    it is cults that call others "infidels" and "kaffirs" and "apostates" and "heretics"

    islam: You are no cult. Your "ideal man" was no prophet, but a killer and a thief. Good thing your focus is on an obsolete book of hate, instead of technology, i'd like to see America finish you off but if it ends up being the Chinese instead, i'm OK with that.

    December 5, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Snow

      One word Myco.. "Inquisitions"

      December 5, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • ashrakay

      Two words... the crusades.

      December 5, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
  9. Mycology

    Never forget, Jerusalem is a Jewish and Christian City.

    The Muslims tried to steal it, through force,

    The Crusades were about RE-taking what is rightfully belonging to the judeo-christian peoples,

    islam = mecca, not Jerusalem. Keep to your own holy city, and stay out of others'.

    December 5, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • William Shelton

      Mycology, where did you learn your history? From reading the writings on a toilet wall? Try this on for size: when the Christians "reconquered" Jerusalem, they slaughter all the Muslims, Jews and non-Catholic Christians; when Saladin retook Jerusalem back from the Crusaders, he invited the Jews and the non-Catholic Christians to return. So, who was more "Christian" and more representative of the holy character of that city, the Christian Crusaders or the Muslims, as represented by Saladin? Look it up - in a respectable history book.

      December 5, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
    • Ophthalomologist

      Hey you fungal breath! think before you talk ok? all your words a baseless. Shame on you foolish one!

      December 5, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
  10. truthok

    What will happen to a Muslim if he converts to any other religion in
    Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Sudan etc.......

    December 5, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • Dodo

      he will be killed or ostracized so bad he will wish he was dead.

      December 5, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • William Shelton

      Have you ever heard about "being churched"? Probably not.

      December 5, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  11. Nafees Shaik

    Ok my comment was not posted so I just wasted few precious minutes of my life.

    December 5, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  12. Muslim

    to say to fact my mom is married to a christian man and she muslim i became muslim but is cool we all believe in god=allah
    praise be with him

    December 5, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  13. Muslim

    im not peaceful muslim i like for my religion to take over everything even reality its self

    December 5, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
  14. Muslim

    islam is the fast growing religion sience swiss chesse and are fad is popular and taking over the world litlle by little just like infomercials

    December 5, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • ashrakay

      American Idol pulls in higher ratings than Nova. As stated before, that says more about the audience than it does about the message.

      December 5, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  15. Islam is the Answer

    Islam means total peace. ASk your wester brothers who have become muslim. Try googling these names: Yousef Islam (previously Cat stevens), Khalid Yasin, Garry Miller(former priest), Yousef Estes, Dave Chapelle and his Familly. If you really understand Islam It will change your life for ever. No Doubt there has been atrocities committed by CIA trained Dum Muslim, Yet All Muslim Are peaceful. And if you still believe that 9/11 was committed by Muslim then you are really Stupiiiiiid. Go to youtube and type reality about 9/11. It is Bush and His white house and Walstreet Criminals that is why international organizations like Amnesty International are asking that Bush be arrested during his visit to Africa. He has killed more people than Hitler (iraq, Afghanistan....) Wake up people educate yourself. Check for the truth we have Google, Youtube and wikileaks now. Stop chatting and do some research.

    December 5, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • Muslim

      if i want to get educated i open a history book and read
      i dont go to google and youtube those are just gathered thoughts of people your igrnorant for saying that you have -5 cools points for being muslim reframe yourself and speak with the education that allah has given you

      December 5, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
  16. Bierie

    No matter what everyone says. The statistics of this article says it all. Muslims are the most strongest in their faith, and is growingly rapidly. You always hear of people coverting to islam, very rarely do you hear of people converting to any other religion. Most atheists are people who really dont want to believe in anything because how they live their lives is religously incorrect, which is most of the time is morally incorrect.

    People should admire Muslim people for the strong persitance, values and faith that they have. You should try it sometime.

    Allot of muslims, are the best examples of people around the world.

    December 5, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
  17. truthok

    Islam is the fastest growing religion
    Is it because minorities and atheist in countries like
    Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan,Sudan
    are killed and suppressed.
    Islam is a religion of Peace!
    Is that the reason why Muslims fight with Hindus in India, Jews in Israel, Christian around the world. Communist in China, Buddhist in Bhutan. Between themselves in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other Muslim countries. Is there any other religion in the world which is know for its violence today on the face of the earth. After all Muslims blame the Indians, American, Jews, Chinese and others. Why is it that they think they are holy and other are bad. Even moderate Muslim authors are slapped with Fatwa when they tell the truth. Taslina Nasreen, Salman Rushdee and others need protection because the tried to open a debate. Modern Buddhist, Atheist, Christians and Hindus should be given more credit for supporting Muslims in India, America, Russia and other parts of the World.

    December 5, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
    • Allan

      Well said.

      December 5, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
  18. Muslim

    I am only joking in this room i love my christian and jewish brothers and sisters i live in hormony with them

    December 5, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
    • Mycology

      We do not live in harmony with you, because as much as you claim "respect" for our prophets, and "harmony" with us, in reality, muslims are brutal barbarians who don't show respect or humanity towards anyone else, not even themselves.

      December 5, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • Snow

      See Myco.. comments like these will get you a punch in face.. and not just from Muslims either

      December 5, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  19. Islam is the Answer

    Islam is the answer if your dum. Islam is the answer if you have financial problems islam is the answer if you have health problems......

    December 5, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  20. zmoney

    CNN is so stupid- wanna know why they are so religious??
    Because at one time it made sense for someone at Langley to think that Islam would be good counter to Communism. This is how Khomeini got into power, Pakistan became ultra religious, and Afghanistan is so f..up. All in all, the Muslim world is more religious now than it was 30 years ago mainly because of CIA. This is a known fact, and anyone with a clue would have a hard time arguing against it. All you all little hillbilly pawns who insult Islam and Muslims, and ask to have them brown people nuked- well, picture if you can, where in the intellectual hierarchy you actually belong in.
    btw. the 3 major religions of the world are a big lie , and their books are the biggest scam ever.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • John Smith

      Didn't we warn you about posting this information? Perhaps a reminder is in order.

      December 5, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • Sam

      Well said! I was born in Afghanistan and when the Russian invaded Afghanistan the West promoting radical Islam in order to find fighters against the Russian army. It was told that "your religion is in danger, go and fight for it"

      December 5, 2011 at 4:49 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.