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. chilliepepper

    Maybe they are so into being a Muslim is because if you're not your own family will kill you.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:48 am |
    • Ahmed

      islam does not say to kill your family if they don't follow islam. This is wrong.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:58 am |
    • said

      Maybe you need to open Books and learn other traditions more often..Maybe all you know today is how to update your status on facebook..

      December 4, 2011 at 1:05 am |
    • News Flash

      Yes it does, if you convert.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:09 am |
    • Ravi

      The penalty for apostasy in Islam is DEATH. No if's, and's, or but's. So you will get killed if you leave the religion. Have you people not read the countless stories of former Muslims being imprisoned or killed because of their conversion to Christianity? You will NEVER see Christian, Hindu, or Buddhist converts to Islam being killed for their action. I hate all religions but Islam is definitely the most digusting, vile, and violent of them all no doubt. Ever since its creation 1,400 years ago it has been marked by violence and conquest, while every other religion has moved past this barbaric phase.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:22 am |
  2. freethinkr1

    islam has been crafted by throwback men to pursaude helpless women into thinking that they are "strong" or "empowered" when the exact opposite is true. It is not a "religion of peace" by any stretch...

    December 4, 2011 at 12:48 am |
  3. Skepgnostic

    *Yawn* If people focused more on the things we can prove and less on the things our credulity draws up–just think of all the solidarity we could establish.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:47 am |
  4. dave

    "New eveidence..." SERIOUSLY... how about the attacks on the western world in the name of Allah and the willingnes to blow up thousands of innocent woman & children over the last 60+ years?

    And do not even tell me otehr religions have their fanatics too... yes, they do, but not to the tune of 100,000,000 + and none kill like Islam

    December 4, 2011 at 12:47 am |
    • Observer


      Ummmmmm.... the Bble says that God killed virtually every man, woman (pregnant or not), child, and fetus on the face of the earth at one time.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:55 am |
    • said

      None been slaughtered like Muslims as well.. All you see in western media is one sided, most of the time.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:11 am |
    • Great USA

      Yeah but, it was God. The problem comes with people being ordered to kill.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:16 am |
  5. E N

    All history has taught us was that Jesus, Moses, and Mohammad were extraordinary men... human inspirations. That's it. That's really all that histroy has proven. But here's the question, Jesus, Moses, and Mohammad, would they destroy each other's belief's? Or would they work together, for the rest of humanity? Personally I look foward to the next "Prophet" that comes along.

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

      me too

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

      Yes EN. The followers of Jesus have taken to porking little boys like Mohammed did. The jury is still out on Moses.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  6. Andimmer

    Why are Muslims more religious? Hmm, I wonder if it could have anything to do the the fact that they are likely to be killed if they don't appear to be religious enough?

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

      You are funny and stupid all at the same time. Go back to watching fox news and the other propaganda stuff clouding your sad mind...

      December 4, 2011 at 12:51 am |
    • said

      LOL You are ignorant , sorry for you.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:14 am |
  7. hellbillypaul

    Muslims are more religious because other muslims will torture and kill them if they don't behave according t Sharia.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:45 am |
    • Religiousnessness

      Simple; its in the way each faith is structured.

      Muhammed says submit.
      Jesus says decide.

      You look at geo-politics in the world today, and tell me why Democracies tend to be filled with more Catholics/Christians than anywhere else, and then look at the middle east and tell me why so many authoritarian regimes/dictatorships are filled with more Muslims than anywhere else.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:52 am |
    • peace

      I think it makes more sense to become religious and pious person than falling in the hands of drugs and alcohol or becoming HIV positive. Islam is a great religion indeed.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:56 am |
    • moas786

      you LOVE TO SPREAD LIES, their is NO COMPULSION in RELIGION is the guide that muslim follow, you must accept islam on your own, without any pressure from anyone else or their deeds with NOT be accepted by God Almighty. you just like to use BUZZ words that you heard on Fox or right wing talk show and follow through? Read my friend, READ for your own salvation.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:59 am |
    • moas786

      how can you say Jesus say "decide" when you did not allow him to decide on his tenure on earth? the Bible was written 100 of years after prophet Jesus. watch the movie "passion of Christ and you might learn some FACTS for a change.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:01 am |
    • Guru G

      Moas read history, a very large number of people were converted to islam by absolute force. Don't call it religion of peace. Just see how much peace they have others in this world and then talk.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:04 am |
  8. t

    A recent global survey suggests that Muslims are more religious than Christians and Hindus. must have been a political poll since most are misleading. Christ told us what he thinks of religion. It usually gets in the way of a relationship with him. I would not be touting being religious as a great thing. I would be more impressed if there was a poll suggesting which people group has the best relationship with Jesus Christ. Good luck with that survey

    December 4, 2011 at 12:44 am |
  9. glu

    Because they are fanatic clones.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:44 am |
  10. owleyes11

    For Jews, Christians, Muslims and a few other religions, everything boils down to wealth and power. Wealth determines what level in the pecking order you are and each level in the pecking order tries to maintain power over the next lower level in the pecking order. Think about it. There are also some exceptions.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:44 am |
  11. Ahmed Saoudy

    A'salamo alaikom (Peace to all)
    Some of the factors that strengthen Islam include:
    1- Its respect and acceptance of Judaisim and Christianity and their books as well as messengers. Differences amonut to merely 5%.
    2- Islam gave women the right to inheretence and removed the guilt of getting Adam out from heaven.
    3- Islam gave the women the right to have divorce and total financial indepenance from the husband.
    4- The Quran was revealed in Arabic and still in Arabic and prayers are conducted in Arabic all over the world.
    5- Performing Hajj (pilgremage to Mekka) over the centuries made sure that prayer stucture and basic beliefs are constant.
    6- Throuh performing Hajj, Malcom X learned about the universality of Islam and how Islam eliminated racial discremantion.
    To name a few
    Peace to all
    Ahmed Saoudy

    December 4, 2011 at 12:43 am |
    • Maxx

      That's all fine and dandy;

      Could you please explain 'honor killings' to me please?
      Thank you.

      Good evening.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:50 am |
    • Ahmed Saoudy

      Honor killing has nothing to do with Islam. This is just tribal customes that Islam came to abolish.
      Quran says to prove an adulltry, you need four male witnesses to tsetify as of seeing the act itself, or unforced confession.
      Some jurists consider pregnancy.
      This is part of Isamic Sharia law.
      peace to you

      December 4, 2011 at 1:12 am |
  12. Shlomo

    I don't understand how Muslims whorship a pedofile who got married with bunch of woman, getting divorce, then marry again etc. His first wife was 9 year old!!!

    December 4, 2011 at 12:42 am |
    • Aja

      For some reason we've never been able to get an answer about that. To the best of my knowledge it's never been addressed.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:44 am |
    • moas786

      you are merely exposing your ignorance with this question, Shalom my friend. Follow moses teaching and you will not be asking these types of questions.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:49 am |
    • Ahmed Saoudy

      First wife was 40 years old and he was 25. He lived with her for 25 years without taking another wife.
      Marriage from different tribes saved lots of lives by creating alliances.
      He married a nine year old because 1400 years ago, there was no marriage age law and the aim was poltical power, knowing that at these times they used to have concubines. Check other eurpoean kings and princes who married even younger women for political power.
      With regards,
      Ahemd Saoudy

      December 4, 2011 at 12:58 am |
    • Seyed

      The first wife of prophet Muhammad was named Khadijah who was 40 years at the time of her marriage to the prophet who himself was 40 years of age.

      Nnfortunately the media is full of misinformation going around.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:02 am |
    • Jesus

      I'm more interested in knowing how god had a son from Mary without ever getting married to her... oh and how he became the son too?.. please, prove to me you're sane, and then tell me how this makes sense to you!

      December 4, 2011 at 1:17 am |
  13. BHS

    Muslims are liars. They are infiltrating the US. and we are standing by letting it happen. Our culture is being detroyed. They have learned that terrorism worked out slowly over the long term works to their advantage. We will be enslaved by them. When we wake up, it will be too late. I

    December 4, 2011 at 12:40 am |
    • moas786

      you are one hundred percent WRONG. Islam is the ONLY faith that acknowledges Jesus, Moses, Abrahim and Noah and last but not least Adan. the Bible and Torah are REVERED Books, its just that the Quran is looked upon as the FINAL REVELATION from GOD to Mankind. The prophet of Islam told his followers to "treat the jews and christians amongst you as your EQUALS because the believe in the SAME God as you do. Christians later on decided to upgrade Prophet Jesus role to either god or his son? the Jews do not believe in this role nor do the Muslims.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:48 am |
    • BHS

      Really, Moass? Then why are muslims murdering and terrorising. You are a liar.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:50 am |
    • Cris

      Go back to sleep baby, because of bunch of extremists u cant blame them all!

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

      If I am mistaken, then please tell me where the twin towers and thousands of lives went? Please tell me. I am eager to learn how morally right Islam is when it has destroyed lives and terrorised an entire civilazation.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:56 am |
    • BHS

      If I am mistaken, then please tell me where the twin towers and thousands of lives went? Please tell me. I am eager to learn how morally right Islam is when it has destroyed lives and terrorised an entire civilazation. an, I might add, non of the others are speaking out against the extremists, which makes all muslims co-conspirators. Think about it.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:09 am |
    • Seyed

      I suggest to you to get some education, and then express your views with knowledge. Stop trusting foxmisinformation. The information is vastly available and learn how to distinguish good information from pure propaganda.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:13 am |
    • BHS

      Fox is not my knowedge base. Explain, if you can, where the towers and lives went. LIAR. Muslims are liars.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:15 am |
  14. Mike

    I love when "new evidence" points out what is already glaringly obvious to anyone with a functional neuron. Bless you CNN!

    December 4, 2011 at 12:38 am |
    • Lean6

      Yeah...exactly. Was "old evidence" like 9-11 not enough to illustrate their committment to their faith?

      December 4, 2011 at 12:44 am |
  15. D

    Yes, Muslims are true to their faith. First they pray, then they go kill in the name of God. Our society is so week, that we are afraid to even criticize them or say anything remotely bad about Islam. Just look at CNN! God forbid they cover the amount of rockets Palestinians shoot at Israel, or even the horrible crimes of Muslims that takes place in Europe. Or, even how Europe caters to the Muslims yet they kill people over a cartoon. CNN, wake up and see what going on in your own backyard! Stop being so sympathetic to those monsters.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:38 am |
    • moas786

      they do not kill in the name of God, they are merely in their mind defending their homeland. we pin the US merely look at our gov't. and cia as "see no evil, hear no evil" but the TRUTH IS our hands are very dirty in these countries. we are taking their natural resources and we are hand picking their leaders and we are keeping them in the dark for generation so far. so once you acknowledge the truth and open your eyes, you will see the our version of the movies the "wolverines" about cubian/ussr invasion of america and how we responded was very CHEERING to all of us here?

      December 4, 2011 at 12:55 am |
    • There is no god

      You are an Israeli (and probably a Jewish) bigot.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:13 am |
  16. Tahir

    "Our prophet aimed to nullify the message of the previous prophets". OMG, this guy has ZERO knowledge of Islam. Normally I would ignore expert comments, but I wanted the readers to know that this comment is 100% wrong.
    The truth is Prophet Mohammad aimed to solidfy the message of all previous prophets. Becuase they are all prophets of One true God, amen!

    December 4, 2011 at 12:38 am |
    • D

      Solidify the message by promising 72 virgins if you kill the infidels (Christians or Jews).

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

      As if we expected the author of this article to do any REAL background research whatsoever before writing such a stupid, false claim.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:48 am |
    • mseikeh

      Your knowledge is the one that needs to be "improved". He clearly had a problem with jews, and while he acepted Jesus; HE ONLY RECOGNIZED his own understanding of Jesus; and further called the Christians; all Christian "al-lazeen ghalou fi al deen"; those who exagerated in their understanding of religion.
      So basicaly, he told all fathers of the church of formulated the Christianity to "shove their religion" and listen to what he thinks of Jesus.
      I hope that helps your propganda....

      December 4, 2011 at 12:49 am |
    • Ahmed

      Yes, and it makes so much sense that Jesus (a Jew) would come to the earth and proclaim himself a god. Christians are so amazingly blind. They worship a man who believed in the Torah, and the commandments, and yet he went straight to break the very first one? Simple logic. But obviously you know nothing of that logic thing.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:53 am |
  17. Aja

    "To assume that everyone around the world wants to be like the West"

    Apparently so. They flock here to get an education and don't want to leave. Many try to get other family members here so this statement is baseless and inane. If they didn't want to be like the West, they would return to their country of origin. I'm not being racist....i'm being realist.

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

      ......and a realist you are! They will not conform to your believe system, and lie to you about tolerance. They believe that their faith is the only true faith and the world must follow sharia law.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:42 am |
  18. Stinky

    I think that in places where living and economic conditions are not up to par with other modern countries you will see the population cling to religion much more passionately than others because its their source of hope and a path forward.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:37 am |
  19. sybaris

    Does that make sense, Why are people of a religion (Muslims) more religious?

    Wouldn't it be better phrased, Why are middle-easterners more religious?

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

      Better question, Why are they such haters ? And they call that religion ? Hmmm, thanks but no thanks !

      December 4, 2011 at 12:46 am |
  20. Bob Peck

    Religious fervor goes hand in hand with ignorance.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:37 am |
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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.