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.

The case against TLC’s “All-American Muslim”

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.

The case for TLC’s “All-American Muslim”

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. Muslims

    MUHAHHA Atheist are afraid to target us Muslims because they know how everyone will attack them.... Muslims are strong! They are afraid attacking Jews too

    December 4, 2011 at 1:17 am |
    • Mirosal

      I am not scared of you, Jews, or Xtians. Your religion is just as false and phony as any other throughout human history. Yiou follow a "prophet" who wandered the desert for a month, then had a "vision" that an angel told him the true words. Your "prophet" was suffering delusions brought on by heat exhaustion, or possibly mild heat stroke. Oh, and can you please explain WHY he decided to marry a NINE year old???? Your little Mohammed is nothing more than a ped-o-phi-le. Are you sure he wasn't a Catholic?

      December 4, 2011 at 1:29 am |
  2. bob

    to stand for the basic fundamental principles of a free progressive liberal democracy is to naturally be apposed to islam.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:16 am |
  3. Marie

    Because Islam is "The Prince" in a burka?

    December 4, 2011 at 1:16 am |
  4. dipstick

    Moslems try to put on a dog and pony show...only it turns out to be a camel and sheep show...

    December 4, 2011 at 1:15 am |
  5. Ron

    shoot this down if ignorant. But the muslim population centers tend to NOT be a nice place to live. (The middle east and Africa for example, with the exception of your Dubai's ect.) So these people cling to their religion for hope. There is your answer. It's a way out for these folks... Whats the hottest bed for Catholicism? Mexico is up there right? Well crappy place to live. There ya go.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:15 am |
    • Mohammed

      muslim were more religoius in Andalusia time, the time when Andalusiait was the best place to live and many more examples.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:27 am |
  6. Sandra

    I don't think is a matter of being more religious. They are threatened with beatings or worse if they don't comply. And if they dare speak out against any part of it, the ones that do speak out get murdered under the guise of 'honor'.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:15 am |
  7. jimbob22

    It's a fact: the mufti of Jerusalem helped Eichmann round up and kill Christian Orthodox Serbs during WWII. CNN doesn't want you to know this, though.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:15 am |
    • Jim P.

      Show us your evidence or go home.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:18 am |
  8. peace

    According to Islam before the world is going to end. Every person living on this planet will become Muslim and that is Indeed happening the way Islam is growing like the speed of Light.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:14 am |
    • HotAirAce

      The good news is the number of non-believers is growing faster.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:21 am |
  9. Babyfacemagee

    Fear. That's what it's all about. Islam is a religion of fear. If you don't obey their rules they will ostracize you, torture you, imprison you or kill you. If you don't believe they want you dead. islam uses total fear to exert total control on its victims. And yes...they are victims. Islam isn't so much a religion as it is a control mechanism.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:14 am |
    • jimbob22

      It's the human rights removal system, which is why all big-lie regimes love it so much.

      The biggest lie is when a government that is forcibly inflicting it bamboozles people by insisting that it really doesn't like it.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:17 am |
    • News Flash

      Oh, and "believe or you go to hell" is not based on fear.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:24 am |
  10. SNAPPA

    Mental health issues? Maybe something in the water in the mid east? I know, maybe it's all that oil undergournd it's seeping into the water supply. Whatever reason it will eventually destroy them since the ultimate goal of any religion is death and when a number of people believe in such nonsense its inevidible that it goes wrong. Perfect examples Jim Jones People's Temple, Applewhites Heavens Gate cults (and they are ALL cults) destory the human condition and take away the common sense and logic people need to survive.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:14 am |
  11. jimbob22

    Muslims try to get you to not notice how many US soldiers are dying on behalf of the Muslim-only regimes of Karzai and Maliki by making reference to fictional oppression by Christians and Jews.

    Islam is the only religion whose adherents are such shameless liars.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:13 am |
  12. Citizen

    Acceptance of all the Hebrew and other messengers and prophets that preceded Muhammad (pbuh) is an integral part of Islamic beliefs. Acceptance of the divine messages that these men received is also part of Islamic belief. The Quran forbids Muslims from even making distinction amongst the prophets and messengers. The Quranic verses say that God chose Mary, mother of Jesus (pbuh), above all women of creation. On all those grounds the Muslims are compelled not to bad mouth Jesus, Mary, Moses, or any other Biblical person. Sadly, the modern West has never had the courtesy to follow suit. What the Western people say about Muhammad, Quran, Islam, and Allah doesn't even qualify as the least degree of civility.

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

      See mental health issues.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:15 am |
    • Carrie

      Here is my response to the civility of Islam. Amina and Sarah Said murdered in an Honor Killing Jan 1, 2008 Dallas, TX. Now again express to us why we would honor or treat with civility, any religion which condones the murder of young woman by their father.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:28 am |
  13. joe

    ummmm...because if they're not and they convert to another religion, they'll be dragged through the streets behind a land rover until dead and then hung by a pole at the busiest street corner for everyone to see!!!

    December 4, 2011 at 1:12 am |
  14. Kook Aid

    Great article and good sources CNN

    December 4, 2011 at 1:12 am |
  15. LolaS

    They're not so religious. They're threatened with violence and death if they don't comply.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:11 am |
    • Ahmed

      You know what? All these comments about draging, fear, and killing should stop because I'm a muslim arab and I, like million others, know that these things happen in Saudi Arabia, Afganistan, and Pakistan where people like Osama bin Laden happen to be, places where religion have been wrongly interepted. Why wouldn't that who killed more than three thosand hesitate to kill another who oppose his wrong ideas. Prespective and as means of tolerance has no place in the brains of those who are like you.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:31 am |
  16. Ahmed

    As a muslim you are supposed to fight/die for what you own. Islam does not push you to violence by any means. When muslims fought back in the days was to establish islam and to gain freedom to worship and exercising their right. Nowadays the world is different islam does not tell you to hate or kill for no reason. I am a muslim and i am proud leave me alone. Why is that the christian next door doesn't get strange looks and why is it normal for him to be christian and wrong for me to be muslim. It is a religion feel free to follow it. If you do good for you if you don't that is ok no one will force you. Our prophet mohammad (salal lahu aley hi wa salam) nver forced his uncle to islam or never threatened him to join islam or else. He (salal lahu aley hi wa salam) begged him to join islam and to say the chahada when his uncle was about to die. That is a perfect example that islam is a choice and a gift from Allah. And only Allah knows best.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:10 am |
    • Ahmed

      You last sentenses made me cry. I'm struggling with all of these people who are opposing and are ignorent of this concept and idea. Thank you. Thank you is all I can say.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:34 am |
    • Passing Through

      Fine, but tell me how you feel about hour brothers who load up a car with explosives and kill innocent adults and even children? What are YOU doing about that??? And please don't blather on about how bad the Christians were 600 years ago as justification for this in the 21st century.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:55 am |
  17. Carrie

    The Islamic faith is the only religion which states if you question or try and convert to another religion, you can be murdered by another Muslim. Fear is a strong motivator. In addition, lack of education and strong cultural practices, such as honor killing, prevent followers from determining their own level of faith. The Quran states if you question Islam or fail to practice faithfully your life should be taken in the name of Allah. The writer of this article fails to point out the death sentence Islamic followers face for lack of faith.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:10 am |
    • altaf

      nor true what you saying

      December 4, 2011 at 1:18 am |
  18. justonebyte

    OMG... there is no GOD.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:10 am |
    • Jamie

      Oh My Allah just doesn't have the same ring 🙂

      December 4, 2011 at 1:22 am |
    • News Flash

      Do the "valley girls" in Riyadh say "OMA" ?

      December 4, 2011 at 1:38 am |
  19. joymunro

    the Muslim Religion is the "baby" one. Christianity and Jeudism were before.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:09 am |
  20. Dennis

    The crime of leaving the Muslim faith is death. I'd be devoted too.

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

      The crime of leaving the Christian faith is eternal burning in Hell according to the Bible. Much difference?

      December 4, 2011 at 1:21 am |
    • Great USA

      Yes there is. If hell doesn't exist, then it's harmless as a concept.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:24 am |
    • Great USA

      Can't say the same thing of beheadings.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:24 am |
    • Observer

      The killings are just what God ordered in the Bible before Jesus got God to change his mind. Otherwise, Christians would be pretty similar. Christians just don't have to do what God commanded when he set up the rules.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:27 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 100 101 102 103 104 105 106 107 108 109
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.