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. Wilburchitown

    Yes quite true and simply because all the major sunni and Shia schools of thought demand death for apostasy and blasphemy. Who wouldn't "believe" when their prophet said "kill those who leave their religion" as noted by Bukhari in the arguably the most authoritative Hadith in Islam.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:50 am |
    • Nika

      yet cnn would have us believe it is all of their burning love for their faith that has them following so de voutly. That tiny little beh eading punishment for apostasy is hardly even worth mentioning... Please!

      December 4, 2011 at 11:09 pm |
  2. Jamie

    Muslims may be more irrational, but christians are quite irrational too.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:50 am |
    • faith

      if you are a true Christian and follow what the Bible says, there is no way you could be irrational!

      December 4, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  3. justmyopinion

    Why are they more religious? Are you serious? They have no choice! The majority of muslims live in fear and have no freedom of anything and if they even try to denounce their religion or try to convert, they will be killed or tortured and it would most likely be by one of their family members or a fanatic because their "religion" tells them to do this!!! This even happens in America as shown on the news about a year ago when I believe a Michigan girl wanted to convert to christianity. So as you can see, with no one converting or leaving the religion it can only grow and get bigger. Just like all religions they are being brainwashed but much worse. I would love to see a muslim man wear a bedsheet covering his entire body just for one day and see how degrading it feels. As an atheist I am all for freedom of religion, but only if you are free to make a choice and not be forced to believe in it or live in fear because of it.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:50 am |
  4. Jason Harris

    Another possibility is the majority of Muslims come from poorer and less educated regions.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:48 am |
  5. Krish

    Here's how I see things. They have their religion, I have mine. They do their own thing, we do our own thing. They don't insult our religion, we don't insult ours. I grew up around Muslims as I'm from Hyderabad, India and this is how it worked. However, here, we believe that god is on one's own terms. Therefore, so what if they pray more? Good people will be good and bad people will still be bad at the end of the day. Let them do their own thing and don't insult them for you're sacrificing your morality to point out the faults of another.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:45 am |
    • puzzled

      I agree. Even Quran says the same – "For you is your way and, for me is mine"

      December 4, 2011 at 1:50 am |
    • sabreen

      Krish, you could of say it better. Thank you for your comment !

      December 4, 2011 at 2:10 am |
  6. BHS

    pwehaps cencorship happens here, but we will not be slienced

    December 4, 2011 at 1:44 am |
  7. Ravi

    The growing isolation of many Muslims in the West coupled with their increasing numbers is unfortunately akin to the Jews in Depression-era Germany, a situation not completely unlike what we are seeing today with today's gloomy economic outlook. The only thing that will result from this is either civil war in countries with large numbers of Muslims (i.e. Sweden, UK) or mass killings/deportations of Muslims (i.e. USA). Until muslims stop their holy war against the West and Israel, people will continue to fear them. Muslims need to integrate and actively condone radical Islamists in order to save themselves from this fate. Unfortunately most Muslims will not choose to protest against jihad as it says in their own Holy Book that they cannot betary a Muslim brother. Instead "moderate" Muslims protest against Israel (a state which has a sizeable minority of Arab Muslims) and the "injustices" done by the West in the Middle East (i.e. the defeat of the terrorist-harboring and repressive Taliban regime).

    December 4, 2011 at 1:43 am |
  8. Joe B-b-b-b-bob

    They're not more religious. They're just more publicly compliant with all the rules and strictures - because to do otherwise is harshly punished. The privileged have their playgrounds like Dubai, Riviera, etc. But just as going to church every Sunday doesn't make one a better Christian, neither does constant praying, self-denying behavior make a better Muslim. The first question is: What is the nature of a truly religious life?

    December 4, 2011 at 1:42 am |
    • Mohamed Omar

      That is not the case in the US or other countries and you see people who are adherent to the religion. Fearing punishment ???

      December 4, 2011 at 1:49 am |
  9. Mohamed Omar

    "Our prophet aimed to nullify the message of the previous prophets" That is pure ignorance about Islam

    December 4, 2011 at 1:42 am |
  10. Craig

    When you are in a country that forces people to worship a certain way well *duh* you will have more of those kind of worshipers.
    5 times a day the call to pray is made, if you are not one of them you are pushed out one way or another.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:42 am |
  11. BHS

    911 points out the commitment ALL muslims have to THEIR faith. ALL are co-conspirators

    December 4, 2011 at 1:40 am |
    • Observer

      And all Christains are responsible for the deaths caused by Jim Jones and David Koresh? All Christians are responsible for what Westboro Church does?

      Get real.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:48 am |
    • msulaiman

      BHS stop talking such rubbish if all muslims supported 911 the world would be in a third world war. we have 1.5 billion members you jnow

      December 4, 2011 at 2:12 am |
  12. Rhonda

    "Our prophet aimed to nullify the message of the previous prophets." The Word of God cannot be nullified. This belief, that the Old and New Testaments are no longer valid, or are no longer the Truth, is testament of itself that Islam is NOT the Truth. Yes, many Muslims appear to be more religious, because if they don't do what they are told as far as dress, etc, they will be punished. It is the number 2 religion in the world, but not because people are flocking to Islam, it is because children are born into Islam, and there is no way out, or you will be punished or killed for leaving it.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:40 am |
    • dg50484

      I don't think it has anything to do with the Old Testament ( the old covenant). I don't think Islam has any problem with that. At least Muhammad didn't (I believe in him too). It's Jesus (the the new covenant) that religions are still having a problem with. Everyone agrees He (Jesus) walked this earth, they just don't believe He was who He said He was. That is the problem. I believe!

      December 4, 2011 at 1:49 am |
  13. Chantal

    If it's true that Muslims are more religious than other groups, than it is justifiable for them to be the most disliked of any major religious group. Most religious= least rational. Least rational= most annoying and problem-causing

    December 4, 2011 at 1:38 am |
    • Frank

      Goofy logic.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:40 am |
    • Chantal

      If you had told me why my logic was goofy, Frank, I would have thought about your response and might have even changed my mind. Just calling something wrong and leaving isn't very helpful.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:45 am |
  14. Mohamed Omar

    In order to be methodologically correct, you need to include Judaism as well.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:38 am |
    • dg50484

      Can you explain your comment?

      December 4, 2011 at 1:40 am |
    • Mohamed Omar

      Majority of Jews incorporate the religion in their life as much as Muslims do. You can not ignore judiusm in making this comparison

      December 4, 2011 at 1:52 am |
    • dg50484

      Mohamed, thank you. I agree.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:58 am |
  15. Frank

    An atheist in radical Islam would be killed on the spot. So when atheist commentators and celebrities put down Christianity they know they have nothing to fear, but try that with putting down the Prophet and see what happens. In a way I respect Muslims for protecting their faith, Christians on the other hand fo not put up much of a fight to protect the faith. In the absence of one religion another one will fill its place.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:36 am |
  16. don nualbin

    religious fervour is mostly a passion of the poor uneducated peoples. catholicism is much stronger in countries like brazil, mexico, etc. same with Islam which for the most part exists in poor underdeveloped countries where control of the ignorant peasant masses through religion is much easier to accomplish. the same was true of western europe before the so called "enlightenment".

    December 4, 2011 at 1:35 am |
    • Frank

      You are so wrong.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:38 am |
    • Maxx


      Then you are going to have to explain why my secular college textbooks declare that witchcraft (esp. Wicca), is becoming prevalent among our most educated elite.

      Good evening.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:41 am |
    • News Flash

      No he's not. http://www.pitzer.edu/academics/faculty/zuckerman/Ath-Chap-under-7000.pdf

      December 4, 2011 at 1:44 am |
    • Jamie

      News Flash – Did you go to Pitzer?

      December 4, 2011 at 1:53 am |
    • Maxx

      Yes he does;

      Haviland, Prins, Walrath, and McBride, The Essence of Anthropology, ISBN: 987-0-495-31576- (Introduction to Anthropology, chapter 16, pg. 288 – 301. 2007. Print.

      Standard college text. Good luck.

      Good evening.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:55 am |
    • Jamie


      You didn't answer my question: Why don't you worship Zeus?

      December 4, 2011 at 1:59 am |
    • News Flash

      Jamie–no, Cal-Tech.

      Maxx, prove it. Which college text books, and where did they get their info ? "Prevalent" ? What does that mean ? I know of NOT one.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:09 am |
  17. Abduul Falalah


    Could have summed up the article in a single word. GREAT REPORTING CNN!

    December 4, 2011 at 1:35 am |
  18. Ahmed

    Islam is path of life. How to be closer of your God ,how to know your God,How to prepare to day of Judgment, etc>>
    Before to write about Islam, read about it, but don't read from the the people who have Predetermined positions

    December 4, 2011 at 1:35 am |
    • Abduul Falalah

      I read about it and decided Mohammed was a pedophile. Now what?

      December 4, 2011 at 1:36 am |
    • Carrie

      Ahmed what would you say to the Christians of Egypt while they are being beaten and their churches burned. You speak of reading, all one needs to do is follow what is being done by Muslims in their own lands, to those of other faiths. Denial is not just a river in Egypt.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:49 am |
    • Brian

      Your founder was a power hungry tyrant who killed off those who disagreed with him and unleashed centuries of war in his name. Dante was right, Mohamid is being tortured in hell.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:33 am |
  19. imsunr

    I tried to post my comments but they do not appear. I think CNN censors.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:34 am |
  20. CounselorTroi

    The Muslim religion will never be compatible with the West because of its horrible mistreatment of women. They are still stuck in the 7th century. Also, a large percentage of Muslim populations are poorly educated, if at all. Easy to convince the illiterate. As long as they are stuck in their medieval mindset, let them stay and fester in their countries. We don't need them here.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:33 am |
    • Craig

      Oh they are quite literate...but there is only one book in the house.
      And I am not exaggerating

      December 4, 2011 at 1:46 am |
    • Ted Ward

      "Medieval" times, which were in Europe, were actually fairly interesteing cultural times that laid the necessary groundwork for the rennaisance and enlightenment that came later. I think "tribal stone age" would be a better label to describe Islamic values and culture, especially where women are concerned.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:58 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.