Conflict, theology and history make Muslims more religious than others, experts say
A recent global survey suggests that Muslims are more religious than Christians and Hindus.
December 3rd, 2011
10:00 PM ET

Conflict, theology and history make Muslims more religious than others, experts say

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN

(CNN) - Every religion has its true believers and its doubters, its pious and its pragmatists, but new evidence suggests that Muslims tend to be more committed to their faith than other believers.

Muslims are much more likely than Christians and Hindus to say that their own faith is the only true path to paradise, according to a recent global survey, and they are more inclined to say their religion is an important part of their daily lives.

Muslims also have a much greater tendency to say their religion motivates them to do good works, said the survey, released over the summer by Ipsos-Mori, a British research company that polls around the world.

Islam is the world's second-largest religion - behind Christianity and ahead of Hinduism, the third largest. With some 1.5 billion followers and rising, Islam's influence may be growing even faster than its numbers as the Arab Spring topples long-reigning secular rulers and opens the way to religiously inspired political parties.

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But while there's no doubt about the importance of Islam, experts have different theories about why Muslims appear to be more religious than members of other global faiths - and contrasting views on whether to fear the depth of Muslims' commitment to their faith.

One explanation lies in current affairs, says Azyumardi Azra, an expert on Islam in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim majority country.

Many Muslims increasingly define themselves in contrast with what they see as the Christian West, says Azra, the director of the graduate school at the State Islamic University in Jakarta.

"When they confront the West that they perceive or misperceive as morally in decline, many Muslims feel that Islam is the best way of life. Islam for them is the only salvation," he says.

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That feeling has become stronger since the September 11 attacks, as many Muslims believe there is a "growing conflict between Islam and the so-called West," he says.

"Unfortunately this growing attachment to Islam among Muslims in general has been used and abused by literal-minded Muslims and the jihadists for their own purposes," he says.

But other experts say that deep religious commitment doesn't necessarily lead to violence.

"Being more religious doesn't necessarily mean that they will become suicide bombers," says Ed Husain, a former radical Islamist who is now a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

In fact, Husain argues that religious upbringing "could be an antidote" to radicalism.

American Muslim women who cover explain their choice

The people most likely to become Islamist radicals, he says, are those who were raised without a religious education and came to Islam later, as "born-agains."

Muslims raised with a grounding in their religion are better able to resist the distortions of Islam peddled by recruiters to radical causes, some experts like Husain argue, making them less likely to turn to violence.

But he agrees that Muslims are strongly attached to their faith, and says the reason lies in the religion itself.

"Muslims have this mindset that we alone possess the final truth," Husain says.

Muslims believe "Jews and Christians went before us and Mohammed was the last prophet," says Husain, whose book "The Islamist" chronicles his experiences with radicals. "Our prophet aimed to nullify the message of the previous prophets."

The depth of the Muslim commitment to Islam is not only a matter of theology and current events, but of education and history, as well, other experts say.

"Where religion is linked into the state institutions, where religion is deeply ingrained from childhood, you are getting this feeling that 'My way is the only way,'" says Fiyaz Mughal, the director of Faith Matters, a conflict-resolution organization in London.

The Ipsos-Mori survey results included two countries with a strong link between religion and the state: Legally Muslim Saudi Arabia, which calls itself the guardian of Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina; and Indonesia, home of the world's largest Muslim population.

The third majority Muslim country in the study is Turkey, which has a very different relationship with religion. It was founded after World War I as a legally secular country. But despite generations of trying to separate mosque and state, Turkey is now governed by an Islam-inspired party, the AKP.

Turkey's experience shows how difficult it can be to untangle government and religion in Muslim majority countries and helps explain the Muslim commitment to their religion, says Azyumardi Azra, the Indonesia expert.

He notes that there has been no "Enlightenment" in Islam as there was in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, weakening the link between church and state in many Christian countries.

"Muslim communities have never experienced intense secularization that took place in Europe and the West in general," says Azra. "So Islam is still adhered to very strongly."

But it's not only the link between mosque and state in many Muslim majority countries that ties followers to their faith, says professor Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani diplomat who has written a book about Islam around the world.

Like Christians who wear "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelets, many Muslims feel a deep personal connection to the founder of their faith, the prophet Muhammad, he says.

Muhammad isn't simply a historical figure to them, but rather a personal inspiration to hundreds of millions of people around the world today.

"When a Muslim is fasting or is asked to give charity or behave in a certain way, he is constantly reminded of the example set by the prophet many centuries ago," argues Ahmed, the author of "Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization."

His book is based on interviews with Muslims around the world, and one thing he found wherever he traveled was admiration for Muhammad.

"One of the questions was, 'Who is your role model?' From Morocco to Indonesia, it was the prophet, the prophet, the prophet," says Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington.

But while Ahmed sees similar patterns across the Islamic world, Ed Husain, the former radical, said it was important to understand its diversity, as well.

"There is no monolithic religiosity - Muslims in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are following different versions of Islam," says Husain. "All we're seeing (in the survey) is an adherence to a faith."

Political scientist Farid Senzai, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington, raised questions about the survey's findings.

"Look at the countries that are surveyed - Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Turkey," he says. "There are about 300 million Muslims in those three countries, (who make up) about 20% of Muslims globally."

Islam is "incredibly important" in Saudi Arabia, he says.

"But in Tunisia or Morocco you could have had a different result. It would have been nice if they had picked a few more Arab countries and had a bit more diversity," says Senzai.

The pollster, Ipsos-Mori, does monthly surveys in 24 countries, three of which are majority Muslim – Turkey, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. The other countries range from India to the United States, and Mexico to South Korea, and are the same each month, regardless of the subject the pollsters are investigating.

In the survey released in July, about six in 10 Muslims in the survey said their religion was the only way to salvation, while only a quarter of Hindus and two out of 10 Christians made that claim about their own faiths.

More than nine out of 10 Muslims said their faith was important in their lives, while the figure was 86% for Hindus and 66% for Christians.

Ipsos-Mori surveyed 18,473 adults via an online panel in April and released the findings in July. Results were weighted to make the results as representative as possible, but the pollster cautioned that because the survey was conducted online, it was harder to get representative results in poorer countries where internet access is not widespread.

CNN polling director Keating Holland also warns that in an "opt-in" survey, where respondents actively choose to participate, results tend to come from "people who are confident in their opinions and express them openly... not good for intensely private matters like faith or income or sex."

Online surveys in countries that are not entirely free are also open to the possibility that pollsters get "the approved response" in those nations, "where the people who are most likely to be willing to talk about such matters are the ones who hold, or at least verbalize, opinions that won't get them in trouble if they are expressed," Holland says.

That may have been an issue in Saudi Arabia, where respondents were given the choice of not answering questions on religion due to their potential sensitivity in the kingdom. The Saudi sample was the smallest, with 354 participants, meaning "findings for Saudi Arabia must be treated with caution," Ipsos-Mori said.

About 1,000 people participated in most countries, but sample sizes were smaller in the three majority Muslim countries and in eight other countries.

The survey participants did not reflect the true percentage of Christians and Muslims in the world. Christians were over-represented – as were people who said they had no religion – and Muslims were under-represented.

Nearly half the respondents identified themselves as Christian. Eleven percent were Muslim, 4% were Buddhist, 3% were Hindu and 3% were "other." A quarter said they had no religion and 6% refused to say.

Fiyaz Mughal, the interfaith expert, argues that even though the countries surveyed might not be representative of the entire Muslim world, the findings about Muslims rang broadly true. Muslims in different countries were committed to their faith for different reasons, he says.

"Saudi Arabia is an institutionally religious state. Indonesia has religion tied into its culture," says Mughal.

But Muslim immigrants to Europe also show strong ties to their religion, either as a defense mechanism in the face of a perceived threat, or because of an effort to cling to identity, he contends.

He detects a link between insular communities and commitment to faith regardless of what religion is involved. It is prevalent in Muslim Saudi Arabia, but he has seen it among Israeli Jews as well, he says.

"The Israeli Jewish perspective is that (the dispute with the Palestinians) is a conflict of land and religion which are integrally linked," Mughal says.

"What does play a role in that scenario is a sense of isolationism and seclusion in Israeli Jewish religious communities, a growing trend to say, 'Our way is the only way,'" he says.

Religious leaders of all faiths need to combat those kinds of attitudes because of the greater diversity people encounter in the world today, he argues.

They have a responsibility to teach their congregations "that if they are following a religion, it is not as brutal or exclusive as possible," Mughal says. "Things are changing. The world is a different place from what it was even 20 years ago."

Politicians, too, "need to take these issues quite seriously," he says.

"In the Middle East there are countries - the Saudi Arabias - where you need to be saying that diversity, while it may not be a part of the country, is something they have to deal with when moving in a globalized area," he says.

But Senzai, the political scientist, says that it's also important for the West to take the Muslim world on its own terms.

"Many Muslims want religion to play a role in politics," he says. "To assume that everyone around the world wants to be like the West - that they want liberal secular democracy - is an absurd idea."

- CNN's Nima Elbagir and Atika Shubert contributed to this report.

- Newsdesk editor, The CNN Wire

Filed under: 9/11 • Islam • Middle East

soundoff (5,459 Responses)
  1. Anchorite

    Maybe they're more religious because it is the same people in the same regions speaking the same language as the religion came into existence for, and is still relevant for. I've always wondered how American Protestants consider themselves to be such better Christians than anyone else when they are a different race, language, time period, and continent than Jesus was speaking to. There has to be some corruption in how his words are interpreted and implied once you're no longer a neolithic Jewish peasant living in the desert.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:36 am |
  2. CNN Says Islam Is Worthy Of This Attention

    I don't.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:34 am |
  3. Ian


    December 4, 2011 at 2:34 am |
  4. BHS

    muslims are liars and murderers

    December 4, 2011 at 2:33 am |
    • msulaiman

      is that all you got get some facts from the quran to persuade me

      December 4, 2011 at 2:36 am |
    • Observer

      "muslims are liars and murderers"

      And there aren't Christians who are liars and murderers? LOL. Look at the rightwing terrorists in our country who have assassinated doctors. Look at all the "family values" liars.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:42 am |
    • BHS

      musilm lies to distract from the truth. Tell me who took down the twin towers. You must be very proud.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:45 am |
    • msulaiman

      A punch of criminals who abused the religion just like how the crusaders used christianity to kill thousands of muslims and jews with swords

      December 4, 2011 at 2:48 am |
    • Observer

      And Christians don't lie to distract from the truth? lol. Look at all the "family values" liars, especially running for offices.

      Radical Muslims caused 9/11. Radical rightwingers assassinated doctors and did bombing in America.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:49 am |
    • BHS

      MUSLIMS are responsible for 911.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:56 am |
    • Observer


      Yes, RADICAL MUSLIMS were responsible for 911. Are ALL Christians domestic terrorists who kill doctors and plant bombs in the U.S.?

      December 4, 2011 at 3:03 am |
  5. oh yeah


    Look at the more extreme christian sects. They are very devout as well, and what drives their believers to be so devout? Fear.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:31 am |
    • Melee

      Fear, ignorance, and insanity. And more.
      "Devout" is just another name for "extremely delusional", as any rational person could tell you.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:34 am |
    • Joseph


      December 4, 2011 at 2:38 am |
    • Carrie

      One issue has not been addressed is HIPOCRACY. All faiths have Hippocrates. Christians claim to be Pro-Life and blow up clinics. Muslims claim they should love and protect their brothers then blow them up 20-50 at a time almost daily. This article was about being more religious. Does it address actually following their religion or practicing what they preach and pray? We see pictures all the time of hundreds of men on their knees in prayer. Anyone can go through the motions. What does it mean to be “more religious?”

      December 4, 2011 at 2:58 am |
  6. MissouriBoy

    Any religion that believes they have the only true way to salvation is wrong. God is much bigger than any one religion. He knows that there are many paths to find truth, and many false paths such as blind devotion to a single religion. If you want to find God, look inside and let your mind truly question your religious text (Bible, Koran, Torah). They were written centuries ago by men, not by God.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:28 am |
    • Melee

      And you know this...how? Without being indoctrinated into thinking there is a "god" you wouldn't have that erroneous opinion.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:36 am |
    • Joseph


      You are spot on.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:40 am |
  7. Sam

    Having been born into Islam and indoctrinated in it's practices as a child I can tell you it's the worst religion. Like all religions they try to get you when you're young and before you can think for yourself (before you brain has fully developed)

    Islam is the worst religion, you can't have rational discussion with it's people because if you say anything about muhammad they will kill you on the spot. I am an atheist and I wish people would just grow the f-ck up and get over this nonsense about what happens when you die. When you die you are DEAD. That's it, stop kidding yourselves because you can't man-up and accept death. Instead these fools create a little fantasy about what happens after death.

    What's worse is that religious people, because they think their god is better than everyone else's will kill other HUMAN BEINGS!. Because of religion countless animals and young children have been sacrificed!

    December 4, 2011 at 2:28 am |
    • Kat

      yea right, you make the worst liar. You were never a Muslim.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:33 am |
    • Melee

      kat, I don't see where Sam was lying. I guess that makes you the liar.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:38 am |
    • Joseph

      It's obvious that Kat is one of those devout Muslims.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:44 am |
  8. Simmersweet

    The hum of human voices in prayer has the same resonant quality, no matter what the religion. The practice of prayer allows, and enhances, profound inner peace. The tendency to exclusion projects, and sustains, a compulsion rooted in ancient tribal associations. Rage, prejudice, arrogance, and a compelling personal, or cultural, limitation, encourage dispassionate conflicts, and will likely continue to do so far into the future. Some Islamic orthodoxy is inclined to be socially restricting, as well as misogynistic. All in all, we are stuck with religious differences, so perhaps we should learn to honor those differences, and establish significant, and legal, boundaries, that limit their influence to modify, or change, non-aligned cultures subject to change due to immigration. Imagination at work here.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:23 am |
    • Melee

      Your lack of intelligent argument and accurate statements makes your post look like weak-willed myopic puke.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:40 am |
  9. dg50484

    We are doomed! Like children on a playground. Oh, would you people STOP! It has nothing to do with Muslims, or the Muslim faith. It has to do with radicals and THEIR current environment. If jihad was American made it would be called the Klan, Scottish it would be called the SNLA, if it were Mexican it would be called " Cartel."

    I have heard of you people before. Those of you that are afraid to look beyond your front yard. You are afraid little people. This is NOT how we treat each other. We are to be compassionate, no matter what. Can you walk in Jesus' footsteps? Can you walk in Muhammad's footsteps. You speak as though you are righteous. You are not. These men were. Radicals are radicals. I think Muhammad would be sick of what is happening in the world today.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:23 am |
    • imsunr

      You are way too gullible and so easily duped.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:25 am |
    • dg50484

      imsunr, I don't think so. You are.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:30 am |
    • Carrie

      The “Klan” was the first organization to be deemed as terrorist by the US government. The American people hunted them down, put them in jails, and took their assets. Can you say the same for Islamic nations and their radical groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood? Americans faced the Klan and called it what it was WRONG. The Muslim Brotherhood boasts members like Yaser Abdel Said, who murdered his daughters in an honor killing. In case you don’t follow world news, Egypt just gave significant power to this organization. Most children on the playground are NOT committing murder. This is not a case of name calling, it is life and death.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:35 am |
    • Joseph

      Yes. Thank you Carrie

      December 4, 2011 at 2:46 am |
  10. Dave

    no top down structures sound like a produc tof human need not GOD

    December 4, 2011 at 2:22 am |
  11. Carrie

    I like this line, "Islam is "incredibly important" in Saudi Arabia, he says." Um do they practice any other religion in Saudi Arabia? Oh that's right; if you do they will cut off your head, but then there is the fact they will do it with love..

    December 4, 2011 at 2:22 am |
    • Campbelll

      Carrie: Do you really not know of all the non-Christians killed by Christians "with love"? It goes on even today.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:34 am |
    • Prabu

      No they do it with hate. Islam is a religion of hate.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:15 am |
  12. BHS

    muslims = terrprism

    December 4, 2011 at 2:21 am |
  13. KNow better

    because they're more uneducated than other people and they don't have anything better to do!

    December 4, 2011 at 2:21 am |
    • Manny

      The most educated demographic in the United States is Muslims. Go to ANY PhD program and you'll see high Muslim enrollments. Muslim FEMALES are currently more represented at the university level than males. Hmm, uneducated? I don't think so.

      P.S. Dr. Oz is Muslim ... oh snap!

      December 4, 2011 at 2:24 am |
    • Robert in Seattle

      Actually Manny, the most highly educated demographic are of Asian descent, and Dr OZ is NOT from the Middle East nor was he raised there.... He was WESTERN educated and BORN and raised in America. .

      December 4, 2011 at 2:31 am |
    • Manny

      Dr. Oz is a Muslim of Turkish decent.

      Many Asians are Muslim. Indians + Pakistanis + Malaysians + Indonesians (the LARGEST Muslim population on earth) are.

      Dude, at least do a LITTLE research before trying to sound smart.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:36 am |
    • Robert in Seattle

      You are the one who is ignorant, Manny, He was BORN in AMERICA!!! He is of Turkish descent and a practicing Muslim, but he was NOT born or educated anywhere else but in AMERICA! He would NOT be the man he is today if he was not born here.

      QUIT distorting the FACTS.

      BIG DIFFERENCE from you run of the mill Islamic extremist.

      "Mehmet Oz was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to Suna and Mustafa Öz who had emigrated from Konya Province, Turkey. Mustafa Öz was born in Bozkır, a small town in central Turkey. Mustafa Öz earned scholarships that allowed him to emigrate to the United States as a medical resident in 1955. Suna Öz (née Atabay) who comes from a wealthy İstanbul family is the daughter of a pharmacist with Shapsug descent on her mother's side.

      Oz was educated at Tower Hill School in Wilmington, Delaware. In 1982 he received his undergraduate degree from Harvard University. In 1986 he obtained a joint MD and MBA degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and The Wharton School.He was awarded the Captain’s Athletic Award for leadership in college and was Class President followed by President of the Student Body during medical school.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:48 am |
    • KNow better

      if you claim that muslims are educated than why don't you look at what is going on in the middle eastern counties....muslims are the only ones that are rapidly killing their own kind right now...look at whats going on in Syria, Iran! is that what you call educated people?? all religions are tools to brain wash people! and muslims are the most brained washed people! they spend/waste so much time praying and talking about religion while other people nowadays are talking about information technology and science.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:50 am |
  14. abbas

    well said krish,they are ignorant about islam may allah /God help them

    December 4, 2011 at 2:21 am |
  15. Abdur Rehman Khan

    people, dont be so narrow minded. muslims in reality are normal people, but the media has been making them look bad after the 9/11 incident. just go and meet a muslim yourself and you will see they are just like anyone else. sometimes people will never understand.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:17 am |
    • Then as now

      Muslims are just like other people and act like puling brats over their religion when other people refuse to respect it.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:21 am |
    • Chantal

      I've met a handful of Muslims, and they were all normal people.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:22 am |
    • Mirosal

      I work with 2 Muslims, and both of them make serious efforts to drag me to their mosque. They even presented me with a Qu'ran and flat out told me that this is THE only holy book that matters. They know I'm an Atheist, as well as their boss. How's THAT for being "peaceful"?

      December 4, 2011 at 2:22 am |
    • Rob F

      Mohammad may be quoted explicitly in the Quran as instructing all Muslims to make no friends with Jews and Christians. He also may be explicitly quoted in calling for the deaths of all non-believers in several Shura.

      We're not wrong about Islam. It must be denounced.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:24 am |
    • Kat

      Rob, that's untrue.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:37 am |
    • Prabu

      Kat is a baldfaced liar and not very good at it.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:08 am |
  16. Jesus C.

    Because Muslims are oppressed nuts who think to live is a deadly sin.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:16 am |
    • Manny

      Spend just one day with a Muslim. Then tell me about living.

      You won't find more family-minded, charity-oriented, life-loving people than Muslims. It's a part of Muslim culture to embrace life, both in terms of hardship and in terms of the joys of life: children, family, spirituality, charity, etc.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:20 am |
    • Then as now

      Manny is obviously a liar and apologist. Laying it on that thick should be a crime.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:23 am |
    • Ewan

      Manny, try saying something bad about Mohammad or Islam in front of a muslim and watch and see if they won't chop of your head the next day.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:24 am |
    • Brian

      I will never trust a person that won't drink or eat bacon with me. Enough said.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:25 am |
    • Mmkk007

      @Manny: and that etc. is very important.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:33 am |
    • Robert in Seattle

      Whats does your WIFE do for a living Manny?

      December 4, 2011 at 2:34 am |
    • Manny

      Robert, I AM the wife. LOL. I'm a female.

      You guys are a trip.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:37 am |
    • Prabu

      How sick to see a woman defending Islam. I guess lying and being sleazy is not limited to Christianity.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:10 am |
  17. Ted Ward

    The study says that muslims became stronger in their faith after 9-11. Apparently they were encouraged in their faith by the fine example of those intrepid young terrorists. No sense of embarassement, disgust, or apology. Well that pretty much says it all doesn't it? Just following the example of the prophet, I guess...

    December 4, 2011 at 2:15 am |
  18. tewodros degu

    Good Lord! can imagine life under sharia-law?????????????

    December 4, 2011 at 2:15 am |
  19. Pedro

    It does not take an "expert" to answer the obvious. What makes them more religious is praying 5 times a day. The same trick is used by politicians to advance their rhetoric repeat something enough and people believe. The only way to win is not to play.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:14 am |
    • Manny

      All faiths have similar requirements. However, you should wonder WHY Muslims actually ADHERE to their prayers. Perhaps, the results?

      December 4, 2011 at 2:22 am |
    • Melee

      They do not "adhere" to their religion but only listen to liars without checking to see what's true and what's not.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:26 am |
    • Robert in Seattle

      Adhere to their faith?? How about PEER PRESSURE?

      Praying 5 times a day is no different then when the catholic church wanted you to attend religious services every day except Saturday. Easy way to keep an eye on you and keep you from developing FREE thought...

      December 4, 2011 at 2:37 am |
    • Manny

      Robert, who keeps an eye on Muslims as they break during their lunch breaks, dawn, at an amusement park, alone at a park?

      Did you ever consider that there is something about the prayer process itself that has a positive impact on people?

      December 4, 2011 at 2:39 am |
  20. Scott Forestor


    December 4, 2011 at 2:13 am |
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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.