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. Marina

    Religious? Yes Spiritual? No

    You choose now, what's more likely to be important in life.

    December 4, 2011 at 3:03 am |
    • LinCA


      December 4, 2011 at 3:06 am |
    • Agent Smith

      Religion or "spirituality", no. Reality, yes. You can't be merely half deluded and remain reality-based.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:07 am |
    • Random

      It seems to be more of a boxed then a boxing situation when it comes to this group.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:15 am |
  2. fearmonger

    Fear. Muslims are simply lead by fear. Anyone who goes against the religious leaders are maimed, scarred or killed in the name of Allah. Who on earth would want that?

    December 4, 2011 at 3:02 am |
    • Marina

      Those who wants this are those who are in power and acting in this way to STAY in power. Others cannot possibly want to be living in fear, but they cannot leave out of fear. This is an endless cycle of barbaric beliefs tangled in fear.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:05 am |
    • msulaiman

      Thanos that is a medieval doctrine used by the catholic church used against other religions and denomination. read the crusades, the inqusitions and the 16th century reformation

      December 4, 2011 at 3:09 am |
    • aber

      why dont you actually read the Quran to see what it actually says, rather than misguiding people who know even less than you. People like you are the ones who breed hate by trolling around without any facts.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:11 am |
  3. Thanos

    If you don't convert, you die. If you don't believe, you die. If you don't pray to mecca, you die. And people wonder why they are "more religious"?

    December 4, 2011 at 3:01 am |
    • Alex

      that why in the Muslims countries there are plenty of Christians live among them and they have all the right like the rest
      you've been watching too much news lately

      December 4, 2011 at 3:04 am |
    • Marina

      lol Alex you are delusional. Please give me one example of such country...

      December 4, 2011 at 3:06 am |
    • Carrie

      Alex Alex Alex
      Saudi Arabia and Egypt are excellent examples of how well Christians are treated. One need not read the news to know how Christians are treated in Muslim countries. Denial is not just a river in Egypt.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:11 am |
    • AJ

      If you think so pleases don't generalize your theory.
      I don't pray every day and I am still here writing a response to your ignoramus comment.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:20 am |
    • Hiyan

      who taught you this about Islam? some misguided Muslims?
      For you own benefit, don't judge Islam based on some Muslims. Have you read the Quran, or you just listen to what your media says about it? Use you own mind, read and analyse. Best of Luck.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:24 am |
  4. msulaiman

    answer my question

    December 4, 2011 at 3:01 am |
    • Carrie

      Again HISTORY! Lets talk about 2011. In case you missed it, those are issues of the past that have been corrected. We are in 2011 catch up.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:13 am |
    • msulaiman

      im sorry what i am trying to explain is that just because a couple of individuals hijack a religion does not mean that all muslims are terrorist just like in Christianity think

      December 4, 2011 at 3:27 am |
  5. Dubby

    Because they are more ignorant than the other ignorants.

    December 4, 2011 at 3:00 am |
  6. Troofer

    Maybe because if they would not be so religious, one of their family members could kill them.. Honour killings anyone?

    December 4, 2011 at 3:00 am |

    W H Y D O I O N L Y F I N D U N E D U C A T E D I G N O R A N T C O M M E N T S W H E N I A M I R E A D I N G O N T H E U . S E D I T I O N (seriously, you Americans need to travel the world for leisure not for war)... then perhaps you will loose you hillbilly-ness...

    December 4, 2011 at 3:00 am |
    • Carrie


      December 4, 2011 at 3:04 am |
  8. msulaiman

    i dare to come in public qoute what your comments. everybody will know your an idiot

    December 4, 2011 at 2:59 am |
    • Agent Smith


      December 4, 2011 at 3:01 am |
  9. Sam

    Could it be because they may be killed by their family or government if they aren't?

    December 4, 2011 at 2:58 am |
  10. john

    Simple, because since the childhood of a muslim; they have been taught that there are major consequences for sins. Unlike Christians that know that God will always forgive them no matter how big, or small the sin is. Muslims are also taught that they are servants(Muslim: one who submits),but the Christians take on the role of sons of God. So my conclusion is that Islam is just a much more strict, demanding, and complicated religion then others.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:58 am |
    • Al

      your conclusion or your assumption? why dont you actually read the Quran to see what it actually says, rather than misguiding people who know even less than you

      December 4, 2011 at 3:02 am |
  11. phoenixjeff

    Those are some SWEET asses

    December 4, 2011 at 2:54 am |
  12. Jason

    Islam is a 'hear no logic, see no logic... Just KILL the non-beleivers' kind of 'cult' . Aggressively adhering to a cult is to be admired?? The Nazis also had complete faith in what they believed. Quit treating Islam as a religion. It is a form of government, where the masses are made to strictly comply with a barbaric, stone age mentality, perpetuated by a mass murderer who is now known as the prophet Mohammed.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:53 am |
    • Call_The_Bluff

      Good observation. It is a form of dictatorship.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:56 am |
  13. Jimmy Crack Corn

    "new evidence" ??? Who's doing these Researches 12 year old? This is been obvious for a long time. You don't need "new evidence" to know Muslims believe in their religious faith more than another other religion.

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

    If you mean Muslims as one whole body, it is because they are generally uneducated in the ways of science and world history. I am an archaeologist for the federal government. Science and history disprove many of the things that the great world religions teach. Science is not based on a belief, but of proof. Tell a Muslim that man came from Africa, and that man made war against cousin species (Neanderthal) in Europe and elsewhere, and that Muslim may stone you as a blasphemer.
    More religious, sure. More ignorant? Definitely. Is that offensive? Yes, so was the Holocaust. Fact is Fact.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:47 am |
    • Al

      uneducated in the ways of science? please don't make comments you know the average person may not bother to check. If you ever read the Quran – and its obvious you have not – you would know of numerous scientific details that are in the Quran. Your ignorance has exposed your unnecessary hate. Why do you hate something you have not bothered to read anything about. Dont go to an athiest to learn about Islam, just like how you wouldnt go to an auto mechanic for a heart surgery... read the Quran and elighten yourself

      December 4, 2011 at 3:00 am |
  15. Mmkk007

    Some people find bliss in ignorance. Some religions punish those who question. Religions thrive on ignorance.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:43 am |
  16. mm


    December 4, 2011 at 2:43 am |
  17. Call_The_Bluff

    God my #$#$Q.
    In the name of your God, religious people have killed and destroyed so many lives already.
    Kill yourselves and go live with your God in paradise. Leave the world alone.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:41 am |
    • Jesus

      by weapons made by very knowledgeable scientists lol

      December 4, 2011 at 3:03 am |
    • Call_The_Bluff

      Your point?

      December 4, 2011 at 3:11 am |
  18. Hank Long

    There's actually an easy answer to the original question. As societies become more open - liberal if you will - and their members become better educated and exposed to new and different ideas, over subsequent generations they eventually become more accepting... questioning the status quo and less tolerant of the "old ways" i.e. the superstions, fears and heavy-hands that once governed their every thought and action. Thus, it is the indeed, the "demonized" secular democracies that truly serve as the beacons to a modern and more cooperative world. If mankind does not manage to eliminate itself through wars and attacks on nature, it will eventually shed itself of the chains of all religions.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:39 am |
    • Mmkk007

      Great post!

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


      December 4, 2011 at 2:58 am |
    • Noel

      Indeed! No real accomplishments are possible if the mind is not set free, free from religion.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:09 am |
  19. Agent Smith

    Here, let me break it down for you. There is no God. We are primates and we evolved. "Good" and "evil" are feelings. Free will is an illusion. The Cartesian "embodied essence" myth is wrong. We are never "complete"; we are a process of "becoming," never arriving. There is no afterlife. Now, as many of you will doubtless prove, many people cannot face this reality. Thus, people have a need to believe in religious fairy tales and they try to magnify the reality of their religion by getting others to believe it too. Look, you know I'm correct, so just stop resisting and try to be big boys and girls.

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

      couldn't agree more.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:43 am |
    • Agent Smith

      Thank you, CallTheBluff. I used to keep Christian texts in my modest library, but I just don't have the space now, and frankly, they are of little use to me. "Wisdom" book literature is ok in an existential way, but I don't care about the rest of the Bible. Existential phenomenology is the key to understanding human being-in-the-world; it should be required in all public schools.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:56 am |
  20. Noel

    The bottom line is.. Religion is unnecessary and destructive. Fundamentalists live in fear. I am sure everyone has heard this, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFnFr-DOPf8

    The fact is, Muslims are required to devote their lives to and be submissive to "God" and not question the wisdom of their prophet. They believe they are doing what their "God" is asking them to do.

    Christians realized long ago that there's more to life than living in fear. They believe their "God" can only get better as they themselves get better at understanding the creation.

    Critical analysis, as required in modern endeavors which lead to new discoveries, is incompatible with Islam. In all of humanity, there has never been such a stagnant cultural phenomenon.

    Most non-muslim countries are busy trying to improve their condition as well as their cultures as more wisdom is attained. Muslim countries, deprived of the "freedom" to think, will have to come up with their own form of "reformation", if they are to get out of the trap called "Islam". I am not too optimistic about that!

    For example, I could not see a "Muslim" person anywhere come up with such a beautiful thing as this. It truly celebrates diversity: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlfKdbWwruY

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

      muslims are revolting against the westenr-payed corrupt dictators and will bring back freedom of though.

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

      Islam and christianity are "One man speaks the truth religions"...THey are highly subjective. Moreso in islam there is a fear factor associated with religion and community. Fear of being excommunicated to the point of violence, if you abandon islam. These are power and control mechanisms by priests and mullah's in the garb of religion
      Vedic religions on the other hand are objective. There is no one man dictating what religion is. Right and wrong are highly debatable. They recognize multiple viewpoints. It is a "what is right is mine" religion. Islam and christianity are a "what is mine is right religions"

      December 4, 2011 at 2:51 am |
    • Noel

      You may get rid of the dictators! Until you get rid of your religion, you will not taste "Freedom".

      December 4, 2011 at 3:01 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.