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. reckless cnn

    because they are uneducated ass.....s

    December 4, 2011 at 7:43 am |
  2. Bob

    There is a direct correlation between the ignorance of a culture and the level of its religiosity

    December 4, 2011 at 7:42 am |
  3. James R

    Why are Muslims more religious?... Uh... Maybe because if your not, they kill you.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:42 am |
    • LKJ

      Guess again. There is no compulsion in Islam and the stories you hear are of those who follow ancient cultural traditions, not Islam. I converted to Islam more than thirty years ago and I never even imagined that my life would be threatened by anyone until I started hearing it from misguided people like you.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:07 am |
    • Prabu

      Another Muslim apologist pretending Islam is peaceful and non-violent.
      What lies they do tell when we have so much proof to the contrary including their own Q'uran!

      December 4, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  4. freetime1

    CNN did an article not long ago on who knew the most about religions, all religions, not just their own. The group in the USA that did the best or knew the most, was atheist. Atheist know more about all the religions of the world then any other group in the USA. May be that is why they are atheist, because all the religions of the world are just man made BS. If one truly looks at the religions with logic and reasoning the only conclusion is that they are all lies. How can any one read the bible or koran and believe that stuff in 2011? Both of these books believe witchcraft is real. That's as crazy as believing the earth is flat! I can't even try and be politically correct about it any longer. If some one were to come up to me and tell me "My religion tells me the earth is flat" I would respond with "no it's not". Those who follow the bible, the koran or what every man made religious doctrin that has corrupted their ability to use logic and reasoning will no longer get a free pass from me. There is no god or gods and no the earth is not flat!

    December 4, 2011 at 7:42 am |
    • Max

      @Freetime1: I am a Christian, well consider my self one. But the older I get, it seems like I am more and more thinking like you. Religions have been a form of power and wealth throughout history. I do not doubt that there is a higher being, I just think that man has corrupted religion so much that is has become weakened and watered down. Look at the radical Muslims, they're taught in Madrassas that if you can not convert a non believer, kill them, while Christians just try to overwhelm you with guilt.

      December 4, 2011 at 7:53 am |
    • freetime1

      " But the older I get, it seems like I am more and more thinking like you. "
      " I do not doubt that there is a higher being,"
      These two lines show that you do not think like me at all. Please think and question and use your own mind not group think.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:14 am |
  5. Þorsteinn Halldórsson

    It might be the more voilent approach to not believeing that makes Muslim supposedly more religious. Personally if we elliminate all religion we might begin to see ourselves for what we are – a not so advanced monkey off shoot.
    All out scare tactics are always a way to maintain control and rule, be it religious, monarchy, dictator or other.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:42 am |
  6. muslimah

    smh. the prophet Muhammad came to nullify what the other prophet says??? what a lie??? another way to make islam look bad. Thats why i didnt even bother to finish readin this post

    December 4, 2011 at 7:41 am |
    • Norman

      Very true! Exactly what I thought when I read it!

      December 4, 2011 at 8:00 am |
  7. Bobcat

    The purpose of mass-religion is to make a group of people strong. To give them strength to fight even if they know they could die in the process. To make the masses pliable and easier exploitable. To oppress different groups and get their permission to do so. Mass religions have nothing to do with god. Real piousness starts when you are alone and wonder if there is a power that has created all this miracle around you. And that god has no name, it won't tell you what to eat or who to marry. It is your conscience that tells you automatically what is right and what is wrong. Try it sometime.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:40 am |
    • Prabu

      Your conscience is just your moral relativity in action according to how you were raised and where you were born. There are no moral absolutes. Not one. If you disagree just try to name one. You can't. That's why a hammer can be a tool or a weapon. It has no intrinsic goodness or morality. People can be violent or non-violent and that can change from moment to moment, but a religion can make you kill regardless of your conscience. If you were raised by wolves, you would have a very primitive "conscience" that is based on your cretinous understanding of the social patterns of a species with different brain structures. Religion gives you illusion to base your social mores upon and the results are predictable.

      December 4, 2011 at 7:56 am |
    • Prabu

      Predictably bad, I meant to say.

      December 4, 2011 at 7:58 am |
    • EyelandGuy

      You're correct Bob. CS Lewis's observation that we know right and wrong is spot-on. Problem is, none of us always choose right. That's how Lewis defined sin, knowing "right", but choosing an alternative. He further inferred from this the need for a savior (i.e. an advocate, intermediary, or intercessor between God and man. The book of Romans (1:19) speaks to the conscience: "Because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them."

      December 4, 2011 at 8:05 am |
  8. Eddie

    Is that what this is called? More religious? I don't think so. Any society that tells you to kill all your neighbors then cut off your wife's face is not, to me, religious. God does not want us to do these things. Hoodlums and thugs do.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:39 am |
  9. Name*Chedar

    It is blind faith that turns religions to fanatics. Without an "enlightened mind", religion becomes a cult.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:39 am |
  10. Cheeseburger

    Well, that's easy to explain. Far, far more Muslims are much less educated and indeed, in most cases, they are only allowed to learn if it's Islam-related. It's the only social structure they have so of course they cling to it.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:38 am |
    • Norman

      You are probably unaware of it but the pre-requiste to learning about Islam is learning about Judaism and Christianity.
      Educated muslims know more about Judaism and Christianity than Jews and Christians. Go out there and do a little survey of your own and you will be surprised.

      December 4, 2011 at 7:57 am |
    • Prabu

      I am laughing again now. A prerequisite? According to who? You?
      You won't find many imams willing to teach their students Judaism and Christianity before they ever open a Q'uran.
      Your lies are so silly I cannot help but laugh.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:01 am |
  11. reconmarine

    Islam is a dangerous cult....NOT a religion.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:36 am |
  12. poster

    Because they are less educated and even dumber than Christians!

    December 4, 2011 at 7:36 am |
  13. TDid

    It's because they are poor & uneducated and have nothing better to do. If they were gainfully employed and found fun things to do like playing golf or going to the movies, they wouldn't go as crazy for the religion thing. The problem is that these people don't have jobs and don't make good money so they are easily influenced by others because they are so desperate.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:35 am |
    • Norman

      Wow! Really!? You actually believe that?

      December 4, 2011 at 8:03 am |
  14. Jackie

    I thank the writers for this article. While reading, so many things were clicking for me – not just about Islam, but also the group psychology of isolated communities ("our way is the best way"): did not America start with such isolated communities after the Puritans arrived?

    My father-in-law is a right wingnut without a shred of shame. He purchased a printer (his 'weapon of truth' he says) and takes out of context portions of right-wing hyper-conservative anti-Obama, Muslim, Union Labor, etc articles, prints them on about 8 double-sided sheets (has now began including pages of hand-written manifesto of hate speech propaganda) and mails these bundles to family members (4 children, 10 grandchildren) and any random person whose address he might have. He has also placed them on car windows while people are in church. He does not, however, actually ever go INTO the church....

    December 4, 2011 at 7:33 am |
    • Cheeseburger

      Kind of like those who take things out of context who are "left wing hyper liberals" spewing out their misconceived vitriol, huh?

      December 4, 2011 at 7:41 am |
  15. Peter

    Wonder how many f a r t s are in these rooms everytime they bend over, Sheep f a r t s that is

    December 4, 2011 at 7:33 am |
    • reconmarine

      You would never be able to tell. These people smell so bad to start off with from lack of hygeine. OWS would be a good comparison.

      December 4, 2011 at 7:37 am |
  16. CJ

    The only thing I feel I must say is that, though there is some correlation between the adherents of religion and their educational pedigree, it is not a determining factor of such a thing. There are highly educated religious adherents, just as there are irreligious knowledgeable people.

    I also don't believe that those who believe in the possibility of intelligent design should be looked down upon, as they, too, have a strong case. As a proponent of intelligent design, I believe that there is plenty of evidence that suggests that things have inherent design, and that those designs have designs within them. We can argue about what the purpose of those designs are all day and to no avail, but the existence of design can't be debated. Some choose to refer to the designer as "god," yet one can feel free to call it whatever they please.

    That said, I will not tell anyone who chooses to believe that there is no such designer that they are wrong, as they, too, have their own reasons. Neither of us are right or wrong.


    December 4, 2011 at 7:32 am |
  17. bunny

    IMO, its the lack of education, & the presence of religious schools like madrassas that brainwash kids from a very young age that most likely make Muslims steadfastly adhere to their faith.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:32 am |
    • Lillo

      Not true Bunny, I am an American Muslim, born in Egypt, my parents send me to a catholic school in Cairo , and I've been adherent to my faith all my life, and can't see a way to live without my Religion and faith. I am not the exception, I am , like millions around the world, pray 5 times a day, fast, pay Zakah yearly (2.5 % of my income to the poor) , read the Quran and know how it feels to be simply at peace with myself. I stay away from Sin, because I know my Creator is watching me, and one day will ask me about all the good and bad deeds that I did in this life. I was not created by "accident" or by "chance" , simply not possible. Try to ask a scinetist to calculate the P-value of life. ( if you believe that we exist just because of pure chance). The bottom line is, I am who I am because of my Religion, not because of "brain wash". Indded, Islam encourges us to think and be open minded, to think and question, to look for answers, I can not be a muslim without believing in all the Prophets, Angels, Books..etc. Jesus, Moses, Ibraham, Isaac Noah and everyone else story is all over the Quran as well. May God Bless you.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:18 am |
  18. Kam

    While the issue is important, the article is poorly written. It does not address the "why" question it poses in the heading. It is disorganized, with points and statistics scattered around.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:32 am |
  19. NorthVanCan

    Every time i read about religion it confirms my belief that it is the main cause for global instability and conflict. People that believe there is a god could end up destroying this planet and the people on it. So obvious to non believers but sadly impossible to consider by the faithful.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:29 am |
    • Jackie


      December 4, 2011 at 7:36 am |
    • Manuel J.

      Oh... you mean like Hitler, Lenin, Mao, etc.?? NONE of them believed in God. You sound like all the other religion-bashers/haters. You speak without any basis OR using incomplete data.

      In short, YOUR argument IS WEAK at best.

      December 4, 2011 at 7:45 am |
  20. Brian

    This answer is easy. Many Muslims are so devoted to their religion for the same reason some football fans are so devoted to their team. The team is the only game in town and they have been raised since birth to be fully devoted. For instance ever met an Alabama fan? Muslims need variety and something else to fixate on

    December 4, 2011 at 7:29 am |
    • Flex

      Good analogy....

      December 4, 2011 at 7:32 am |
    • Norman

      Can't the same be said for all religions out there? I'm guessing you are an athiest!

      December 4, 2011 at 8:08 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.