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. Biggster

    My imaginary friend is the devil.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:13 am |
    • Now that was dumb

      He's probably surfing CNN now too.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:36 am |
    • The Devil™


      December 4, 2011 at 8:41 am |
  2. AMP

    In Islam-why there is discrimination to Women? Why don't they restrict their duaghters from going for Higher Education?
    Why don't they believe in Family Planning? The third world war will be fought on Religion and Arrogant, Corrput, Selfish & malicious intentions of Relgious Leaders and Politicians.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:13 am |
    • Now that was dumb


      December 4, 2011 at 8:37 am |
  3. Josh

    Absolutely agree that the less a society is intellectually strong and stimulated, the more it clings to religion. This has happened to Arab nations because of oppressive governments that crush people who think outside the box so they can continue their dictatorship and corruption.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:12 am |
  4. twiddly

    The price for converting to something non-muslim (nevermind atheism, the horror!) is death in many muslim countries, so no wonder that people are "fervent" and raise their children to be that way. To do otherwise is simply a death sentence.

    The explanation for "more religious" is simple: most of the middle east is stuck in the middle ages.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:12 am |
    • aginghippy


      December 4, 2011 at 8:15 am |
    • Biggster

      I have lived in a muslim country. This is true.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:17 am |
    • Messenger

      Sorry, but we do not teach our children that, and the fact of the matter is its treated just like treason, the US also has capital punishment for treason.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:23 am |
    • Prabu

      That is probably the closest you'll ever see a Muslim apologist admit to the death sentence for apostasy.
      Notice how stupid it was? It makes me laugh to see the trouble they go to. They are like children who never learned to tell the truth but must try to lie about everything.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:27 am |
    • Mirosal

      So apostasy is treason ... interesting. See what 'religious' law does to a society? The 2 things are NOT tied together in any way, but when you use a 1400 year old moldy, sand-worn book to dictate your civil law, you lose all basic rights for ALL your citizens.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:36 am |
    • Now that was dumb

      Prabu! Prabu! Prabu! Prabu! Prabu!

      December 4, 2011 at 8:40 am |
    • Messenger

      There is much more to apostasy if any of you were sincerely looking for an answer you would have looked at it all in a different way, we let the Quran do the talking read it, maybe you will understand how simple and true it is. The book may be 1400 years old but the Message in it is for all times, it is the absolute word of God, it is the absolute truth, read up on it that is the best I can ask for you to do, we believe Guidance is from Allah and He wishes to guide whomever He wills, but the initial effort has to be made on the side of the humans.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:59 am |
  5. Lloyd

    White people all fake and pretenders who love lots of money and good life at the expensive of the world. That's why they're unreligous and will burn in hell for eternity

    December 4, 2011 at 8:12 am |
    • Reality

      Recognizing the flaws, follies and frauds in the foundations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, the "bowers", kneelers" and "pew peasants" are converging these religions into some simple rules of life. No koran, bible, clerics, nuns, monks, imams, evangelicals, ayatollahs, rabbis, professors of religion or priests needed or desired.

      Ditto for houses of "worthless worship" aka mosques, churches, basilicas, cathedrals, temples and synagogues.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:13 am |
  6. Hutch462

    They aren't they claim to be but they aren't. Temporary marriages = mistresses...and they condemn the west for this. They have a funny way of pointing out the faults of other religions and the west in general and then do the same thing under the guise of some phony baloney religious edict.

    Another example: I used to live in Birmingham, Alabama and there was a Saudi Prince that came for medical care at the UAB hospital. The prince and his family / entourage stayed at the Winfrey Hotel in the Riverchase Galleria I worked in the mall at the time and friends told me they saw alcoholic beverages being delivered to the prince's suite. So hows that for a double standard.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:11 am |
  7. average american

    Because if they don't act religious, especially ISLAM, their heads will be cut off. Simple enough.
    They are barbarians

    December 4, 2011 at 8:11 am |
    • Muneef

      We call barbarians those who have no belief...

      December 4, 2011 at 8:36 am |
  8. eddieVroom

    Maybe because they poke you with swords if you don't go?..

    December 4, 2011 at 8:11 am |
  9. Paulina

    If life is proof of existence of God, then we are Gods for the microorganisms we are creating in a lab.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:09 am |
    • Hutch462

      Maybe it's an analogy God is to humans, as humans are to the life they create?

      December 4, 2011 at 8:13 am |
    • julie

      Not so Paulina. We arent creating life from nothing. We are taking "microorganisms" that He has already created.
      No scientist can go outside and speak "life" into existence. He has to take matter that God has already created
      in order to copy what God does...

      December 4, 2011 at 8:17 am |
  10. Apanda

    For the same reason they don't speak out about Terrorism. In the Muslim world you will be KILLED if you don't conform.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:08 am |
  11. sid

    Invite all to read the Quran and make their own conclusions

    December 4, 2011 at 8:08 am |
    • Reality

      o On the koranic passages and world domination:
      "Mohammed could not have known the size of the world, but several passages in the Koran show that he envisioned Islam dominating all of it, however large it might be: “He it is who sent his messenger . . . that he may cause it [Islam] to prevail over all religions´(Koran 9:33, M.M. Ali; see also 48:28 and 61:9). M.M. Ali designates these three passages as “the prophecy of the ultimate triumph of Islam in the whole world.”

      Mohammed’s successors, the caliphs, quoted passages like these to inspire Muslim armies as they advanced out of Arabia, imposing Islam by the sword upon a peacefully unsuspecting Middle East and North Africa, as I described in the previous chapter.

      Islamic armies, imbued with what Mohammed claimed was divine authorization, imposed Islam by force over vast areas, all the while extorting wealth from subjugated Jews and Christians to fund their ongoing conquests. As I noted, major defeats at Tours, France, in A.D. 732, and again at Vienna, Austria, in A.D. 1683, halted Islam’s attempt to take all of Europe by force. Gradually Islamic forces were forced to retreat from Europe, except for part of the Balkans. But Islam has again set its sights on a conquest of Europe and of European civilization, wherever the latter has spread to North and South America and other regions. Muslim strategists ask their followers, Why do we find in these modern times that Allah has entrusted most of the world’s oil wealth primarily to Muslim nations?

      Their answer: Allah foresaw Islam’s need for funds to finance a final politico-religious victory over what Islam perceives as its ultimate enemy: Christianized Euro-American civilization. So, Islam follows Nazism, fascism and communism as the world’s latest hostile takeover aspirant.

      Nazis, fascists and communists failed. Does Islam have a better chance at success? I believe it will flounder if we awaken to its threat in time; yet, if there is not adequate planned resistance, Islam does have a better chance of succeeding. Communism’s world takeover attempt was guaranteed to fail because its economic policy was naively contrary to human nature. Advocating the rubric What is mine is thine, and what is thine is mine, communism failed to see that human nature will not keep those two balanced propositions in equilibrium. Like

      a female black widow spider consuming her mate, the latter part of the formula makes a meal of the former, leading to the collapse of any system based upon that formula.

      In contrast, political systems do well if they can persuade people to adhere to What’s mine is mine and What’s thine is thine maxims.

      Only if a strong religious incentive is added does such an idealistic formula have any long-term chance. Even then success will be spotty. But communism (and Nazism, for that matter) excluded religion. And that mistake was the final nail eventually clamping a lid on communism’s coffin. Communism, on a historical scale, perished while still in its childhood.

      Islam is not repeating communism’s mistake. Mating political cunning and incredible wealth with religious zeal, Islam does have a chance to succeed and will succeed unless major parts of the Western world unite to take appropriate countermeasures. But many Western leaders, unable to believe that a mere religion could possible be a serious political threat, keep proclaiming themselves as Islam-friendly, reasoning that all religions are good-aren’t they?

      A Muslim strategist in Beverly Hills, California, declared several years ago, as quoted by a friend of mine: “Now that the struggle between Western democracies and international communism is winding down, it is time for the real and final struggle to begin, and we are going to win!”

      Don Richardson

      December 4, 2011 at 8:12 am |
    • William Shelton

      Reality, Don Richardson, whom you quote, is a known Islamophobe. You think not? Check out what Christianity Today says about him.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:33 am |
    • Muneef

      Dear it is already taking the whole middle east and soon will take over the rest...you just wait and see...

      December 4, 2011 at 8:33 am |
    • Prabu

      Muneef you are funny. Muslims are too busy being stupid to be a threat and too busy oppressing each other with Islam to take over the world.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  12. Peace upon you all

    Because its true path to your inner peace. Try it with open heart and mind and with no bias ....you will find it yourself what is in there for you. Just think of how many problems Muslims have all over the world during the last 100 years. What do you think keep them going?!. It is really that inner tranquility and peace they enjoy.

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

      Yeah, it takes a LOT of tranquility to r a p e women and then imprison them for being r a p e d.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:12 am |
    • razanne

      @Paulina, the same tranquility it takes to do little boys? Kill children, consume illegal substances, theft, cheating on spouses, etc?

      December 4, 2011 at 8:15 am |
  13. John

    Maybe because most lack real education.....

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

      Muslims make up a great number of doctors, dentists, professors etc. You look like you are seriously lacking in education.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:13 am |
    • GEZUS

      Religion, any religion, is a great control of the masses- especially the uneducated. It has been proven to be true over the centuries. Which one is right? I don't know, but if you pick one of the top three 2/3 of the rest of the world says you are wrong and that their God, or Gods, are right.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:25 am |
    • Muneef

      Those lacking real educations in their own countries were the victims of their secular regimes and ruling families to keep them blindfolded for the rulers benefit...but those who were lucky enough to immigrate to more advanced countries have became highly educated...!!

      December 4, 2011 at 8:29 am |
  14. JOhn

    I don't know why people are calling this a PRO muslim article. I don't know what's so great about being more brainwashed than other religions. People just have hate in their hearts.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:06 am |
  15. Biggster

    Hope the paradise doesn't turn out to be a shi.hole

    December 4, 2011 at 8:06 am |
  16. Paulina

    The real motivator is the fact that leaving Islam is punishable by death.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:05 am |
    • PolecatMtn

      That would motivate me!

      December 4, 2011 at 8:16 am |
    • Muneef

      Maybe you rather mean converting from Islam to any other religion...!

      December 4, 2011 at 8:23 am |
  17. twiddly

    There is a direct correlation with ignorance and religion, so no surprise that the uneducated masses in the middle east, raised with beliefs and values straight out of the middle ages (beheading, anyone?), are 1) largely ignorant which leads directly to 2) more [fervent and fanatically] religious. The idea that most fanatics come to islam late in the game is ridiculous.
    And this has nothing to do inherently with islam; Other religion's native populations just tend to be more educated.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:04 am |
  18. Reality

    o Islam gives women almost no rights and treats them like fodder for the male species as so bluntly noted by Aya-an Hi-rsi Ali in her autobiography, In-fidel.

    "Thus begins the extraordinary story of a woman born into a family of desert nomads, circu-mcised as a child, educated by radical imams in Kenya and Saudi Arabia, taught to believe that if she uncovered her hair, terrible tragedies would ensue. It's a story that, with a few different twists, really could have led to a wretched life and a lonely death, as her grandmother warned. But instead, Hi-rsi Ali escaped – and transformed herself into an internationally renowned spokeswoman for the rights of Muslim women."

    ref: Washington Post book review.

    some excerpts:

    "Some of the Saudi women in our neighborhood were regularly be-aten by their husbands. You could hear them at night. Their scre-ams resounded across the courtyards. "No! Please! By Allah!"

    "The Pakistanis were Muslims but they too had cas-tes. The Untou-chable girls, both Indian and Pakistani were darker skin. The others would not play with them because they were unt-ouchable. We thought that was funny because of course they were tou-chable: we to-uched them see? but also hor-rifying to think of yourself as un-touchable, des-picable to the human race."

    "Between October 2004 and May 2005, eleven Muslim girls were ki-lled by their families in just two regions (there are 20 regions in Holland). After that, people stopped telling me I was exa-ggerating."

    "The kind on thinking I saw in Saudi Arabia and among the Brotherhood of Kenya and Som-alia, is incompatible with human rights and liberal values. It preserves the feu-dal mind-set based on tr-ibal concepts of honor and shame. It rests on self-deception, hypro-cricy, and double standards. It relies on the technologial advances of the West while pretending to ignore their origin in Western thinking. This mind-set makes the transition to modernity very painful for all who practice Islam".

    December 4, 2011 at 8:04 am |
  19. NorthVanCan

    I give up trying to warn humans of their stupidity.Lets hope they kill them selves before they destroy this beautiful planet entirely .

    December 4, 2011 at 8:04 am |
  20. Paul Craft

    Muslims are more religious because they are forced to be for centuries by governments who use the threat of violence in religions name to keep themselves in power. Nothing more, do not be fooled.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:03 am |
    • Muneef


      You might be referring to Saudi Arabia and Iran only otherwise the rest of the Islamic world was ruled by Secular Régimes for many years...where religion or prayers were not compulsory...so can say your point of understanding is wrong...

      December 4, 2011 at 8:18 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.