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. JP

    It's because they're kept illiterate and ignorant. Knowledge is power and will set you free. The more ignorant a person is, the more likely they are to embrace the silly crap that religion provides.

    All religions are pure BS but, unfortunately, this religion is far more malignant and sinister than most others.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:10 am |
  2. Ronald Noe

    They are more religious because they are less educated. It has been Islamic tradition to refuse education to the masses and especially women. All dictators follow this tactic. When the only thing you feed them is the religion of the area,( and there are many more examples) then that is all they know!

    December 4, 2011 at 9:09 am |
  3. Alert Citizen

    Why is Islam being treated like being in a "witness box" here? I am a Hindu and I find the entire goal of this article offensive. What the heck is "more religious"? Till Americans understand that "It is NOT okay to dissect each and every religious belief and slam it on people's faces", they will continue to face wrath of the radicals (does not matter which religion). Just consider this as "would you flip a bird for no reason at a guy who is say 350 lb 7.5 ft , unless your brain is controlled by testosterone more than some gray matter?

    December 4, 2011 at 9:09 am |
    • Prabu

      If you are alert but ignorant and unrealistic, your alertness means little.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  4. Teachergirltoo

    I am a college teacher with many Muslims and Christians in my classes. One thing I notice is that during class discussions Muslims will not compromise their doctrines that guide their lives. They would rather experience inconvenience to themselves, but the Christians will try to adjust their doctrine to situations, with questions such as "but IF THIS were to happen what would you do?" (raising an issue to their own welfare that they would alter or adjust the doctrine of their faith.) It kind of goes along with the article on CNN above this one about Why Young Christians aren't Waiting Anymore. However, by watching these discussions take place in the classroom, it has given me much more respect for people that SAY they follow a particular faith and then ADHERE to it no matter what.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:09 am |
    • Prabu

      So you respect their hate for you? Your post shows you are just a liar unless you enjoy watching honor killings and other violence in your classroom. And why would their beliefs even come up in class?
      See? You are obviously a liar. You only respect them because you are a Muslim pretending to be a teacher. A real teacher would not be so stupid as to talk about things that would never come up in class and pretend they did. You are stupid.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • Teachergirltoo

      Prabu, you are a little bit silly in the way you present yourself. One of the classes I teach is DEBATE. When the students put forward their thoughts on various issues, they of course draw on their own experiences and belief systems. ...Regarding your comments regarding Muslims hating us, as in Westerners, I suppose you are referring to, you may be surprised that it is actually quite the opposite. Travel, spend time with people in the Middle East, and other countries and you will find that they aren't filled with hate the way you seem to think they are.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  5. Rambo

    Face it, the performance of ANY religion is measured by how much it controls its people.
    Islam is a much more performing religion from that standpoint.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:06 am |
  6. Azarahi

    Wow, with all that religiousness you'd think they'd score higher on the Corruption Perceptions Index 😉

    December 4, 2011 at 9:06 am |
    • Kate

      I know you are trying to make it light, but Islam is a danger to any woman

      December 4, 2011 at 9:35 am |
  7. macstone

    Muslims are brainwashed from youth to practice Islam and in most case a father would threaten, pressure and in most cases beat the hell out of his kid if he/she doesn't pray or fully comply with islamic laws.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:06 am |
    • Rambo

      How old were you when you first said the pledge of allegiance?

      December 4, 2011 at 9:07 am |
    • macstone

      4 months old.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:11 am |
    • smartthanu

      You obviously don't know what you're talking about. If anything, Americans are brainwashed with all their conspiracies.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:14 am |
  8. Shaji Nair

    I think Muslims & Jewish both act radicals with extreme view to Religious believes. They should learn humanity & compassion.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:05 am |
    • Sam

      I agree with you, they both are using relgion for personal gain, I am sure there are lots of Jews, Christians, and Muslims out there that want to live in peace next to each other, but the ones in power can't let that happen because their financial gain not loss won't be as high.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:13 am |
  9. jim

    The lower the quality of your life the more you look forward to a promised "paradise" after you die.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:04 am |
  10. Sagebrush Shorty

    Why are Muslims "more religious? Because they are afraid of their religion and the clerics who run it. Islam is a religion of fear regardless of what propaganda is spouted by Muslim leaders.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:04 am |
    • Rambo

      ALL Religions use fear. It's the most efficient tool of control, look at the Patriot Act.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:09 am |
    • smartthanu

      You should think before you speak. We love and fear god, as you should.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:11 am |
    • Robert Payan

      Mr. Green there are articles that generate good and there are too many that emphasize the negative. This is news reporting today? These article's attack and I understand you move people through emotion. Please try to find something good to write. Not destructive and uneducated!! Christians will one day fall under attack again. My question is if your are the one writing these type's articles to continue attacking Christian's.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:18 am |
  11. flip1

    Religion not unlike politics is one of the most diversive forces on this planet. The whole goal of religion is to prepare one's self to be as pure as possible for one's god. In doing so it seems that we have to first discredit everyone elses means of doing so. If this is part of the requirement for reaching perfection or paradise then I am happy that I am what I am, a dyed in the wool non-believer.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:03 am |
    • RLA

      Agreed- but if you were muslum you would not have that option or lived in a muslum country

      December 4, 2011 at 9:05 am |
  12. Paul

    It's lack of real education and fear – and religion instills fear.... fear of death, fear of hell, fear of other religions, and worse of all, fear of others within your own faith. This is especially true for Muslims. It's all about horrible consequences if you don't do as your told at the hands of those who supposedly share your own beliefs.... twisting religious texts into doctrine of control and righteous punishment. Christians did it, now Muslims do it. Muslims live in a world of fear, and mostly from their own.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:03 am |
    • Kate

      very good point

      December 4, 2011 at 9:10 am |
  13. Kate

    it is because they are all nut bags,I really do not care why they are so religious, Islam is a danger to every female on the planet.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:01 am |
    • greg

      you are so brainwashed by your religion, yes,the religion of mass mefia,grow up katie,travel a bit,you wouldn't make ignorant,bigoted statements like that,there's a much bigger picture than you know ,it's free for everyone,but you are focusing on one small part of the screen...

      December 4, 2011 at 9:09 am |
  14. Thomas

    Can we show a little civility here? Just a little?

    December 4, 2011 at 8:59 am |
    • flip1


      December 4, 2011 at 9:04 am |
    • jim

      We have to be civil all the time in real life. Here we can say, anonymously, what we really think. If you want civility, stay in the real world.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:08 am |
    • Kate

      Thomas, this is a group that kills women at the drop of a hat, this is madness not religion. Islam deserves no civility. Muslim men hang in because they think they are going to have nice tight virgins when they die. Do you know that muslim men have incorporated raping little boys because their rear ends are nice and tight? No, Islam deserves not one bit of civility. Did you know that old MO was given his 6 year old cousin (girl) as a wife? Muslim men are vile pigs and the women must just be stupid.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:08 am |
    • macstone

      Okay, but still why?

      December 4, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  15. JJ

    hmmmm....I wonder why there's no mention of the correlation between Islam and the high rate of illiteracy among followers. Most Muslims don't possess the mental tools necessary to distinguish between a ridiculous fairy tale ( the story of Islam's founding) and reality.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:57 am |
    • flip1

      that goes for anyone not afforded a basic education; look at the USA, a nation a inbred religious half-wits.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:06 am |
    • RLA

      Good point and the political powers want to keep it that way!

      December 4, 2011 at 9:06 am |
    • sam

      and God came down as a man , go ahead and live your life as you please Jesus died for your sins, just say 10 Hail Mary and heaven is your destination: what a load of crap. as of today supposedly Europe and the US are the most advanced nations on the planet...ever asked asked yourself how? from dark ages to enlightenment in no time?
      You are either dumb or clueless (read your history) or stubborn and ingrateful...Muslims have given the FOUNDATION of Knowledge to the Europeans (Math, Medicine, Astronomy...etc)
      as for illiteracy, every Muslim i know have a Masters or Doctorate, speak at least 3 languages and as for accomplishments i will suffice to say you and your entire little world will achieve about 2% of what i have, never mind the ones i regard as brilliant people....go eat your bacon and pick on another group of people that you might think you can impress them by speaking English

      December 4, 2011 at 9:16 am |
  16. Peace TV

    Rainer Braendlein
    Compare your views about Islam and Muslims with the following:
    # Sanction being sold into slavery as a punishment for theft (Exodus 22:1-3);
    # Admits that their own texts have been falsified (Jeremiah 8:8);
    # Demands unquestioning obedience to political authority (Romans 13:1);
    # Advocates suicide (Samuel 31:4-5);
    # Encourages the slaughter prisoners of war (Deuteronomy 7:1-2);
    # Encourages killing of strangers (Numbers 1:51, 3:10, 3:38, 18:7);

    December 4, 2011 at 8:57 am |
    • yfpnb

      # Cutting hands and feet for theives. Other religion.nations 0 , Islam/Iran/Saudi Arabia -1
      # Discouraging followers to ask question about religions. Islam 1 others 0. (o ye who believe ... never ask questions)
      # Advocates suicide bombing? Islamic scholars 1, muslims 100 others 0
      # Beheading of non muslims in plaestine, iraq kashmir etc. Muslims 1 Others 0

      December 4, 2011 at 9:04 am |
    • RLA

      True but they are not taken in a literal sense anymore while the muslums spray acid in girls faces, cut off heads of prisoners, blind each other and sit in a stew of hate.. Good luck to us all if this bunch gets a foothold in the USA!

      December 4, 2011 at 9:13 am |
  17. neguys

    You may call them religious – i call them stupid ignorant morons.....and i'm not ani -Islam, i use the same term for Jews, Christians and other intolerant racist bigots !!!

    December 4, 2011 at 8:56 am |
    • JJ

      here here!

      December 4, 2011 at 8:58 am |
  18. SPower

    Why are muslims more religious? Because if people don't live by their religions ways, they get killed or disfigured in some of the most brutal ways imaginable. And if christians and Jews and atheists do not submit to Islam (Submit) then they get killed Its simple.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:56 am |
    • jsl123

      The Spanish Inquisition all over again.................Would Christians still be arround if it were not for the Catholic church of the distant past?

      December 4, 2011 at 9:01 am |
  19. Rainer Braendlein

    Sura 9: Verse 111 of the unholy Koran:

    Lo! Allah hath bought from the believers their lives and their wealth because the Garden will be theirs: they shall fight in the way of Allah and shall slay and be slain. It is a promise which is binding on Him in the Torah and the gospel and the Qur’an. Who fulfilleth His covenant better than Allah? Rejoice then in your bargain that ye have made, for that is the supreme triumph.

    ( سورة التوبة , At-Taubah, Chapter #9, Verse #111 of the unholy Koran)

    At many other places the Koran says that a real Muslim is a Jihadist. Only Jihadisst can be sure to get into (Muslim) heaven.

    I have read the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) so many times, but found there never an instruction to slay my Christian brothers.

    Muhammad was a very bad liar.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:56 am |
    • Muneef

      Rainer B.

      You are insulting the whole Islamic community by insulting the Quran and calling it unholy..! It is unfair to say that in any discussion..and if you were angered by one whom God only knows if he is a Muslim or not..you can not go on insulting all...should warn you that such acts by you or those similar to you will no doubt drive even the most moderate to become most ignorant jihadist... So please weight your words before throwing it here and there hurting every body for an act of one..

      December 4, 2011 at 9:19 am |
  20. Alfredo

    Fear. If you have no direction and you fear punishment or death you will believe anything. Obey or be cast aside. Woman suffer the most. Fear is why this cult has grown. Believe in yourself and family, not a man made book of fiction. Live this life(the only one) to the fullest...

    December 4, 2011 at 8:56 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.