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. Notislam

    John Quincy Adams on islam – [mohamed] declared undistinguishing and exterminating war, as a part of his religion, against all the rest of mankind. THE ESSENCE OF HIS DOCTRINE WAS VIOLENCE AND LUST.- TO EXALT THE BRUTAL OVER THE SPIRITUAL PART OF HUMAN NATURE.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:23 am |
    • Marshal Right

      Islam must be exterminated.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • awaysaway

      @Marshall Right – just by any chance are you a Christian? So funny.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:34 am |
  2. us1776

    Islam is the stupidest, most backward religion in the world.

    It should be illegal in the U.S. b/c of its lack of basic human rights for women.


    December 4, 2011 at 9:23 am |
    • Name (required)

      What about Catholicism? And Baptists?

      December 4, 2011 at 9:27 am |
    • awaysaway

      Possibly. But at times it is hard to say which is the most backward. They are all backward by definition.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • JSaghir

      I invite you to read the Quran and then come back with a more informed opinion .

      Just for starters – Islam proclaimed that everyone is equal – black white brown and translated that into action . Go and look at the Hajj pilgrimage – people from all races gather together to worship the One God .

      Islam – clearly recognized the disastrous impact of interest /usury based economy and banned interest .(1400 years ago and is more than relevant today )

      Islam and Quran – bans alcohol and gambling – that has wrecked millions of lives and families

      I could go on and on – but if just three of the above laws were followed in society , 75 % of the problem that are hurting the world would go away

      December 4, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  3. Notislam

    President of USA on islam – Islam "was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Quran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Musselman (Muslim) who should be slain in Battle was sure to go to Paradise." –Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States of America.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:23 am |
  4. Notislam

    Winston Churchill on islam – No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science – the science against which it had vainly struggled – the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:22 am |
    • awaysaway

      " the science against which it had vainly struggled" – True. So we are better by having watered down Christianity. If we could water all religions down to a few simple life lessons, and remove the supernatural, then so much the better.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:28 am |
    • alatel

      where do you pull your quotes from, cause I sure never heard of this craziness before.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:41 am |
  5. TomCom

    Americans really don't truely believe in religion. Almost all would never live by the bible

    December 4, 2011 at 9:20 am |
  6. Aristotle

    It doesn't take experts to explore the answer tothis question. Muslims are more religious becuase they live in societies that either place much greater emphasis on religious observation than in non Muslim societies or under regimes that prohibit it (which reinforces peity in opposition).

    December 4, 2011 at 9:20 am |
  7. Notislam

    At the core of islam and Christianity are mohamed and Jesus, respectively. By all accounts, Jesus was pious and good. By all accounts, mohamed was a pedophilic murdering thief. islam itself was the result of mohamed's jealous rage against the Jews. mohamed tried to murder all of the Jews and steal "chosen" status for moslems. The result is the vile ideology of islam. All moslems must be made to feel shame for their vile ideology of islam just as Germans were shamed for their vile ideology of nazism. We didn't need to hate Germans to oppose nazism. We don't need to hate moslems to oppose islam.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • Frost

      I have never heard of such foolishness in my life.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • raj

      Well said...very true

      December 4, 2011 at 9:25 am |
    • Prabu

      Nazism was a Christian-based ideology. Jews are viewed as Christ-killers. The Catholic Church and the Lutheran Churches ministered to nearly every Nazi and supporter. Hitler was born a Catholic and he died a Catholic. Like many dictators he did not mind using religion as a tool to sway his subjects and may not have been much of a believer, but he did not do the whole war by himself. Many priests and pastors actively supported Nazism using their religion. Your argument is a failure. There is no excuse for using religion as a basis for murder and violence. Genocide is just murder towards one ethnic group as opposed to being against "outsiders".
      It is the religious mindset that enabled and gave Nazism its power. Hypocrisy is such a sad and useless way to argue.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • TruthLover

      Notislam: You are absoulutly right . There are so much in commen between Nazism and Islam. The whole world must get together to defeat the evil of Islam, as they did with Nazisem.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:35 am |
  8. tnmtl

    What about the part when Islam adherants deviate from reliegious decrees they are threatened with bodily harm or death? And what about the fact that most live under Sharia as opposed to rule of law?? Even in modern countries where rule of law exists, this can be superseded by sharia for Muslims. For people who grow up under conditions where they know they could be seriously hurt if they don't obey and they learn there is no where on the planet they can hide from religious thugs, this would be a great motivator to obey.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:19 am |
  9. chuck

    they have been well indoctrinated to Islamic dogma and it is difficult for them to think on their own. To me they are fanatics and zealots who do not know how to live and let live. Religious teachings are supposed to create tolerance and wisdom...something muslims do not have in any measurable way. Muslims create a culture that is narrow-minded at best and not in step with the 21st century. Send them back to their miserable little backward countries....they have no place in north America.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • awaysaway

      "Religious teachings are supposed to create tolerance and wisdom" – What? When? Lets toss another heretic on the fire and have a chat about that should we. A religion gets large by being uncompromising to other religions. To the extent that a religion offers wisdom it is also compromised by the fact that it is a belief in the supernatural and devotees end up believing bizarre things based on "faith" (pillars of salt, a 6000 year old earth, angels, etc.The list is very very long)

      December 4, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  10. Notislam

    islam is an abomination and crime against humanity. islam means "submission," which is opposite of peace and freedom.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:16 am |
  11. jordan

    I agree with others that these peole are brainwashed.They are denied a decent eductation and their freedom is repressed.After Centuries of this they no longer no the right path to take.They are now lost in hate.
    US should not give a dime in aid to any of these Countries as they will only filter it into violent things.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:15 am |
    • Sam

      Wow Jordan! I am not shocked that you feel that way, it just showes your lack of education or should I say the increased feel of fear and hate towards something or someone you don't or choose not to understand.
      you shouldn't make statements just based on hate or dislike towards others.
      How about this I'll make it very simple for you, have googled the education level rankings by country,when was the last time you went to a doctors office and his name was Mohammed or Ali or Patel, I am not saying they are muslims for sure but my lack of education tells me the chances are they might be, how about professors at some collegs or maybe your own state university..see I am not smart enough to do it so can you do it for me and come back and tell me what you found..DUH !

      December 4, 2011 at 9:31 am |
  12. Derrique Stuckey

    Well, what do you expect? They're a bunch of primates, still stuck in the dark ages. I don't think it's a question of being "more" religious, I think it's a matter of being TOO religious. Blowing yourself up, trying to take as many people with you as you can, isn't what most would classify as "religion", anyway.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:15 am |
  13. Ahmed Jassim

    Blah blah blah, people in the united states are so ignorant and stupid , no wonder most of my American friends who been deployed to the middle east they don't want to go back to their country

    December 4, 2011 at 9:13 am |
    • Derrique Stuckey

      I'll bet THEY weren't getting shot at.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • Jake

      I am surprised to hear you have friends.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:33 am |
    • Ahmed Jassim

      @ Jake you will be more surprised they are American and i mean real American not immigrant

      December 4, 2011 at 9:38 am |
  14. Thinkglobal

    Real Islam and real Christianity have more fundamental teachings in common than differences. Don't sweat the minor stuff, the one created by men and not by the Creator

    December 4, 2011 at 9:13 am |
  15. kw

    As with any religion, the more people "follow" it, the more they become indoctrinated. Islam is no different. When someone (almost anyone) who prays five times a day, goes to a house of worship at least once a week, observes fasting one month per year, eats food prepared in accordance with that religion, dresses in a certain way (as a constant reminder to themselves and others of their piety) , and subjects their members to a strict code of justice among other things, all in the name of religion, the adherents become docile followers. Put simply, they think less for themselves. Sad.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:13 am |
  16. Patrick

    Here is the main problem:
    Q. What is the difference between a professing Christian in America and their non-Christian neighbor?

    December 4, 2011 at 9:13 am |
    • Prabu

      That is a silly and incorrect thing to say.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:35 am |
    • Patrick

      OK, practically NOTHING! : – )

      December 4, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • Prabu

      Still silly and incorrect.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  17. Paul Cooper

    How surprising can this alleged devotion be when the punishment for a perceived lack of devotion is death? How many other religions have religious police tasked with enforcing morality laws and ensuring that everyone prays the required five times a day? How many devout muslims are true believers? How many are simply afraid of being killed if they don't appear to be true believers?

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

    Your all idiots ! Islam in less then a 100 years will have taken over the world without violence ., because they are having 4 times more babies then anyone else.. WE HAVE TO STOP THEM NOW !!! BOMBS AWAY !!

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

      Sure they are. But given their propensity for using their children as suicide bombers, are they having enough?

      December 4, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  19. Amazing

    This story, at its face, is patently ridiculous. Anyone living in radical Christian America needs only to pay mild attention to people to its denizens, culture and political parties to understand how completely and unreasonably addicted and submerged people are with Geebas. If anything, this article highlights *EXACTLY* the problem with religion, which is the perception that "our relgious people are calm and sane and healthy", while "your religious people are over-the-top bonkers, and likely to fly an airplane into our buildings", setting off a chain of threatening behaviors on each side. The only hope for humanity is to jettison religion. Unfortunately, I'm confident that after humanity destroys itself because of religious escalations, those few who remain will become even MORE religious given their feelings of persecution.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:11 am |
  20. Isaac

    Because they're more brainwashed by myths and fairy tales written by primitive farmers.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:10 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.