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. Lebanese

    1791, Benjamin Franklin stated that he "did not disapprove" of a meeting place in Pennsylvania that was designed to accommodate preachers of all religions. Franklin wrote that "even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service."[26]

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

      That statement supports Franklin's tolerance, not the tolerance of the Muslim.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:49 am |
  2. HisNoodlyAppendage

    PLEASE read 'THE GOD DELUSION', by Richard Dawkins. It is truly and excellent, rational, and interesting read, and in the end, you just may change your life for the better after digesting it's logic.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:30 am |
  3. noway

    THere are bigger threats right now to this country SENATE BILL 1867

    LOOK it up!!

    December 4, 2011 at 9:30 am |
  4. JP122112

    If they don't believe that Jesus is the Son of God, died for the world's sins and was resurrected, all their worshipping will be in vain.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • HisNoodlyAppendage

      Ah, so you believe in the cult of Jesus? No different than any other religion, not based in reality.

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

      Jesus is a prophet of god just like Moses Mohamed Abraham and the rest of the prophets why would god die for us on a stick?

      December 4, 2011 at 9:33 am |
    • Amir

      that's what you believe,,,to each its own!

      December 4, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  5. Shmuel-Aharon Kam

    You need a study for that?? The Abrahamit traditions summarized:
    * Christianity: What you DO does NOT counts. What you think is what matters (Jesus forgives all).
    * Islam: What you DO DOES count. What you think does NOT matter (screaming "G-d is merciful"... as a WAR cry).
    * Hinduism: What you DO does NOT count. What you think does NOT matter (Nirvana).
    * Judaism: Think about EVERYTHINg that you DO (enojy this life, within limits).

    So Christians and Hindus tend to do less, than Muslims.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • Wendy P.

      Summarized according to you, full of bias and lacking in truth.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • Prabu

      I must say I agree with Wendy. That is a bad post.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  6. Wendy P.

    Their religion is also their culture and not separate from it. It is not something that they "practice" or merely believe in for the sake of "doing" or taking a religious turn ...It is also their way of life. It's akin to Orthodoxy in Christianity or Judaism. If you will employ ignorance and say that Muslims are brainwashed [so ignorant to even go there] because of their religion the same can be said of Christian and Jews. Especially the Evangelical Christians that I see in nations outside of the US and even within the U.S. Will I stoop low and say they are brainwashed? No. Who am I to judge them for PRACTICING what they BELIEVE. At the end of the day ALL RELIGION IS IDEOLOGY.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  7. Nancy Myers

    This religion is full of threats about bad behavior and God is portrayed as being a vengeful God. No wonder there is strict adherence. It is the adherence of fear. But I do believe that the characterizing of the West as being in decline and being immoral/ non spiritual is unfortunately rather accurate.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • Wendy P.

      ..."vengeful God." Have you never heard such phrases as, "the Wrath of God" and "God-fearing" [amongst several others which have escaped me at the moment] in Christianity? The same can be said of Christianity. Get your facts together Nancy Myers and stop using your Christian bias to attempt to justify unfounded arguments. Such themes can be found in Christianity and Judaism. Let us not forget that Christianity and Islam originate from Judaism so all of these religions have such themes.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:39 am |
  8. HisNoodlyAppendage

    ALL religions are CULTS. It is possible, and quite preferable for many, to believe in a 'superior being' (i.e. a 'god') without the brainwashing of man conceived religions.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  9. Jiyango

    Better brainwashing and strong control on the public education system, that's all.
    We'll be like them, it's just a matter of time, look at the fanatics running for the presidency. Scary.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  10. Lebanese

    In 1785, George Washington stated a willingness to hire "Mahometans," as well as people of any nation or religion, to work on his private estate at Mount Vernon if they were "good workmen." It was a rhetorical statement, as he hired no such people.[24]

    December 4, 2011 at 9:28 am |
  11. Ahmed

    I am a muslim but i don't support religous fanatics. I think the only way to stop this radicalisation is to convert one of the most important muslim state like saudi arabia to western values. This will force others to change automatically.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:28 am |
    • Wendy P.

      Ahmed, shame on you, you you want to replace one set of values with another set and you think that this is not repressive? Has this ever worked in history where people have been able to be independent and free? Look at colonialism and imperialism the world over. So you want Saudi's to now relinquish their religion and culture just because you think that will stem radicals? Does not make sense. Are you saying that most Islamic radicals are from Saudi Arabia and a whitewashing of their culture should "rectify" Islamic extremism [whatever that is] in Saudi Arabia? If so this is ridiculous.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:47 am |
  12. Bob

    Why are Muslim's more serious about their religion? It's because Islamic countries do not put up with the ACLU's bull shlt.

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

      Care to explain more fully about the ACLU? If your god and religion is so right and powerful, how could a mere manmade organization affect them negatively?

      December 4, 2011 at 9:32 am |
  13. Jules

    Whoever thinks Muslims are brainwashed should really try to understand the real reason behind that. I have no doubt that the majority of 1.5 billion Muslims are so convinced that Islam is the truth simply because once you know Islam there is no way to deny it ever again. Read the Quran or just go to http://www.miraclesofthequran.com/index.php and give yourself a chance to at least have a fair investigation rather than just repeat what others say out of ignorance

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

      Boy, is that a sales pitch if I've ever heard one! Of course, in Islamic countries, they only allow you to hear the Muslim side of the story, and there is a Proverb from the Bible that Muslims ascribe too that says one man's side of the story sounds right until you hear the other. So, yes, you can make Islam seem true if you only allow your citizens hear that one side of the story. However, if you tell them about the fact that Muhammad made tons of prophesies that never came true, then they might start to see that the story of Muhammad's status as a true prophet isn't so rock solid. And then if you told them the fact that there is more evidence that would stand up in a court of law to demonstrate that Jesus Christ asctually did rise from the dead, many of those Mulsims would become Christians and the world would be turned upside down, just as it was in the first century AD.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • Wicked Fairy

      Your typing hurts my eyes. Will you read it to me so I can pass out and dream of 72 virgins?

      December 4, 2011 at 9:39 am |
    • Jules

      Sounds like you didn't read what I said. Who cares what you think, what really matters is that these Muslims read the Quran and couldn't deny what it says. Do you think a religion would withstand a bashing from such a horrendous event as 9-11 and still manage to keep its followers ? What happeneds after 9-11 is that more people came to Islam from the West and I am one of them that wanted to fight Muslims before I knew what really Islam means. You are judging 1.5 billion Muslims when you should thnk of those Terrorsits as gangs like the Mafia. Every society has its gangs and these terrorists are one that is pretty organized just like the Mafia was. When a book says this is a book that there is no doubt in it and t's not even a book of science but gives you very accurate information about this world and universe and what's in it and how every breeding thing was created and works how can you not believe in it ?

      December 4, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
  14. Lebanese

    In 1776, John Adams published "Thoughts on Government," in which he praises the Islamic prophet Muhammad as a "sober inquirer after truth" alongside Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, and other thinkers.

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

      Yup, John Adams was a great politician. He played to everybody.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  15. Marshal Right

    I encourage you Liberal fools to keep pushing for America to become a Muslim nation, because when the Muslims take over, the first thing they do is GET RID OF ALL THE LIBERALS! So keep boosting Islam, kiddies, you are doing me a HUGE favor.

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

      so basically you yourself don't mind converting to Islam.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • Wendy P.

      So what do you have to say for the liberals that are pushing for Judaism or Buddhism or Jainism? Just sayin'.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:56 am |
  16. J. Macklin

    Well CNN..... Cultist are even more fervor in their beliefs too. Which pretty much is what Islam is.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • Wendy P.

      If Islam is a cult then so is Christianity and Judaism as Islam stems from both of these ideologies. Read history books.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  17. Muneef

    Visit and learn more about right from wrong;


    December 4, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  18. chedar

    ."Muslims also have a much greater tendency to say their religion motivates them to do good works, said the survey" You bet they do. They did the 9/11 well and the Cole and the Mumbai etc., ........

    Ir's horrrific!

    December 4, 2011 at 9:24 am |
  19. GaryB

    The bottom line is less educated people tend to be more religious regardless of religion. Those who are more educated, especially in the sciences, tend to be less religious. No offense intended toward anyone and their beliefs, but in my 60-some years here on earth that tends to be the case.

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

      YOU ARE ALL IDIOTS! APOSTATES (people who leave Islam) are killed in many countries. That is why they seem more religious.

      NEVER FORGET: without religion, there never would have been 9/11.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:28 am |
    • Marshal Right

      You tend to be wrong. I am an educated man. In fact, I'm an author and an educator, and I am extremely religious. I do know what you are talking about, though. Most educated people think they're a bit too sophisticated to believe in all that "God" silliness. That's why hell is so roomy.

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

      You've hit the nail on the head!

      December 4, 2011 at 9:32 am |
    • Kevin

      Aren't we all a bit to old for imaginary friends?

      December 4, 2011 at 9:33 am |
    • awaysaway

      @Marshal Right – you claim to be an educated Man. But I suspect that you were "educated" by your parents into the doctrine of one faith. You haven't been able to get past that religious upbringing. It can be hard as it is comfortable and the abandonment rocks too many things. By the way, the Madrassas in Pakistan provide an education also and their graduates are proud of being educated like your good self. The Imans are considered very educated and we know how some of them behave. So good look with broadening your education beyond the indoctrination of your youth (or not.)

      December 4, 2011 at 9:41 am |
  20. mslman71

    The Muslim world in general is where Christianity was 500 years ago.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:23 am |
    • awaysaway

      Quite possibly. But is there any essence that will allow them to move forward 500 years or is this where they are stuck?

      December 4, 2011 at 9:33 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.