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. equalOpportunityOffender

    The answer is quite simple. Insha'Allah rules the mind set of much of the Muslim world. It's a crutch to write everything off to Allah's will. The most fervent Muslim countries are the poorest - they most need the crutch to make sense of a world which in which life is "short, brutish and nasty". When you may well die before the next day from the effects of poverty a religion requiring five prayers per day hedges the bet.

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

    Religion is the biggest SHAM ever perpetrated on mankind! The PUREST form of belief is a direct communion with 'god', without the brainwashing of the world's most popular CULT religions! You don't need religion folks. Just an honest reaching out to 'god', if you believe that is.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:39 am |
  3. Mostafa

    Jews and christian are named as "people of the book" as muslims believe holy books from God were given to their prophets.
    All "ORIGINAL" holly books and messengers from God are true. God asked humans to worship him while seeking their living on earth. All of us will die. The question is what will happen after death for every one of us. Muslims believe that all believers (those who accepted the "ORIGINAL" holly books from God) will go to paradise (with the mercy of God), after God judge all humans on their believe and deeds. For good you will see good, and for bad you will see bad. For me, this is very logical. The answer to the question of what is the correct belief is not a waste of time, it is a question for your relation with your creator and will affect all what you will see after in this life and after death.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • pastorzuray

      So Mostafa, how is your relationship with your God? I don't know which book your prefer but I know that most religions believe in the existence of sin and that man has a sin problem. The BIble says that all men are sinners. The question for mankind is not what religion you are but what solution to you have for your sin "problem." Since God is Holy and Perfect, how can I enter His presence without having my sins dealt with? How does a child enter his mothers clean home after playing in the mud all day? They have to be cleaned. The Bible teaches us that Jesus blood cleans us from all sin. As the book of Acts teaches us, "believer on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved." Saved from what? Saved from our current position of death and sin. Just something to think about.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  4. David

    The Ko'ran states that if you are not muslim, then you shall be put to death. Very clear..

    December 4, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • JSaghir

      Confound not truth with falsehood, nor knowingly conceal the truth The Holy Qur'an, Chapter 2, Verse 42
      "There is no compulsion in religion. The right path has indeed become distinct from the wrong. So whoever rejects false worship and believes in Allah, then he has grasped the most trustworthy handhold that will never break. And Allah is All Hearing, All Knowing" The Holy Qur'an, Chapter 2, Verese 256.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:42 am |
    • Jake

      Please show me the passage where it explicitly says that. You cannot state claims without concrete evidence, that just makes you look like an ignorant fool. Considering the Quran is everywhere and translated, that should not be hard to do.. You know during the time of Muhammad Muslims lived side by side with Christians, whom were given safe harbor from harm. Christians were some of the very best of allies, rightfully so. Learn, read a book and enlighten yourself. Why distance one another?

      December 4, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • David is an idiot

      David is an idiot

      December 4, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • Prabu

      David is correct. The Q'uran is chock full of hate and violence directed at unbelievers. We can all check these things so I do not understand why Muslims keep lying about it. Repeating a lie does not always work if it can be so easily dis-proven.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  5. alsmeer1


    PLEASE read 'THE GOD DELUSION', by Richard Dawkins.


    December 4, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • HisNoodlyAppendage

      You must be afraid of the truth then. How sad that your mind is so utterly closed, especially given how short time is here on Earth.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • One7777777

      Have you simply not asked God with an open, honest heart if He is real?

      Why are you listening to satan instead?

      If you want to know if God is real, simply ASK Him. He will answer.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • HisNoodlyAppendage

      "SATAN"???!!! LOL! Do you believe in Santa Claus and The Easter Bunny as well? I rest my case. How sad such simpletons like yourself permeate our planet.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  6. Paul

    Can anyone say "fear of death." Islam is a religion of violence and violence is a BIG motivator of behavior. Most muslims will deny this, but the fact is that their religion dictates that they MUST lie in defense of their religion. Ask someone who has broken free of Islam and you may THEN get the truth. If a muslim is even ACCUSED ot waivering in their faith and adherence to the rituals, beatings and death are the NORMAL punishment.

    While Christianity is JUST as incorrect of a religion as Islam, at least Christians are ONLY scorned when ther faith waivered. It's an EXTREME rarity that a Christian is killed these days when they don't pray enough!

    'nuff said!

    December 4, 2011 at 9:37 am |
  7. Andrew

    Could it be that if you live in a country that is muslim. If you dare to state that you are not muslim, you are outcast. Gee, I really want to go out and claim I"m a Christian, or Atheist, or whatever. I get outcast by my family, community, business, and government. I become a 2nd class citizen, and in danger of losing not only my family, job, property, but my life. How can you say that they are more devote, when you can't separate that from fearful.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  8. Michael M.

    I'm glad at least one person brought up secularization in response, which I suppose could be interpreted as a form of time.

    Heck, Islam is simply newer than the other major religions by some 400-600 years.

    Where was Christianity 500 years ago? Pretty sure at that time, when Kings were still "Chosen by God," that Christianity was just as religion as Muslims are today.

    Give Islam time. It's less than 1000 years old, which makes it a baby when compared to most of the other religions.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • Prabu

      If the words were the same you would have a point, but the words are not the same and so your analogy fails.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • Matthew

      Thank you Prabu. Someone other than me finally sees the flaw in the "no-enlightenment" argument. The social and cultural constructs of that time are in no way analogous to the political, social, and cultural constructs of today. How can one expect the Islamic faith to follow the same developmental trajectory as Christianity?

      December 4, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • Prabu

      You are very welcome. And I am not the only one who sees this besides you. Millions of people understand these things.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  9. boyamidumb

    There's an easy answer. Most live in or under dictatorships, either of individuals, mullahs, or groups like the Taliban. When someone threatens to cut something off or kill you if you don't follow the faith – it's a lot easier to "be" a believer.

    Come on folks, they are more committed than any other group, they are just better actors than the Sunday christians. Better be if you want to live any kind of life at all.

    The christian taliban are trying to make this country the same way.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:35 am |
  10. Goodguy1

    Because the Desert makes people harder and more religious. When there is no food and no water ...you think about God.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:35 am |
  11. Lore

    Ignorance and religion. Two great things that go great together. If you can't read, it's easier to be a religious fanatic. Muslims have a higher illiteracy rate, which translates into greater religious fervor.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:35 am |
  12. HisNoodlyAppendage

    'THE GOD DELUSION' by Richard Dawkins. BEST book i've EVER read in my entire life (53 years old), and very logical and life changing. PLEASE read it.

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

      Agreed, it is fabulous.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:38 am |
  13. SickOfHearingAboutIslam

    I am so sick of hearing about fanaticism as though it were a great thing. So, these people have restricted liberty, they are raised to be fanatic, they are sheltered from outside influences both by their culture and within their own families.... Gee, it really IS a surprise that they fanatically adhere to these beliefs.
    Let's contrast their belief system with something similar, shall we? Say, the Amish? What is the religiosity of Amish peoples, just generally speaking?
    The headline of this article makes me want to be sick. It makes it sound as though these people are more faithful than people of other religions. When did we come to a place when people of our country could find ANYTHING to value, ANYTHING which deserves good press about Islam? Fanatics. Oppressors of women. Violent tendencies. I find nothing of value, nothing which deserves a highly visible headline in this religion.

    As a Buddhist, I am grateful that Christians are not so fanatic as Moslems, and I am sickened that everywhere I look I see Islam in the news. What are we trying to do here, exactly? Make this fanatic religion mainstream?

    December 4, 2011 at 9:35 am |
    • One7777777

      They are trying to corrupt God's people

      This website keeps including articles promoting Islam in this country, yet bash Christianity. Of course, Jesus did tell us what to watch out for.

      False Prophets

      December 4, 2011 at 9:44 am |
  14. Matthew

    The "no-enlightenment" argument is flawed. It's premise is that all religions follow the same social trajectory as Christianity; it neglects geo-location, aboriginal culture, and religious philosophy.

    Matthew 5:44

    "But I say to you, love your enemies and bless the one who curses you, and do what is beautiful to the one who hates you, and pray over those who take you by force and persecute you."

    December 4, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • mark

      it's called being ZEALOTS

      December 4, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • Matthew

      The word zealot was first used to describe people of Judea in the first century A.D., opposed to Roman rule and occupation. D'oh, wait a second; Jews and Christians were the first zealots?

      Sometimes when you throw stones, once and awhile, you'll miss your target and hit something you care about. Best to not throw stones at all.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:02 am |
  15. jack

    Muslims believe because of the way the Koran is written in Arabic. Learn Arabic and you will understand. Or just look at how the earth and the sky was created. Still if you just believe in the Big Bang without God. Then take a booommmb and place in it concrete and steal and explode it to create something like the Big Bang, and if the explosion creates a single building, then do not believe in God, otherwise, Islam is correct, God is one and only and is a beautiful builder.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • Realist

      Your ignorance of the scientific throries around the big bang is quite astounding. Typical theaist- refute what you THINK the theory says, not what it actually says.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • gayjesus

      lol, wut?

      Obvious troll. No one is this stupid and can still figure out how to post to a message board.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:45 am |
  16. alsmeer1

    whew! that is fine if Islam is more "religious". you can have religion. Thankfully I have a Relationship with my Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.

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

      you are not only lame in your ability to insult other fairy tales than your own but you are the christian version of the islamic extremists. GTFO of my secular country.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • Prabu

      You only have a relationship with other people. You cannot have a relationship with something that does not exist.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:47 am |
  17. Thank God I am not a Muslim

    Simply the majority of Islamic believers are less educated and less well-traveled than their western counterparts, and also not to mention mostly indigent and reside in countries that are secular and authoritarian, and not democratic, is there any wonder why they would not cling to religion as their sole escape mechanism from the reality of their hopeless existence.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:32 am |
  18. One7777777

    Why is CNN once again promoting Islam in America and knocking down Christianity?

    The 6th Wrath (just before the final one) says: "The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up, to prepare the way for the kings from the east."

    You DO know what that means, right? Rivers are the "living word" of God. Islam has filled that entire region of the Euphrates – the living word of God is gone from that area (Syria, Iraq and Turkey). This prepares the kings from the east – GOG. The enemy of God who will come against God's people – America.

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

      I thought the ekklasia (Church) was God's people? When did America take the place of the body of Christ?

      December 4, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • gayjesus

      Patrick is correct. One7777777777777420 is a moron and thinks amerikwa is God's country. Obviously uneducated and unable to think for themselves. Tragic that we aren't investing in education so that more people would learn critical thinking skills and mindframes like this would start to slip away.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:50 am |
  19. Rainer Braendlein

    "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."

    It is actually good, when someone is committed to his faith, but regretably Islam is no faith but the anti-faith, because the greatest sin in Muhammad's eyes is it to believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

    Sura 5: Verse 72 of the unholy Koran:

    They surely disbelieve who say: Lo! Allah is the Messiah, son of mary. The Messiah (himself) said: O Children of Israel, worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord. Lo! whoso ascribeth partners unto Allah, for him Allah hath forbidden paradise. His abode is the Fire. For evil-doers there will be no helpers.

    ( سورة المائدة , Al-Maeda, Chapter #5, Verse #72)

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

      Jesus was a prophet of the God not his son why would he die for our sins on a stick?

      December 4, 2011 at 9:35 am |
  20. Sonne

    I am Christian and have muslim friends. They are more religous because they come short of beating their kids if they do no learn their daily lesson. From babies they are taught everything Islam. Morning, midday, night .. all day! One of my (muslim) friends will admit to that without hesitation.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:31 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.