Conflict, theology and history make Muslims more religious than others, experts say
A recent global survey suggests that Muslims are more religious than Christians and Hindus.
December 3rd, 2011
10:00 PM ET

Conflict, theology and history make Muslims more religious than others, experts say

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN

(CNN) - Every religion has its true believers and its doubters, its pious and its pragmatists, but new evidence suggests that Muslims tend to be more committed to their faith than other believers.

Muslims are much more likely than Christians and Hindus to say that their own faith is the only true path to paradise, according to a recent global survey, and they are more inclined to say their religion is an important part of their daily lives.

Muslims also have a much greater tendency to say their religion motivates them to do good works, said the survey, released over the summer by Ipsos-Mori, a British research company that polls around the world.

Islam is the world's second-largest religion - behind Christianity and ahead of Hinduism, the third largest. With some 1.5 billion followers and rising, Islam's influence may be growing even faster than its numbers as the Arab Spring topples long-reigning secular rulers and opens the way to religiously inspired political parties.

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But while there's no doubt about the importance of Islam, experts have different theories about why Muslims appear to be more religious than members of other global faiths - and contrasting views on whether to fear the depth of Muslims' commitment to their faith.

One explanation lies in current affairs, says Azyumardi Azra, an expert on Islam in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim majority country.

Many Muslims increasingly define themselves in contrast with what they see as the Christian West, says Azra, the director of the graduate school at the State Islamic University in Jakarta.

"When they confront the West that they perceive or misperceive as morally in decline, many Muslims feel that Islam is the best way of life. Islam for them is the only salvation," he says.

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That feeling has become stronger since the September 11 attacks, as many Muslims believe there is a "growing conflict between Islam and the so-called West," he says.

"Unfortunately this growing attachment to Islam among Muslims in general has been used and abused by literal-minded Muslims and the jihadists for their own purposes," he says.

But other experts say that deep religious commitment doesn't necessarily lead to violence.

"Being more religious doesn't necessarily mean that they will become suicide bombers," says Ed Husain, a former radical Islamist who is now a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

In fact, Husain argues that religious upbringing "could be an antidote" to radicalism.

American Muslim women who cover explain their choice

The people most likely to become Islamist radicals, he says, are those who were raised without a religious education and came to Islam later, as "born-agains."

Muslims raised with a grounding in their religion are better able to resist the distortions of Islam peddled by recruiters to radical causes, some experts like Husain argue, making them less likely to turn to violence.

But he agrees that Muslims are strongly attached to their faith, and says the reason lies in the religion itself.

"Muslims have this mindset that we alone possess the final truth," Husain says.

Muslims believe "Jews and Christians went before us and Mohammed was the last prophet," says Husain, whose book "The Islamist" chronicles his experiences with radicals. "Our prophet aimed to nullify the message of the previous prophets."

The depth of the Muslim commitment to Islam is not only a matter of theology and current events, but of education and history, as well, other experts say.

"Where religion is linked into the state institutions, where religion is deeply ingrained from childhood, you are getting this feeling that 'My way is the only way,'" says Fiyaz Mughal, the director of Faith Matters, a conflict-resolution organization in London.

The Ipsos-Mori survey results included two countries with a strong link between religion and the state: Legally Muslim Saudi Arabia, which calls itself the guardian of Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina; and Indonesia, home of the world's largest Muslim population.

The third majority Muslim country in the study is Turkey, which has a very different relationship with religion. It was founded after World War I as a legally secular country. But despite generations of trying to separate mosque and state, Turkey is now governed by an Islam-inspired party, the AKP.

Turkey's experience shows how difficult it can be to untangle government and religion in Muslim majority countries and helps explain the Muslim commitment to their religion, says Azyumardi Azra, the Indonesia expert.

He notes that there has been no "Enlightenment" in Islam as there was in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, weakening the link between church and state in many Christian countries.

"Muslim communities have never experienced intense secularization that took place in Europe and the West in general," says Azra. "So Islam is still adhered to very strongly."

But it's not only the link between mosque and state in many Muslim majority countries that ties followers to their faith, says professor Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani diplomat who has written a book about Islam around the world.

Like Christians who wear "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelets, many Muslims feel a deep personal connection to the founder of their faith, the prophet Muhammad, he says.

Muhammad isn't simply a historical figure to them, but rather a personal inspiration to hundreds of millions of people around the world today.

"When a Muslim is fasting or is asked to give charity or behave in a certain way, he is constantly reminded of the example set by the prophet many centuries ago," argues Ahmed, the author of "Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization."

His book is based on interviews with Muslims around the world, and one thing he found wherever he traveled was admiration for Muhammad.

"One of the questions was, 'Who is your role model?' From Morocco to Indonesia, it was the prophet, the prophet, the prophet," says Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington.

But while Ahmed sees similar patterns across the Islamic world, Ed Husain, the former radical, said it was important to understand its diversity, as well.

"There is no monolithic religiosity - Muslims in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are following different versions of Islam," says Husain. "All we're seeing (in the survey) is an adherence to a faith."

Political scientist Farid Senzai, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington, raised questions about the survey's findings.

"Look at the countries that are surveyed - Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Turkey," he says. "There are about 300 million Muslims in those three countries, (who make up) about 20% of Muslims globally."

Islam is "incredibly important" in Saudi Arabia, he says.

"But in Tunisia or Morocco you could have had a different result. It would have been nice if they had picked a few more Arab countries and had a bit more diversity," says Senzai.

The pollster, Ipsos-Mori, does monthly surveys in 24 countries, three of which are majority Muslim – Turkey, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. The other countries range from India to the United States, and Mexico to South Korea, and are the same each month, regardless of the subject the pollsters are investigating.

In the survey released in July, about six in 10 Muslims in the survey said their religion was the only way to salvation, while only a quarter of Hindus and two out of 10 Christians made that claim about their own faiths.

More than nine out of 10 Muslims said their faith was important in their lives, while the figure was 86% for Hindus and 66% for Christians.

Ipsos-Mori surveyed 18,473 adults via an online panel in April and released the findings in July. Results were weighted to make the results as representative as possible, but the pollster cautioned that because the survey was conducted online, it was harder to get representative results in poorer countries where internet access is not widespread.

CNN polling director Keating Holland also warns that in an "opt-in" survey, where respondents actively choose to participate, results tend to come from "people who are confident in their opinions and express them openly... not good for intensely private matters like faith or income or sex."

Online surveys in countries that are not entirely free are also open to the possibility that pollsters get "the approved response" in those nations, "where the people who are most likely to be willing to talk about such matters are the ones who hold, or at least verbalize, opinions that won't get them in trouble if they are expressed," Holland says.

That may have been an issue in Saudi Arabia, where respondents were given the choice of not answering questions on religion due to their potential sensitivity in the kingdom. The Saudi sample was the smallest, with 354 participants, meaning "findings for Saudi Arabia must be treated with caution," Ipsos-Mori said.

About 1,000 people participated in most countries, but sample sizes were smaller in the three majority Muslim countries and in eight other countries.

The survey participants did not reflect the true percentage of Christians and Muslims in the world. Christians were over-represented – as were people who said they had no religion – and Muslims were under-represented.

Nearly half the respondents identified themselves as Christian. Eleven percent were Muslim, 4% were Buddhist, 3% were Hindu and 3% were "other." A quarter said they had no religion and 6% refused to say.

Fiyaz Mughal, the interfaith expert, argues that even though the countries surveyed might not be representative of the entire Muslim world, the findings about Muslims rang broadly true. Muslims in different countries were committed to their faith for different reasons, he says.

"Saudi Arabia is an institutionally religious state. Indonesia has religion tied into its culture," says Mughal.

But Muslim immigrants to Europe also show strong ties to their religion, either as a defense mechanism in the face of a perceived threat, or because of an effort to cling to identity, he contends.

He detects a link between insular communities and commitment to faith regardless of what religion is involved. It is prevalent in Muslim Saudi Arabia, but he has seen it among Israeli Jews as well, he says.

"The Israeli Jewish perspective is that (the dispute with the Palestinians) is a conflict of land and religion which are integrally linked," Mughal says.

"What does play a role in that scenario is a sense of isolationism and seclusion in Israeli Jewish religious communities, a growing trend to say, 'Our way is the only way,'" he says.

Religious leaders of all faiths need to combat those kinds of attitudes because of the greater diversity people encounter in the world today, he argues.

They have a responsibility to teach their congregations "that if they are following a religion, it is not as brutal or exclusive as possible," Mughal says. "Things are changing. The world is a different place from what it was even 20 years ago."

Politicians, too, "need to take these issues quite seriously," he says.

"In the Middle East there are countries - the Saudi Arabias - where you need to be saying that diversity, while it may not be a part of the country, is something they have to deal with when moving in a globalized area," he says.

But Senzai, the political scientist, says that it's also important for the West to take the Muslim world on its own terms.

"Many Muslims want religion to play a role in politics," he says. "To assume that everyone around the world wants to be like the West - that they want liberal secular democracy - is an absurd idea."

- CNN's Nima Elbagir and Atika Shubert contributed to this report.

- Newsdesk editor, The CNN Wire

Filed under: 9/11 • Islam • Middle East

soundoff (5,459 Responses)
  1. duh

    Money. Wealthy people are less 'religious'. People are no different anywhere. The poor and oppressed reach for hope. This supports evidence against God? No, it proves mankind are every bit the very same animal throughout existence.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • One7777777

      "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

      Matthew 19:24

      December 4, 2011 at 9:51 am |
    • same

      America is less religious everyday, and using your own words "is heading there". You are contradicting yourself.

      FYI: Most of Muslims nations ARE secular, Islamists never got a chance to rule, we yet have to see if they will remain "poorest" nations after they actually get in politics

      December 4, 2011 at 10:07 am |
  2. Dunderhead

    Another excuse to get out of work. Takes away their ability to think for themselves. Muslims aren't allowed to think-thats why they are from the poorest Nations in the World. A few idiots think for them and they follow. Almost like where America is heading.

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

      'Almost' where America is heading????

      December 4, 2011 at 9:49 am |
    • Yuri Pelham

      We aren't "heading". We're there.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • VeryOldMan

      That's why we are getting more religious? That's the reason for the growing evangelical movement?

      December 4, 2011 at 10:07 am |
  3. Rainer Braendlein

    "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."

    All this would be good, if the Muslims would refer it to Christianity, which was and is the only authorized and accredited belief on earth. No other religion has so much historical evidence like Christianity. The New Testament, which is the basic scripture of Christianity fits fully together with to age-old Old Testament. Christianity has a lively connection to the age-old past. In contrast, the Islam has befallen the world like cancer first around 610 after Christ and was made-up by a criminal warlord. Islam has no connection to the age-old Israel, which were God's chosen people and His witness to the world (the today people of Israel are still God's chosen people).

    December 4, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • Patrick from Minnesota

      Just saying, all religons believe they're the chosen people and they all have more-less the same arguments. That is the whole reason why so many religious wars are started.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • gremlinus

      Ummmm, pretty sure that, let's see the Jewish faith, Hinduism, and a few others pre-date Christianity. And the new testament is a collection decided on from a variety of contradictory texts. Please don't sit here and try to argue the historical authenticity of the Bible. Or any other religion. You will lose.

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

      And the Islamic texts do refer to Jesus as a prophet.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • Warren

      "Christianity, which was and is the only authorized and accredited belief on earth"
      I hope some day you learn to accept that some people choose to believe differently than you – and that they have every right to do so. Your sort of religious narrow-mindedness is like a cancer that plagues humanity, breeding hatred, bigotry and violence. You sound like the Christian equivalent of the Radical Muslims you no doubt revile.
      Christianity has no more inherent validity than any other religion practiced by man. Get over yourself.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:57 am |
  4. Waqas

    Thank you Brian Johnson, well said. It is a RELIGION, not manipulated or changed to serve the people's preferences. Like it or hate it you have to abide by it.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:46 am |
  5. HisNoodlyAppendage

    Only infantile, close minded people that can't or won't think for themselves, and that deny science and truth, need religion. Religion is from the stone ages. If you believe in a 'superior being' (i.e., a 'god'), you can believe directly without the brainwashing dogma of ALL the various types of worldwide, man conceived religions! IF there is a 'god', 'it' is the same FOR ALL OF US! WAKE UP PEOPLE!

    December 4, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • AGuest9

      And the sheep continue to cry out, "Bah, bah. Amen. Shalom. As-Salāmu `Alaykum. Bah bah..."

      December 4, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  6. truthhurts

    CNN trying to promote a cult.. Pathetic.. This cult calls for the death of everyone that is not muslim...

    December 4, 2011 at 9:46 am |
  7. Ibu Lala

    “…Science owes a great deal more to Arab culture (Islam), it owes its existence” [Robert Briffault in the “Making of Humanity”]

    December 4, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • AGuest9

      Mr. Briffault was social anthropologist and in later life a novelist because he couldn't make it as a surgeon. Apparently, he wasn't much of a social anthropologist, either. Separating the Arabs of Baghdad of the first and second centuries from the murderous band that followed Mohammed through Northern Africa, killing those who would not "convert" isn't difficult, yet people insist on throwing them in together to show how "enlightened" the murderous Moors who later invaded Europe were supposed to be. How ironic.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:16 am |
  8. brian johnson

    This is not religion for people, this is people for religion and whatever the books says, right or wrong, they abide by it..

    December 4, 2011 at 9:44 am |
  9. ken

    "..new evidence suggests that Muslims tend to be more committed to their faith than other believers." Doesn't take too much research to figure that out. How many other "religions" have believers so committed they are willing to fly a jetliner into a building?

    December 4, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • Republicans Are The American Taliban

      Christianity allows for the shooting of a doctor who performs legal abortions in the head,killing him, while he is attending church services. Then the perpetrator is praised!

      December 4, 2011 at 9:49 am |
    • Ron

      Democrats allow the murder of unborn children and you defend the doctors that do the murdering? LOL!

      December 4, 2011 at 9:51 am |
    • AGuest9

      Republicans hate raising taxes, but are all for building new prisons to house adult unwanted, uneducated children who were raised on welfare.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • Republicans Are The American Taliban

      Once the children are born, Republicans have no problem allowing them to be murdered in unnecessary wars.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  10. Ron

    Given that Islam is a terrorist religion, why is it a surprise they're the most devoted? We already knew this 10 years ago.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • Republicans Are The American Taliban

      More human beings have been murdered by the Catholic Church, in the name of God, than any other organization since the dawn of time.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  11. NotALemming

    Cane we all spell C U L T ....

    December 4, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • gremlinus

      No, but I can spell can.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  12. Sun&Sky

    99% of the time, people who are strongly religious tend to be less intelligent and have less education. Seems like once a person is exposed to science, particularly physics and astronomy, they shed the notion that their existence in the cosmos is anything special.

    Carl Sagan, referring to the "Pale Blue Dot" photograph taken of Earth by Voyager 1 as it reached the edge of our solar system, said: "Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light."

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

      well said and very true.

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

      Don't fool yourself – Scienctism is an ideology and a sort of "religious" belief just like th rest of them. Get off your high-horse, your a "believer" too but in the religion of science.

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

      And yet I bet you have no science background and are repeating what any 1st grader can. lol at u thinking you're smart because you're on the bandwagon.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • Patrick

      BTW, the more science explores the micro (and macro) levels, the more "weird" everything becomes...think quantum theory...

      December 4, 2011 at 9:49 am |
    • AGuest9

      "imagined self-importance" e.xpl.ains reli.gion, as we.ll as po.lit.ics and extrav.agant wea.lth.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:51 am |
    • Lindsay

      I think your statement is very biased and makes me question your level of education.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • AGuest9

      "Scienctism"??? I guess that goes with their "Atheism" to use against anyone who doesn't take part in their fanatical beliefs?

      December 4, 2011 at 9:56 am |
  13. Ibu Lala

    “Islam is a religion that is essentially rationalistic in the widest sense of this term…and the dogma of unity of God has always been proclaimed therein with a grandeur a majesty, an invariable purity and with a note of sure conviction, which it is hard to find surpassed outside the pale of Islam....A creed so precise, so stripped of all theological complexities and consequently so accessible to the ordinary understanding might be expected to possess and does indeed possess a marvelous power of winning its way into the consciences of men.” [Edward Montet, ‘La Propagande Chretienne et ses Adversaries Musulmans,’ Paris 1890. (Also in T.W. Arnold in ‘The Preaching of Islam,’ London 1913)]

    December 4, 2011 at 9:43 am |
  14. Peace TV

    Compare your views about Islam and Muslims with the following Bible verses:
    # Requires veiling for all women (1 Corinthians 11:5);
    # Treats women unjustly (1 Corinthians 11:5 and 14:34, 1 Timothy 2:11, Ecclesiasticus 25:18-19 & 33, Ecclesiastes 7:26, Genesis 3:16 & 19:8 & 21:10, Leviticus 27:6, Numbers 27:8-11 & 30, Deuteronomy 21:10-13 & 25:5-10 & 22:13-21, Judges 19:16-30);
    # Believes in gender inequality (1 Timothy 2:11, 1 Corinthians14:34);
    # Allows polygamy ( Exodus 21:10; 2 Samuel 5:13; 1 Chronicles 3:19 and 14:3; 1 Kings 11:3; 2 Chronicles 11:21; Deuteronomy 21:15; Genesis 4:19 & 16:2);

    December 4, 2011 at 9:43 am |
  15. Peace TV

    Compare your views about Islam and Muslims with the following Bible verses:
    # promotes honor killings (Deuteronomy 22:15-21 [stone to death], Leviticus 21:9, Judges 11:36-40, Genesis 34:1-31);
    # Promotes suicide attack (Judges 16:27-30)
    # Stone to death who worships other gods (Deuteronomy 17:2-5 and 32:23-25);

    December 4, 2011 at 9:42 am |
  16. ELH

    The biggest cult that has ever existed.

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

      ALL religions are brainwashing cults! And they're all man-conceived and written. Read 'THE GOD DELSUION' by Richard Dawkins. What a fantastic, logical, refreshing book!

      December 4, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  17. cfrye

    Threat of death usually is fairly convincing.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • william

      You got that right. I'd bow to any "God" they put out there if the alternative was having someone saw my head off.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:43 am |
  18. Ibu Lala

    “The Islamic teachings have left great traditions for equitable and gentle dealings and behavior, and inspire people with nobility and tolerance. These are human teachings of the highest order and at the same time practicable. These teachings brought into existence a society in which hard-heartedness and collective oppression and injustice were the least as compared with all other societies preceding it....Islam is replete with gentleness, courtesy, and fraternity.” [H.G. Wells.]

    December 4, 2011 at 9:41 am |
  19. Colin

    As an atheist, it is fun watching Christians, Jews and Muslims squable over who knows best what their sky-fairy is or wants. They all suffer from the same defect – a total lack of any evidence that there is a god – but will passionately defend their respective positions – sometimes to the point of violence.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • Patrick

      It is funny to see Atheists do the same thing – with absolutely NO PROOF that there is not a God but they have there ideology and "religious" beliefs too, I guess!

      December 4, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • zeus_z

      Doesnt the muslim faith say if you die a martyr you will go to heaven to a dozen virgin brides? Seriously? How do women follow that

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

      "Which of the following is responsible for keeping a good percentage of the World's female population in a state of complete isolated subjugation and fear:

      (a) barbaric dictatorships;
      (b) organized crime
      (c) the ku klux klan; or
      (d) Islam

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

      I am an agnostic, so either way, organized religion is a sham to me. IF there is a 'god', I would believe in 'it' DIRECTLY, without the brainwashing, ridiculous dogma of a religion. Nice post Colin.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • pastorzuray

      Study your history and you will find that many of the worlds greatest tyrants were opposed to the idea of God or considered themselves a god. Some were religious, I understand, but the problem is not their faith as much as it's their personal desire to be the center of their universe. Just trying to balance out the info.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • Ron

      And it's funny that Athiests have emotional and mental instabilities that they must proudly look down on religion while having NO scientific background (for the vast majority). It's like the global warming nuts or OWS gang. You're a joke.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • AGuest9

      I'm curious. I guess the believers have to follow SOMETHING, so they assume that everyone else does, as well. What, exactly is an "Athesist"? I don't understand this capitalization. Do believers think that others who don't believe in their made-up guy in the clouds with the long white beard and flowing robes HAVE to believe in "something else"? Bizarre.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:02 am |
  20. Ibu Lala

    “I have always held the religion of Muhammad (saw) in high estimation because of its wonderful vitality. It is the only religion which appears to me to possess that assimilating capacity to the changing phase of existence which can make itself appeal to every age. I have studied him – the wonderful man and in my opinion far from being an anti-Christ, he must be called the Savior of Humanity. I believe that if a man like him were to assume the dictatorship of the modern world he would succeed in solving its problems in a way that would bring it the much needed peace and happiness.” [Sir George Bernard Shaw in ‘The Genuine Islam’ Vol. 1, No. 8, 1936]

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

      For sure, we have Islam in Afganistan, in Iran, in Saudi Arabia. The purest of Sharia. The problems of the world are getting solved.

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


      December 4, 2011 at 10:18 am |
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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.