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. Rosalie Bhatnagar

    Of course they are more "religious". They are also uneducated and ignorant for the most part. They don't know how to think for themselves

    December 4, 2011 at 9:55 am |
  2. mightyfudge

    "NO ONE knows what happens when we die, and ANYONE claiming such knowledge is a LIAR who probably wants your MONEY." This cannot be repeated enough. It should be printed on all US currency.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  3. MrId

    Ignorance. Pure and simple

    December 4, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  4. ziahshah

    John Davenport writes in his book, An apology for Mohammed and the Koran:

    “It is in the compositions of Friar Bacon, who was born in 1214, and who learned the Oriental languages, that we discover the most extensive acquaintance with the Arabian anthors. He quotes Albumazar, Thabet-Ebu-Corah, Ali Alhacer, Alkandi, Alfraganus and Arzakeb; and seems to have been as familiar with them as with the Greek and Latin classics, especially with Avicenna, whom he calls ‘the chief and prince of philosophy.’ The great Lord Bacon, it is well known, imbibed and borrowed the first principles of his famous experimental philosophy from his predecessor and namesake Roger Bacon, a fact which indisputably establishes the derivation of the Baconian philosophical system from the descendants of Ishmael and disciples of Mohammed.”

    In a short paragraph, John Davenport has very precisely identified all the links in the human intellectual evolution. Additionally, his book, that is available in Google books, is a master piece in the defence of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him. Read his two page Preface and you immediately begin to notice that he is standing shoulder to shoulder with other great souls, who have painted the Prophet Muhammad, in true colors, in the Western world, like Thomas Carlyle.

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

      And in one short paragraph, I will remind you that the Arabs purloined all of their thinking from the other two Abrahamic faiths – Judaism and Christianity. Their philosophical system they took from the Greeks when they came into contact with it after taking the Greek city of Alexandria in Egypt. Even their math, for which they lay such bold claims, come largely from the Hindus. Why, after all, would people who write right to left, turn around and do math from left to write? It is because the system was borrowed from others (Hindi is written from left to write, like ENGLISH).

      December 4, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • EasternRomanEmpire

      ziahshah, I just read John Davenport's preface. Therein is a series of subjective statements. What would be much more useful is hard objective historical accounts of why Islam spread so quickly. See Ibu Lala's comments just above yours as an example. Can you help me with solid objective accounts of Islamic history?

      December 4, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  5. dsptchr645

    I don't think they are more religious. I think they are more devout. The beliefs are lived every day by everyone in the family. Members who disregard or disobey are dealth with severely. Non-members are hated. It is a very structured life for people who want a very structured life.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  6. JJay

    Religion is an intelligence test. If you spend your days communicating telepathically with invisible sky fairies instead of learning, it's because you don't have the intelligence to learn.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • One7777777

      And maybe this all about something so much more than you could ever imagine.

      Question #1:

      Do you want to know if your Creator (God) is real? Yes or No

      No – Stop. You cannot move on.
      Yes – Please move to the next lesson

      December 4, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • JJay

      And in your fantasy world you actually think you know something.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:09 am |
  7. Peace TV

    Compare your views about Islam and Muslims with the following Bible verses:
    # Promotes slavery (Ephesians 6:5, Deuteronomy 20:10);
    # Sanction being sold into slavery as a punishment for theft (Exodus 22:1-3);
    # Admits that their own texts have been falsified (Jeremiah 8:8);
    # Demands unquestioning obedience to political authority (Romans 13:1);
    # Advocates suicide (Samuel 31:4-5);
    # Encourages the slaughter prisoners of war (Deuteronomy 7:1-2);
    # Encourages killing of strangers (Numbers 1:51, 3:10, 3:38, 18:7);

    December 4, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • One7777777

      Love your brother but do not allow them to bring in their false gods.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein

      Have you ever heard of John the Baptist, who criticized king Herod for adultry with the wife of his brother?

      John had to pay with his head for that.

      Note: Probably Muhammad has committed a similar sin like Herod.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  8. CJP

    They are more committed to their religion. That does not mean more committed to God though. The problem in history has been all of the commitment to religion instead of God which has led to atrocities the world over.

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

      They are committed to their God, which could be the same God as yours.

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

    Arab women are the some of the ugliest in the world. Arab culture and religion are designed to cope with this ugly truth. That is why Arab women are kept inside and when they go out they are covered with a sheet.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  10. Peace TV

    Compare your views about Islam and Muslims with the following Bible verses:
    # Encourages abandoning the sick (Numbers 5:1-4);
    # Supports punishment for the sins of your ancestors (Numbers 14:18);
    # Encourages war (Matthew 10:34);
    # Promotes blood feuds (Numbers 35:19-21);
    # Is anti-Semitic (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, Micah3:1-12, Hosea 8:1-14, Matthew 23:13-39, Acts 2:23, 3:13-15);

    December 4, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  11. ziahshah

    We are covering this editorial with several comments on the Muslim Times.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  12. richsingles

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    December 4, 2011 at 9:50 am |
  13. Budega

    The only reason is lack of education.
    Most of them are never though reasoning, critical analyses, science; even access to schools.

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

      Sounds like Southern Baptists, but fortunately the US separates church and state,and hope we continue to do so. These people need education, jobs and choice.

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

    “History makes it clear, however, that the legend of fanatical Muslims sweeping through the world and forcing Islam at the point of sword upon conquered races is one of the most fantastically absurd myths that historians have ever repeated” [De Lacy O’Leary in ‘Islam at the Crossroads,’ London, 1923]

    December 4, 2011 at 9:49 am |
  15. Passing Through

    "By their fruits, ye shall know them." Actions speak louder than words.

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


    December 4, 2011 at 9:49 am |
    • One7777777

      We are waking up.

      To the fact that God is Real. We do have a creator. America is the promised land – the 12 tribes had an exodus to HERE. Why do you think media and organizations have been trying to corrupt us? This is just another example.

      If you haven't been called yet, I'd suggest you reach out to God. Wake up and realize before it's too late.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  17. One7777777

    Of course they are devoted – if they don't express faith – they are BEHEADED.

    Stop promoting this in our country. 90% of people in this country express a belief in God.

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

      Completely agree. I was thinking about half of them are only worshiping out of fear and not true belief.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  18. jed

    "Muslims increasingly define themselves in contrast with what they see as the Christian West". The mistake here is that the article (and most Muslims) assumes that the west is Christian. Most people in the west are not Christian. One is not Christian because of where they are born or who their parents were or because water was sprinkled on their head as an infant. To be a Christian, one must a seek and accept a loving relationship with Jesus Christ. Muslims are (rightly) concerned about the decline in western behaviors and values and want to avoid these values for themselves. The great tragedy is that Muslims (wrongly) associate these declining values with Christianity and this keeps their hearts hardened against the true and only way into a relationship with God our Father - the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus came and sacrificed for EVERYONE and anyone who repents and believes can enter into a relationship with him and be saved. This inlcudes all peoples - Muslims, Hindus, and atheists.

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

      Excellent response. Don't forget though. It is not just repent and believe. According to Acts 2:38, Acts 22:16, 1 Peter 3:21 and several other Scriptures it is repent and be baptized.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:51 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein


      The West is yet Christian, because the authorities acknowledge Christianity as lawful religion. About the legitimacy of Islam is still very much argument.

      It doesn't matter that many Westerners have become secular in this connection.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  19. Jake

    There you go, thank you jsaghir!

    December 4, 2011 at 9:47 am |
  20. Rodriga

    This article is scary. Here we have a religion that polarizes cultures and has undeniable political undertones. On top of that, we learn that its recalcitrant followers feel great motivation to do "good works" for their religion. Many of us know what those "good works" entail (i.e., I don't see any Mother Theresa's or interfaith peace demonstrations coming from that religion). To think that that religion has a growing influence in Europe and the US, that many governments have their hand ties because of oil, and that many naive people treat it as it if were Buddhism or Hinduism- without one grain of skepticism- is a scary thought.

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

      Don't be scared Rodriga. There are over 1 and a half billion muslims out there, not all of us want to kill and bomb, it's only a handful, and not because of religion, just incase if you haven't noticed it's for financial gain.
      That'e like saying all americans are killers because Black Water's members were all americans.
      Do you know how many people died in Iraq after the us invasion under false accusations, and how many people died in Gaza under Israily occupation with the blessing of the US, it doesn't mean all americans are killers.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:59 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.