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. jh

    The hubris and arrogance of Muslims to think that they're religion posses the final truth is no less arrogant than Jews thinking they're God's chosen or Christian thinking only they get to go to heaven.

    The only common thread in these three man made religions is that they come from the desert – a region of limited resources which means hoarding, warfare and tribalism.

    Don't believe in any religion that comes from the desert.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  2. Catzie53

    In my book, Muslims as with ALL religions is a cult! Think about it.

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

      I like that Catzie – I exactly know what you mean. All religions are cultish, because they are not all inclusive

      December 4, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • Big Bob

      I have. You're a blind relaitivist!

      December 4, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  3. JW

    Ignorance and ritual. Others don't really believe what they practice deep in side, they have other beliefs that conflict and override with them. Religion is just politics.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:03 am |
  4. boscobear

    Where in the Bible, it says death for people who leave, change, etc., their religion it is extremely rare for this to happen. Whereas in the Muslim religion it is very common for this to happen. Also look how their women are beneath second class. So, in the Muslim religiom there is great incententive to worship.

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

      Please... what Bible do you read? The Bible is full of murder, genocide, slavery, and pretty much the same stuff. You have to keep in mind that you have been conditioned to read the Bible a certain way all your life. You have to read the Bible as if it was your first time... as a skeptic would, which is going to be very difficult for you... if not impossible.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  5. Pasha

    To be expected. They pray five time a day. They pray an extra prayer on holidays. Not many other religions demand such practice. Who knows it could be because they get rewards for these efforts and get a good feeling from it. Rewards from Allah that is.

    I'd say pick up the Quran and Hadith books yourselves and look at it from the best source "the actual religious texts" then pass judgement.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:01 am |
    • MagnaCarta

      The only award that I heard one gets from Allah is a set of 72 virgins. All this trouble for that??? Can you please list other awards as promised by Allah? I am just curious.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      And how is Islam any different from Christianity in that regard. Adherents to any Abrahamic religion all promise the reward of eternal life for an immortal soul. Pacified with pat answers to philosophical questions like "why are we here?", "where did we come from?" or "what does it all mean?" religions of the world consolidate and control the behavior of its followers by promoting fear and ignorance. Nature itself is anthropomorphised into a father figure. A superior agent of creation to provide a recognizable face to the mysteries and unknowns of reality. It's a notion that carries enormous appeal to the masses(especially the oppressed) despite the obvious contradictions present in its teachings due to its root foundations in barbarous primitive cultures. Religion and its associated magical thinking will persist until education, skepticism and rational thought are embraced as the pinnacle of human endeavors.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  6. MagnaCarta

    One simple question. Apart from Islam(or Judaism, but Israel is a different case study) do we have any other religion which is the religion of the state? I only see only Muslim countries no Christian or Hindu or Buddhist).

    December 4, 2011 at 10:01 am |
    • Colin

      Never heard of the Church of England?

      December 4, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • MagnaCarta

      Do they prevent minorities in their country to not practice their faith??? I guess not.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • HotAirAce

      A quick web search would show that are several countries with official religions including several that cling to the catholic cult.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • Bo

      It's a question of historical timeline not "good" and "bad" religions. All religions can be good or bad. Prior to the 19th century enlightenment period state religions were present in most of Europe, and the Americas and the now so called "west." They committed the same barbaric things that all out of control religions can and will do. The Spanish Inquisition, Crusades, Feudal Warfare, the Dark Ages and on and on... Again, its a question of time and not of what. The Middle East is going through changes just like Europe went through changes. Let's hope that the changes are for a more free and tolerant society.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  7. Colin

    Muslims tend to be more religious that we in the West for the same reason that people from Mississippi and Alabama tend to be more religious than those from Vermont and Connecticut, and why the Catholic Church is dying in all but the Third World.

    We in the West are simply becoming too well educated to believe in the nonsense of all loving sky-fairies causing us to live happily ever after we die. In general, religion steps in and fills the role of explaining things we do not understand. The better educated a person is, the less room there is for it.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:01 am |
    • KC

      Have you ever read the quran? i don't expect you to read the entire book.
      But give Islam a chance to explain itself...i beg that of you, people have conflicts with christianity which is y they paint islam with the same brush.
      If you seriously believe in science see "zakir & campbell debate" on youtube. its around 4 hours. watch it start to finish and hear us out.......i am begging you for your 4 hours. Is it too much to ask ?

      December 4, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • HisNoodlyAppendage

      Excellent post Colin! I absolutely agree.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • Bo

      EXACTLY!!! and the proof is in the pudding... find the best educated most progressive nations... find the least religion. Period.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  8. Truth

    This article confused Fanaticism with religion. Only my way is right is fanaticism. Muslims are more fanatic than other religion. Ohh yes, by miles. Are they religious?I doubt as they are more politico-religious (using their religion for political purpose). No surprise over there, going by the origin of Islam. Religiousness is more spiritual.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:00 am |
  9. Kevin

    Religion is full of mythology, and education diminishes the need for people to find understanding about the world through myth. If you consider the percentage of Muslims who understand the world through science compared to the percentage of other believers, you have your answer. Of course there are believers who embrace both science and mythology, but their motivations are not based on fear.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:00 am |
  10. Kevin

    It's simple really, they are more religious because Islam is basically brainwashing. From an early age they are taught they must stop whatever they are doing, and pray 5 times a day. they MUST go to the mosque on Friday, they MUST face Mecca when praying...the list goes on and on and on. It's a means of control. There is no frredom of choice, no free will. Honestly, do you think God needs us to observe all these silly rituals for him to know we believe in him? He's God, he knows.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:59 am |
    • KC

      Its not just a prayer, rather we
      1) wash ourselves
      2) listen to some instructions (dont drink, or dont gamble etc)
      3) do a little exercise
      4) ask God for forgiveness
      all these points are not for God, it is for us. God doesn't need our prayers or anything from us.
      Islam unlike other faiths does not say "believe & get saved", rather our actions will be accounted.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • Kevin

      True story, I work with 90% muslims. I ask a LOT of questions. My boss, is from Egypt. We have Senegali, Somali, Euritrian, Sudanese, and a Yemini at my work. What you say is BS. to even become a muslim you must proclaim "There is no God but God" roughly translated, which is just like a Christian becoming saved. All organized religions are forms of brainwashing, the muslims simply waited longer to found their religion, so they could incorporate the things that Christianity, and Judism left out, to control the minds of their followers. They took brainwashing to a new level. It's a cult. Plain and simple. Just look at what islamic countries do to people who recant their faith! Iran is trying to FORCE a Christian Pastor to convert to avoid death. You cannot even insult islam without death threats. Another means of control. God does not need you to be obedient, he needs you to be you. He will judge accordingly. But you sure do try to paint a pretty simple picture of what you want us to THINK islam is. However, the educated amongst us know better.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  11. pupu


    December 4, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  12. 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);
    # Kill who becomes an apostate or a heretic who dissents (Deuteronomy 13:8-9, 1 Timothy 1:20)
    # Kill who entice a friend or family member to worship other gods (Deuteronomy 13:6-10);
    # 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 9:57 am |
    • MagnaCarta

      The difference is Christianity moved on but Muslims are still following what they are told in Quran.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  13. Rick

    I would be more religious too if death was the only other option.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • SecondThat

      Amen. I have lived in an exclusively Muslim country in Central Asia for three years and the way people with opposing views - even of their own religion - are treated is appalling. People fear dissent, because they know what the consequences are. Those who are publicly rebuked often have to become "super-Muslims" in order to prove themselves.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  14. Azarahi

    Wow, with all that religiousness you'd think they'd score higher on the Corruption Perceptions Index 😉

    December 4, 2011 at 9:56 am |
  15. michael

    Of course this makes sense. Look at history with all religions. The majority of the Muslim World is still stuck somewhere in the 15th Century. If you look back at time, the Christians were religious zealots for a thousand years right up until industrialization. The Jewish people as well. If you polled just a "modern era" Muslim population, I'm sure the results might be a bit different.
    If a people do not have access to Modern news or a connection with the outside world, then of course this is what you have.
    I hope they didn't spend a lot of money on a study that would be so obvious.

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

    "The rapid success of the Arab invaders was largely due to the welcome they received from the native Christians, who hated the Byzantine rule not only for its oppressive administration, but also – and chiefly – on account of the bitterness of theological rancour. The Jacobites, who formed the majority of the Christian population, had been very roughly handled by the Orthodox adherents of the courts and subjected to indignities that have not been forgotten by their children even to the present day. Some were tortured and then thrown into the sea; many followed their Patriarch into exile to escape from the hands of their persecutors, while a large number disguised their opinions under a pretended acceptance of the Council of Chalcedon."

    The Spread of Islam in the World – A History of Peaceful Preaching. Prof . Thomas Arnold. 2nd Edition. Goodword Books, 2002. p102

    December 4, 2011 at 9:56 am |
    • EasternRomanEmpire

      Ibu Lala, I've been trying to find out why Islam spread so quickly in its early years. Thanks for your quote. Are there more good articles or books that narrate the early rapid spread of Islam?

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

      I hope you aren't suggesting that Islam was a peaceful conversion of Christians and Jews. The Christian and Jews did not convert out of a revelation that Mohamed had but under the threat of the sword. If there was no conversion the person would die or pay a tax of some sort.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  17. pupu

    Here is an answer to your question, CNN. Past and present history stores 3 things in the world memory: Communism, Faschism, and Islamism. All three have one thing in common: totalitarianism based on fear.

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

      you're going to have to add a lot more religions to your list bud... including Christianity

      December 4, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  18. awaysaway

    This is a nice way to spend a Sunday morning – reading the comments from Christians who want to "exterminate" Muslims.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:55 am |
  19. Don

    "God is a concept by which we measure our pain." The more Muslims feel that they are being attacked by the Christian west, the more they depend on their god.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:55 am |
  20. hmmm...

    Well, let's look at that horrible subject of hazing. Hazing is meant to bring people together through experiencing hardship or having to work and humble themselves to become a part of something bigger. (I know...a silly and ignorant example but it happens.) Belonging to something that only requires breathing, which most practicing Christians do as they sit in the pews, brings no satisfaction to belonging to the larger group as one puts no real effort into it. Democracy also reduces the power of religion. It's the old, 'Have it your way" syndrome that democracy brings with it that is carried over to how we practice religions. I greatly respect the Muslim religion because it bows down to no one but God and rather than play defensively and cow tow for membership...it demands. It is often reported and surprising by people in Democratic countries how happy the poor are compared to us. Pride is surviving tough situation, pride in doing what is difficult elevates self-esteem...while we crave what is easy...we often fourish in what is hard. When are we a s acountry at our best...when we have experienced the worse.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:55 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.