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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. theoldadam

    They ARE way MORE religious!

    But God hates religion. Religion being 'that which we do to ascend to the Divine'.

    God is after faith. Trust in Himself and what He has done for each one of us through that bloody cross and the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus.

    That's the gospel.

    .

    December 4, 2011 at 10:11 am |
  2. Ginamero

    If by committed you mean, 'willing to kill others because God says they are dirty and need to die,' then yes, those nuts are committed. Also, I think it's because most of their governments are that way and they were raises early believing it. It seems much like a paranoid religion to me and very misogynistic.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • john

      Ginamero, its funny you sound so paranoid. Muslim are not as bad as you think, many religious nut job hijacked the religion and commit horrible crimes, they twist the meaning for their own purpose.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  3. Sonne

    If CNN thought this little article would help muslims, man did they get it wrong. I have Muslim friends and they are all pretty much anti-American. They are not radical or anything like that but they are taught to dislike America from a young age. Also, they are far more religous because being otherwise is not tolerated and even threatened with physical harm.

    If you are Muslim and diagree what I said, you are lying to yourself and everyone else on here.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • fowzi

      hey its not that we are anti america, we just don't agree with the policy's they have, how they support Israeli while they commit continues war crimes against Palestine. I was born and raised in america i am a muslim, and i think those people who want to kill innocent people are those radicals which in my mind and millions of others are not considered to be muslim

      December 4, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • john

      I agree with the fellow who replied to you. I am VERY proud to be and American, some of the US policy are not the best and in fact are considered violation international law. That does not mean i was taught to hate American, I love this country and would do anything to protect it. Not because i am muslim it means that i don't like this country. Islam does not hurt anyone who does not want to be muslim, its people who does that, religious nut case who does these things in the name of religion. Islam is the second largest religion in the World but it is growing at a faster rate than the largest religion in the World. I hope you meet some good muslim, your so called muslim friends are not good muslim if they hate America. I am proud to have been born in America and grew up in American and i am also proud to be a muslim

      December 4, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • Prabu

      Two posts by the same Muslim liar. You were right, Sonne, and they fell for the bait and lied. Muslims are such bad liars.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  4. Don Jones

    Have you ever noticed the more tenuous the support for the belief the militant the followers. Take scientology or any other. All religions have very little suport with facts, or none, and the more absurd the basis the more fanatical the followers.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:11 am |
  5. JackB

    Muslims countries are a couple of hundred years behind the west in terms of religious freedom, back when the Pope and the Christian church was all powerful. Muslims are a captured audience and those that denounce Islam are persecuted. Give them a few generations in Europe or North America and the number of devout Muslims will decline.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • Big Bob

      Europe? You can kiss them goodbye. If a native European complains about the HUGE influx of unassimilated muslims, the thought police would throw them in jail. They've completely givin up on their most superior culture. And considering the cradle to grave benefits, which have only killed any work ethic that they once had, plus also benefitting the do-nothing muslims, Europe, as we know it will be consigned to the dustbin of history. They don't have an kids anymore! And our current government here in the US would have us do the same.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  6. Shawn

    Why are they more committed? The answer is simple: If they're not, armed thugs will break into their house and butcher them.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  7. Bo

    This is a very silly article. Islam also comes from an area of the world that tends to have very low levels of education and high levels of conflict. Both Africa and the Middle East can't really boast high degrees of educated people so of course they are going to have a very high adherence to religion. Just look at the demographics that we are dealing with here. Highest rates of literacy and education, Europe, Australia, parts of North America (only part of the United States) coincide with lowest rates of religious adherence. Also, this region hasn't suffered from the "enlightenment" of the west... the article almost sounds regretful that we had one, and yet it is the reason that we live in a free society. Oh how quickly we forget that we put to the death in the name of God and tortured our neighbors by the millions prior to this "enlightenment." There is a reason for this "enlightenment" to happen in the first place! I really do hope that this Arab Spring is the first of many drives in the Middle East and Africa to shed off the oppression that they have been under for so long, including religious oppression.

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

      Already the Muslim extremist groups are shoving their way into these governments. A new religious tyranny and dictatorship will arise in those countries and they will be no better off than before. They trade one evil man for another and call this progress, but they will never progress until they get rid of Islam.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  8. jfred18

    In a Free world there can be no state supported religion. Once a government adopts a particular belief system as it's foundation, there can be only one outcome. Either covert or be excluded. Once tyranny is established, aggression toward non-believing nations will most certainly follow. There is no reason to think that Islamic states can't master technologies. The Mullahs are becoming more adept at weaving modern science into the fabric of Islamic belief. Make no mistake. these people seek power and world domination. Religious belief is merely an organizational tool. We are at a pivotal point in history. Will reason and free thought prevail or will the heavy boot of religious fanaticism crush the dreams of humanity for the next thousand years.

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

      Western society creates technology to augment their lives in a postive way. Muslim society uses western technology to subvert the western world.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  9. Kevin

    Because religion is the only education they have...

    December 4, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  10. Bob

    They are more religious out of fear.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  11. Zee705

    Religion is a mental disorder.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:09 am |
  12. Notislam

    Opposing islam doesn't require hatred of moslems. We didn't need to hate Germans to oppose their vile ideology of nazism. Now Germans thank us. We don't need to hate moslems to oppose islam.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:09 am |
  13. Jay

    I think the research lacks depth. Are muslims more religious (aka "exclusive" ) – I think so. Are they more spiritual? (aka "all inclusive") – I dont think so. That precisely I think is the problem.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  14. palintwit

    Once when I was vacationing in the Middle East I saw a muslim by the side of the road with his arm all the way up a camel's butt. " Car trouble ? " I asked. Badda-boom !! Badda-bing !!

    December 4, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  15. NoThanks

    Islam? No thanks. I would rather worship God as I choose, not as some mufti or mullah should decide I should.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:07 am |
    • jh

      I would hope that would also include a priest, rabbi, minister, the pope...you get my drift, right?

      December 4, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  16. Notislam

    islam is intolerance, hatred, violence, terrorism, murder, misery and death. islam is vile at the core. To islam, the terrorist is a good moslem. The "moderate" moslem doesn't exist to islam. islam means submission, which has nothing to do with freedom or peace.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:07 am |
    • WeeWooo

      I go to school with a HUGE amount of muslims. They're funny, most of them are extremely smart, and none of them to date has blown up anything. Yes the girls wear hijabs, but they don't 'submit' to anyone just because they have a pen-is.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  17. NJD

    In a theocracy the religious zealots will crawl out of the woodwork.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:06 am |
  18. Denese

    They are more religious because they are stoned to death if they are not.

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

      If CNN thought this little article would help muslims, man did they get it wrong. I have Muslim friends and they are all pretty uch anti-American. They are not radical or anything like that but they are taught to dislike America from a young age. Also, they are far more religous because being otherwise is not tolerated and even threatened with physical harm.

      If you are Muslim and diagree what I said, you are lying.

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

      So true, you can not leave islam and live. Islam means submission, and they will not stop until they have the whole world submitted to their god.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  19. Will

    Degree of religiousity is exceptionally well correlated with intelligence among all peoples. And of course, the correlation is inverse. Just saying...

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

      Love it, completely true as well. I would also say that greater than one half of their population has no choice in the matter but to at the very least act completely in-line with Islamic religion (e.g. the Women and children). So, combine overall less intelligent people where everyone but the men are completely submissive and you get a culture that typically appears to have greater zeal.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:12 am |
  20. thekabba

    because the kabba gives you mystical visions...It is almost as ...if it were alive..It is very hard for me to explain, but I beleive the kabba is a psychic conduit for divine knowledge. Very few can understand or beleive unless you have experienced it first hand. The kabba has personnally delivered messages to me, and I did not have a hallucination, it has happened to many other people as well and they describe the message deliverance in exactly the same way. I cannot help but to travel to mecca every year for it gives me a sense of peace, like that first revelation I received many years ago.

    🙂

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

      like I saw the death of my sister years before it happened–it happened in exactly the same way as in the vision.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • jfred18

      The kabba is not the source nor the conduit to divine revelation. You are. Your belief simply gives you the ability to focus.
      Human intelligence gives you the abilities you speak of, not any religious belief system. I do not disavow the existence of a Creator or Higher Intelligence, God if you will, However I do flatly reject the notion that any one religion is superior in "connecting". Religions are man made organizational tools designed to support political systems, and have been that since their inception. Put your faith where it belongs. In yourself.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:19 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.