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. Peace TV

    Based on mass media coverage, it seems like most if not all the coaches in the Western countires (i.e. Christian countires) molest young boys just like Christain preasts/bishops. I guess Jesus taught them to do so? Did he? Similarly, what some balck sheep born in Muslim families do, has nothing to do with Islam and Muslims!

    December 4, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  2. ed

    Muslims may take several centuries to wake up and purge themselves of this mental illness. But judging from the European and Church experience, many bloody wars will be fought before they do.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:22 am |
  3. Onslow

    A very key point mentioned in the article is that children are taught from birth not to think for themselves, but that Islam is the only truth. There are no Muslim (or Christian, Jewish, etc.) children, but rather children of Muslim (Christian, Jewish, etc.) parents. The best religion is no religion. They all preach that they are the only true religion, every one else is wrong – setting up almost every conflict between peoples in history. It's barbaric and stupid. Someday we'll grow up and have no need for primitive fears that can only be relieved by belief in the absurd fantasies of religion.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:22 am |
  4. Rainer Braendlein

    "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.

    If someone tells his son: "go to bed!", why shouldn't he take it literally? Is there any other interpretation of "go to bed!", than the literal one?

    When the Koran says that believers (Muslims) shall slay in the way of Allah, is there any other interpretation, than to take it literally?

    Conclusion: Every Jihadist is a model Muslim or an exemplary Muslim. There is not greater honor for a real Muslim, than to die in a holy war for Allah.

    Sura 9: Verse 111:

    Lo! Allah hath bought from the believers their lives and their wealth because the Garden will be theirs: they shall fight in the way of Allah and shall slay and be slain. It is a promise which is binding on Him in the Torah and the gospel and the Qur’an. Who fulfilleth His covenant better than Allah? Rejoice then in your bargain that ye have made, for that is the supreme triumph.

    ( سورة التوبة , At-Taubah, Chapter #9, Verse #111)

    December 4, 2011 at 10:22 am |
  5. Danielle78

    I have an aunt who is a Jehovah's witness. They won't let their children have any friendships with those who do not follow their religion. And, for the most part islam is the same way. They do not want their wives associating with wives of a different faith, and do not want the women associating with men whatsoever. If your religion is so strict that i refuses its followers to talk with those who have different beliefs, you have to wonder how weak their religion is that it is so easily swayed.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • americanwoman

      Where did you get the "muslim wives" who are not allowed to socialize with others, certainly not outlined in any religious text.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • Justeen

      Jehovah Witnesses are a cult.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  6. AGuest9

    Don't forget to prohibit your women from driving, and not to show their "se.xy eyes" to strangers, lest they lose their virginity.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  7. Jason

    The fatal problem with faith is that it kills when used in absolutes. Only in faith can you have a person kill someone and view it as a good deed. Only in faith can people view genocide as being righteous. Only in faith can hate of another be ascribed as acceptable. Faith is a disease, its a mental disorder that effects people with inaccurate knowledge, false absolutes, and dysfunctional love for a non existent being. In the end faith is responsible for more fear, pain, anguish, distrust, and murder then every single other subject or dispute ever created.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • Prabu

      That is a very good post, Jason! Some internets for you!

      December 4, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  8. palintwit

    We need to move these muslims into trailer parks and force them to watch nascar.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  9. vin

    I am a Catholic. No one in the Catholic religion has ever been threatened by death to adhere to the Catholic religion. The path to heaven is a free choice. What good is it to adhere to a religion that does not give you the ability to choose your own destiny as God intended? The path to heaven is not as easy as Islam would have you think but certainly worth the struggle that the Catholic reliogion offers.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • IronDitka

      No. Catholicism just threatens every other religion follower with eternal damnation and torture in hell. I fail to see the difference.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • HotAirAce

      Then I guess you've never heard of The Inquisitions...

      December 4, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • krivka

      You are mistaken, Hundreds of thousands, and more likely millions of people were killed by the Catholic church.
      Adherents to religious beliefs are culpable for past, present and future atrocities in the name of their god.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • Justeen

      Muslims do not believe in Jesus Christ, nor the trinity. They believe in a false messiah which they are trying to convert the world to. They are control freaks and have an agenda to do just that. They can stay outta my backyard thank you!

      December 4, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  10. Lyn

    I invite you to read the Quran and then come back with a more informed opinion .
    Just for starters – Islam proclaimed that everyone is equal – black white brown and translated that into action . Go and look at the Hajj pilgrimage – people from all races gather together to worship the One God ."
    Really?! How come the women/girsl must worship in a separate area from or behind the men/boys, then? Oh, I get it – female humans are not people! Sorry, my mistake! No matter how you look at it, the significance of sitting "behind" does not escape me – it means "less than".

    December 4, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • the truth

      You are so RIGHT! people are just so much brainwashed that they dont eve care to investigate the truth. they have become puppet to their media. If you dont know anything about Islam then stop writing crap & leaving your worthless comments on this matter.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • Big Bob

      In Arabic: abeed = black = slave

      December 4, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  11. John Singer

    Amazing how death threats keep one "faithful." Consider this: How many Muslims would still be Muslim if they weren't threatened with death for leaving their religion? Have you ever wondered why Islam is the only religion in the world that has to intimidate its members to keep them from leaving in droves?

    December 4, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  12. jerry

    there's nothing complicated here – take the same poll of Christians 300-400 years ago, and you'd probably get the same results as Muslims today. Eventually, they should come around – they are just a little behind. That being said, I cannot understand any intelligent person in this day and age choosing one particular religion, i.e. not being born into one, but choosing one as an adult. Religion and the idea of some protector god was a great (and probably necessary) comforter when we were all living in caves and afraid of the dark. But in today's world, seriously?

    December 4, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • IronDitka

      They would come out of the dark ages if there clerics were eliminated enmasse. The clerics are the main instigators.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  13. Guest

    Jesus teaches not to be a religious show-off, that is not humble or pleasing to God in many cases. Jesus also teaches to do good deeds without blowing trumpets about it. Christianity is designed differently than Islam which is more works oriented than what Jesus teaches.

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

      You are correct, Christianity is not the same as Islam. Jesus is extremely important in Islam, as important as the prophet Muhammad and Noah etc but he is NOT God in Islam. Also unlike Christianity, muslim is not supposed to convert people, they don't go on missionary to convert people to Islam. Islam is the second largest religion and growing at a faster rate than Christianity, it is the tastes growing religion.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  14. Peace TV

    Does any version of Bible or Christianity promote molesting little boys? They way it is covered in the media, it seems like most Preasts/Bishops take their holly job of molesting little boys very seriously and are achieving highest ranks in heaven by doing so? Based on media coverage, it would be safe to assume that majority of the Christians offer their little boys to Preasts/Bishops following the teachings of Bible and Christianity? Therefore, the conclusion for the uninformed will be that Christianity and Christians approve child molesting? Do they?

    December 4, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • Guest

      No, child molesters are what Jesus calls wolves in sheeps clothing and the New Testament warns there is a big punishment for those who sin against children. The New Testament is full of warnings against corrupt and evil religious church leaders, he calls them hypocrits and even Satan's children in some cases. What is sad is how many churchgoers are not reading the Bible to take the warnings into account.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  15. Tom P

    Lower IQ?

    December 4, 2011 at 10:16 am |
  16. Jay

    I was raised hindu – turned into an athiest – now believe in human values. Religion is a framework. Islam has migrated from there to being a cult

    December 4, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  17. 3vix6

    I wish along with many other people out there, that religion as a whole would just go away. All religions are a drug like Meth that destroys its users, rots their brains with lies, makes them think that they're doing good things in the name of God when really they're bad things. (IE: blowing people up, shooting them, passing/supporting laws that benefit Christianity, giving better rights to Muslims vs other Americans in terms of Loans, rewriting history by saying that the US is a Christian Nation, Intelligent Design, etc).

    Please do yourself and society a favor and start questioning things in your religion that shouldn't be asked. You'll start to see as a lot of us non-believers do, that every religion is a grouping of fairytales that have common ground between each other.

    Jesus wasn't the first to walk on water, nor raise the dead. But I sure hope for civilization's sake that he will be the last.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  18. NoForcedReligion

    In places where the religion is force-fed to the population from birth, it should be little wonder that they would appear to be "more religious." If little or no outside influence is allowed, the well-trained sheep will continue to do as they are taught consistently. Put Islam on a level playing field with all other religions and secularism, without the fear of death or force-feeding and mind-numbing indoctrination, and see how many adhere to it.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:14 am |
  19. SuZieCoyote

    Yes, the praying constantly is the programming. It is powerful cult behavior. All religions are cults with the goal of crowd-control. Islam is horrid – to women, to freedom of thought, though self-rule. But people are programmed from birth by the constant praying and ritual. My friend married a Muslim, who lied about many things, including already existing wives, and went to his country (Iran); the stories she tells after she was finally able to get out are horrendous. The women are so miserable. The keen and cry and pray and keen and cry some more. This goes on all day. The have no real lives, just the endless crying and praying. No one who really knows can whitewash this.

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

      Your friend's Iranian friend was not lying according to Islam (specifically forbidden), he could have lied to her even if he was a native born Texan but it would have been him, not his christian religion. Islam is actually quite forward looking when it comes to women, and social justice. Things like inheritance right for women, child support and divorce were outlined in Islam 1400 years ago, fortunately the west caught up recently. Muslim countries and culture are another matter. Congolese or Haitian women's plight remind us that women have a long way to go in this worls, and religion has nothing to do with it.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:25 am |
    • jfred18

      The social justice and forward thinking you speak of here is just a disguise for control and subjugation. Do not all of the rights bestowed upon women flow from the "true citizens" who are all male.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • john

      Oh Suzie, you are so miss informed, i don't blame you. Women hold such a high status in Islam, like the fellow who replied to you mention. Also i might add that for example women is not required to fast in certain situation where as men is required. As the gentlemen mention, women gets a higher importance, the brother is required to always look after the women if she needs help even after getting married. The Quran constant mention the importance of women and even use the metaphor that Paradise is under the feet of you mother. When a woman gets married she can dictate the arrangements like whether she will leave the husband if he does this or that. What you see about the treatment of women in countries like Iran, Congo etc is purely cultural and not religious. Infact Iran has a very very small population of muslim compare to other muslim countries. Many bad apples has use religion against women in different countries.

      A LOT of priest molest children not just in the US but in other countries as well, but that does not mean Christianity is a bad religion same for Islam, it is unfortunate the treatment of women in many countries whether islamic or not. For example it is the culture in India that if the wife die her sister should marry the husband to take over the wife role, this is decreasing nowadays but it is still very prevalent in the suburbs of big cities in India.

      I dont blame you for your ignorance as it is probably for culture and media that promote such thinking

      December 4, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  20. Joe

    Let us not forget crazy too.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:12 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.