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. smc

    The main page asks "Why are Muslims more religious?" Probably because the name in and of itself means someone who submits to God? Probably because in some Muslim countries there are people who go around and enforce that everyone prays at prayer time?

    Of course that all the more impresses me of devout American-Muslims who worship because they chose to, not because they live in some country where they are forced to.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  2. Terry

    All one needs to do is look at the education system within the Muslim Community on a global basis. Every leader within the Muslim Community, and every successful Muslim, was educated in a foreign country. When asked to describe their personal religious beliefs, well educated Muslims tend to speak in global terms about their religion, while those left behind, those Arab Spring Marchers, are products of the brain washing that comes from reading one book, over and over again.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • jfred18


      December 4, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  3. HisNoodlyAppendage


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


      December 4, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • peick

      Kind of like being a troll?

      December 4, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • Guest

      Then there must be one hell of a lot of mentally ill people on this planet.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  4. Rainer Braendlein

    "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.

    When I think of the ritual slaughter of the Muslims, I could vomit. Isn't that animal torture.

    Isn't animal torture a heavy sin. Someone, who tortures animals, will finally torture human beings.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  5. Clifford S

    Testing, just testing if you are goind to delete any post that isnt pro-Islam

    December 4, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • skidude2000

      YES! I've had that same problem.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  6. joe

    This is a very myopic and amerocentric article. It's not the case with the same groups discussed around the world.
    Article below is about the largest and move violently persecuted group (religious or otherwise) world wide... Christians


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

      *most violently

      December 4, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  7. Michael Q

    The simple fact is the biggest problem facing the world is "religion". If there is not a clear separation of "church (religion) and state" we are headed back to the 'crusades' era of thinking.

    Take any discussion on any conflict around the world, and the key centre of thought opposition is based on religion in one form or another. The sad part is the number of meaningless deaths that have occurred and will occur based on any religious philosophy less than 3000 years of age by man while we prove the world is hundreds of thousands of years old! In other words, the followers of many man-made fantasy philosophies are not practicing their true beliefs when faced with any conflict.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  8. Muralie

    This is not a new news.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  9. Tony

    New Evidence? Is this really news to the bozos at CNN? You guys really are totally out of touch.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  10. John T.

    I believe education has to do alot with how a person would determine thier religion.
    If you are barely educated and not open to new ideas, muslim faith is perfect for you since it suppresses education.
    If you are open to new ideas, have the ability to think for yourself then Hinduism is perfect for you.
    If you are very educated, very openminded, and want freedom then many types of christianism is perfect for you.

    Take for instance a real example. I have two friends which happens to be a hindu and a muslim. The thing is the muslim friend of mine is a scientist-engineer guy, guess what? He does not practice muslim, but calls himself a muslim. The hindu friend of mine is a semi-businessman he owns a couple gas stations in Idaho, he practices his religion when he gets a chance. I myself am a christian, I am also a scientist-engineer and call myself a christian but pratice on a regular basis.

    I might be wrong but I have noticed allot of the great scientist and explorers are mostly christians and a few hindu's. I probably need to do more research and to find any muslims.

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

      johnT: most scientists are atheists. 85% of NAS, the most prestigious scientific organization in the US, are atheists. if you are truly open minded and highly educated, you are most likely to be an ateist.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  11. 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);
    # 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 10:26 am |
    • TheOnlyWay

      You read the Bible is these are the messages you came away with?

      Guess you missed this little tid bit –

      John 14:6
      Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

      December 4, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  12. Dirk Ward

    Guess the reason the are is because they NEED to be............seems to me since the religion they follow is one of the newest, and appeals to folks that have no other hope.........kinda like the way the Soviet Union was accepted. Those folks had NOTHING else. SOOOOOO........here we sit with people that tend to kill others simply because they don't go to their church. When they get to their "Heaven"......I'm sure there will be some scolding to be done by the Big Guy. Can't understand how He would be pleased that His followers were killing others in His Name.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  13. John


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

      What's the point of your nonsense video?

      December 4, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • Ogg Oggleby

      Your video reminded me of one day I watched paint dry. I shall never forget it, or ever do it again. Thank you, John. I only wish I could know you so I could listen to you talk to me about life and how you evolved into such a deep thinker.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  14. matt houston

    Some folks are more stupid than others. People who don't believe in invisible things, they are smart enough to not blow each other up with bombs because of their beliefs. Muslims, Christians and Jews all included.

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


      December 4, 2011 at 10:35 am |
  15. Misty Jean

    My brother (black) and his two friends (Pakistan Muslims) were in the middle of Call of Duty when his Muslim friends stop what they were doing and went down stairs to have a prayer and discussion. I'm not religious, but I was amaze because they were at OUR house and they're parents weren't forcing them to do this.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  16. Kalowg

    I would seriously think it is due to a much greater lack of general education, and an environment which squashes any alternative thought about religion including those that would support atheism.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • derp

      Ding!! We have a winner.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • jaintn

      Yeah, sort of like growing up in the American south.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  17. jaintn

    It's real simple. Obviously they're more easily led. The religion is ingrained in them and in every aspect of their culture, laws, etc. They are gigantic veil wearing east facing sheep.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  18. FrankLW

    In spite of the inanity of fundamentalist Islamic theology, many find it appealing simply because it makes uncompromising demands upon its adherents. Many misinterpret that demand for total devotion (Islam itself means "submission") as somehow being connected with its authenticity...

    December 4, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  19. Skeptic

    Why are Muslims more religious? More religious than whom? The Christians? Hardly.

    The only difference is Muslims do not educate their women. To a Muslim woman, the Big Bang theory has something to do with her wedding night.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • AGuest9

      To many fundamental christians, big bang cosmology and evolution don't exist, either. That's a prime example of why our country is going downhill, fast. We already lag most of the industrialized world in education.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  20. Bob

    Religion thrives on ignorance and the very devout Muslims tend to come from poorer nations where most people don't get a modern education

    December 4, 2011 at 10:23 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.