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. scranton

    Education. The majority of Muslims throughout the world are uneducated thus more susceptible to fairy tale religious beliefs.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • AlimTube

      More Education On Islam at http://alimtube.com/.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  2. krishna

    muslims are idiots. you can't be religious by merely covering your head, washing your limbs five times a day or praying five times a day. mohammed the prophet is a fool. his musings in the quran are nothing but the rants of a retard.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  3. josetoyou

    In my opinion, islam is an evil cult, and not a religion, as demonstrated by most of those who practice it.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • Rick

      as is christianity

      December 4, 2011 at 10:53 am |
  4. Katie

    They're brainwashied from birth and know that if they don't do what their "religion" demands they'll be killed. Big incentive to comply.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • Bob

      Yeah. Christianity only demands a weekly goat sacrifice. Other than the threats of eternal torture, it's easy-peasy compared with Islam.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • twiddly

      Hey Bob, Christians are equally ignorant, and during the crusades and the inquisition many heretics were killed.
      However, this article is about muslims.

      If it makes you feel better, all religions are just plain idiocy, promoted and maintained through childhood brainwashing.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  5. A4mrtheist

    All religion is absurd. Muslims are just more fanatical.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • mudbone9


      December 4, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • lv_nonanon

      There's a big difference between being anti-religion, a bias you display clearly, and educated.

      Why was religious law invented in the first place?

      To prevent anarchy. Public health. Control.

      What's the difference between that and government, again?

      By your logic, government is also just an imaginary being, devoid of meaning, and utterly useless.

      Except for, oh, I dunno, roads, water, power, your internet connection, grocery stores.... just a few minor things which propel your ideas forth into the virtual public square for mockery.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • jfred18

      The vast difference between religion and government should be apparent. Religious dogma, although it may have had some basis in social organization to begin with, must be accepted on faith without inspection. Government is a system of consensual
      agreements which may change over time to meet societal needs.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  6. Ryan evans

    Well, when the punishment for apostasy is death, what do you expect? I'd also wager that a lack of education is a contributing factor. Look at your christian zealots... generally not among the educated.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  7. Aaron

    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." Hmmm...last time I checked, the Sept. 11th mass murderers all came from the Arab (mostly from Saudi Arabia) They were given a religious indoctrination from birth...

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

    Richard Allen Greene is a worthless writer.This has got to one of the worst articles ever written.It is a typical non factual article by CNN writers.He ought to join gore in make believeland.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  9. Andrew

    Islam is a disgrace to humanity and society in general. Don't believe this nonsense! Fight it!

    December 4, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • Ryan evans

      Religion is a disgrace to humanity and society in general. Don't believe this nonsense! Fight it

      fixed that for you

      December 4, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • Bob

      Right on, Ryan.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • Muslim

      May Allah guide you to the true path. Don't be so ignorant brother 🙂

      December 4, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  10. Greg

    They are more 'religious' due to no education except for the koran, brainwashing from birth, and the threat of being killed if they step out of line. Some incentive!

    December 4, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  11. twiddly

    "...To assume that everyone... [wants] liberal secular democracy – is an absurd idea."

    Wrong. The only thing here that is absurd is religion.
    Incorporating belief in imaginary beings into government is the height of absurdity, and "liberal" has nothing to do with this.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  12. anna

    Muslims are the most peaceful people in the world. Thats why they have been the easiest to suppress. I'm surprised nobody talks about how almost all the muslim countries were occupied by European powers for about 300 years. Middle east was occupied by the Italians, French and the British. Indonesia and Malaysia by the Dutch. Pakistan, India and Bangladesh by the British. Infact the industrial revolution in the west was fueled by the cheap/free raw materials that was taken by force from the enslaved nations. It has hardly been 50/60 years that these countries have been given independence and even then they have been ruled by elites who are handpicked by the former western powers.

    I wonder why this great injustice done to the muslims is never talked about in the media or in the history books?

    I'm not at all condoning the actions of some extremists in the muslim world. But think about it: when you enslave an entire people and continue to supress them and wage war against them, some of the muslims are bound to react in an extreme manner.

    I firmly believe that if the dominating western powers act with fairness and not just pursue their own interests blindly, world peace is possible and the aggrieved muslim populace will reconcile.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • mudbone9

      Muslims belong to a big cult. Thats why they are so easily controlled.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Bob

      Simliarly, Christians belong to a big cult (albeit with a lot of sects). Thats why they are so easily controlled.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • jfred18

      The former occupation you speak of had little to do with the peaceful aspects of Islam. It was simply because the European nations had more organized military structures and superior weapons systems. We would see how "peaceful" Muslims are by nature should the tide turn the other way.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • Bobo

      Dear Anna, half of the Europe was under Turks (Muslims) for over 500 years. Go to Balkans and check how "friendly" Muslims are to other religions. There are no "large" Christan groups in countries dominated by Muslims while every country that was occupied by Muslims but not controlled anymore by the same still has large Muslim communities. Also, most of those countries have destroyed Churches (as Albanians are destroying 1000 years old Churches currently with American help) and any Christian symbols. Where do you all get your information about friendly Muslims? As a matter of fact their religion tells them to behave friendly if they are minority and wait for jihad. Good luck!

      December 4, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • indigo

      They did their share of invading and suppressing; don't forget the Moorish invasion of Spain and Portugal that lasted 800 years.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  13. hgh

    it would appear that way, of course it also literally a crime in those countries to not appear that way...

    December 4, 2011 at 10:42 am |
  14. mudbone9

    Where I come from if a group of people practiced their religion like Muslims it would be called a cult. I just had to break up my son and his girl friend because her and her Mormon parents were using cult tactics on our minor son. They were even talking to him about going away for two years on missionary work. Religion has its place in life but not in government and it should never pressure anyone to join. A religion becomes a cult when it affects the way people dress in their everyday lives. It becomes a cult when you obsess about it everyday.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:42 am |
  15. larrydavid

    By "more religious" do you mean "more susceptible to detonating a dynamite vest around a bunch of children at a falafel stand?"

    December 4, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  16. Mr. Smarts

    The simple answer is that they are less educated. In fact women are not to be educated in their view. That makes the men dumb and the women dumber. Their should be no debate about God or no God. The debate should be religion or no religion. Since religion is a way of dumbing down people it will lose its lure over the next decade or two. 1040

    December 4, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  17. david kelly

    Being more religious does not mean that one is more righteous. Observing ceremonies and following traditions does not make one good. Goodness and righteousness is something that emanates from the soul and the actions of the individual that one sees. Putting up a sign saying you are for peace but yet you kill innocent men, women and children does not make peace and is not righteousness. Peace comes from a personal relationship with oneself where you are comfortable with yourself and those who live around you. Actions should speak louder than words and not vice-versa

    December 4, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • Darrin Russell

      The article is extremely flawed as Islam is more a philosophy than a religion as no ceremonial baptism or clear sign of commitment are made–just admit Mohamud was the prophet and pray to Mecca, when convenient and you're Muslim. When fear is the motivator, of being beaten, shunned or killed, by your family, peers or government, sure, you're probably going to say you're more committed. Islam is evil to the extreme and Mohamud was nothing but a mass murderer.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  18. lv_nonanon

    Fear, plain and simple.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  19. JF

    Yeah sure, – they're religious alright . They always wait 'til after morning prayer to begin killing each other

    December 4, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  20. Russ Dorn

    Just because you hate your enemy more than you love your children, and are willing to praise God as your children blow themselves up, does not really say a lot. When someone urinates on a cross or an image of the virgin Mary and calls it art, and I am not willing to go to war, or issue a fatwa, does not mean I care less abour my religion. they are just "less Foregiving" in their religion. After all, isn't that what Christ teaches "us"? Turn the other cheek.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • lv_nonanon

      Christ assumed that you were alive to turn the other cheek. We need to stop assuming that other cultures are telling the truth. That American bias to believe what others are saying is, on the international stage, extremely stupid. Entire countries, such as China, Russia and Iran, alongside groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, to name a few, rely daily upon our child-like belief in the goodness of others to do whatever they want to us. So, be wise as a serpent, lest you have no cheeks left to turn to dust in your old age, or no job to feed your family.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:45 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.