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)


    December 4, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  2. Waleed Fadil

    There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet.

    Islam will dominate in time.

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

      Not during our lifetimes. You got wiped out in the middle ages, and one little new country destroyed six of your armies in six days. Just saying, you won't be alive to see it, nor will your great-grandchildren in 100 years.

      Come to think of it, you'll be lucky if Islam can do much more than throw sticks in the air in 100 years.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • jaintn

      Shouldn't you be cleaning your tiny little carpet in anticipation of bending over and facing your beloved Mecca like the good little drone you are? An empty headed, misguided, no independent thought process, misogynistic drone.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • vs101

      Walid, You got the first part right in that saying.. "There is no God.." The rest is unprovable nonsense that you have been taught to accept since the time you were able to understand words. Peace be upon your delusional mind.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • Lew

      Before or after you all kill yourselves?

      December 4, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • chris

      Islam will be beaten back to the stone ages, oh .wait, you did that to yourself

      December 4, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  3. Mike Hill

    In my opinion, Christianity, Judaism and Islam are evil cults, and not religions, as demonstrated by most of those who practice it.

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

      Amen to that! No pun intended.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  4. Quillos

    What else do you expect when apostacy is punishable by death?

    December 4, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  5. lv_nonanon

    They seem to lack in input jack to understand the world post middle ages.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  6. Keith

    "Muslims are much more likely than Christians and Hindus to say that their own faith is the only true path to paradise."
    Suicide bombers who hold onto this promise of paradise all in the name of hate and bigotry are a great representation of Islam. Muslims can get down on their knees as many times a day as they wish and believe their way is the only way... coming out of their mosques after listening to preachers who incite hatred – that really speaks volumes.
    I respect people for their actions and less so for their beliefs. Actions speak louder than words.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • dg50484

      Explain Pearl Harbor then?

      December 4, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  7. Al

    I have yet to see a Christian response on this board. I've seen lots of "Christians" responding, but no truly Christian responses. I will never understand blind hatred.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  8. Bryce

    Generally, but not always, the more ignorant the person or population, the more likely they will embrace religion.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  9. Joy

    Since they tend to kill people who, in their eyes, disobey the rules of their religion, I think it provides pretty strong incentive for them to constantly demonstrate their devotion. Nothing like having a gun placed against your head for deciding to toe the line.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • Bob

      @Joy, yes. Some days I wonder what would be an effective way to free persons from such a cult, when such a threat of death for leaving the cult exists. It's a real threat, as so many killings of those brave enough to leave demonstrates

      December 4, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  10. FSM

    The reason its adherents are more "religious" is because they have it pounded into their heads every waking hour of the day. The call to prayer from the minarets five times a day, incorporation of religion into education, forcing the populous to dress a certain way, religion in government; all those things help cement the hold Islam has on its followers. Kind of sounds like fundamentalist Christianity and a lot of the Republicans and "tea partiers" out there, too. Watch out, Americans, lest you become like the Middle East you think is so primitive!

    December 4, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  11. Banlin

    Muslims draw inspiration and emulate Mohammed, the problem is they don't really know who Mohammed is instead Mohammed's persona was re-sculptured to some kind of a saintly-godly person which he is really not and Muslims have block out their mind to that reality.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  12. berucem

    this article fails to mention the fact that a Muslim living in Saudi Arabia or Indonesia not practicing Islam or speaking out against it faces a death penalty. but I'm sure that has nothing to do with a Muslim wanting to practice their peaceful religion

    December 4, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  13. the law

    Ya, as long as you do what they say. and another excuse for tax free buildings in the US

    December 4, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  14. Smile

    Islam is a religion based on the fact that it's way is the only way to achieve God. The problem is that a religion like this believes the planet earth is only thing with life on it. They think rest of the "discovered" and "undiscovered" universe is desert land. Plus, they believe remaining 5.5 billion people on earth need to be saved. People of islam believe in converting by hook or crook.

    They are known to attack and destory history of places they have won. Resulting in the fact, that surviving population has no choice but to convert to islam. The best example can be Middle East. It had culture and civilizations which predates islam,but not a shred of those civilizations is left. Today we have no knowledge, what religion or god these ancient civilizations worshiped? What was their way of living? What was their language and script?

    Today if one looks carefully at middle east it is all islam. All arabic, or any other language with arabic script. There is no freedom to follow other religions and women are still living in seventh century. It is called religion of peace which is ruled by Chagez khan aka butcher from east, to bin laden. Pick any place on globe and muslims are involved in some kind of blood shed, from China, afganistan, chechniya, saudi arabia, africa (ethic killing of christians) and ghettos of europe where even police officers are afraid to enter.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  15. lack


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

      Try a lack of caps next time and maybe someone will read your post.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • junaid

      For many of the commentators learn a thing or two about history and islam before you speak. Do your own research before you regurgitate random misinformation.

      Im muslim, i'm american... if you want to hate me because you think im "evil" than thats your problem. While you are filled with hate i will continue to enjoy life.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • dg50484

      What history says that?

      December 4, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • Bob

      junaid, it is rather obviously "your problem" too. Maybe you want to reconsider that statement.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • The Dude

      Stop yelling

      December 4, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  16. SS

    It's their devoutness that's out of place. Adhering word for word to a philosophy created in Dark Ages is nothing but a recipe for disaster. Hence the out dated psychotic behavior that has now become the face of Islam. Were they more lax about their faith say the way most Jews and Christians are, it'd be a far more peaceful world. One day the majority of the world will get over their fear of the truth and admit that there is no proof of the divine.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  17. Melvin

    They are a primitive people living in a different century........the same goes for evangelical Christians. Brain washing pure and simple.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • dg50484

      You understand "evangelical" = Protestant? I'm not Protestant, but I'm not an idiot like you either.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • Melvin

      dg50484: I'm an idiot? what about my reply was incorrect? Your reply made didn't make any sense.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  18. Bettina

    I dont know that much about Islam and their beliefs, I think people should be able to practice anything they want. While Islam has produced many fanatics, so has Christianity. I have been a practicing Buddhist for 27 years and I know of no Buddhists that would participate in any violent acts, as Muslilms, Jews and Christians do. I rest my case.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  19. Turner2011

    Short answer – they aren't.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  20. Sam

    Islam is my religion and I read the Quran and I read lots of different books from different religions and cultures of the world, but no matter where you come from and what you were taught you should always use your common sense, common sense is the one gift that god gave to all humans.
    I think the world will be a better place if we all use our common sense before anything else, I am not saying religion is not important, but without common sense you got nothing. Every one has the gift of common sense, but many of us choose not to use it letting greed and fear and personal interest take over.
    See you can't teach everone how to fly a rocket, but we know not to get behinde the controls unless we know how to use it.
    When we stop using religion for our own personal motives and gains, international peace and understanding of each other ways of living will not be reached.
    It's sad that we let those in power seperate us as humans...even animals get alongwith each other when they are not hungry, Lions don't hunt till they are hungry, and elephants don't attack unless they are threatened, so how come animals act more decent than humans these days.
    So lets stop blaming religion for our own misery, and blame our stupidity.

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

      Islam and Christianity are fictional relgions created by man not God. They have nothing to do with God. Do not make God responsible for these works of fiction. Anyone familiar with history knows how these religions came to be and the motivations behind them.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:51 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.