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. steven

    I really enjoyed reading this article. Thank you CNN for reporting international news, that i unbiased. You let the numbers speak fro themselves.

    Islam is a wonderful religion, I have learned so much about it. After discovering Christianity, and practicing the religion I discovered Islam and it was the most logical and beautiful thing I have ever learned about.

    Islam teaches good morals, treating others well above all, and always doing the right thing. I have also found that Muslims are an extremely pleasant group of people. I never feel as comfortable with anyone as i do with Muslims, they are so NICE!!!!

    Muslims love their religion and see it for what it is, the truth. That is why they follow it. No one "died for their sin, that they hadn't committed," they do not believe they are "chosen, and the rest of humanity is cursed." Muslims love their communities and want to benefit their communities.


    December 4, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • John Geheran

      With all due respect, Steven, you obviously are terribly naive or ignorant of the history of Islam. Even a casual read of the Qur'an, ahadith and other credible Islamic literature will reveal Islam for what it is.....a deeply flawed and radical political ideology masquerading as a religion. READ, READ, READ.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  2. Bristoll

    The question is: "Are Muslims more 'religious' than other belief systems?"

    Answer: Yes.

    Basis for answer: I can count on one hand the number of "Christian Fundamentalists" who've blown themselves up over the last couple of decades in the name of their favorite invisible man in the sky. By contrast, thousands of Muslims have blown themselves up in the name of their preferred invisible man in the sky. Moreover, the Muslims aim to take as many non-believers with them when they do as they can.

    Yes, each religion has its standouts – Most recently the insane man in Norway that offed 77 people and wounded several others who thinks he's God's messenger and was found insane by the courts. Timothy McVeigh, for instance, was another who we've been led to believe was trying to do "God's work", but really just had a mental disorder and an unbridled hatred of the government.

    Islam is the only major religion that actually espouses subjugation or destruction of non-believers – even Christianity has seemingly moved on from the Crusades... Think about it: I haven't seen any reports of Christian fundamentalists blowing themselves up at a military checkpoint in the mid-east. Have you?

    I haven't seen any reports of Christian fundamentalists trying to take down an airliner with their super-duper, invisible-man-in-the-sky-approved, explosive (shoe/underwear). Have you? Of course not.

    Make no mistake about it, I'm not a religious nut. Though my views aren't relevant to this discussion, suffice to say that they're mutually exclusive to a religion that believes in subjugating or killing all those that don't pray to the same invisible man in the sky that it dictates.

    In a world of peace and live-and-let-live-tolerance, Islam is the single holdout that insists on a pattern of destruction or subjugation to further its ends. Now they're coming to America and saying things like "Many Muslims want religion to play a role in politics," and "To assume that everyone around the world wants to be like the West – that they want liberal secular democracy – is an absurd idea."

    Thanks but no thanks. To assume that everyone around the world wants to be like the Middle East – that they want conservative religious theocracy – is ALSO an absurd idea. Moreover, I completely respect the Muslims right to play in their sandbox and blow each other to "kingdom come", but won't tolerate it here in my backyard.

    Moral of the story: "If your invisible man in the sky dictates that you kill me if I won't prostrate myself in front of him, you can expect to be handed a one-way ticket to meet him so you can ask him for yourself if that was what he had in mind."

    December 4, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • S

      Have you even looked at the most recent Eurostat on terrorism? Islam, every single year, is less than 1% of terrorist attacks in every single country. Leftist and right-wing groups, on the other hand, make up a large part of European terrorism. The difference is that Islamic terrorism is seen as an international story, so there's this perception that Muslims perpetrate the majority of terrorist attacks when, in fact, according to statistics, that's quite simply false.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • john

      "I haven't seen any reports of Christian fundamentalists trying to take down an airliner with their super-duper, invisible-man-in-the-sky-approved, explosive (shoe/underwear). Have you? Of course not."

      Neither have I. Of course I have also not seen any reports of Muslim countries propping up ruthless dictators in the West, invading Western countries, bombing Western countries into the Stone Age, or sending drones that routinely kill everyday people.

      "Think about it: I haven't seen any reports of Christian fundamentalists blowing themselves up at a military checkpoint in the mid-east. Have you?"

      Again, no I haven't, but then why resort to suicide bombings when the job can be done so much more easily with drones and bombers?

      So what is the moral you are trying to point out? Muslims kill because they believe in the invisible man in the sky, and Westerners kill because it is convenient, because it is good for the economy, or because it is a good way to get votes in the next election?

      December 4, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  3. Barbara Harrington

    Muslims have a history of oppression, and poverty. Only the leaders have freedom & riches. The only thing the masses have is their belief that if they follow the tenets of their religion they will have a better life after death. The leaders promote this to keep the people in line, obeying the leaders wishes so they can achieve even more power and money. The leaders tell them that if they don't follow what they tell them, in the name of religion, they will be doomed to their hell. As someone else posted they are a primitive people. They just follow what is told to them, if they try to rise up they are slaughtered. It is fear of their leaders and fear of their "god", that keeps them following the religion, which they believe is the only true one.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • john

      I don't think Islam is the second largest religion because of fear. I don't think Islam is the fastest growing religion because of fear, i might add that growing faster than the largest religion in the World. From what you are saying it sounds like you believe what you are told. I don't blame as it is probably your culture and media promoting such views about Islam. You are correct we believe in life after death just as the christians and jews for what islam refer to as people of the book. I hope you get to meet some good muslim Barbara and learn about Islam and the difference but the nut cases out there whose culture not religion promote aggression in the name of Islam.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • S

      This phenomenon is not unique to Islam and is not inherently negative; everyone chooses those richer than they as their leaders because they're perceived as more successful people–take the United States for example. The poor vote for the rich. But you also fail the mention the fact that Muhammad was not a rich man; in fact, when a leader from a foreign country came to talk to Muhammad and he was with his followers, the foreign leader couldn't pick him out of the group. He wasn't richer, he wasn't better.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • S

      "They are a primitive people." This is exactly what people said about blacks not too long ago. I hope you can see your own ignorance and, hopefully, recover from it as well.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  4. Ninoos

    I am the light the way and the truth. JESUS CHRIST.
    Now, Go to hell, cnn.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • southernsugar

      He is the way, the truth and the light. God Bless!

      December 4, 2011 at 11:05 am |
  5. Al Gonzalez

    Public beheading for non-believers is a good reason for attending services.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  6. chris

    Jesus asked Christians to pray in private where only God would see and credit him. No rug needed.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  7. mudbone9

    I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools until my senior year in high school. I rebelled against the control of my religion and the control of my parents. I can't imagine what it would have been like had I been born in a Muslim family. I think I may have committed a jihad on them all. Everyone need to be introduced to religion as I have seen people that never were exposed in life become fanatical in their later years. I believe in god but I hate organized religion. It is a form of mind control by man not by god.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  8. Otis

    This is more BS! There are numerous Christian sects that are equally fervent and fanatical followers. The difference is in numbers of blind followers, In our Western culture, we are taught to THINK INDEPENDENTLY while other cultures are taught to OBEY. While I will not say there is or isn't a divine being... only morons blindly believe that everything written in their Bible/Koran/Torah is factual and that their local religious leader has been given special access to God.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  9. Jerry

    The short answer to the heading of this story is.... In their country, if you don't believe, you'll be killed. I think that would be a big incentive.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  10. Gregory Faith

    Run, be afraid!

    December 4, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  11. Ben H

    You'd likely see stronger commitment to ANY religion if they all regularly murdered and tortured innocents based on who displayed the least fervent devotion to their shared delusions.

    For example, people try on new religions in America all the time. But once you try on Islam, their faith mandates you be KILLED if you drop it.

    Get lax, be less insane than your neighbors, and suddenly you're a heretic getting lashed, burned, and beheaded. It's old-timey Christian Witch Hunts times 100.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:57 am |

    I I say there is no God period ! and no prophets, they were all charlatans.

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

    Religiosity is the sign of primitive ness and backwardness. Muslims are more primitive, just like people I'm the bible belt.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  14. Lars J

    The article presents a poll's result and after discussing it goes on to state that the poll is unreliable. Strange journalism.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:56 am |

    IIf there were more atheist in the middle east you would have peace.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  16. Common sense

    Who Cares?!

    December 4, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  17. lv_nonanon

    Bin Laden's goals have not been achieved. Instead, all he did was convince the most powerful nation in history to despise radical Islam. Since Americans have, generally, failed to learn critical thinking, that just means America is now anti-Islamic.

    For our own self-protection, it is better that way than before 911, when we just didn't think about them at all.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  18. Mr. Know It All

    If somebody put a gun to your head you would be more religious too! If their "religion" were valid, they would not need to force people into it. The rest of the world knows they are a damned people bowing to a false god who are being fed a bunch of lies from a worthless book to get a select few rich from oil money.

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

      The life they have led and the fighting and poverty they live in why else would they not believe in their faith. They have nothing to look forward to except war. That is why they detest theUSA for their freedom, lifestyle, and being able to live a healthy, good life. I have a book on Islam and to me that is far worse and uIn-christian faith in history.. I don't want to have anything to do with that.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  19. LMB123

    A religion that preaches violence as a means to an end can not be true. Satan is the one that likes to promote violence between peoples because he seeks our destruction. As long as we are destroying each other he just sits back and laughs.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  20. Enabler1

    Do not be fooled by Islam! This religion is still in the dark ages and mandates the killing of apostates (everyone else in the world) and those who leave Islam for other religions so it's easy to understand why few would dare leave it.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:54 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.