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. Paul

    First, what is meant by most religious? Anyone can ACT religious, but unless you believe in the ONE true God, all the religion in the world will not save you. Unfortunately, the Muslims do not believe in the one true God. They do not believe that Jesus is the true son of God. Jesus to the Muslims is a prophet. That in inself condemns the Muslims, for the Bible teaches that noone can come unto the Father except through Him. Also, our Shristian God is a God of love who tells us to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek. Allah tells them that all non muslims are infidels and if they cannot be converted to Islam, that they have the right to kill them in the name of Allah and Islam. Unless you believe in God, his son Jesus and the Holy Spirit, heaven and eternity is beyond ones grasp.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • PiedType

      You realize, of course, that you are being just as judgmental and close-minded as you accuse them of being ...

      December 4, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • Enlighten

      Fairy tales.......can come true.....it can happen to you ......if your young.....and brain washed.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • RAWoD

      You've just gotta understand that quoting from comic books isn't going to convince any rational peoples.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • Kathy

      Paul, thank you so much for speaking the truth in love. I scanned through the responses hoping to see at least one person who understood the truth of the Bible, God's Holy Word, and you have spoken it perfectly. Blessings to you!

      December 4, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • heliocracy

      And I suppose you have on shred of evidence that your fantasy is real while their fantasy is not? For that matter, do you have any evidence that Zeus is not really the one true God? What about Osiris or Odin? Let me answer for you. No. I personally believe that the mighty Sasquach created the universe 9,321 years ago. He hates doughnuts and everyone who has eaten one is doomed to an afterlife of water skiing. Now, prove me wrong.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • Mary

      So, you believe that all world religions are wrong other than yours...

      December 4, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • Jacob

      Now that you've said that do you care to count the number of times that Yahweh had the people of Israel wipe out the native inhabitants of the lands they conquered whether they converted or not? Check out the old testament some time...

      December 4, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  2. gary

    Why are they more religious? They are less educated, so they are more easily sucked into fairytales and myths. Rather like the stupid and uneducated in USA also known as Xtians. Most of us have figured out it's all myth and fairytale and are trying to use fact and reason to make life better, and not mumbling into our hands on our knees to some imaginary ghost.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • Paul

      I'll pray for you brother. One cannot look up into the heavens, gaze the planets and stars, view the Grand Canyon, look at the newborn baby and the miles of veins and arteries and organs sychronized to work together to sustain life and not believe in God. God shows Himselg in all aspects of our lives. Many have seen miracles in their lives such as terminal illness just disappear, have seen coma patients wake up, and many other things in their lives. Some have experienced the voice of God actually speaking to them. Do you think that prayers would still be said through thousands of years to a God that was not. People have experienced Gods answers through prayer and have continued praying throug hthoousands of years. And if God was not real, then he has billions of people fooled. I would bet that there is something to God if so many people believe. I cannot believe that the great majority in this world are fools and the vast minority genius.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • RAWoD

      @ Paul - A great majority used to believe the earth was flat and the sun orbited around this little planet. Conclusion: Just because lots of people believe doesn't make it so.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  3. krishna

    muslims multiply like pigs. and when they attain critical mass they demand a separate state. beware America from the islamic pest. India was divided by these pests not too long ago.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • Voice Of Reason

      I hope US Immigtations are not allowing any more Muslims into this country. We can only hope.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • shane

      It's happening in Europe. France has 751 islamic "no-go" zones so far to date. They illegally enforce sharia law and nobody is allowed to enter unless muslim.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  4. TheDude

    Maybe because most Muslims live in countries where you will be killed if you are not a Muslim. Maybe they believe Islam is the only way because they live under Governments who REQUIRE IT!!!

    December 4, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  5. Johovah

    I was going to espouse my wisdom but "Bristoll" could not have said it better!!

    December 4, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • dg50484

      "espouse" your wisdom? uh, ok.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  6. chris

    Muslims are dragging Christians from their homes, slaughtering families and burning churches as we speak in Nigeria and this is what CNN wants you to believe???????? Where's the story about this? Just yesterday hundreds were killed!!!

    Stop trying to form your twisted ideals in the minds of your naive audience and report the real news.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • AlfredHusseinNeuman

      According to one organization that tracks Muslim initiated violence, in the month of November 2011, there were 151 "Jihad-based" attacks in 23 different countries against 5 different religions. Number killed: 685, Critically Injured: 1087

      December 4, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  7. The Dude

    Faith, a very dangerous word in any language.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Racist Fellow

      Well duh they're religious, they blow themselves up for their God! Smiley Face

      December 4, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  8. Rainer Braendlein

    The most dark secret or mystery of the Koran is the following:

    Muhammad sees Jews and Christians as former believers, which have turned apostate from Abraham's faith.

    I cannot prove this by a single sura, but it becomes clear, when you read the whole Koran.

    This would be an explanation for the infinite hatred of Muhammad against Jews and Christians.

    A small proof: In many suras Muhammad accuses the Jews that they have slain their former prophets. This was a proof of their disbelief for Muhammad.

    Actually, to understand Muhammad’s crucial malice, you had to read the Koran yourself, because the wicked doctrine is somewhat hidden. Maybe the verses Sura 2, V. 87-91 are a hint:

    Verse 87: And verily We gave unto Moses the Scripture and We caused a train of messengers to follow after him, and We gave unto Jesus, son of Mary, clear proofs (of Allah’s sovereignty), and We supported him with the Holy spirit. Is it ever so, that, when there cometh unto you a messenger (from Allah) with that which ye yourselves desire not, ye grow arrogant, and some ye disbelieve and some ye slay?

    Verse 88: And they say: Our hearts are hardened. Nay, but Allah hath cursed them for their unbelief. Little is that which they believe.

    Verse 89: And when there cometh unto them a scripture from Allah, confirming that in their possession – though before that they were asking for a signal triumph over those who disbelieved – and when there cometh unto them that which they know (to be the truth) they disbelieve therein. The curse of Allah is on disbelievers.

    Verse 90: Evil is that for which they sell their souls: that they should disbelieve in that which Allah hath revealed, grudging that Allah should reveal of His bounty unto whom He will of His slaves. They have incurred anger upon anger. For disbelievers is a shameful doom.

    Verse 91: And when it is said unto them: Believe in that which Allah hath revealed, they say: We believe in that which was revealed unto us. And they disbelieve in that which cometh after it, though it is the truth confirming that which they possess. Say (unto them, O Muhammad): Why then slew ye the prophets of Allah aforetime, if ye are (indeed) believers?

    So, Muhammad made a mistake. He saw that the practical behaviour of Jews and Christians did not always go together with their faith or what they claimed to believe. Of course, it is regretable that we don’t behave perfectly always, but this doesn’t authorise Muhammad to judge us like criminals. Not at all! All people have ever sinned, despite their belief: The Jews, the Christians and the Moslems.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  9. Islam means Peace

    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 rightly aggrieved muslim populace will reconcile.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • shane

      Stop with the taqiyya. We in the West have learned islams ways. The lies no longer work.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  10. Bob

    Don't know don't care, all I know for a fact is that just about every religion thoughout history that the followers go overboard led to wars and nothing but big problems. Have the Muslins done that – YES.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • shane

      Thing is does any other religion still do it? No. Does islam still do it? Yes.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  11. Hypatia

    One can only hope with enough education and exposure to other cultures, they will grow up and realise that religion is the methamphetamine of the masses.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  12. Keith

    Spiders spin webs.
    Ants build hills.
    Humans tell stories. That's what we do.
    Obviously this story of Islam is a good one. That's all.
    The Jews have their story which seems to have kept their tribe together.
    The Buddhists have a story.
    Hindus have many, many stories.
    What's your story?
    As for experts on their take of Islam? The world is full of experts. No big deal.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:12 am |

    People, People please stop arguing there is no such thing as God, It was all a joke by the powerful elite to control the masses. Have you guys read the Bible or the Koran, its a make believe world as if it was written by Walt Disney.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  14. NorCalMojo

    When heresy laws are enforced, you'll never know how deep the commitment really is. Everyone will pretend to be a true believer when you can be punished for open doubt.

    They're comparing apples and oranges.

    Until there is religious freedom in islamic nations, these studies are junk.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  15. DeeDee

    I think they appear to be more devout because they're scared as hell what will happen to them if they don't wear their burquas. Did you ever notice that there are no women in the mosques? These poor women should revolt, as they haven't any rights at all. THAT'S NOT RELIGION OR FAITH!!! THAT'S TYRANNY!!!

    December 4, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  16. shawn

    Come to Ohio we have christian fanatics everywhere too...it's just as disgusting.

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

      But are they blowing themselves up and whacking people's heads off????

      December 4, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • shane

      The two can't be compared. Christian fanatics are annoying I agree, but that's just that. Islam teaches violence and lack of emotion besides hate.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  17. Avord

    Muslims are just as flawed as the rest of us infidels. Muslims talk a good game, but their personal behavior is no better.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  18. ABC

    what a terrible article! read half of it but still it doesn't get to the point! CNN – do you really think you should publish articles like these on your front page??

    December 4, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  19. James

    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."

    Reminds me of the old saying 'The most Zealous of believers are those that aren't born into it.'

    December 4, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  20. GodIsForImbeciles

    The experts are retarded.

    Muslims are more devout because if you're a Muslim and you don't toe the party line...your co-religionists kill you.

    Got that?

    If you don't spout off all the "death to the infidel" nonsense, other Muslims kill you.

    I lived in Saudi Arabia for 4 years. I damned well know what I'm talking about.

    Islam is tyranny. Nothing more. Nothing less.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • shawn

      It's the same in America to with the Jesus freaks...but they do worse. They let you live and pay for non-believing you who life by being removed from your family, society, ect

      December 4, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • shane

      How is that worse Shawn? I think female genital mutilation, stonings, beheadings, hanging, and everything else is much worse than an annoying Christian.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • Scott

      LOL – that's hardly worse.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:26 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.