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.

American Muslim women who cover explain their choice

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. Jennifer Bell

    This article is written to deepen the divide between Christians and Muslims. It should be offensive to both faiths. It certainly is to me. I attempt to live out my Christianity daily, as do most Muslims I know.

    That said, there is a fundamental misunderstanding that must be corrected: "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 foundation of Christianity is that Jesus IS God. Mohammed cannot not nullify God. ...not now, not ever.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • Islam=peace

      Jennifer you're right. It's not correct to say that Mohammed was sent to nullify previous prophets. Infact in Quran, God talks directly to the christians and the jews calling them o people of the book. And the Quran talks about Mohammed's message as an extension of the same message that God sent to the earlier prophets like Jesus and Moses. I invite you to read the Quran, you'll be surprised by the messahe of solidarity in it. A good translation is by Thomas Cleary.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  2. John

    You better study deeply. You will find muslims have oppression and suppression. They kill and find the way to kill those who don't beleive or reverse to other religion. Muslim is such as commuinist. One party rule only. A supreme leader is a king without declare. Muslims never have freedom and fair until there is separate religion and the government. Their supreme leader is a ruler. They teach children to hate other.

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

      I teach at a large midwestern university and one of my graduate students is a former Army Captain, who served among other places in Iraq. He said that in EVERY SINGLE deployment and assignment he'd had, the more he got to know the people, the more he liked them...except Iraq. Based on his experience, they don't place much value on life, they hurt/maim/torture their neighbor's kids, etc. Islam, wake up. The 21st century is calling.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  3. Guardio

    I dont know if its true that Christians dont believe Christ is the only way. If they're true Christianity based -they should know better. Many who claim to be followers of Christ are not really in the ball game. Jesus said very few will walk the straight and narrow. He also said the anti-christ church will pray more oftern, stern with their children, well versed intheir writings, support their belief amoung men, they will have everything, except one thing -me. Muslims may accept Christ as a man who existed, but they dont accept him as the true salvation. "Mankind cannot do both." Many self proclaimed Christians will obey Christ and know that anything else is an advisary to God, Jehovah, the Father. Mohammad has decieved many.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  4. Rainer Braendlein

    Muhammad, the hater of the cross.

    Sura 4: Verse 157:

    And because of their saying: We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, Allah’s messenger – they slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them; and lo! those who disagree concerning it are in doubt thereof; they have no knowledge thereof save pursuit of a conjecture; they slew him not for certain.

    ( سورة النساء , An-Nisa, Chapter #4, Verse #157)

    The crucifixion of Jesus is the center of Christianity. Without Christ’s atonement, there would be not forgiveness and no deliverance. We would be hopeless people.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  5. LetsBeHonest

    Oh please! Muslims are more religious because they will be killed if they don't follow the pack, and God forbid women exercise an independent thought. MORE RELIGIOUS! Bull!

    December 4, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  6. Texas Tumbleweed

    The consequences of appearing less than devout can be severe for those in Muslim countries.

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

      or if you live in israel and are christian watch out!


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

      You'r right about that.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  7. JOHN

    Being "religious" is not the same thing as being spiritually enlightened. A lot of people are "religious" but have little or no spiritual enlightenment. What many so-called Christians practice is a far-cry from what Jesus really taught. If He were to appear on earth now, He would have some things to say to those who claim to be Christians but practice something other than true Christianity. Muslims and Christians would do well to seek to be spiritually enlightened.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  8. RAWoD

    Very effective brain washing.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  9. GodhatesIslam

    Muslims are worshiping Satan. SAY IT!! THAT is Satan's religion. They bow to Satan. There is no Allah but one Yahweh.

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

      Wow, way to be tolerant. I'm sure you wouldn't like it if such hateful comments were said about your religion. Hateful comments don't help anyone.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  10. noway

    WHY is CNN not reporting this. ITs biggest threat since patriot act.

    SENATE BILL 1867

    December 4, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  11. Alex

    I love the movie The Life of Brian which makes fun of man and religion, religious hypocrisy and the dumb sheep that blindly follow. LMAO

    December 4, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  12. Rainer Braendlein

    Sura 5: Verse 51 of the unholy Koran:

    O ye who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians for friends. They are friends one to another. He among you who taketh them for friends is (one) of them. Lo! Allah guideth not wrongdoing folk.

    ( سورة المائدة , Al-Maeda, Chapter #5, Verse #51)

    Note: “O ye who believe” are Muslims.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • hawaiiduude

      read the unholy jewish talmud

      Abhodah Zarah (25b)T: Even the best of the Goim should be killed.
      Abhodah Zarah 26b Tosephoth: "A Jew who kills a Christian commits no sin, but offers an acceptable sacrifice to God."
      Alkut Simoni (245c): A Jew shedding the blood of a Christian is offering a sacrifice to God.
      Hilkhoth Akum(X,2) - Baptized Jews are to be put to death
      Iore Dea (158, 1): Christians who are not Jews' enemies must also die.
      Iore Dea(158,2)Hag. - Kill renegades who turn to Christian rituals.
      Livore David 37: "If a Jew be called upon to explain any part of the rabbinic books, he ought to give only a false explanation. Who ever will violate this order shall be put to death."
      Makkoth (7b): Innocent of murder if intent was to kill a Christian
      Sanhedrin (59a) & Abohodah Zarah 8-6: "Every goy [non-Jew] who studies the Talmud and every Jew who helps him in it, ought to die."
      Schulchan Aruch Choszen Hamiszpat 388: "It is permitted to kill a Jewish denunciator everywhere. It is permitted to kill him even before he denounces."
      Sepher Or Israel (177b): If a Jew kills a Christian he commits no sin. He has done God a service.
      Zohar (11 43a): Extermination of Christians necessary.
      Zohar (I,25a) - Christians are to be destroyed as idolators.
      Zohar (I,219b) - Princes of Christians are idolators, must die.
      Zohar (II, 43a): Extermination of Christians is a necessary sacrifice to God.
      Zohar (L, 38b, 39a): A Jew to receive a high place in heaven if he kills a Christian.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein


      There is no Jewish threat, but an Islamic threat. Let us focus on the urgent problems.

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

      hawaiiduude, you are pathetic.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  13. AtheistSteve

    Religions are all essentially the same at the core. Adherents to any Abrahamic religion are all promised the reward of eternal life for an immortal soul. Pacified with pat answers to philosophical questions like "why are we here?", "where did we come from?" or "what does it all mean?" religions of the world consolidate and control the behavior of its followers by promoting fear and ignorance. Nature itself is anthropomorphised into a father figure. A superior agent of creation to provide a recognizable face to the mysteries and unknowns of reality. It's a notion that carries enormous appeal to the masses(especially the oppressed) despite the obvious contradictions present in its teachings due to its root foundations in barbarous primitive cultures. Religion and its associated magical thinking will persist until education, skepticism and rational thought are embraced as the pinnacle of human endeavors.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • roger

      Forced virtue is not virtue – so goes a chinese zen saying. Whether it is the carrot and/or the stick, if one is fllowing moral rules to avoid punishment and/or gain a reward then that is no virtue, but just because religions are illogical doesn't mean that there isn't an obvious power spinning electrons in all matter. You can believe that life is "a tale told by an idiot – full of sound and fury and signifying nothing" or you can accept scientific fact that everything is a form of energy and as such is never created or destroyed. Even substances we refer to as synthetic must be produced from pre-existing substances. Mortal logic is finite in that it requires parameters. It is ignorant to search for an ultimate beginning because every beginning has it's own beginning, therefore just as one might ask who created the God that created the world, he must also ask where the elements came from that created the big bang....ad infinitum. Nothing remains the same for even a nanosecond so cannot be considered a finished product – so scientifically nothing was ever created because the moment you say there it is – it has already changed. You could see this in time lapse photography, but time is relative and if something appears the same day to day we are unaware of the subtle changes whether it be a mountain or a human manifestation.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  14. Blair Wallace

    Because they are "sheep". They follow the doctrine of their religion without question. If allah says it, in the Koran, then it must be so. People who have no hope for an improvement in their lives grab ahold of anything to make their lives more bareable. You could draw a parrallel with poor folks in South America.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  15. remnant0888

    I to love and follow Jesus all by myself without the fear of being killed if I do not follow Him.
    Muhammed used fear and it is still ingraned in the masses...

    December 4, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • Jacob

      And fear of eternal hell and damnation isn't "using fear" why?.....

      December 4, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  16. West's debt to the muslim world

    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 colonizers.

    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 11:19 am |
    • Name*Chedar

      You are mistaken the whites conquer the entire world not only the Muslim countries. This is a fact.

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

      Name Chedar: do u realize what u are implying? no one in this world has the right to conquer anyone...remember the term 'global peace'?

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

      brilliant statement..thanks.. many intelligent Muslims here in the US who are far from jihadists, agree with this.

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

      "Muslims are the most peaceful people in the world"; What a hoot. What color is the sky in your universe anyway? there are around 47 armed conflicts going on in the world right now and about 43 of them in Muslim countries where religion is the primary focus of the conflict...

      Thanks for the laugh...

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

      Please leave India out of your topic of discussion. India is ONE nation no matter how many different religion coexist within. Majority of Muslims of India are against Pakistan and terrorism. The suppression they feel is the same suppression felt by a Hindu or a Sikh during British invasion. They all took the same blows and they fought together.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  17. palintwit

    Move them all into trailer parks. Force them to watch nascar and listen to CD's of Sarah Palin's most inspiring speeches. Problem solved.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • Anonymous

      Ha ha!

      December 4, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  18. Pekovianii

    One thousand years ago, the Muslim world was superior to Europe. Then Europeans passed through the Renaissance and Muslims declined. The "rediscovery" of Aristotle had an effect on Muslim and Jewish Medieval philosophers even before Thomas Aquinas brought this into the Catholic Church, but Muslim philosophers quickly backed away. Al-Ghazali taught that cotton doesn't burn because of the flame, but because it is the will of Allah, beginning a culture that is antagonistic to reason. Almost a full millennium of stagnation, decline, rot, mysticism and violence.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  19. BL

    Of all the fake organized religions (and they're all total nonsense) this one is the worst. Based on schizoid fantasies of a murderous pedophile, with a bloody history that has only caused pain and suffering. A true cancer on humanity. Mankind will never progress while the disease of religion pollutes our world.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • fraaa

      Your an idiot. Religions are not evil. People are. I am not religious at all, but all I have to do is read most of the major religious holy books to find that the message more often than not, is about love and compassion. I have absolutely no comment on whether or not there is a god or not cause that doesn't matter. Religion gives people some sort of an ideal to strive for in terms of being an altruistic and righteous individual. Its the reason you see donation boxes outside churches, and fund raisers in the name of religious organizations. Religion doesn't corrupt people, people corrupt religion, and if you somehow got rid of all religion, then people would find some other fake discriminatory classification to identify with and kill in the name of. The fact of the matter is if people actually upheld the morals and lifestyles preached by most of these religions, people would be compassionate and understanding of each other, not murderous.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • SS

      Nothing you wrote in your post is false. 100% spot on.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  20. PiedType

    I think Muslims may adhere more strictly to their beliefs because a lot of Muslim countries are theocracies or semi-theocracies and religion is a huge part of their social fabric; because of widespread lack of education; because the religion itself demands it; and because people tend to rally in defense of their beliefs when they feel those beliefs are under attack from others.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:17 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.