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. hawaiiduude


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

      Al-Ghazali has sometimes been referred to by historians as the single most influential Muslim after the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Others have cited his movement from science to faith as a detriment to Islamic scientific progress.

      hawaiiduude is a good example of the monkey-man that results.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • Guardio

      Call the police ?.....what are you an idiot,,,,,they're trying to kill you ! pick up a rock and give them a curve ball right into the back of the head, or chase them down and beat the snot out of them......your are a pitiful representative of the American !

      December 4, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  2. servantofTHEWORD

    Jesus Christ...Lord of Lords...King of Kings.The One True God.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Caos

      Amen 🙂

      December 4, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • NI

      LOL....May Allah show u the true path buddy!!

      December 4, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  3. hawaiiduude


    December 4, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  4. Amon Ptah

    In general, the more "religious" you are, the more "ignorant" you are.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  5. Derb

    Muhammedism is religion by the sword. Its obvious why is is gaining in popularity. Its tough to evangilise in a countriy that is run by an Islamic Republic.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  6. jayn

    Perhaps it has to do with the naivety and simplemindedness of the respective populations. You really think worshipping a mangod will let you live forever in some magical place?

    December 4, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  7. sunblur

    "Muslims also have a much greater tendency to say their religion motivates them to do good works ... "

    A good sign of any "religion" ...

    December 4, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • Tim

      Relgions hold their greatest sway with the young, poor and uneducated. As people become older, they experience the randomness of life and their belief system is usually effected accordingly. As they become wealthier, they realize that wealth influences longevity so their beliefs evaporate even more. As science progresses, its adherent realize more and more that the world is largely pre-determined. Relgion only holds sway among simpletons like yourself, sir!

      December 4, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  8. phoenix86

    Islam is not a religion, it is a cult.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • Kevin

      All religions are cults.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • Tim

      That is correct. Every religion, upon closer examination, can be seen to cultivate absurd beliefs and rituals. It is both a cult and a confidence game.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  9. Albro

    Where exactly do we delineate between "religous" and zealot or obsessed?

    December 4, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  10. jackyjohnson

    ""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."

    What? We currently have uprisings in multiple Arab muslim countries to remove dictators for democracy. Yet according to this moron those people don't want a liberal secular democracy. Well guess what? There is no such thing as a non-secular democracy. You can't have your cake and eat it too!

    December 4, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  11. Animesh Ray

    "Muslim communities have never experienced intense secularization that took place in Europe and the West in general.."
    –This is not true. The Mughal emperor of India, Akbar, was a secular Muslim who unified Islam with Hinduism, Jainism, and Christianity, and used as the main basis the Sufi mysticism for a reformed Islam, Din-i-Illahi. Although he was a Sunni in his early life, he became secular in his later life. An interesting incidence of his early life is that he attacked and arrested a 'heretical' islamist leader Sheikh Mustafa (a 'Mahdhavi' leader in Gujrat), but released him following a debate with him in Akbar's Delhi court. He himself married a Hindu woman, his chief queen, who remained a devout Hindu all her life. He declared all religions to have equal standing in his empire. Din-i-Illahi was a reformed Islam, in which Sufi mysticism was combined with the Jain concept of the value of all life, coupled with the humility of Christianity. During his reign, Akbar was declared a heretic by 'fatwa' issued by several Muslim religious sects, but Akbar arrested and dismissed them. Din-i-Illahi, however, did not take a deep root because after Akbar's death, his son and grandson were somewhat ineffectual leaders, who were not interested in states craft or religious reformation–both were content to live their own lives in as much poetic grandeur as they could, while managing to keep the sprawling empire together. Din-i-Illahi was wiped out by Akbar's great grandson, Aurangzeb, who was a fanatical Sunni. That was the end of 'reformation' of Islam.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  12. Moe

    if you really say that Jesus loves you .. and you love him ,, and you both in love ,, why he gets you in troubles when you make bad deeds ... Fear God People ,, Peace upon you Jesus

    December 4, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  13. Robert

    Incidentally, Thank God I'm and Atheist!

    December 4, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  14. Y'all disgusting

    the only reason muslims are 'more religios' than other faiths is because they live under the threat of being killed if they doubt their faith. in other words, it's a religion of fear that the other congregates are going to lynch you if you decide you don't want to go to mosque anymore. bunch of psychos.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  15. Alex

    Brian: No, no. Please, please please listen. I've got one or two things to say.
    The Crowd: Tell us! Tell us both of them!
    Brian: Look, you've got it all wrong. You don't need to follow me. You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves! You're all individuals!
    The Crowd: Yes! We're all individuals!
    Brian: You're all different!
    The Crowd: Yes! We're all different!
    Man in crowd: I'm not...
    Man in crowd: Shhh!
    Brian: You've all got to work it out for yourselves.
    The Crowd: Yes! We've got to work it out for ourselves!
    Brian: Exactly!
    The Crowd: Tell us more!

    December 4, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  16. Eagle

    2025, America and China are engaged in a long war of attribution. Nasty and costly naval and aerial battles over the Pacific are followed by the US occupation of the coastal areas of China. Around Hong Kong, Shanghai, Qingdao, and Dalian, everyday, brutal battles employing weapons of deadly accuracy and effectiveness are waged day and night. Tens of thousands of American and Chinese soldiers, sailors, and airmen lose their lives in a ferocious five dimensional war – land, sea, air, space, and Internet. Since China evacuates its coastal population and the US is careful about collateral damages, there are Chinese civilians casualties, but minimum.

    Meanwhile, General Mahmud Tamer and his powerful army take the full advantage of this historical opportunity, defeat Israel, unify the Middle East, and then occupy large stretches of Africa and Asia. After consolidating his rule of his sprawling empire that has tremendous resources now at its disposal, General Mahmud Tamer launched a massive war effort against the USA. The campaign against continental US begins after the fall of Canada.

    Battle of Houston starts as the last defence of the USA. http://battleofhouston.blogspot.com/

    December 4, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  17. Moe

    TO Neil . beside the fact that Whatever Jesus came up with is right , i have to tell you that Mohammad Said
    He will not enter the heaven , who slept while his neighbor is hungry ...
    The angel of god got sent down on him , told mohammad after he got suffered alot , you wanna me to squeez them between these two mountains , and they will be nothing after , Mohammad said , No , may be some ppl will came out of their bodies believing in Allah ,,,, When it comes to Mohammad , you are the most closer to passion .
    i am not trying to be rude , but you will never ever find a muslim says that Jesus came with something wrong , because he is a true profit of god , but christians dont afraid anything to remember mohammmad with bad things , that's not fair , Also , You know the truth , but why u r doing that ? why u dont just go to Al Quran and read Mariam Aya ,, where God said some good words about Jesus and his mom . My friend , How god sends his massenger to tell people believe in me instead of saying believe in God , Ibraham was before jesus , and he was not jew or even christian , he was a muslim submitting to god . Peace upon you Jesus , the time you were born , and when you died , and the time you get back alive .
    All what we disagree about , is we dont have as a muslim to believe in human interaction in a book sent from God , but we believe in Gospil , not in what Luke and Mathew said in the book . Go and just read about the God who never never cradled and never been cradled , and no one is equivelant to him ... he is the only good , who created the skies and earth , who is more strong and more passionate ... Jesus is only on of mony profits God sent to preach human being . he talked while he was kid , healed ppl , regain the sight for blinds , God asked him , did you say that you take yourself and your mom as Gods along with me , Jesus said , shame on me if i did , and you know everything , that i didnt , how i would say that and you who created me .... Peace upon you my love Jesus . My christians brothers , be from those who supported Jesus in his life , and dont be from those who tried to decieve you , but they dont decieve but themselves ... God doesnt have to send his Son to ppl as he never has a son ,,, when marry pointed out to her new-born son , he answered , i am a messanger from your god to guide you to the right path ... god doesnt have to send His son and doesnt have to support his son by Testominies , LUke and Mathew , because from the beginning , God gave us the reason and choice ... a lot to say .. and those who just shed a light to the sense of fearness Mohammad and Qurann came up with , it is just a part of the true , that distinguish who believed from who didnt ... life is not easy at all ,, what do you think of the other life ... where is the separation ..

    December 4, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  18. Islam=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 rightl aggrieved muslim populace will reconcile.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • chris

      Your counties were occupied because you kept running around and slaughtering non Muslims. Wake up and take responsibility for your own history and stop blaming others for the pitfalls of a book that has incited intolerance, hatred and murder since it's inception

      December 4, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • Bob

      How many Catholics, Baptists, Buddists, etc have strapped explosives to themselves in the name of their God? You have to admit it is a LOT less than Muslims "Zero in fact". How many have been "Forced" into being Muslim? YEP, a WHOLE lot. How many Muslims live in a democratic or free country? Wonder why if the religion is so great the leaders don't share? Makes one wonder huh??

      December 4, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  19. JamesNL

    Consider this: Islam began almost 600 years later than Christianity. Now ask yourself: what was Christianity like around 600 years ago? – quite severe, fanatical, with Church leaders and followers feeling they had the right to put people to death, and inserted such fanaticism in Government as much as possible.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  20. Nothing New Under The Sun

    Islam is a cult.

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

      As is Christianity.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:37 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.