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. Mott the Hoople

    The first sentence of the article states, "Muslims are much more likely than Christians and Hindus to say that their own faith is the only true path to paradise". That does not mean that they are more religious, or more faithful. That just means that they are more exclusivist (i.e., bigoted). There is a big difference between exclusivism/bigotry and religious/faithful.

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

    One wonderful thing about religion is that you can lie but every followers must take your lie as the truth. No one can verify with God that God did tell you this or that. You simply say God told me this and the blinds and the fools will follow you.
    Can any one verify with God that he told Herman Cain to run for president?
    Can any one verify with God that he is at peace with Herman Cain now after all the sins and lies he committed?
    So... again, you can lie using God but no one can verify and confirm with God what he said to you. Why you can't? It's simply because God does not exist.
    So.. the lies go on forever. And the blind sheep continue to move along just fine. The God business is getting better and much more powerful since the blinds want to hear what they love to hear. Here.. take my money and my life. Take them all. All I need is salvation. I want to go to heaven. I don't want to live like #$%#$ like this., I want to hear someone like you to promise me a wonderful land where I will never go hungry, have 10 virgin girls I can pick and choose to marry with...
    God is good.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  3. Alex

    Matthias: Look, I don't think it should be a sin, just for saying "Jehovah".
    [Everyone gasps]
    Jewish Official: You're only making it worse for yourself!
    Matthias: Making it worse? How can it be worse? Jehovah! Jehovah! Jehovah!
    Jewish Official: I'm warning you! If you say "Jehovah" one more time (gets hit with rock) RIGHT! Who did that? Come on, who did it?
    Stoners: She did! She did! (suddenly speaking as men) He! He did! He!
    Jewish Official: Was it you?
    Stoner: Yes.
    Jewish Official: Right...
    Stoner: Well you did say "Jehovah. "
    [Crowd throws rocks at the stoner]
    Jewish Official: STOP IT! STOP IT! STOP IT RIGHT NOW! STOP IT! All right, no one is to stone _anyone_ until I blow this whistle. Even... and I want to make this absolutely clear... even if they do say, "Jehovah. "
    [Crowd stones the Jewish Official to death]

    December 4, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Robert

      Love the Life of Brian quote...I also love that it would have taken place 1500+ years ago. But we can still find scenes like this in the Arab world!

      December 4, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  4. Clint

    Muslim faith calls for all adherents to become in line or be cut off from their family, community, and from ultimately their god if they do not adhere to rules.

    It is based on works which makes it the most "what have you done lately" religion in the world. Its militant in its theology and if CNN would bother to pick up the Quran they would see that Muslims are called to do throngs like seek out all Jews in their community and kill them. Please represent all sides CNN but be educated more than you currently are.

    Those reading it should also consider that Muslim faith is not a radical vs normal believers, Islam calls for complete dedicated and nothing short of making ALL NATIONS COME UNDER THEIR RELIGION is in their Quran. Look it up please before you go further with conjecture and emotional responses or opinion.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  5. Eagle

    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 11:39 am |
  6. Qularkono

    because they have been taught and believe that they earn their way into heaven (works righteousness) ... and are scared not to heed those teachings .... plus they know the penalties for conversion.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  7. Scott

    Only to CNN would this be an issue that needs investigating.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • Robert

      Agreed. My first reaction was "wow, must be an incredibly slow news day" but then I realized I was actually considering NNC.com to be a news site, and it's not. I'm serious about this...at least for me, I get on to check latest news, etc. but they're an information business and their nut is continually having stories that are new so people like us will read them. For that reason, we should expect garbage articles like this (c'mon, NNC...the survey is so flawed and the conclusions divisive and offensive, but you STILL felt the need to put it on? Shame on you).

      December 4, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  8. Caos

    see the media puts muslims out as can be peacful but if a muslim works its way up the chain a little to much they get killed...they can be peaceful but if they get out of line they get killed....in the USA its not as bad cause or government but over all it's more like 10% peacful 90% dangerous and i'm not referring to the terrorist either....and yes there are extremist in every belief but from what i've seen and witness it more of the islamic belif i personally dont have nothing against them

    December 4, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  9. Islam=peace

    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 all 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 11:38 am |
    • Clint

      Islam calls for destruction of all nations until they are ruled under the flag of Islam, how is that peace?
      The Quran calls for that dedication not peace, and the prophet you speak of never called Israel and Christians brothers, they called all Jews to be sought out to kill, that is their prophet.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • Qularkono

      God is limited only in that He cannot go against His Will and His attributes. How then does Mohammed claim that God changed His own Word and Will. No the Quran is not from God as evidenced by its own words.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • contraryjim

      Since all religions and the concept of a god are human constructs, one is as valid as another. Trade is the leveler as a satisfied buyer and satisfied seller is all that is needed in the exchange. One can have separate beliefs or none and it matters not. We all need to get the government parasites out of the picture.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  10. BornInUSSR

    The question is wrong. It should be: why so many muslims support militant islam that aims at world domination? The answer is that islam is a political religion. There is no responsibility in islam towards Jews and Christians. Killing an ubbeliever is not considered a crime. Koran forbids muslims to signs a peace treaty with non-muslims. Only 'HUDNA" or "TAHDIA" are allowed. These are temporary suspensions of hostilities until islam is strong enough to defeat them. And that's why there is no peace between Israel and some of its neighbors and not the silly talk about this or that piece of land

    December 4, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • Robert

      Yes, which is too bad....it's also why the rest of the world is fast getting tired of Islam.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  11. Alex

    Brian: I am NOT the Messiah!

    Arthur: I say you are Lord, and I should know. I've followed a few.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:37 am |
  12. Bryan

    Those who are uneducated believe in fantasies that they are taught from an early age. Many do not learn to or try to think for themselves,and do not no understand or apply Science (except for how to make bombs).Their value system differs from that of the West. (Reverence for life–Schweitzer).

    December 4, 2011 at 11:37 am |
  13. Why Muslims are more religious?

    Maybe because they actually practice what they preach.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:37 am |
  14. what sword?

    what imperlaistic ways have forced americans or even western countries??

    December 4, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  15. Agha Ata (USA)

    Thinkosobox. Not that I want to belittle respect for Mohammad (PBUH) I am saying something for YOUR knowledge. The book written by Michael Hart was NOT about the greatness of any of the personalities you named. He just pointed out the people who became VERY famous during their life time.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  16. American Muslim

    "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.""

    I am a Muslim and don;t believe this as the Quran teaches us the Jesus, Moses and all the Prophets brought the divine message of the one God. Ed is wrong.

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

      Joseph Smith was the most recent significant prophet and has been followed by prophets up to the current president of LDS. Since he is the current prophet, why don't we ask him what God says.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • Clint

      You aren't a very devoted Muslim because your Quran calls for all those who assist Jews to be in hell and that all governments in the world to be ruled by Muslim flags....thats fact, its written in your Quran. Islam teaches a different god than Jews and Christians because your prophet called for all of Israel to be destroyed. Israel is God's people, so if the prophet called for the continuation of the previous teaches, he would not have sought out killing all Jews, history and your Quran tell us that.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • NI

      Clint maannnn.....u have no knowledge about Islam so its better u just keep ur thoughts to ur self cuz otherwise u just look dumb sorry man but Islam is the true religion n u have no clue what u r talking about

      December 4, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  17. JeffB

    For people putting up quotes out of context to bash Islam it cuts both ways.

    I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword" (Gospel of Matthew 10:34)

    "Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy handhold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things. (The Noble Quran, 2:256)"

    See how easy this is?

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

      Yup, easy for someone to be in the middle and do nothing or say nothing worth listening to, you are right

      December 4, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  18. Caos

    There religious because they have to be

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

      NO! We r religious because we believe the afterworld and we are afraid of our Alllah! We have a goal in life and thats to worship our Allah and fulfill all the needs of a true muslim. I believe in Jesus and Moses, our Quraan has taughts us about all of the prophets and I respect all other religions but I only believe in Islam because it makes me feel complete and close to Allah! Theres in no point in explaining this to people who have really narrow thinking but I pray to Allah that one day you will follow the true path of Islam!!

      Good luck my friend!!

      December 4, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • contraryjim

      "...I only believe in Islam because it makes me feel complete..." This statement explains why people believe – in a god or a religion. Many people don't feel complete about themselves, they don't understand that each of us is unique and have value depending on no other. Too many seek validation in their heroes, celebrities, & prophets. WE are EACH better than that – take on personal responsibility and exert yourselves to the fullest of your ability and you will be like what others consider a god.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  19. Millie

    brainwashing the lower intellect

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


    December 4, 2011 at 11:34 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.