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. Flooby

    What a load of crap.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  2. Reality

    A PowerPoint slide for those who are "reading challenged":







    Added details upon request.

    And for those who through around numbers:

    o http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html
    Religion...... Adherents

    Christianity 2.1 billion

    Islam 1.5 billion

    Irreligious/agnostic/atheism 1.1 billion

    Hinduism 900 million

    Chinese traditional religion 394 million

    Buddhism 376 million

    Animist religions 300 million

    African traditional/diasporic religions 100 million

    Sikhism 23 million
    Juche 19 million
    Spiritism 15 million
    Judaism 14 million
    Baha'i 7 million
    Jainism 4.2 million
    Shinto 4 million
    Cao Dai 4 million
    Zoroastrianism 2.6 million
    Tenrikyo 2 million
    Neo-Paganism 1 million
    Unitarian Universalism 800,000
    Rastafari Movement 600,000

    December 4, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  3. Humanist

    "hawaiiduude" are you implying by your video post that people from other religious groups do not commit acts of violence, because if that is so, untold numbers of First Nations people of Canada would disagree with you having been tortured in the residential school system by various Christian church orders for many years. Just one example, there are of course many more.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  4. hawaiiduude


    December 4, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  5. lee s

    I can tell you why they are more "religious", because they have more fundamentals and fanatics. Plain and simple. Not too mention religion in general tends to thrive in parts of the world where under educated and poor people live. Christianity has taken roots in the Southern Hemisphere and most of its dedicated followers are dirt poor and totally uneducated, I wonder why that is. Religion always seems to take hold amongst the disenfranchised people that feel they have no where else to turn. And once you have one generation eating out of your hand, the one behind follow in suit, no questions asked.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  6. Steve

    Here's your answer....most are uneducated and live in the stone age. What better way to control people that are ignorant.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  7. hawaiiduude


    December 4, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • Pekovianii

      hawaiiduude, You have developed a fine prehensile tongue for wrapping around any Jihad tool, and an ability to cram that where it will not be discovered by airport security.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  8. Brian

    Duh, can you say brainwashing. Mosque 5 times a day would brainwash anyone.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • Troy

      Exactly. These "experts" are just being PC.

      The brainwashing begins at a very early age. Just like in North Korea...

      December 4, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  9. ZarGoth

    Faith: not wanting to know what is true.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • Jack

      I couldn't be because they beat their religion into every child, in every way and integrate it into their society at every level.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  10. Mo

    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 11:47 am |
    • lee s

      Thats just a line to justify people converting to islam but not the other way around. What happens if someone leaves Islam in the muslim community?

      December 4, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • ZarGoth

      No, thank you. Enough of the otherworldly nonsense. How about spending some time working in the real world on real problems in a rational way?

      Just asking...

      December 4, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  11. Pekovianii

    Conflicts within every religion's idea of God, and wars between those religions, are why the Founding Fathers, men of the Enlightenment, write about God in the language of poets, not the language of theologians, and established a secular state.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  12. cynic

    Who cares. Is this some sort of contest. Religion should be a personal matter between the believer and his/her maker. And if your maker happens to be rooted in science, all the more better, for there is no organization you are forced to bow to.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  13. Ali

    II grew up in East Africa in a country where Christians and Muslims co-exist. As most of you mentioned, In Islam there is no freedom of religion. For example; if you are once Islam, and converted to Christian, you basically means, committing suicide but it is okay the other way around. They appear to be more religious because, they don't have a choice... It's like a communism, if you oppose the ruling party ideology, your head will be chopped off in public...

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

      East Africa has suffered a thousand years of Arab slave traders. Even now refugees from Sudan are butchered by bedouins in the Sinai when trying to escape from Arab/Muslim control.

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

      Any Muslim can leave his religion; there is no Islamic law which then says s/he has to have his head chopped off.
      It is a private decision between him and his Lord.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  14. Rainer Braendlein

    It is absolutely obvious that the Islam is a demonic nonsense or delusion. But the question is, how we can get rid of it.

    According to the Book of Revelation of the Bible, the Islam is a divine judgement over the Western World. God punishes us with the Islam.

    We get punished for our profanity or secularism, which has become infinite. Our whole Western life is about material things, but we neglect our precious souls and spirituality.

    Revelation, Chapter 9:

    And the sixth angel sounded, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God, 14 Saying to the sixth angel which had the trumpet, Loose the four angels which are bound in the great river Euphrates. 15 And the four angels were loosed, which were prepared for an hour, and a day, and a month, and a year, for to slay the third part of men. 16 And the number of the army of the horsemen were two hundred thousand thousand: and I heard the number of them. 17 And thus I saw the horses in the vision, and them that sat on them, having breastplates of fire, and of jacinth, and brimstone: and the heads of the horses were as the heads of lions; and out of their mouths issued fire and smoke and brimstone. 18 By these three was the third part of men killed, by the fire, and by the smoke, and by the brimstone, which issued out of their mouths. 19 For their power is in their mouth, and in their tails: for their tails were like unto serpents, and had heads, and with them they do hurt. 20 And the rest of the men which were not killed by these plagues yet repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not worship devils, and idols of gold, and silver, and brass, and stone, and of wood: which neither can see, nor hear, nor walk: 21 Neither repented they of their murders, nor of their sorceries, nor of their fornication, nor of their thefts.

    According to Dr. Martin Luther, these are the armies and horsemen of Muhammad.

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

      Muslims don't worship idols, gold, silver or brass. Mr. Luther has it wrong.
      There is only one creator – make sure your creator is the right creator (GOD). among thousand of religions in the world today only one is right.
      God only help help certain people! try to be the one of the certain people. Pay attention to the creations of the creator, pay some attention to the ruins of some of towns in the world and try to figure out why god destroyed them? The answers are easy, finding your god is easy – you just need a will!!

      December 4, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • Zander

      Not really. Islam's aim is not to "conquer the world." Its chief aim is to worship One God, and to live a godly life so
      that Heaven may be attained in the afterlife. When ignoramuses (on all sides) use Islam and other religions for
      non-religious means, that's when you have problems.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  15. Pekovianii

    Muslim philosophers rejected reason and embraced mysticism. They led their countrymen into ruin.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  16. J

    I enjoy reading CNN's articles, but I find this one completely biased. First of all, it is based on one survey. Second, the article points out that it was done online and asked 18,000 + people from 24 countries but then adds that only about 1,000 people (354 people in Saudia Arabia) from each country were asked their views. It doesn't offer any demographics on the people who were asked to participate. In scientific research, these results would be invalid, or at least questioned.

    I'm just confused on the real point that is trying to be made here since it reads with undertones of many different motives. I am Roman Catholic. I practice my religion and find it an important part of my day. Do I talk obsessively about it? No, I keep it personal and mostly to myself. I believe in doing good works, not because my religion tells me to, but because I believe it is the right thing to do.

    If you asked me if my religion was the only true faith for everyone I would say that was absurd! My best friend is Mormon, other close friends are Jewish, Hindu, Greek Othodox, Southern Baptist, Methodist, Luthern, and American Muslim (she chooses to practice her faith but doesn't feel the need to wear the dress, her mother still does). Would someone say my Muslim friend is not as devoted because she doesn't believe in wearing her religious attire? She's very devoted, she just keeps it to herself. She was born here, just like I was (2nd generation), and therefore believes that we can choose to carry on with what traditions we would like. My family is from Poland and came over to the United States in 1921. There are traditions we still like to practice and that's fine. Did we try to change laws here to practice them? No! It does not matter what religion you choose, or the words that you profess, it is your actions that speak louder than anything. So to say that you believe your religion is the only true path for everyone , it doesn't make you sound devoted to me, it makes you sound brainwashed.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  17. Islam is 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 aggrieved muslim populace will reconcile

    December 4, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • DON

      islam used to be just another obscure religion that blended in with the rest... then on 9-11, we all learned about their core teachings. Yes. God is great, but as a Christian, I was never taught to kill men, women & children in the name of a Moon god. Ever notice that the symbol of this god, a crescent moon, appears on outhouse doors? Hmmmm. Praise God... don't blowup market places and mosques and tell the world 'Allah told me to kill...'

      December 4, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  18. LoveForAll

    Every negative comment about Islam on this chatboard is either a wild misrepresentation, baseless accusation, or biased regurgitation of the same Fox News-Pamela Geller Muslim stereotype. The article, though I am highly skeptical of it, tries to ground itself in fact and statistics, some of the negative pundits on this chatboard should do the same. And Islam did go through an enlightenment period, it's called the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community that preaches strict non-violence and adherence to the Holy Quran.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  19. 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 launches 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.


    December 4, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  20. Idol Girl

    I'm a Unitarian Universalist. I'm in agreement with the Spiritual But Not Religious movement – All religions contain some wisdom, but no one religion contains all wisdom.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:40 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.