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. Loathstheright

    God does not exist.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  2. Chet Roman

    Just more propaganda spreading Islamophobia with its ideological heart in Israel.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • Pekovianii

      You should meet hawaiiduude in the exercise yard.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Reality

      Some rational thinking about Israel and Judaism from 1.5 million Conservative Jews and their rabbis.

      origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482 NY Times review and important enough to reiterate.

      New Torah For Modern Minds

      “Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

      Such startling propositions - the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years - have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity - until now.

      The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine doc-ument.

      The notion that the Bible is not literally true "is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis," observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to "Etz Hayim." But some congregants, he said, "may not like the stark airing of it." Last Passover, in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said that "virtually every modern archaeologist" agrees "that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all." The rabbi offered what he called a "LITANY OF DISILLUSION”' about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said, archaeologists digging in the Sinai have "found no trace of the tribes of Israel - not one shard of pottery."

      December 4, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  3. victor

    Their religion is based on FEAR, not LOVE based BIG,BIG, difference. They believe death to non believers. I would be going to religious services to prove I am a believer

    December 4, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • Ad

      I have many "non-believer" friends who haven't died yet. In my mosque, I haven't once been threatened into following my relgion. So where exactly is this fear you speak of? Please, get your head out of your ass.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • ad

      and Christianity is based on love?????

      repent or burn in hell.. believe or be smacked by the most brutal of diseases. bow or be tied to posts and burnt....

      that's love, alrigjht.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • USA

      Oh no. It is a religion of peace. the blow up infidels to many, many pieces.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • USA

      Ad, if your infidel friends are not yet dead is because takyya takes time.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • Ad

      USA, I feel sorry for your parents that they had to give birth to such an ignorant and stupid human being.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • Ron

      Ad, you live in the US? Because I'm pretty sure if you live in a Muslim country and you want to be a christian, it's a big NO-NO. Muslims, in Muslim countries, aren't very tolerant at ALL of other faiths

      December 5, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  4. Mack

    You'd think that seeing another faith being this dedicated would give Christians (and all other believers) pause to consider whether their faith is actually the right one, but it never does. The 90% of believers in the world continue to pretend they know things about the origin of the universe and what happens after death, even though there are bewildering differences between groups claiming they are all the right one. Utterly amazing and completely nonsensical...laughable, actually.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  5. Penguiner

    Perhaps the threat of be killed if one doesn't believe in Allah is a significant motivator.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • hawaiiduude

      you are ignorant... arab christians call God, Allah

      December 4, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  6. Pekovianii

    hawaiiduude was surprised to find out what ATM meant. He'd been taking it that way for years, even without a bank.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • hawaiiduude

      not as much as the truth hurts you.

      from the talmud: Sepher Or Israel (177b): If a Jew kills a Christian he commits no sin. He has done God a service.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  7. american muslim

    islam is a religion of peace,unity,brotherhood if your a non-beliver come visit one of our mosques and you are more then welcome to come spend some time with us and learn about this beautiful religion before judging it 🙂 in islam we dont have color race etc.. we are all one and we love each other as if wer brothers and sisters i think thats prob why its the fasting growing religion in the world!!! especially here in this great nation. may allah bless everyone.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • USA

      My dream is to visit a church in Saudi Arabia, however, the religion of peace would tear it and all of its member to pieces.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • ad

      if you are a muslim why dont you go to temples/churches and try to understand their religion first?

      December 4, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • ad

      my dream is to see a non-christian temple in the vatican...

      December 4, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  8. Aim Mercy


    December 4, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  9. hansonrhodes

    atheists are even more committed.
    why would there be a god ? the entire notion is ridiculous.
    faith is a valid psychological phenomena, but that is all it is.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  10. Dick Essellborn

    The Dalai Lama said, "It's important to have faith, but it's more important to do good works" What better work than to contribute to humanity. Quite often I have heard that in the early islamic history, scholars and scientists contributed a great deal to society such as algebra, poetry, etc. In fact, I learned this proverb from a very wise old Saudi many years ago – A Friend – A friend is one to whom can pour out all the contents of one's heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that the gentlest of hands will take it, sift it, and with a breadth of kindness blow the rest of it away. In other words, let us look at the best in each other regardless of religion. There is only value in life, and that's living, and how can we live alone? Therefore, let us embrace one another and seek a common good for the legacy of our children!

    December 4, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  11. Reality

    And why the expansion of Islam?

    The number of global Muslims indeed is 1.5 billion basically because of the very high birth rate in Islam.
    According to official surveys, "the disapproval of family planning is highest among Muslims", while "the practice of family planning methods in 1980 was lowest amongst Muslims (only 23% of those surveyed practised it as opposed to 36% Hindus)".[1] They further admit that between 1971 and 1981, "the Hindu population was up by 24.15%, whereas the Muslim population shot up by 30.59%".

    Once the bowers to Mecca, however, see that they have been conned by the "angelic" hallucinations of a long-dead, warmongering, womanizing (11 wives) Arab, these 1.5 billion lost souls will quickly become secularists, or agnostics or atheists and a semblance a global peace will spread across the globe

    December 4, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  12. Pekovianii

    hawaiiduude you suck camel hoof.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  13. stephen douglas

    What a stupid article.

    -Being more religious doesn't necessarily mean that they will become suicide bombers – the man says....but obviously in the case of Mz lms, it might very well lead to do exactly this end.

    The simple fact is that Mz lms are not more religious, they are more brainwashed. The Qur 'an is page after page of teachings by a murderous thug – think Sadam in 1400 – followed by threats of punishment followed by bogus promises of rewards. It is required they learn to recite all these passages word for word. When you put it all together it is classic brainwashing.

    I actually tried to count the number of times the reader is threatened with spending eternity in pits of fire for not believing versus getting a reward of untouched maidens, i.e., virgins, and a garden with clear water running through it for following the Qur'an. I could not do it – there are simply too many threats.

    All these so called scholars are a bunch of naive fools trying to justify acceptance of a cult that has a history rooted in terror. Or they are Mz lms trying to explain away their cult.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • Ad

      See the fact that you can't even freaking spell nullifies anything you say. I have some advice for you: 1) Go back to grade school and get a basic education, 2) go to your local library and pick up the Qu'ran or any book on Islam, and learn something about the religion, 3) Stop being such a tool for conservative media

      December 4, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • stephen douglas

      I did not know it was a spelling bee. What is mis-spelled anyway? If you are looking at Mz lms, that is sometimes the only way to get around the censors who are scared to death of backlash from practioners of the religion of tolerance, so they flag the name of this cult for review before allowing them to post.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • Ad

      Muslims. See? No "censor." You're ridiculous.

      It surprises me to learn that so many people, you included, could be so ignorant and uneducated. Tell me, have you ever once picked up a book and read about Islam? Because your highly unintelligent statements suggest to me that your only source of "knowledge" is what the media says.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  14. Edward

    "Why are muslims more religious?" Same reason muslims blow up more.

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


      December 4, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  15. Mike

    maybe it's because they can be executed if they don't practice their faith. they will also get the crap beat out of them by their parents or husbands if they don't practice their faith. that's pretty good motivation.

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

      Funny, I'm not a very religious muslim, yet I haven't been "executed." Stop posting such ignorant statements on a religion you clearly know nothing about aside from the crap that the media plants into your clearly feeble mind.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  16. Handofdoom

    new evidence suggests that Muslims , ' more committed to their faith than other believers.' Sorry but I have this is not right. Most Christians would disagree . I know I do !

    December 4, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  17. Genghis Khan

    islam has less contradictions and a more clearer path to God then other religions. makes it easier to be good. thats all.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • No need to lie O Muslim! (but you always do it anyway!)

      You are a pathetic and incompetent liar. Every Koran proves you to be a liar. Mohammed was a liar and a thief!

      December 4, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • jack


      December 4, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  18. MrBluster

    The Muslims had better be religious or they'll get their fingers chopped off...or worse!

    December 4, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • hawaiiduude

      worse is cutting off the foreskin off helpless babies!

      December 4, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  19. Skimmer

    I see that the posts are now dominated by the hippo-sized comments. Shorten them up people. The article was bad enough. We don't need to read a badly written novel on top of it!

    December 4, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • hawaiiduude


      December 4, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  20. James

    Wow, those Guys bow on their knees to their Imaginary Friend. Sorry Christians! but guys should Show a little more devotion to your Imaginary Deity's.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
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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.