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. JamalJZ

    Jews vote for Obama because they hate Zionism


    December 4, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  2. Pekovianii

    hawaiiduude, I think the Chief Rabbi of the Bronx, Dr. Joe Pesci, had it right when he said you were a clown to amuse him.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  3. Colin

    Jews, Muslims, Christians – its all Iron Age mythology with different holidays.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • Pekovianii

      You got that right.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  4. Friendofthepeople

    Anyone who thinks that Islam is not a religion of peace is wrong, I would advise you to first read the Quran and then make your decision on Islam. Something that many people in west do not know about the Quran is that it is not just a religious a book. It is also a book of Science, a book of history and much more. Modern scientists have just recently figured out the things that was revealed to the people 1400 years ago by an illiterate man who had no knowledge of such complex science such as the stages of Embryology, the creation of the universe and the planets (The big Bang). The Quran clearly states the there are other worlds (planets) with life. These were just a few examples of the great knowledge that is in the Quran and I advise you read it before making such ignorant claims on a religion that has been taken advantage of by Western Powers in the 100 years and framed into being "Radical" and "terrorist" in the last 40 years. And please don't forget who supplied those radical Islamists with weapons and also thought them how to build bombs and blow themselves up.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • pepsee

      Reading what? People do have eyes and ears. Everybody is seeing what these fanatics are doing. Maybe you should open your eyes and see what peace you are spreading. You will not see any other religion causing pan-world terrorism. There maybe some local incidents in other religions but muslims take their terrorism worldwide – from Australia to Russia to USA to African countries to the hub of islamic terrorism in the Middle East. No need to read some BS written in the "dark ages" although that is the root of all the violence.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Friendofthepeople

      if Islam is so baddd and evil then Christianity must be worse because Muslims are not responsible for the major mass killings and Holocausts that has happened over time, ex: WW1 16million dead, WW2 60 million, Nagasaki Hiroshima atomic bombs and many more. Please keep in mind Islamic Terrorism has been going on for not more than 40 years and it started when the CIA started paying supplying and teaching those same insurgents to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. Reagan used to call them "freedom Fighters." BTW how there you say it was a book from the Dark Ages? During your European dark ages Islamic civilizations were prospering and contributing to the progress of human civilizations while the west was busy attacking each other and killing Jews in their past time. Islamic countries gave refuge to the Jews that were being persecuted in the west because of their religion. The world is not 40 50 years dude.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Friendofthepeople

      Islam is a Religion of over 1.5 Billion people, the actions of a tiny minority does not represent the whole Religion.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  5. Reality

    Dear sisters and brothers of Islam:

    The answer in less than two minutes of your time:

    (From the studies of Armstrong, Rushdie, Hirsi Ali, Richardson and Bayhaqi)

    The Five Steps To Deprogram 1400 Years of Islamic Myths:

    ( –The Steps take less than two minutes to finish- simply amazing, two minutes to bring peace and rationality to over one billion lost souls- Priceless!!!)

    Are you ready?

    Using "The 77 Branches of Islamic "faith" a collection compiled by Imam Bayhaqi as a starting point. In it, he explains the essential virtues that reflect true "faith" (iman) through related Qur’anic verses and Prophetic sayings." i.e. a nice summary of the Koran and Islamic beliefs.

    The First Five of the 77 Branches:

    "1. Belief in Allah"

    aka as God, Yahweh, Zeus, Jehovah, Mother Nature, etc. should be added to your self-cleansing neurons.

    "2. To believe that everything other than Allah was non-existent. Thereafter, Allah Most High created these things and subsequently they came into existence."

    Evolution and the Big Bang or the "Gi-b G-nab" (when the universe starts to recycle) are more plausible and the "akas" for Allah should be included if you continue to be a "crea-tionist".

    "3. To believe in the existence of angels."

    A major item for neuron cleansing. Angels/de-vils are the mythical creations of ancient civilizations, e.g. Hitt-ites, to explain/define natural events, contacts with their gods, big birds, sudden winds, protectors during the dark nights, etc. No "pretty/ug-ly wingy thingies" ever visited or talked to Mohammed, Jesus, Mary or Joseph or Joe Smith. Today we would classify angels as f–airies and "tin–ker be-lls". Modern de-vils are classified as the de-mons of the de-mented.

    "4. To believe that all the heavenly books that were sent to the different prophets are true. However, apart from the Quran, all other books are not valid anymore."

    Another major item to delete. There are no books written in the spirit state of Heaven (if there is one) just as there are no angels to write/publish/distribute them. The Koran, OT, NT etc. are simply books written by humans for humans.

    Prophets were invented by ancient scribes typically to keep the un-educated masses in line. Today we call them for-tune tellers.

    Prophecies are also invali-dated by the natural/God/Allah gifts of Free Will and Future.

    "5. To believe that all the prophets are true. However, we are commanded to follow the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him)
    Mohammed spent thirty days "fasting" (the Ramadan legend) in a hot cave before his first contact with Allah aka God etc. via a "pretty wingy thingy". Common sense demands a neuron deletion of #5. #5 is also the major source of Islamic vi-olence i.e. turning Mohammed's "fast, hunger-driven" hallu-cinations into horrible reality for unbelievers.

    Walk these Five Steps and we guarantee a complete recovery from your Islamic ways!!!!

    Unfortunately, there are not many Muslim commentators/readers on this blog so the "two-minute" cure is not getting to those who need it. If you have a Muslim friend, send him a copy and help save the world.

    Analogous steps are available at your request for deprogramming the myths of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Paganism..

    December 4, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  6. Peace

    That is one and your opinion, there are so many other religions,Buddhism, Jain, Zorashtranism, not even counted, besides of all religions Jainism needs the most about of disipline,and they are the ones who fast and pray with full commitment for instance in their fast they dont need to announce it to the world ,they keep quiet about it and, most importantly dont eat early in the morning and to fill their stomach for the rest of the day, to be JAIN is to really surrender and control senses, full AHimsa that means non-violence in thought action and deed, more study could be done on them and we can learn from them.

    Full respect to all faith, one cannot label just one religion being better that another I am very happy being Hindu and try to follow it honestly. OM

    December 4, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  7. hawaiiduude


    December 4, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • Pekovianii

      Helen Thomas is the Marilyn Monroe of Islam. Didn't you co-star with her in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?

      December 4, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  8. JamalJZ

    Obama will destroy the Zionists


    December 4, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  9. JamalJZ

    Obama is a good Muslim


    December 4, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  10. RHO

    It is because of the nature of the religion. Like a Jehovah's Witness, they know going in that their religion is extreme and rigid. Nobody goes into that mess without knowing ahead of time what is required.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  11. cowflop

    I spit on allah, mohamed, the quran, all muslimes and all of islam.

    I strike them in the face with my shoe.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  12. JamalJZ


    December 4, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • sam


      December 4, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  13. hawaiiduude


    December 4, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  14. Truth Be told

    I worked for a surgery center for years run by Islamic Doctors who dominated the city I lived in and yes they went to the mosque and read the karan and prayed several times a day , but they ALL had affairs with the staff, drank alcohol, lied constantly. So though they may be tied to the culture of their faith, they did not actually believe it enough to live it before the world..

    December 4, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  15. Carlin123

    Mankind will never be able to reach it's full potential till it leaves these silly supersttions behind.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  16. hawaiiduude


    December 4, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  17. Rainer Braendlein

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_76vDJ72QlU&w=420&h=315%5D

    December 4, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  18. hawaiiduude


    December 4, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  19. Pekovianii

    When a thousand men in the prison exercise yard kneel in noon prayer, do they want to be at the rear because of the view, or to protect their own? hawaiiduude, you've been waterboarded, come clean on that one.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  20. hawaiiduude


    December 4, 2011 at 12:27 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.