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. rabid goon

    easy: it's because they're still living in the dark ages.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  2. Kebos

    Why are Muslims more religious?

    1. Muslims tends to be from oppressed countries. When you have little else, religion provides something to believe in that they hope will ultimately help improve the situation.

    2. Muslim countries tend to be controlled by dictator forces. Saudi Arabia being the extreme. Religion provides the dictator the means for control of their people.

    Combine the two, and it's a recipe for people appearing to be more religious.

    Of course, all religions are works of fiction. There is no god, there are no prophets.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  3. Roscoe Chait

    Muslims are more "committed" to their religion because they are too fearful to think otherwise. They are a brainwashed mob, intolerant of others.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • veggiedude

      All conservatives are intolerant. It has nothing to do with the religion.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • TrueBeliever

      Muslim are committed to their religion because they read what is on it and believed on it. Basically many Western they came to Islam in their own free well because the comprehend what is written on it,. Not because of fear of human. Only because of fearness of god. Why don't you read it and understand why the Jewish were cursed by god in islam. How many prophets they killed or accused of madness and they still believe they are the choosen people by whom, by the god who cursed them or by they followers

      December 4, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  4. jay in Florida

    You are never more "religious" than someone else. More fanatic, maybe. But more religious, definitely not.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • veggiedude

      Each iteration of the Abrahamic faith gets more religious and fanatical. First it was the jews, then christians, now muslims. None of these middle eastern religions pay respect to the other creatures on the planet. Only Hinduism and Buddhism, the older ones, look beyond the scope of man.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  5. logan5

    It is so depressing to think there are 1 billion Muslims world-wide. That's 1 billion weak minded deluded individuals who rather than contribute to the social and intellectual advancement of human society act as its biggest impediment. BTW, this goes for the other high profile Abrahamic religions as well, Christianity and Judaism. It's one thing to keep you belief in your god personal and private. But the open fanaticism expressed by radical Muslims and fundie Christians should be and deserved to be impugned and derided.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • snarks

      They want to live like neanderthals. They are the lowest form of life.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  6. ComeOnMan9

    Well now the people do pray 5 times a day as opposed to the rest of us. I hate that you hate another's religion when you say you love God.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • veggiedude

      I agree. As an atheist, I can't help but laugh at all the comments on this subject. Pot calling the kettle black.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  7. ThereIsNoGod

    I have an easy answer to Muslim intolerance of others, but you're not going to like it.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • veggiedude

      It is called liberalism. But many in the US frown upon it as a great evil too. Go figure.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  8. Tony

    Hell is not in the Bible

    December 4, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  9. snarks

    First off, I told you all liberals are anti white, anti all religion but islam. Week after week they post more islam garbage. It is a religion for neanderthals. Stop trying to force others to believe what liberals believe, which is to follow islam, the most insane religion of all. Liberalism is a mental disorder, islam is a disease.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  10. Pekovianii

    Jihadis could screw up a two-man Human Centipede.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • Mountain Man

      You know who created, harbored, developed, strengthened those Jihadis.... No study their history.....

      December 4, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  11. JamalJZ

    Why I voted Obama this explains


    December 4, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • veggiedude

      Jerusalem does not belong to one religion. Christians and Muslims also claim it as a holy place. This video is biased. Obama is not hostile to Jews, he is only hostile to radicals.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  12. massms

    Anyone who willingly bangs their head on the ground 5 times a day is a brain damaged fanatic.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  13. awaysaway

    The religious nuts are out today and battling to see who is the least tolerant.

    @hawaiiduude – your shouting and tantrums are a big FAIL for Islam. But very funny – thanks for that.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  14. clayusmcret

    Why are Muslims more religious? Because they kill whoever is not.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • Will S


      December 4, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • veggiedude

      Yours is an idiotic statement; the radical element is less than 1% of all muslims. Anyone who prays 5 times a day is naturally because they are more religious. How many christians go to church 5 times a year?

      December 4, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • Mountain Man

      Study your history, Jews and Christians have killed more than the Muslims.... don't need to go far, just count the dead bodies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Palistine.....

      December 4, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  15. treyingeorgia


    December 4, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  16. rhm


    December 4, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  17. ThereIsNoGod

    Muslim's are more religious because they know their religions is going to take over the world soon. They are confident of this because they have no tolerance for other religions or cultural groups outside of their own – they just kill them. This is why they know it will take over everyone and everything.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • antichrist i am

      how stupid comment.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  18. justhuman

    I am a Muslim and an American and am proud to be both, i would only say that God have created all humans and called them "Ashraf ul Makhlookat" means better than any of His creation because we have the ability to think and react based on our knowledge and experiances.
    My brothers and sisters if a glass of water is already full the more water you will pour will fall out and get wasted, so please empth those glasses from biases, hate and stereotypes and than READ , think and judge and i am not only preaching i have done that myslef.
    Please also dont forget that not all fingers in one hand are equal , that means you will always find hypocrites.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Jarod47

      Your pride is unwarranted with regard of being muslim. No gods exist, so your allah is just fantasy. Everyone can have weird fantasies, but there is no reason to be proud of them. Just educate yourself and start living in the real world.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  19. hawaiiduude


    December 4, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  20. FParanha

    "Why"? What a stupid question. The answer is that there is a negative correlation between strength of religious belief and education and socioeconomic status.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
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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.