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. EasternRomanEmpire

    So, in steps Mr. Mohammed to save the day with his thoughts concerning Schismatic Christianity and Pharisaic Jews. He judged all Jews as Pharisaically blind and expounded an Arian Jesus. If only Mr Mohammed would just consult history and read how Athanasius had already effectly debunked Arianism! But no, he had to give his ignorant opinion to an ignorant people. What a disaster!

    December 4, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  2. artistlimited

    CNN – Where intoIerant, and lgnorant come to proclaim their superiority, and slam on people, cultures and ideas they don't understand.

    Christians, Jews and Muslims, don't your religious texts tell you that neighborly love is a virtue? Atheists, don't you have better things to do to help the world than tell other people how unintelligent they are for believing in different things than you do?

    I feel so sad that people always have to resort to namecalling to argue how much of a better person they are. It is barbaric, and unproductive.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  3. TC

    I totally disagree. They can go to mosque and pray but again – it goes back to how you "act and behave". The "religious men" in Islam do a lot of things that is labled sinful – killing people for no reason, divorcing women for no reason, stoning people, and on and on. Not saying Christians act any better but don't tell me Muslims are "more religious" when they are guilty of continuous atrocities.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  4. pepsee

    More uneducated the people are, more religious they are, which leads to more radicalism. As muslim society has more (grossly) uneducated people, they are more religious and thus they are more radical and dealy. Muslims keep 50% of their population (women) uneducated to start with (not talking about some exceptions) – which is again because of their religion. Only a fraction of the rest 50%, the men population is educated (not the terrorist maddrassa crowd.) That is the truth, maybe not be politically correct. No blah blah blah changes the truth.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • TC

      Illogical statement – so the more educated you are the more atheist one becomes?

      December 4, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • pepsee

      TC you may open your eyes, go around the world, read more – you will see things right. There is no need to be in La-La land.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • TC

      I'm not – very realistic actually but the trolling of atheists who know nothing of the spiritual world is scary becasue the words they spew confuse the young.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • pepsee

      TC – may be you should check which section of the society is more radical in general. Maybe then you will have a better conclusion. Again, one needs to follow the world news, read a lot including history and go around the world. Truth is truth – not just the words.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  5. I laughed at this

    These people are stuck in the 7th century is why. They never had a Renaissance, thus no Reformation.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
  6. James PDX

    Of course they're more devout. They're religion and culture put a lot of pressure on them to be. In fact, they can be put to death under their laws for forsaking their religion. Duh!

    December 4, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  7. Joe Sixpack

    People who can't think for themselves gravitate towards religion because they need to be told what to do and how to think. That's why they're so easily manipulated. Turn your brain off, do what I tell you to, give me your money, and you'll go to heaven.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • TC

      Problem is people who think they are thinking for themselves get duped into thinking they know it all. Good luck!

      December 4, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  8. william peterson

    With respect to the author(s) of this article indicating the Muslims are "more" religious than others strikes me as utter speculative garbage. I don't give a rats a** what your religion is, but don't pee down my back and tell me it's raining.
    Shame on you CNN for promoting this devisive trash.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • snarks

      Good to see more people waking up to the insanity CNN spews. Anti all religion but islam. They are pro enemy, it is quite disturbing.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  9. Tony

    What happens when people do not get what they want?
    Children whine and try and get there other family members to whine with them to make a stronger case, but to no avail because the parents are not listening. Muslims will never get what they want and are trying to join together in hopes that there case will be heard. The case is being heard alright but the judge is saying why are you not listening to me!

    December 4, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  10. JamalJZ

    This is is why Jews should not vote Obama:


    December 4, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • snarks

      Islam is a disease, just watch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vtt8V25lGmc

      December 4, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  11. snarks

    You don't have to look further than this to see how brainwashed muslims are. That word is a cliche, but watch this child, on a famous childrens tv network in palestine teach kids to hate and kill jews: [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vtt8V25lGmc]

    December 4, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • snarks


      December 4, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • ShiaMuslim

      Killing is Haraam (forbidden).

      December 4, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • snarks

      Better not teach this to children then, as they do in most nations under islam.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • alisha

      why does everyone have to tke a text out of context. Have you ever tried reading a book, a novel or a biography without knowing what context precedes and proceeds it. How ignorant. The verse he is reciting is from a context of a historical event in the past. The situation was different back then. Why don't you highlight the verse where it is stated not to kill innocent men, women and children regardless of their religion....THAT'S ALSO MENTIONED IN THE QURAN.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • snarks

      Wow so you are actually condoning this? This is why islam is a disease. You have kids teaching other kids to kill. These are not just verses, they speak their own words. Perhaps you didn't see the video to its entirety. This is what kids under islam watch, while other kids in other religions are watching nice, gentle cartoons.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • ShiaMuslim

      I've been to almost every Muslim country when I was a child and no one taught me how to kill anyone. I'm missing out :/

      December 4, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
  12. J.Smith

    Die ass lifters.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • ShiaMuslim

      Stay classy.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  13. Seth Pascal

    good point

    December 4, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  14. ShiaMuslim

    We're religious because... we are! Our religion is one that involves and requires the community.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • pepsee

      Here is another nutcase who is proving the point of the article – how radical and deady their views are.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  15. HM8432

    Muslims are expected and forced to be Muslims like it or not from birth-to-death; Muslims have little to no say in the matter. Conversion to any other faith is highly discouraged, with the penalty in many Islamic countries being death. When I was in Afghanistan, a young man I met told me that he was planning to become a Christian because he liked the religion's doctrine of peace and love. I later learned that he had been baptised into the faith, and was murdered by his father and brother the same day...an 'honor' killing.

    Radical Islam has decimated the Christian (and other religions) populations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Somalia, Sudan, and many other countries where these religions had been present for millenia. If Muslims are truly more religious than others, it's only because they worship literally at gun-point (unlike the other major world religions and secular humanism).

    December 4, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  16. Beam

    Actually I didn't know Muslims did good works. Or were even taught too. That really comes as news to me. I never hear about it. Do they have charities they give too? Do they help the poor and hungry? Never hear of such things. All we hear is the violence and killing and the huge fear if they even try to leave their faith their own families will try to kill them. To me that is why they are so 'committed' to their faith...out of sheer fear...fear of being abused, jailed, beaten or killed...fear of losing everything they hold dear to them...and fear of going to hell too. Their faith is based on 'works' as in praying five times a day and doing alot of religious stuff...even then their is no guarantee they are saved, unless of course they die killing the 'infidels'. Its a very sad and fearful religious that is for sure. Fear can cause people to be very dedicated to something..that is for sure. BTW did anyone notice in that picture of Muslims praying there are no women there..its all men. I pray for Muslim women all the time because of the abuse and horrible oppression they are under. They have no choice but to stay in that faith. 🙁

    December 4, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • ShiaMuslim

      Yes we do regularly donate to charities. One of the roots of our faith requires us to donate and give food to the poor. Something not many people understand is the fact that women are actually more important than men in Islam (disregarding the fundamental Wahabbis). Many Muslim men don't follow that but a majority do. Keep in mind the fact that we're normal people too. And if you ever travel to these countries where you think people are so scared that they only pray, you'd be surprised at the amount of normalcy they have. Don't get brainwashed by the less than 1% of "Muslims" (they're not). Also, this is all coming from a muslim.. (telling you this because I don't have any resources but my own life and personal experiences.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • alisha

      I am sorry but your comment just goes to show how uneducated this world really easy. Muslim men and women pray separately because they believe in clear devotion to god at the time of prayer, and not being distracted by a fellow female while she bows down in prostration to god! That's why women either pray behind men or a at a high level in the building then men. They have their own privacy to pray in.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • snarks

      Islam is a disease, if I could just wake one muslim up from their ignorant slumber, I will have won the war on terrorism, solo.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • pepsee

      Plain and simple – women are treated inferior and thus sit behind the men. For a change start sitting infront of the men. If the men are really thinking about the god they shouldn't be excited about the rear-end of the women, unless that's what is in their head while praying. How about women – aren't they supposed to be excited abou the read-end of the men? I see that these people are more concerned about getting excited not about praying. That is called, not thinking with the head but thru some other organ.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • ShiaMuslim

      Actually, whenever I go to my mosque (or what you might consider my terrorist group) they tell us that the women are behind us so that us men will not stare at them while praying. It's more respectful for women than anything! Have you ever walked down the street and had a guy in a car roll down their window and whistle at you?

      December 4, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  17. alibi449

    Only the weakminded would confuse being devout with fear. They are not more religious or more commited to their faith, but much more acutely aware of the consequenses of an apparent lack of enthusiam, as observed by their "fellow worshipers. They could end up maimed, disfigured or dead as an example.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  18. MassiveSounds

    Why are Muslims more religious? Because they are brought up in fear, and they are scared, and critical thinking is looked down upon and discouraged with violence, that is why Muslims are more religious .. ( that's the facts )

    December 4, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  19. ThereIsNoGod

    The reason Islam is growing around the world is because more and more people are flocking towards whom they see as the inheritors of the Earth (i.e. the winners in this effort for global hegemony). However, they are seriously underestimating the underdog in all of this... the A-Bomb.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  20. Nacho1

    This article just PROVES what I have said all along.........Obama was brought up at a young age and TRAINED as a Muslim and he claims to be a Christian now! The truth of this article just proves Obama to be a liar!

    December 4, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • snarks

      obama actually admitted he was muslim, and changed his answer to christian in a live interview. Now tell me who have you ever met who has accidentally said they are another religion? No one but him.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • Beam

      Um...how? Obama wasn't even mentioned in the article...

      December 4, 2011 at 1:26 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.