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. jonasir

    CNN for the love of all that is holy please remove the links from the middle of articles. They look like section headers and make your articles unnecessarily confusing. How about a "related articles" section at the end?!?!

    December 4, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  2. Sparky

    Religions that say, "You're better than everyone else because you believe in me. Only because you believe in me. You're free to go kick their a$$es" tend do attract a lot of stupid, violent followers. Simple, brutal philosophies do well numerically.

    That explains fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Christianity.

    There are people in this country who say that theirs is the one true faith, our country is guided by faith, and our country's mission is to spread our ideals. Saudi Arabia believes the same thing, but somehow, that's different.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • LIBsObamaNCNNLIE

      Last I checked in the 20/21st centuries no one was terrorist bombing in the name of Christianity as a group.....name a mideast democracy? None exist........has little to do with relgion mostly power of unscrupulous people of which Muslims have many.......

      December 4, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • LIBsObamaNCNNLIE

      Go to AMERICA preach Islam no problem go to Mideast preach Christianity.......tell me how it goes for you,.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      World War One and World War Two were fought primarily by nations with majority christian populations. Compared to Islamic terrorists, those World Wars were far more destructive.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  3. donnie

    I see Richard Greene didn't feel like acknowledging Sharia Law and the control it has on its people and their beliefs........

    December 4, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Anup Singh

      It is shame to compare any religion to Islam. Islam is not a religion, al least for civilized people.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      spoken like a true singh!!
      very civilized, the sikhs eh?

      December 4, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Nonimus

      @Anup Singh,
      Is any religion, at it's core, civilized?

      December 4, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • Anup Singh

      What kind of people can call Mohammed a prophet. I am cent percent sure, not a mentally balanced person.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  4. Larry

    Most muslims are lower educated. Lower education lends to greater faith. Most muslims truly do not know their religion either so accept what their leaders tell them. Most muslims live in religious run countries so it is not really an option. Men in muslim families dictate to the females their views and beliefs. Women are not allowed to have their own beliefs. Take a look at the baptists. Pretty fundamental. They have similar views about their religions. When you are trying to compare different religions then do so evenly not just across the board.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      actually, if you have visited a muslim country, you would know that it is the women who always insist that their men be religious. most men are corrupted by pursuit of wealth and se x, it is the women in their households who force religion on them.

      meet some muslims before acting like an expert on them!

      December 4, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • Anup Singh

      Very True!!. It is shame to compare any religion to Islam. Islam is not a religion, at least for civilized people.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • EasternRomanEmpire

      What Moslems need right now is some good teaching on what it means to be Human (Classical Humanism), an Islamic Renaissance in other words. Otherwise, we will end up talking past each other forever and ever, amen.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  5. Conrad Miller

    Members of cults who know they will be killed if they change their beliefs will of course say theirs is the only true faith, it's the only "right" one, and everyone who doesn't believe is an infidel. Allow Muslims the freedom to question their beliefs, to research them as we in the West do with ours, and then see how many stay true. But, hey, who am I to knock female genital mutilation, stonings, whippings, and the belief that blowing up innocent people is a direct path to a great afterlife filled with willing women? It's a CULT, not a RELIGION. Having lots of people say otherwise doesn't make it so.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Anup Singh

      Very True!!. It is shame to compare any religion to Islam. Islam is not a religion, at least for civilized people. Islam promotes hate for other religions. It is very bad religion and disgusting mentality of founder of this shameful religion.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  6. ReligionIs4Dolts

    Catholics were more committed when they were threatened with being burned at the stake or stretched on the rack or any number of other methods of torture or death! Go figure!

    December 4, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      catholics needed to be threatened, muslims do not have a "pope" that needs to be obeyed. The Quran has also been openly available to all people's from the beginning. unlike the Bible, that the church kept hidden until the printing press came along and revealed all.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • ReligionIs4Dolts

      "from the beginning"

      Now there is the fundamental flaw in Islamic "logic" (and all religious "logic" in general). When did "the beginning" occur? That's right...after Christianity, which was ripped of off Judaism, which in turn was ripped off of preexisting religions from Persia, Greece, Egypt,....and who knows where all those folks got theirs from. History tells the real story.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • Anup Singh

      Mohammed has threatned his followers so much that they follow this idiot like idiots.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  7. cowflop

    Mohamed was a false prophet send by the most foul one.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Genghis Khan


      December 4, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Anup Singh

      Everyone agrees with you except idiots. Very True!!. It is shame to compare any religion to Islam. Islam is not a religion, at least for civilized people. Islam promotes hate for other religions. It is very bad religion and disgusting mentality of founder of this shameful religion.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  8. bigdoglv

    "Conflict, theology and history make Muslims more religious than others, experts say". Not more religious, more fanatic. Posters on this site scoff at Christians and their beliefs, yet give these fanatics a pass.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  9. snarks

    Islam in a nutshell. While you were watching the smurfs, children under islam teaches and watches this kind of garbage. To hate, to kill all those who are not of islam. Remember, these are not extremists, this is actually broadcast under all nations under islam. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vtt8V25lGmc

    December 4, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  10. MATTY13

    They got no NASCAR, no football, no baseball, no basketball, no beer, no hotdogs, no bikinis, no beach, no rock and roll, no trips to disney, no nothing. The women can't do squat without getting locked up. I got a million other things they can't do. Islam is alllllll they got.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      no hoo kers, no adulterers, no AIDS to pass on to your neighbors, they ve really got nothing, but oil and Allah.

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

      "no NASCAR, no football, no baseball.. and NO HOCKEY!

      December 4, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  11. Scoot Kennedy

    I agree most Christians do not sacrifice,"fasting" for instance!

    December 4, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  12. dps123

    What this article should be asking is, "Why are Muslims uncivilized barbarians?"

    December 4, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • Anup Singh

      Very true!!

      December 4, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      so you are saying Hitler was civilized?

      December 4, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Aziz (Islam is the Answer)

      Have you ever lived with muslims. Or are just parroting what Bush and Fox news tell you. Shame on you. Don't believe what ever is said in the news. Experience for yourself.. May God guide you to the truth of Islam. http://www.islamcity.com

      December 4, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  13. the answer

    What you might consider large religious groups are nothing more than a collective of individuals who are otherwise socially pressured into fitting in to a larger narrative within their societies. There is no God or Allah, they are simply tautological and teleological meta-phenomena of a larger more nefarious purpose rooted in fascism and intolerance of others.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  14. Rich

    You Americans are hilarious.... Have you ever watched "Jesus Camp"? Followers of Christ are just as delusional and brainwashed as Muslims. American is infested with the vocal ignorant minority unfortunately. Go back to you Rush radio broadcast, or Glenn Beck for that matter. Idiots!

    December 4, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Scoot Kennedy

      Mind you I have a Phd. in Physics, not ignorance. Car full who you criticize without understanding.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • objection

      Rush is right 99.6% of the time.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Nonimus

      "Rush is right 99.6% of the time."
      ... and when he's not right he's only moderate, never left, correct? : )

      December 4, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  15. Scoot Kennedy

    Who say's Muslims are more religious, Muslims? Outwardly they may appear that away but Christ instructs christian's to "Pray in they're closet's, pray in the dark where no man can be seen." In the scriptures he is chastising the Jew's who pray at the wall with there phylacteries strapped to there foreheads wavering back and forth. Christ said: They will get their reward, they are doing this to be seen by other men. He say's they will have there reward referring too by being seen by other's they will be commended by men, a pat on the back for acting religious and going through the motions. This is why Christians are subtle about there outward appearance in worship.

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

      They are certainly subtle about putting God on the money and in the Pledge in the US.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      whever christians are a majority in the world, you will find the prevelance of alcohol, gambling, weapons manufacturing, world wars, usury and bank fraud, adultery, por nography. You are right, christians are mostly good on the inside!!

      December 4, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  16. Tariq from Syria

    This was an outrageously misguiding and inappropriate article. Muslims believe what the Christians and Jews believe, but only pray to one God, as the Quran tells them that later generations of Christians mistakingly worshipped Jesus. Islam was just a refresh of Christianity, Judaism, etc.

    There is no part of being a religious Muslim that inclines you to become a terrorist. Terrorism is as much against Islam as it is Christianity, this article is another feeder to the bigoted commenters above who actually read this trash and it was very disappointing.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • 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 1:17 pm |
    • BatterUp

      He who is either ignorant or disregards History is DOOMED to repeat it. Mr. Mohammed please take note.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  17. Mojonaamdi

    Fact is under British Colonialism, ALL civil servants had to be Christian. Hindus, Muslims and anyone else who aspired to a civil servant job HAD to convert to Christianity. It was not much different under French or Dutch colonial rule. In fact they even prohibited the people from learning in their own language. This is why Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Cameroon etc., speak French today. Yet they could not convert the Muslims. If Islamic rulers had done the same as the Christian powers, all of India would have been Muslim today. I am not saying that Muslim leaders were all nice guys. Just that nobody can top the Christian colonial rulers for ruthlessness when it comes to human rights.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  18. Nobody

    In some Muslim countries, if you don't regularly demonstrate how devout you are, you may be discriminated against or even killed. It's like in the former Soviet bloc where you had to regularly show loyalty to the party.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      sort of like Bush you mean? "you are with us or you are against us"

      December 4, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  19. Tony

    That is why Jesus was the first guy to understand the acronym KISS-Keep it simple stupid!!!

    December 4, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  20. Flipider.com

    I would prefer to the telling of my problems to someone that doesn't physicality exist than to give my enemy knowledge of my weaknesses.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:05 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.