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. I laughed at this

    Pictures of Mohammed!
    Post yours here!

    December 4, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  2. EatYouAlive

    Ridiculous, all religions prey on fear. Fear is all encompassing for these people.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  3. proudatheist

    Lack of education has to be the answer. The more uneducated a population is, the more easily manipulated they are. Religion is the ultimate form of manipulation, simply a tool to keep the masses in-line, scared of a non-existent god.

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

      your a moron! lol

      December 4, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Gregornious

      That was Napoleon.....It keeps the locals in line....."Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."

      December 4, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Rasheed

      educated peoples even in Europe and america are more relegious than poor nations..

      December 4, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  4. Serge Crespy

    Islam followers are completely focused on their entrance into "HEAVEN" ..... Earth is but a trial-run to qualify for "Eternal Life"; the Islam soul must be satisfied, prior to the stomach being fed....... Much to be learned from all religions, as we search for a fine balance of "REALISM" and "SPIRITUAL". ........ (CAPITALISM WITH A CONSCIENCE!)

    December 4, 2011 at 1:35 pm |

    Sure CNN kissing muslim butt some more ever been to a muslim country in the mideast? I would hardly say either democracy freedom or religious wonderful........quite the oppisite cut your head off.........

    December 4, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  6. Porky the Pig

    Because if you don't follow, your hear will roll!

    December 4, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  7. Mr.T

    What did Jesus do regarding hypocrisy?

    December 4, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  8. Gregornious

    Of course Mulims are more committed....they are willing to die for their religion, we are only willing to kill for ours...They are also more committed in prisons too....All your religions do is kill people....religion sucks and if you support any of it.....you suck even more. Now go kill someone or threaten me and prove me right, but don't waste your time praying for me, but if you do, at least you wont be busy killing anyone.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • Dom

      uh oh you're going to hell praise him! I will put your name on the list

      December 4, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • WMesser58

      @Gregornious Dude we have to be related. What you wrote is very similar to what I believe and mimic below your comment.

      Excellent , commentary

      December 4, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • Jonny

      Our country was formed off of Christianity. If you don't A) believe me or B) care, then just leave our country because obviously you are too stupid to know your history. Research Thomas Jefferson's Diary, George Washington's State of the Union Address, or President Lincoln and his personal writings. People like you would have been tossed into the Atlantic and told to swim back to the other morons were you belong. We will never change our belief in Jesus Christ in this country. If you don't like it leave!

      December 4, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • Dom

      Johnny you're such a fool jefferson, franklin, washington, and others were existentialists not like you know what that means since they don't teach it to you in bible study. How about you get out of the country and go live in jerusalem with all the other people who believe in made up guys in the sky. Those of us with an ounce of critical thought are tired of your made up nonsense trying to control peoples lives.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • jimbob22

      Actually, Muslims are killing more people in the name of Islam than all other religions are doing put together.

      Orthodox Muslims are killing others in Africa, Cambodia, Egypt, Libya, the Phillipines, the Balkans....

      Only those that are clueless about what is going on in the world would think your opinion has any basis in reality.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Dom

      Plenty of people still die in the name of christianity and have done so plenty in the past. The only thing not based in reality is religion.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
  9. WMesser58

    "New Evidence" that's too funny. They have been terrorizing people for how long now trying to control the world.

    All religions are a waste of time and only prove how little intelligent people are believing in fairy tales.

    Their only goal is to control others and make them do their bidding.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • Gregornious

      Glad to know we agree...I like how the godfull are so prone to violence....it really says a lot about religion.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • Rasheed

      Dear Friend,
      1.islam has answer to all of your questions. A muslim may not change his beliefs , when he is getting satisfactory answers for the questions related to his life, intellectual context, morality, salvation and all things.
      2.The medias, the governments who is not like the growth of islam are giving manipulated or fabricated stories . The normal community never like terrorism or extreme lines but they can understand what above peoples are doing. islam is the way life for muslims, they cannot agree with them when they are linking their relegious practices linking terrorism.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
  10. bubinksi

    With the penalty for converting to another religion being a mandatory death sentence in many Islamic nations how can you say they are more "religious'? Because North Koreans, along with their close and distant relatives, are forced into death camps and murdered if one of them utters the slightest negative against the North Korean government, can you also argue that North Koreans are more loyal to their government than anyone else in the world?

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

    Pictures of Mohammed!
    Post yours here!

    December 4, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  12. ThereIsNoGod

    1. Several unstable countries have the A-Bomb...
    2. We've got radical Muslims and Christians who believe in and WANT to bring about the End-Of-Times...
    3. And we've got several stupid people who have no capabilities of stepping back and questioning their cultural groups practices (i.e. incapable of critical thought).

    This is the perfect combination for all heII to break loose.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • Jonny

      Christians aren't strapping bombs to women with down-syndrome like the cowards of islam and by the way, screw Muhammad! That rag head can kiss my ass! This is AMERICA, not AMERICASTAN. Go back to your crappy country and stop trying to change ours. Your country sucks, obviously, or you wouldn't be here considering we do not agree with your ideology. So if your Ideology is so awesome, why did you leave it?? Because you are here to convince us, well unfortunately you will die first you nasty muslims

      December 4, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • Joel

      Dude, since when has a Christian commited a terrorist act? The Christians are the ones who help those who are victims of a terrorist act, not the ones who commit them. I think the real danger is the people who have an unrealistic hatred for Christians, Jews and others because they are always the ones who hurt others for their own beliefs. (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc) The world should truly fear the unrational and dangerous thinking of the Atheist.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
    • Dom

      hitler was a catholic...

      December 4, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • Gregornious

      Joel.........Atheist...unrational???? Holy crap dude, get a dictionary and learn some history. Open your eyes and see common sense for the first time. Have you killed for your god today?

      December 4, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  13. twiddly

    Religion started long ago as a way to explain, and try to manipulate, natural phenomena (.e.g. sacrifices to end a drought), and to try to explain life and consciousness.
    Our advances in science now explain most natural phenomena and most agree that sacrifices to gods are unnecessary, but still there is that sticky life/consciousness thing. While science cannot fully explain it, that does not mean we need to make things up. "I don't know" is a reasonable response.
    Religion long ago outlived its usefulness, and is now not only not useful it is dangerous and needs to be eradicted, just like polio.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • Kuba

      Nuff said

      December 4, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      now that you ve advanced, you ve replaced hurricanes with AIDS and World Wars. Great job you are doing!

      December 4, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • AGuest9

      That's why the religious are so vehemently opposed to science. Rod Serling had something there in that 1963 Twilight Zone episode, "The Old Man in the Cave".

      December 4, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • LIBsObamaNCNNLIE

      Manipulate like Obama? Or Stalin who was athiest? I bet you still believe Bush caused katrina or 911

      December 4, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • AGuest9

      @Genghis Khan: How does one replace religion with AIDS? (Other than the rise of a ho.mose.xual clergy?)

      December 4, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
  14. Jonny

    Well its easy to explain. If you are told to worship or else, most people value their lives enough to do what they are told. The religion of Islam is a disgusting backward religion and we as Americans do not support the downgrading of women by this religion. I believe that it will come to war between the American people and islam. There ideals do not match our wonderful country, I and millions of Americans wish they would just disappear from our shores. You people are disgusting !

    December 4, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • Justice786

      Please note that just as in Christianity and other faiiths, there is a difference between what a religion advocates and what its followers practice. First, Islam has never forced itself on anybody, and before saying that Muslims are told to worship or else, why don't you read the Qur'an. In chapter 2, verse 256, God says, "Let there be no compulsion in religion." In Islam, everyone has the right to choose his or her own faith, and no one can compel anybody else to believe in one's own faith. Second, Islam treats men and women equally, but not identically. For example, whereas Christianity blamed the fall of man on Eve and for centuries argued over whether women had souls, Islam states that all souls (whether) that of a man or of a woman shall be rewarded (or punished) for their deeds,and that the only difference among Muslims is that piety. Women in Islam have had the right to property and to divorce long before the West and its associated faiths "granted" women these rights. On another note, what the extremists such as the Taliban, etc. do to their women is purely cultural and Islam has nothing to do with that. Some of the greatest scholars in Islam have been and are women. Women in Islam have always had a right to education and to turn their own businesses, etc.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      "Please note that just as in Christianity and other faiiths, there is a difference between what a religion advocates and what its followers practice"

      so because a religion says eat sh it, but none of the followers eat it, does that make the religion better than the followers?

      December 4, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • FrePal

      Do you think America is your homeland???You are an immigrant just like all other white Americans, and this is a fact you cant ignore.Muslims never force anybody to embrace Islam. Islam is the only religion spreading out without any efforts. I am sure you never red and understood Qur'an, even your bible.Islam is spreading out and will dominate the world.Why Christian priests embracing Islam everyday?Because they realized that it is the true religion.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
  15. cowflop

    I am SO tired of all this politically correct bovine excrement!

    Islam has only two goals, convert you or K!LL you!

    THIS is islam condensed!!!

    December 4, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Dom

      If you're christian then you have no room to talk

      December 4, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • Jonny

      We don't kill our women because they disobey. We don't kill young men because they happen to be gay! You people are a perverse gross religion. Go back to your crappy countries and get out of ours, YOUR NOT WELCOME. Not you, your children, your religion, and your backward customs can go back to your 3rd world, women hating, country! If you don't we will eventually come after you.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • cowflop

      Dom.....My religion lies within my deeds, not in some book or the words of others.

      When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. THAT is my religion.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • Dom

      Wow.. I'm not even muslim I don't believe in ANY fairy tales INCLUDING your fairy tale called christianity. You are no better than muslims.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      which works out great for the rest of us. we can manufacture and sell them with weapons of mass destruction so they can go ahead and kill us. we are so good compared to them!

      December 4, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • Dom

      cowflop I was referring to the numerous passages in the bible telling people to kill those who aren't christian. People are manipulated into acting on it (abortion clinic bombings) how is this any different? Some people who are religious aren't fanatical even though they hold nonsensical beliefs that doesn't really bother me but when they feel they have the right to influence anothers life because their make believe god says it's ok that's when I have a problem case in point: gay civil union. Saying that the bible says it's wrong is not a valid reason for it to not be allowed.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • cowflop

      Dom....you assume to much. I belong to no religion.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • cowflop

      Dom....agreed then, ALL religions bad.

      An intelligent and realistic, logical person, good.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • FrePal

      You are stupid.You don't know nothing about Islam, even about Christianity.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
  16. Kuba

    Well ,that's the whole problem.They are more religious, not more spiritual.Being religious means you have to follow guidance of specific faith. No matter how ridiculous they might be. And given the fact that most rituals of large religious movement were created hundreds of years ago, mostly to keep people busy and in control they (the rules) are completely obsolete in light of today's knowledge and technology. I do however agree with two that would solve most but not all problems:
    Keep thy faith to thyself
    Don't do anything to anyone that you would not want to be done to you.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  17. T.J.

    After reading so many of the ignorant, intolerant and even hateful comments in this blog for and against Islam, Christianity and Judaism I am soooo glad to be Buddhist.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  18. rationalt92

    The have stricter programming standards than the Christians or any Government, they have also merged all forms of law/behavior modification together n a unified approach. They also think their imaginary friend in the sky is bigger than everyone elses

    December 4, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  19. Dom

    I believe in santa clause and the tooth fairy. I will kill whoever refuses to believe in them as well.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • twiddly

      oh no you don't.

      Leprechauns and unicorns rule! Agree or die!

      December 4, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Dom

      brb crusading you

      December 4, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  20. KevinB

    They aren't more religious, they are more fanatical. There's a difference.

    December 4, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      fanatical like your own next of kin Hitler?

      December 4, 2011 at 1:34 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.