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. Ban

    I don't even know where to begin! I think 'Leave them to their fate', Joel Weymouth, Coach Lew said it already.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  2. Aziz (Islam is the Answer)

    Islam does not need CNN to present it in a good or a bad way. Islam will not disappear because of Biased blogers, journalists and commentators . Unlike the church which is using all means to reach to people Money in Africa, Commercials, Missionaries, hundreds of TV and Radio channels, Islam is spreading in every corner of the world because it is the last message of Allah(God), because of the truth it carries. God himself has vowed to protect this Religion and its holy book.No Muslim can change the rules of Islam because they are heavenly and everlasting. Unike other religions like Christianity. who keep changing the laws of their religion to get more supporting members even if the rues are contradicting the original teaching of the bible. In Islam the rules were good 1433 hundreds years ago and they will be good until the last day. No doubt there has been many innovations and changes in our life but a lot of human behaviors and actions do not change. Stealing was not good and was punishable 200000 years ago and the same true today. the same thing is true about all the other sins like Adultery, Giving false testimony, killing innocent people, bribery, transgression and so on the church has given up on most of these rules which were in bible but now modified. The quran is the same and will be until the end of the world. The originality and the truth of Islam can not be surpassed by any Law in this earth. Try to understand the teaching of islam and you will see. By the way do not tell me the stupid comment that most muslim leaders are dictators they are not treating their people like humans. The answer to that is that those leaders are not real Muslim. They are even against the teaching of Islam and Most of them were given power by the West: France, Usa, UK, Italy...to exploit the muslim countries. You see now they are being overthrown by the people one by one. and the real Muslim are wining in the elections.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      muslims talk too much!

      December 4, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • jschau

      Ever heard of the concept of growing up?

      December 4, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • Tired

      This is what we mean, we are tired of hearing about your religion.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • rinzokash

      Well said Aziz. May God show us (whole humanity) the right and straight path.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • jfred18

      The God of the Universe is a God of change. Nothing in nature remains the same. . God reveals more every day. To say that any book ever written by a man is the last and final revelation of God is to do God a great disservice. If your journey to spiritual enlightenment stops at one book you will remain forever blind.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Islam is A Cult Than Preaches Everyone Else Is Wrong

      Only we have the answer. Until you (Muslims) understand the question: STF up!

      December 4, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • RE: Islam is A Cult Than Preaches Everyone Else Is Wrong

      How is that different that just about any other religion?

      December 4, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • sentinel

      Islam is for hipocrits


      December 4, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • Trystan

      @ Aziz

      Listen to yourself. You're the embodiment of everything wrong with Islam. All Muslims can go to hell.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • FrePal

      Very accurate and comprehensive clarification for those who don't know even their own religion and believe only the false media and propaganda against Islam . May Allah bless you.

      December 5, 2011 at 4:15 am |
  3. jschau

    Because they have a lower IQ.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      good, that means less world wars!

      December 4, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • Keshav

      You think that way because they are in the news everyday killing in the name of religion. The rest are using their religion and its manipulated laws to control their women and marry as many as they want.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  4. paintpaintpaint

    This is the stupidest 'article' I've seen in a while on CNN. Who are you to decide whose faith is stronger? I know growing up Catholic – we did not talk about our religion... we just kept it private – why is 'in your face' religion more sincere? Just wondering...

    December 4, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  5. Mark III

    They are the most religious because the are the most repressed. They usually go hand in hand.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  6. GrowUp

    Ignorance breeds violence. Many Muslims want to live in a backward, ignorant world based on barbaric notions of piety.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  7. Sad


    December 4, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • Raj

      This is what muslims teach their children. No wonder they grow up to be so fanatical. Islam is an evil religion.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  8. DogMan

    Woff Woff

    December 4, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  9. Mehmet

    Let me write one logical comment here for people that want to learn: Islam has a theoretically sound message that revolves around the uniqueness of god, which is called Allah (Al -ilah or the God). This message reveals the attributes of god like mercy, compassion or creativity and how man relates to them. When one understand these attributes and how to relate to them he or she comprehends the reason for life and existence. This knowledge creates faith and faith helps you overcome the hurdles of life which constantly try to take you away from Allah.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • steven

      Thank you Mehmet, that's beautiful.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • Rodriga

      I haven't met many Muslims that live for true interreligious peace and tolerance, as it seems that to them, mercy is only to be expressed between Muslims. Muhamed, history shows, was not peaceful or tolerant toward outsiders (specifically, the Jews) and he had multiple wives (a practice viewed as degrading to any woman who with an enlightened perspective). Just examples of how there appears to be no room for the followers of the example of Muhamed in a truly progressive and tolerant society.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  10. George

    Got to admire how Muslims enforce morality within their societies. Christians could learn a thing or two from them.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      keep your women at home and pay for their upkeep, everything else will take care of itself!

      December 4, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  11. Coach Lew

    CNN, why are you wasting reporting NON NEWS as this??? There is more news in the world today such as the two kids next door playing Tiddly Winks for God's sake.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • GAW

      As they say If you don't like it don't read it. This article may be a bit of information for some and triviality for others.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  12. steven

    Have you been to a hospital recently? Do you know that there are Muslim physicians than anyone else? Last I checked takes some educating to become a doctor.

    Have you been to an engineering firm lately? Do you know most have on site prayer sites to cater to the huge amount of Muslims that work there.

    Last I checked that takes some schooling as well...

    December 4, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • Coach Lew

      Do you know why this is? Because American youth of today have about as much drive to become a doctor, teacher or industrial leader as does a flea. Whose fault is this, the parents of today's children spoil all their kids rotten.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      the reason why there is a higher proportion of muslim doctors and engineers is because these kids come from stable families with good morals. they don't have to deal with street drugs and gambling and alcohol. they do better at school and they endup doing better at college. good stable family means good stable kids.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • John

      Typical muslim mis-information. There are more Christians, Hindus and Jews who are doctors than there are muslim doctors in the US. Thats why you find muslims from arab countries coming to the US for treatment and not the other way around. Even the doctors in arab countries are mostly Hindus from India. Muslims are not capable of saving lives, they are better at destroying life.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • Engineer

      Is your information based in Detroit? I would be willing to wager that you would be hard pressed to back these with real numbers from any other major metropolitan area in the U.S.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  13. Coach Lew

    You know why the Muslims are more religious, it's simple, you either are a faithful Muslim or you lose your head..

    December 4, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      unfortunately, your stupid example does not explain why they are buying all our churches here in the West!!

      December 4, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  14. Aacon

    They do so under threat of actual carried out torture or death & the perverted system of laws they must adhere to or be punished after life.In short ; They are scared into obeying a book letter for letter.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  15. Joel Weymouth

    The only country that embraced Islam voluntarily is Indonesia. The rest of Muslim countries became so by conquest. from 670-800 – Islam conquered all of North Africa and all of the Middle East. One little fact that they ignore in college, that 200 years before the Crusades, the Muslims invaded Europe and had to be stopped at Tours. The controlled Spain until 1450 and the Ottomans almost got control of Austria in the Siege of Vienna in 1527. Granted, Clovis and Pepin did the same thing under the Christian banner in 500, but the spread of Christianity was encouraged only by preaching, not by the sword. The only conflict that the Christian must go through is the conflict to gain control and victory over sins of the flesh, not enemies of Christianity. Jihad is one of the cornerstones of Islam and it can both be intellectual, but also can involve physical violence. For those apologists that claim Islam is "peaceful" ignore the excesses of Muslims in Indonesia, where Christians are being attacked and beheaded, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan (which is Christan vs. Muslim). One can deny that there is an intrinsically violent element within Islam. It is not entirely violent, but it is quite influential The moderate Muslims never ever repudiate the violent Muslims, they act as apologists. For example – when a member of the Saudi Royal Family tried to present a monetary contribution to New York in the wake of 911, he also told the crowd that the US "asked" for this with their support of Israel. It is best to keep Islam – even the "moderate elements" at arms length from us.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      your argument is self-defeating!
      how can someone capture so many countries on horseback and with swords alone!!!

      for islam to spread so far and so wide, it has to have something more than the threat of a sword, otherwise the locals would wait it out and resort to their old ways.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • Sheikh Qumruzzaman

      I don't know how Christianity was spread before, but now they lure people with money to get converted.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      and also remember the mongols!!!
      they too captured half the world
      on horseback and with nothing but swords and spears

      but what happened to them? where did they go?
      disappeared after 100 years, not a trace.
      why did the muslims not suffer the same fate?

      December 4, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • Sean

      ever hear of the crusades?

      December 4, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Rasheed

      Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things.(Quraan 2:256)

      December 4, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  16. awdam


    December 4, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      they are waiting for their western masters to sell them one!

      December 4, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  17. Bob

    How long did you hold this story waiting to shove it in our faces during the Christmas season? This is why CNN isn't on my tv or bookmark reading list.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
    • steven

      A british survey offends you?

      December 4, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  18. DogMan

    Woff Woff!
    I learneded sooo much goooodly nand portrant thingys here I baunt to re Muslim now!!

    December 4, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
  19. I laughed at this


    December 4, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
    • Hilarious!

      And seasonally correct!

      December 4, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  20. awdam

    They like being BROOM-STICKED????

    December 4, 2011 at 2:01 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.