Conflict, theology and history make Muslims more religious than others, experts say
A recent global survey suggests that Muslims are more religious than Christians and Hindus.
December 3rd, 2011
10:00 PM ET

Conflict, theology and history make Muslims more religious than others, experts say

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN

(CNN) - Every religion has its true believers and its doubters, its pious and its pragmatists, but new evidence suggests that Muslims tend to be more committed to their faith than other believers.

Muslims are much more likely than Christians and Hindus to say that their own faith is the only true path to paradise, according to a recent global survey, and they are more inclined to say their religion is an important part of their daily lives.

Muslims also have a much greater tendency to say their religion motivates them to do good works, said the survey, released over the summer by Ipsos-Mori, a British research company that polls around the world.

Islam is the world's second-largest religion - behind Christianity and ahead of Hinduism, the third largest. With some 1.5 billion followers and rising, Islam's influence may be growing even faster than its numbers as the Arab Spring topples long-reigning secular rulers and opens the way to religiously inspired political parties.

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But while there's no doubt about the importance of Islam, experts have different theories about why Muslims appear to be more religious than members of other global faiths - and contrasting views on whether to fear the depth of Muslims' commitment to their faith.

One explanation lies in current affairs, says Azyumardi Azra, an expert on Islam in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim majority country.

Many Muslims increasingly define themselves in contrast with what they see as the Christian West, says Azra, the director of the graduate school at the State Islamic University in Jakarta.

"When they confront the West that they perceive or misperceive as morally in decline, many Muslims feel that Islam is the best way of life. Islam for them is the only salvation," he says.

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That feeling has become stronger since the September 11 attacks, as many Muslims believe there is a "growing conflict between Islam and the so-called West," he says.

"Unfortunately this growing attachment to Islam among Muslims in general has been used and abused by literal-minded Muslims and the jihadists for their own purposes," he says.

But other experts say that deep religious commitment doesn't necessarily lead to violence.

"Being more religious doesn't necessarily mean that they will become suicide bombers," says Ed Husain, a former radical Islamist who is now a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

In fact, Husain argues that religious upbringing "could be an antidote" to radicalism.

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The people most likely to become Islamist radicals, he says, are those who were raised without a religious education and came to Islam later, as "born-agains."

Muslims raised with a grounding in their religion are better able to resist the distortions of Islam peddled by recruiters to radical causes, some experts like Husain argue, making them less likely to turn to violence.

But he agrees that Muslims are strongly attached to their faith, and says the reason lies in the religion itself.

"Muslims have this mindset that we alone possess the final truth," Husain says.

Muslims believe "Jews and Christians went before us and Mohammed was the last prophet," says Husain, whose book "The Islamist" chronicles his experiences with radicals. "Our prophet aimed to nullify the message of the previous prophets."

The depth of the Muslim commitment to Islam is not only a matter of theology and current events, but of education and history, as well, other experts say.

"Where religion is linked into the state institutions, where religion is deeply ingrained from childhood, you are getting this feeling that 'My way is the only way,'" says Fiyaz Mughal, the director of Faith Matters, a conflict-resolution organization in London.

The Ipsos-Mori survey results included two countries with a strong link between religion and the state: Legally Muslim Saudi Arabia, which calls itself the guardian of Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina; and Indonesia, home of the world's largest Muslim population.

The third majority Muslim country in the study is Turkey, which has a very different relationship with religion. It was founded after World War I as a legally secular country. But despite generations of trying to separate mosque and state, Turkey is now governed by an Islam-inspired party, the AKP.

Turkey's experience shows how difficult it can be to untangle government and religion in Muslim majority countries and helps explain the Muslim commitment to their religion, says Azyumardi Azra, the Indonesia expert.

He notes that there has been no "Enlightenment" in Islam as there was in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, weakening the link between church and state in many Christian countries.

"Muslim communities have never experienced intense secularization that took place in Europe and the West in general," says Azra. "So Islam is still adhered to very strongly."

But it's not only the link between mosque and state in many Muslim majority countries that ties followers to their faith, says professor Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani diplomat who has written a book about Islam around the world.

Like Christians who wear "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelets, many Muslims feel a deep personal connection to the founder of their faith, the prophet Muhammad, he says.

Muhammad isn't simply a historical figure to them, but rather a personal inspiration to hundreds of millions of people around the world today.

"When a Muslim is fasting or is asked to give charity or behave in a certain way, he is constantly reminded of the example set by the prophet many centuries ago," argues Ahmed, the author of "Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization."

His book is based on interviews with Muslims around the world, and one thing he found wherever he traveled was admiration for Muhammad.

"One of the questions was, 'Who is your role model?' From Morocco to Indonesia, it was the prophet, the prophet, the prophet," says Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington.

But while Ahmed sees similar patterns across the Islamic world, Ed Husain, the former radical, said it was important to understand its diversity, as well.

"There is no monolithic religiosity - Muslims in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are following different versions of Islam," says Husain. "All we're seeing (in the survey) is an adherence to a faith."

Political scientist Farid Senzai, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington, raised questions about the survey's findings.

"Look at the countries that are surveyed - Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Turkey," he says. "There are about 300 million Muslims in those three countries, (who make up) about 20% of Muslims globally."

Islam is "incredibly important" in Saudi Arabia, he says.

"But in Tunisia or Morocco you could have had a different result. It would have been nice if they had picked a few more Arab countries and had a bit more diversity," says Senzai.

The pollster, Ipsos-Mori, does monthly surveys in 24 countries, three of which are majority Muslim – Turkey, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. The other countries range from India to the United States, and Mexico to South Korea, and are the same each month, regardless of the subject the pollsters are investigating.

In the survey released in July, about six in 10 Muslims in the survey said their religion was the only way to salvation, while only a quarter of Hindus and two out of 10 Christians made that claim about their own faiths.

More than nine out of 10 Muslims said their faith was important in their lives, while the figure was 86% for Hindus and 66% for Christians.

Ipsos-Mori surveyed 18,473 adults via an online panel in April and released the findings in July. Results were weighted to make the results as representative as possible, but the pollster cautioned that because the survey was conducted online, it was harder to get representative results in poorer countries where internet access is not widespread.

CNN polling director Keating Holland also warns that in an "opt-in" survey, where respondents actively choose to participate, results tend to come from "people who are confident in their opinions and express them openly... not good for intensely private matters like faith or income or sex."

Online surveys in countries that are not entirely free are also open to the possibility that pollsters get "the approved response" in those nations, "where the people who are most likely to be willing to talk about such matters are the ones who hold, or at least verbalize, opinions that won't get them in trouble if they are expressed," Holland says.

That may have been an issue in Saudi Arabia, where respondents were given the choice of not answering questions on religion due to their potential sensitivity in the kingdom. The Saudi sample was the smallest, with 354 participants, meaning "findings for Saudi Arabia must be treated with caution," Ipsos-Mori said.

About 1,000 people participated in most countries, but sample sizes were smaller in the three majority Muslim countries and in eight other countries.

The survey participants did not reflect the true percentage of Christians and Muslims in the world. Christians were over-represented – as were people who said they had no religion – and Muslims were under-represented.

Nearly half the respondents identified themselves as Christian. Eleven percent were Muslim, 4% were Buddhist, 3% were Hindu and 3% were "other." A quarter said they had no religion and 6% refused to say.

Fiyaz Mughal, the interfaith expert, argues that even though the countries surveyed might not be representative of the entire Muslim world, the findings about Muslims rang broadly true. Muslims in different countries were committed to their faith for different reasons, he says.

"Saudi Arabia is an institutionally religious state. Indonesia has religion tied into its culture," says Mughal.

But Muslim immigrants to Europe also show strong ties to their religion, either as a defense mechanism in the face of a perceived threat, or because of an effort to cling to identity, he contends.

He detects a link between insular communities and commitment to faith regardless of what religion is involved. It is prevalent in Muslim Saudi Arabia, but he has seen it among Israeli Jews as well, he says.

"The Israeli Jewish perspective is that (the dispute with the Palestinians) is a conflict of land and religion which are integrally linked," Mughal says.

"What does play a role in that scenario is a sense of isolationism and seclusion in Israeli Jewish religious communities, a growing trend to say, 'Our way is the only way,'" he says.

Religious leaders of all faiths need to combat those kinds of attitudes because of the greater diversity people encounter in the world today, he argues.

They have a responsibility to teach their congregations "that if they are following a religion, it is not as brutal or exclusive as possible," Mughal says. "Things are changing. The world is a different place from what it was even 20 years ago."

Politicians, too, "need to take these issues quite seriously," he says.

"In the Middle East there are countries - the Saudi Arabias - where you need to be saying that diversity, while it may not be a part of the country, is something they have to deal with when moving in a globalized area," he says.

But Senzai, the political scientist, says that it's also important for the West to take the Muslim world on its own terms.

"Many Muslims want religion to play a role in politics," he says. "To assume that everyone around the world wants to be like the West - that they want liberal secular democracy - is an absurd idea."

- CNN's Nima Elbagir and Atika Shubert contributed to this report.

- Newsdesk editor, The CNN Wire

Filed under: 9/11 • Islam • Middle East

soundoff (5,459 Responses)
  1. Chuck The Canuck

    Religion, simple answers to complex questions. It doesn't matter if the answers are right, just as long as there are answers.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Ray in Vegas

      I agree. It seems religion works because most of us are wired to be blind followers. Just tell me how to think and what to do!

      December 4, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  2. sentinel

    all I know is I don't see many Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Hindi running around blowing others up to any significant degree like the Muslims do. If you say that's religious then I want no part of that religion.

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

      duh, no other religion offers virgins as a reward for killing yourself.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  3. Doris

    In many Islamic countries you have no choice as to what religion you belong to. If you do not espouse their beliefs, you get your head chopped off. You rarely hear any other point of view, so yes, Muslims probably do appear to be more committed.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • FrePal

      you dump go better educate yourself little bit more. I wish I can meet one single Christian who speaks one single language other than his/her own one. You all need education and more visits to the other part of the ocean to understand what Islam is. And you also need to stop believing your politicized deluding media which is supported and financed by the Jewish lobby.However, I like it when you talk about Islam because this way you help in spreading Islam for free, unlike your churches which pay lot of money, and the result is priests converting to Islam.

      December 5, 2011 at 4:36 am |
  4. FireBreathingElk

    Why are Muslims more religious?

    I think it has something to do with the fact that if you aren't, the other ones kill you.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • Jack

      Religious??-No, Fanatics-Yes.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
  5. ReligionIs4Dolts

    Whether you believe the Earth came into existence 6,000 years ago or millions/billions of years ago, it is fact that not one of the major religions today existed then (especially in the cases of "Christian Science", Mormonism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, etc.). So you who follow such tripe must ask yourselves, "Why did it take so long for such a vital message as 'How to live your life correctly' to get transmitted via whatever 'prophet' you believe in?" Once you allow yourself to ask that question (and a number of other questions which "belief" in a religion precludes, then you will be on your way to true enlightenment. Wake up!

    December 4, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  6. Religious Muslms

    The trees and stones say "Come here .Hiding behind me is a Muslim.Come kill him".

    Oh wait that's the Quoran and it's Jews.

    My bad.


    Islam: the EXPLOSIVE religion of peace.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • Chu

      Islam and Peace? that is a oxymoron.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      its Islam and pis s, the spellchecker always changes it to peace.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • FrePal

      Christianity=child maltreatment.I will never become a Christian because I love my children and I don't want them to be abused in the Churches.

      December 5, 2011 at 4:40 am |
  7. Stan

    Unfortunately these muslims are misguided. They are not worshipping the true God of the Bible revealed in the OT as JEHOVAH and I AM, and in the NT as Jesus (IMMANUEL, GOD WITH US). They are worshipping Allah (meaning 'the god' in Arabic) the main god worshipped in Kaaba before the time of Muhammad.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  8. gossipgirl

    Are they more religious or more ritualistic? Much of what they do is like many of the Catholic faith. It's is part of the doctrine they have been brought up with and they do not question why they do what they do. Additionally many of them follow their religion because that is the only religion allowed in their world, unlike the US who allows anyone to practice anything.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  9. BJNJ

    If you had a muslim, christian and jew in a lineup and you had to picked the terrorist. The best odds would be if you picked the muslim. Statistics on religion and race don't lie. Profiling works! BJNJ

    December 4, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • Nonimus

      If you went to NY and picked a Muslim, Jew, and Christian at random, would you even be able to tell which is which in a line-up?

      December 4, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      if you had a muslim, christian and a jew in a line-up and you wanted to pick a WAR MONGERER, your best bet would be to pick the christian!

      December 4, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • BldrRepublican

      And if you wanted to pick a coward with no morality, you'd choose the athiest.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  10. jschau

    Muslims more religious, PLEASE. What have they given the world other than 0, which describe them to a T. As all religious people, they are pathetic losers.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
  11. John Geheran

    Mohammad as role model for most informed and committed Muslims is indicative of the fundamentally flawed nature of Islam. Most credible Islamic and non Muslim historians paint an unflattering picture of the Prophet as a murderer, pedophile and manipulator who invented "revelations" to satisfy or justify his own predilections. Even a casual read of the Qur'an and ahadith will bear this out.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  12. SquareRootOfMinusOne

    Christianity had 1) Gospel message, 2) Roman roads and adhesion, and 3) Greek language and humanistic ideas. Humanism is the main thing missing in Islam. Until that's remedied, forget it!

    December 4, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  13. Manx

    Does banging your head on the deck 5 times a day have anything to do with it?

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

      You mean cause of the lunacy? Ofcourse, yes!

      December 4, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      you bang your heads against computer screens and TV screens 50 times a day, they bang their heads against the deck 5 times a day, whats the difference!

      December 4, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  14. GAW

    Fantasy, delusions, bronze age gods, fairy tales, Santa Claus, ignorance, prey, ect I guess were going to see a lot of posts with words like this. You got to love Group Think mentality.

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

      Speaking of group think, you sound just like every atheist college professor I had in college and graduate school. Pot meet kettle.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • GAW

      @ Doris Pot meet kettle. Yet another impressive phrase I hear way too often. BTW I was offering a description and subtle critique of many of the atheist posters who rant and rave here. You may not have understood my post.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  15. Brian

    It takes an "expert" to say what is obvious? The literacy rate in most Muslim countries is relatively low. Of the literate people, the Koran is the only book many of them know. Christians were like this in the Middle Ages.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      unfortunately, your simplistic analysis does not explain the prevelance of Islam among the educated muslims in the West.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  16. Keshav

    You feel 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 keep their women in control and to marry as many as they want.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  17. jschau

    When was the last time a sky god religion has advanced humanity? The answer is never. But they have done a lot to pervert every other aspect of life.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • jimbob22

      Actually a ridiculously disproportionate number of Nobel winners (for categories that matter) are Jews.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • Manx

      Next I suppose you will expect people to quit killing each other and be responsible for their actions.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Mark

      I believe the Christian religions sky God said to take care of each other and love each other. Was a nice advancement over the barbarians

      December 4, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  18. scientificpoetry

    I find it ironic that the article stated that their deep faith "motivates them to do good works..." So why is it muslims are the most likely to be terrorists...?

    December 4, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • William Shelton

      Scientic[sic], so, if what you say is true, why does Europol's 2011 trend report on terrorism state that 99.6% of terroristic attacks commited in Europe or foiled before they were commited were attributed to NON-MUSLIMS? It wouldn't be that you are an ignorant bigot, would it? Get your facts straight before you spread more of your bovine fertilizer.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Cosby

      Willy -Before you post your lies, google the top terrorists groups in the world and you will see your brothers take the dubious spot of being the Top3.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • William Shelton

      Cosby, Google is not a source. Europol is a source. The FBI's statistics for last year are almost the same: the non-Muslim percentage of terrorist acts and foiled terrorist plots for the US last year was 94%, but I suppose you'll say both official police agencies (Europol and the FBI) are lying because YOU wouldn't know a valid source or statistic if it bit you in your rear end. Bigot.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  19. Jute

    Why? Fear of being punished or killed for not following laws.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  20. johnkeating

    The real path to the "truth" is in being open-minded and flexible to new ideas, not in strict rigidity. One could also call this adaptability. This is what I would call an ideal definition of "spirituality." Spirituality means being open-minded to new things, rather than following any particular set of ideas and rejecting all others. All religions have some element of truth to them, and it's up to us to piece them together to form a whole picture, and to expand on that picture even more. Everything is connected. nothing exists in isolation.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:24 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.