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. Ignorance

    Mr Greene, there is a simple answer to your "question".

    It is much easier to be intolerant and to hate, than to be tolerant and love.

    Islam is a religion of hate and intolerance to both, other religions AND to themselves.

    Other religions preach love in their Bible's, while Islam encourages hate. Love, as we all know, is hard. Tolerance is hard. Love requires a tremendous, life-altering effort on our part to make it happen, while hate comes to us naturally.

    Please don't argue with me. Check out the Koran and SEE FOR YOURSELF.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • obvious

      nah, their actions speak for themselves.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • Joe Christianson

      Absolutely right!

      December 4, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • seaweed

      I'm afraid that the Bible is a very sinister ,bloody, fictional book written by humans encouraging it's readers/followers to dislike anything which doesn't make a fit with it's 'philosophies'...It can not be interpreted by believers and still they do it constantly and daily. I know why. Because there are too many rules, thousands of them actually, that demands you as a believer to slaughter your 'enemies' or do other weird things. Would you stone your neighbor to death when she is collecting branches on Sunday afternoon? If you don't you are a sinner. Love and truth is a pretty well hidden aspect in the bible.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
  2. mr sampsonite

    Because they are uneducated and their country is poor.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Dawkins

      No, they have occupied Europe now.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • seaweed

      Have you followed the US republican debates lately? Bachmann are Romley are totally orthodox christian presidential candidates. What's the logic behind Bachmann's 'health' center and curing methods? It's fanatic and wrong. And have you ever experienced the logic and love in the book of Mormon. But Romley can become your president next year. They are just as freaky and uneducated and arrogant.
      And when it comes to wealth? I tell you that Dubai or Saudi Arabia are way more richer than the US...way more.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
  3. trekfuel

    it's plain to see most religious people are of the lower classes, and muslims are of the lowest class. it really is that simple.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Kalam

      How can we conclude like that, any proof? Which field they are not into today, science, technology, research.....everything.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • Kalam

      Muslim believes that they are the "best" because they know what is right and wrong and they believe in true God. I think that's why they are more religious.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  4. PO Guy

    So it's now ok to make generalizations about a religious group if what ? The generalization is positive and the group is Muslims. If you can print this load of CRP why can't you print that "Muslims are more prone to violence than others" or "Muslims have less respect for women than others" ???

    December 4, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Sam

      Why not? that is called fear.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • drew

      that is called truth

      December 4, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  5. Rainer Braendlein


    December 4, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • William Shelton

      Rainer, this is the first valid, non-bigoted comment I have ever seen from you. It's probably because you said nothing.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  6. John Geheran

    Another interesting question would be why over a billion of the faithful do next to nothing to challenge the "tiny minority" (upwards of 150 million) who day-in, day-out "hijack" their religion ? Worse yet, where is the outrage in the non-Muslim community at the almost daily occurrence of violence and harassment of "non-believers"? Why do Muslims frequently resort to burning western embassies at every perceived infraction committed by unwitting infidels? The most likely explanation is because it is rooted in their belief system, I.e., Islam is radical.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  7. KVO

    It's quite simple...Muslims live for their religion, Christians belive their religion lives for them. If you think about it, we're 180 degrees different in our respective ways of thinking.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • Ed Zachary

      I would actually say it's more likely that Muslims are considerably less tolerant of anyone who is not a through and through true believer. You are either in all the way, and 100% compliant with your sect's teachings, or not welcome at all.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
  8. JustDad

    People on this blog that disrespect "religion' obviously have a great deal of ignorance about what has driven huge acts of greatness in our history. Many people that you are biased against include Mother theresa, The Reverend Martin Luthor King, John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Sargent York, and hundreds of others I can name Millions I cannot. Even the Catholic Priest who came up with "the Big Bang theory" to explain how God created the universe. I can name very few Athiests that have contributed to society.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  9. Genericalol

    Muslims are fvck1ng crazy psychos. They call their religion "the religion of peace", yet they kill more people than all of the other religions combined. Allah's stupid fat @$$ lice infested disgusting piece of $h1t self can suck my d1k. LOLMUSLIMSROFL

    December 4, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • jigme

      You mean relgion of piece? Their actions speak louder than words.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • BuffaloBill

      There is no "acid test" for taith. This article and the "research" behind it are both a waste of time. Perhaps the Catholics kneel the most, perhaps the Jewish donate the most, perhaps the Hindu's walk the most... means nothing in the big picture. At best, this is a pro-muslim story for no other reason than to groom thier terrible image.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • Kalam

      I think you are confused religion with religion follows. Any religion you take there are good and bad followers before blaming/judging Islam I would suggest you to take the 1400 history of Islam as whole into consideration and the life of prophet Mohammed. Read Quran once then you will understand what Islam is.

      This would be a good start see this History Channel' biography of prophet Mohammed http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BZCbToxL6Bs

      December 4, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  10. Justsayin'

    Judge them all by their fruits. What have they done for humanity as compared to , say, Mother Teresa, Saint Frances and the countless other Christian Humanitarian groups for the last 2000 years.Just because someone "says" this or that about their faith does not mean that it "does".

    December 4, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Kalam

      I would recommend you learn about Islam and the 1400 history of it... Life of prophet Mohammed would be a good start and then Quran. See this History Channel' biography of prophet Mohammed http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BZCbToxL6Bs

      December 4, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  11. abby

    the brainwashing took better???

    December 4, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • Kalam

      I think it's not because of that... Muslims are very clear on what they believe, one God and prophet mohammed is the messager of God. There is no confusion like multiple Gods or 3=1 etc.

      They live by what Quran instructed and how Prophet Mohammed lived. This is as simple as that

      December 4, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  12. NotaBlindFollower

    Once a Indian muslim teenager told me that "Destroying property of people from other faiths is considered as a good deed in Quron".
    What their "good deed" is not a good deed.This is what they are teached when they are young.

    Yes poor eductiona and low IQ is the root cause.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • Not blind

      This person who told you this is ignorant and stupid. You should ask people who actually know, and just because one idiot may say this, does not make it true, if at all this person exists and if they actually spoke these words. Your source of information, if real, is not a very good one and irrelevant. You try to spread propoganda, fear, and hate.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • Thomas

      When I see the daily carnage in the middle east on the evening news, the phase "More religious to than others", doesn't leap to the front of my mind.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • johnfrichardson

      @Thomas That sort of carnage and brutality is intrinsic to the Abrahamic religions.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Afrad

      That's simply a LIE.

      Islam explicitly prohibits the destruction of enemy property and trees in the case of a full-on war. How can that same religion advocate vandalism? Your so-called "friend" must be unusually misinformed..

      Muhammad the prophet used to rid of the garbage left by his Jewish neighbor on his door, and when one day he didn't find the daily garbage at his door, he worried that his neighbor might have fallen ill and so went to visit him. THAT is the real Muhammad and his manners. His enemies used to trust him with their own possessions (when banks didn't exist) because he was the most trustworthy despite being a sworn enemy. These are the real manners of Muhammad, not what you get on FOX and from Hollywood as part of the huge war-justifying mechanism.

      Go read a neutral historic book on Muhammad's life, it will change your thinking (and possibly your life).

      December 4, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • obvious

      Not blind-google the top terrorist organizations of the world and get you facts checked before your betray your gnorance

      December 4, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  13. David

    Just because Cnn thinks that muslims are better at practicing their faith does not make their faith right. Islam was spread by the sword in its beginning and continues to be spread that way. Jesus said in John 14:6 "I am the Way the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Only Jesus can save. Islam is a religion that is works based. Jesus Christ did all the work for the sins of the world at Calvary over 2,000 years ago. Jesus is coming again to judge the world and sin. The ONLY way to the Father is through Jesus Christ. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. Islam has nothing to offer anyone. Jesus offers eternal life, a home forever in heaven, forgiveness of sins, and hope in times of need. The Word is alive and the Word is Jesus Christ. Thank you Jesus for dying on the cross for the sins of the world. Call on Jesus today and receive Him as your Lord and Saviour. Admit you are a sinner and in need of forgiveness. Ask Jesus to be the Lord of your life. Read the Gospel of John and the book of Romans to see God's plan for a sinful world. He saved me, chief among sinners, He can save you. Today. God Bless.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • Not blind

      Jesus sacrificed himself... so no matter what you do, you are saved. That makes a lot of sense. So, you are telling me that you can do anything and everything, including being a bad Christian, and you will be saved because Jesus sacrificed himself. The whole logic is off, and manufactured.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • In peace

      "Islam was spread by the sword"..So I take it that you don't agree with spreading religion through war and mass death. So what, exactly, were the Christian Crusades? Nevermind the fact that Islam also views Jesus as God's prophet. Please do us all a favor and actually understand history before trying to tell people how it is.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • A

      Christianity was spread through Europe by the sword, too.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
  14. Genericalol

    They're more religious because they'll kill each other if they don't worship to the fullest, lol. Muslims are brainwashed psychos who should be eradicated from this planet. They've done nothing but cause suffering, and death. We should nuke the $h1t out of them when they all gather in Mecca, lol.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • Not blind

      You are a psyco... pain and suffering... I think it is the nuclear bombs, smart bombs, F16, F18, F22, and advanced weaponry that cause the suffering and death. For the most part muslims have not created, designed weapons of mass destruction... these are a creation of Christians. So, now, tell me that again. You are ignorant

      December 4, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
  15. Hitler Was Right

    Who's behind Muslim bashing? Turn over a rock and see. We must find a ... solution to this problem.

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

      Turn over a rock? Don't you mean throw a rock, because that's what those crazy psycho Muslims will do. They stone people who believe in anything other than their religion. They call themselves the religion of peace, yet they're responsible for more deaths than all other religions combined.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • John Geheran

      When it comes to bashing others nowhere is it done better than in Islamic sacred texts (I.e., Qur'an, ahadith, et al). READ the literature !!

      December 4, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
  16. Mike

    fear. 3000 "honor" killings in the UK alone last year. can you imagine how many worldwide? people can be executed by fellow muslims for not practicing their faith. also, parents and husbands beat their children and wives if they are "out of line" with their faith. they practice their faith out of fear.

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

      Sadly, this cult has already infiltrated the west.

      December 4, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  17. jfred18

    Most religions have very little to do with spirituality or even the betterment of the individual. They are unfortunately far more concerned with controlling the thoughts and actions of the believer. As such they are much better described as political tools rather than roads to enlightenment. Pity that at the 21st century we have come no farther than this.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • Ray in Vegas

      Amen, Brother!

      December 4, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  18. JamalJZ

    This is why Jews should not vote Obama:


    December 4, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • Rainer Braendlein


      could you tell me, how you have embedded your video? I would like to know the technics.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • Kalam

      Muslims are more religious than others and it is the fastest growing religion in the world.

      Its the way of life. This is something great even after 1400 years Islam is being followed without even a bit of change in practice...Today 1.6billion and experts predict that Islam going to be #1 religion in the world. Prophet Mohammed is the greatest figure in the human history ever lived, I would encourage you all to read and understand more.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  19. lynnert

    They're not more rleigious – just less tolerant and open-minded, less humane, and don't, for all their posturing, follow their own book, which says the other people of the book (Christians ans Jews) are protected and shouldn't be harmed.

    As far as rirual, they're killed if they don't follow it.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  20. Ray in Vegas

    Why does CNN and the media in general automatically portray religiosity as a desireable trait? I think it's difficult to know what drives "religious" people. This applies to all religions. I say it's usually fear. Religious people are not necessarily moral people, and vice versa. I have kinown many "religious people" in my life and many of them are selfish people who don't like most other people or the world in which they live and so they hide in their religion and hope they'll get their reward some day. That's another thing .. if you are doing things either as a result of fear, or because you are looking for a reward .. isn't that what even rats do? I say we must unshackle ourselves from the scourge of religion and use the mind nature gave us to THINK. And read. Read something besides religious literature. Read something that challenges your calcified belief system. And get some exercise to force some oxygen up into that brain while you contemplate new ideas.

    December 4, 2011 at 2:45 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.