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. Fred

    Let's see...Muslims believe in a so called prophet who had 11 wives aged 6-13 and who killed thousands of innocent people, and who was involved in over 60 conflicts. Where does common sense or logical thinking come into this so called religion. This is a CULT who worships a pedophile. You can't have a casual conversation with these people. The Muslims need to think for themselves instead of letting fanatical nuts think for them.

    December 4, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • Kalam

      Fred you are wrong. I would recommend you to learn more about Prophet Mohammed and Islam. See the history channel' biography of Prophet Mohammed, this will be a good start for you http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BZCbToxL6Bs

      Good luck!

      December 4, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Kalam

      Fred you are wrong. I would recommend you to learn more about Prophet Mohammed and Islam. See the history channel' biography of Prophet Mohammed, this will be a good start for you.
      Good luck!

      December 4, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • Entt

      Fred-Right on! Kalam we don't need to watch any shows. Your actions speak louder than words when it comes to terrorism.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • grebis

      Everything I will ever need to know about eeslam was taught to me on Sep 11, 2001

      December 4, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  2. Correction

    "Muslims believe 'Jews and Christians went before us and Mohammed was the last prophet,' says Husain...'Our prophet aimed to nullify the message of the previous prophets.'" - This is an erroneous statement, prophet Mohammed did not preach a message nullifying the same message previous prophets brought. The main message of all the prophets was that there is one God. Prophets did have more society/culture specific messages to give depending on their situation, but the overlying message was that there is one God. Prophet Mohammed in no way nullified any of the messages of the previous prophets. In the Islamic view, Mohammed brought the final revelation and was the final prophet, but his main message was the same as prophets before him. Islam has the utmost respect for all the prophets and none of the prophets’ messages overlying theme of there being one God and being a righteous person were negated by Mohammed or Islam. There have been acknowledgments of discrepancies from previous holy books in the Torah and Bible but to say prophet Mohammed “aimed to nullify the message of the previous prophets” is a blatant error that people with some knowledge about Islam’s views on prophets should be able to discern.

    CNN randomly quoting some guy that wrote a book about Islam and now is an “expert”.

    December 4, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • Peace

      Thank you!

      December 4, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
  3. 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 |
    • Hawkeye1012

      Plus most Muslim countries are backward, ignorant and oppressed.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • Fred

      So you think it's great to worship a pedophile who murdered innocent humans? I don't think so. Maybe you should look into the life of your so called prophet. If he was so great why don't you put his picture everywhere? What kind of religion says it's OK to kill people who don't think like you? Maybe you should have an open mind and use some LOGIC instead of following your CULT.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • Fred

      Have YOU ever looked into Mohammeds's life...I mean really look into the FACTS which your cult won't let you do. He was a war mongering pedofile who had over 10 wives...one as young as 6!! Of course he didn't consummate the marriage until she was 9!! He also ordered the EXECUTION of over 600 people who were trying to surrender. What kind of prophett is that? OPEN your mind.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Andrew

      So, muslims were misinterpreting the Kuran for their own ends and killing each other and others in the name of "peace" in the very beginning? Wow. That is a bloody miracle.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • jfred18

      1400 years of the same exact thing. Sounds like a really depraved mind control scheme. no one will ever convince me that any one man. Jesus, Mohammed, Moses,Joseph Smith etc.etc...... is the only voice of God. God reveals all to anyone who will look. Blindly following a practice of rituals or prescriptions for life only can lead to stagnation. Again all of these religions are political tools designed to empower the clerics.

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

      Fred, I do not know where did you get this "pedophile" and "murder" history.. I would suggest you to learn, learn, learn. You have wrong understanding about prophet mohammed and Islam.

      Is a picture everything for you?? does that help you decide good or bad??

      Muslims don't belive that anywhere in their scriptures its written to kill innocent people. that's why I suggest you learn. Good luck

      December 4, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • Terry Brookman

      Kalam, that will be the day you all kill eachother, after all if America stopped feeding most of you you would die of starvation. If you think a true Christan will convert then you have lost your mind, you will find yourself trapped here on a place soon to be known as hell. Good lock, I feel sorry for you!

      December 4, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • Kevin

      Because it is a CULT. Pure and Simple. I do know about islam, more than I ever wanted to, and you are lying. He was a pedophile, he was a murderer, and you love him for it. Wake up. they have you, and you let it happen. Be ashamed of yourself.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • Fanta

      Yeah, Islam is fast growing due its exponential birth rate. By number of new converts alone, Christianity grows faster.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • Fred

      Kalam, YOU are the one that should do some reasearch on Mohammed...Try this do a wickapedia search and type in MOHAMMED...look ino his life. HE WAS A PEDOPHILE in today's terms. He had wives as young as 6! He killed over 600 innocent people who were trying to surrender. Today he would be up for WAR CRIMES!!!! look into his real life not the BS you hear from the Cultish nuts around you.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
  4. Hitler II

    Does anyone know where I can buy a Jewskin lamp shade?

    December 4, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      You are disgusting. I assume you are a believer though.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • Entt

      That hate is what is called a Muslim

      December 4, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  5. DontlikewhatIread

    Can you say ….“Double Standard”?
    The author justifies the lack of flexibility in Islam as a deeper rooted faith. But for Jews its stubbornness? This is how the author described it….
    For Muslims…..
    "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."
    And for Jews….
    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,'".
    CNN is becoming the Al Jazeerah of the West. People of ALL faiths have beliefs and doubts. We are ALL human.
    The true differences are the values taught between the faiths and the method of teaching. Fear promotes compliance. Hatred promotes anger and fear. Why doesn't CNN instead write an article called "What is a FATWA and why must killing be done in furtherance of your own beliefs?" or “Why should faith be used as a tool to suppress women?” Then make a comparison with a Democratic country with a justice system and equality among genders like Israel. This article was disgusting.
    Hatred is not faith.

    December 4, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  6. Hockeyn109

    Muslims overall are more religious due to fear, intimidation, religion indoctrinated into law, education, and government. If you don't have separation of church and state, then this is what you get. They're still in the middle ages.

    December 4, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
  7. Muslim

    May the beauty of Islam keep spreading. Soon enough, Islam will have more followers than any other religion...Insha'Allah


    December 4, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • Peikovianii

      Hashish is a wonderful drug...

      December 4, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • jigme

      'Beauty of Islam'-would you care to explain or better still show the world by your actions of tolerance?

      December 4, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • Muslim

      Pikachu stop following me....

      December 4, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • Muslim

      jig-Watch the vid or do research about Islam, it's absolutely beautiful. The sound of athan especially. I can't find anything beautiful about Christianity except...nope I can't.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Fanta

      So I guess you find hairy, bearded men with AK-47s beautiful now? How about car bombs?

      December 4, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  8. jesse

    to each his own

    December 4, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • Jared Maxwell

      Faith? More like fear! Fear of getting your hands chopped off, fear of getting your head chopped off, fear of getting stoned to death. Yeah, we get it, there are Muslims in some countries that don't fall into those categories. Lets just take a look at the majority on this one, you can't count the women either, since they would be killed if they didn't do what the men tell them. What a waste of an article Richard Allen Greene.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • Jared Maxwell

      woops, wrong post

      December 4, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  9. Ang

    Probably because a large majority of the worlds Muslims live in communities where they would be threatened with death if they didn't appear "religious".

    December 4, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  10. The Half Baked Lunatic

    'god' is an idiotic idea promoted by immoral people to pacify and control the weak minded. People can make up all sorts of crap and say "this is what 'god' would want us to do" ... and suddenly they have control over you. The whole concept is so absurd that it's not even worthy of serious consideration.

    December 4, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • Really

      Control over what Prophet's own Grandsons were killed because they didn't side with the powerful immoral leader. Prophet (PBUH) lived in poverty even though there were people under his command that were more wealthy then him. Read about his life first then talk about immoral people.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  11. msadr

    i don't know about this. How are they defining "religious"? Seems to me you either practice what you believe or you don't. How can there be degrees of more or less? I wonder if they are just talking about the public expression of religious ideas. as a christian in the USA, I don't feel free to express my beliefs in public. That doesn't mean I'm less religious. It means I face more social and political barriers against the public expression of my faith than they do in their countries.

    December 4, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • Kevin

      Exactly which of those beliefs to feel constrained from doing? What would you publically do if you did feel free to do so?

      December 4, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  12. Kevin

    Perhaps if people in the US were more committed to their religion we wouldn't have so much fraud and corruption . Funny that we label ourselves a "Christian" nation but don't practice what we preach, collectively or individually.

    December 4, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  13. Hitler II

    You see what Jews do? They can't just have a reasonable discussion; they have to embed videos and define and monopolize the narrative. Silence, impudent Jew!

    December 4, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  14. TamarS

    I think your definition of "religious" is skewed. My experience with muslims is that they are controlled and punished so early in their lives (family and school!) that their natural curiosity and questioning ability has been seriously damaged, if not squelched altogether. There are "more religious" people in all faiths!

    December 4, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • talezspin

      Absolutely right!!!

      December 4, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • Kevin

      I think your description applies to most religions. They all attempt to brainwash their flock from early on to ahhere to their dogma.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  15. talezspin

    Islamic Paradise described by a Muslim Cleric.... that explains why Muslims are more religious!!! 😉


    December 4, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • Really

      Not really the only reason Muslims are so religious is because of Prophet (PBUH) ,he is going to be the only person who will be able to ask God to forgive the sins of Muslims who believed there is only one god there is no God but Allah.

      December 4, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • Ang

      Yes, that does explain it!

      December 4, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • BornAgainMoslem

      Where do I sign up? I have been so blind all my life! I am born again!

      December 4, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
    • pinkish eyes

      Did he say pinkish eyes or did he mean pinky eyes???

      December 4, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
  16. LH

    Western societies, if they are to suceed must create opportunities for muslim countries to improve the living conditions of their people. Religions become stronger when people are poor and afraid. Islam radical leaders prey on fear and poverty created by the wset.[ True or not ,they believe it ]. People need to start thinking of "God and the goodness of Mankind". We don't need propehts or religion in the equation.

    December 4, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  17. Heidi

    Define more religious. they don't switch religions easy, to do so is the punishment is death especially for women. Pretty good deterrent.

    December 4, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  18. Ron B

    They are NOT more religious.... they are simply better at performing public rituals so all their friends can say "how religious" they are....... As for the crap "but new evidence suggests that Muslims tend to be more committed to their faith than other believers." that is simple. Their religion calls for their death if they try and leave it. It's easy to be dedicated to your religion when the alternative is DEATH..........

    December 4, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  19. Skyler

    When hope is scarce, religion fills the void.

    December 4, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  20. talezspin

    Media's Islam Deception – don't trust everything you are fed by the media! Go read about Islam yourself. Read the Quran, the Hadiths and the Sirat!

    Also don't trust the whitewashed English translations of the Quran provided by Muslims. Get 'An Abridged Koran' or 'A Simple Koran'.


    December 4, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • Historian

      I approve this message

      December 4, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • Harris

      hmm, that is interesting. 100 virgins a day?

      You are going to need a lot of VIAGRA!

      December 4, 2011 at 3:37 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.