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. Brandy

    False Religion. Christianity is the only faith that deals with your past so you can move on with your future. There are good people in the muslim religion that need to get out. nuff said. Jesus is Lord!

    December 4, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • richard

      You are right. Fundamentally teaching of Jesus has always focused on one point, tolerance and forgiveness. Even on the Cross Jesus asked God to forgive his tormentors. Whereas Muslim religion teaches EYE for an EYE which is begetter of all violence in this world.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • Sam Houston

      Clearly, most who claim to practice Christianity do not really follow the teachings of Christ. The same thing occurred in Jesus day. Matthew 7:16-20,21-23. Obviously, the important thing is not what we SAY we believe. Many claim to be Christian and yet participate in the slaughter of war. Jesus said his TRUE disciples would be recognized as different–John 13:34,35.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • Mack

      Why are you so sure you're right and they're wrong? Billions of people around the globe think you're wrong, you know? Maybe, just maybe, you're ALL wrong.....is that an option you're willing to consider?

      December 4, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • Dino

      Jesus is a man, just like he described himself in the Lords prayer. Our father who are in heaven , blessed is THY name. See, not my name. Use your brain!

      December 4, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • Majid khan

      Brandy think about this. How can a God Die? " ISSA Ale-Salam"(My Respect to him as prophet) did die. Secondly, if you Consider "ISSA AS"(My respect to him as Prophet) as GOD then who is his Father? Did "ISSA As"( My respect to him as Prophet) ever pronounce is Father's Name??? Does any scripture of Christanity says that "ISSA AS"( My respect to him as prophet) annouced to his ppl that his father name is ......... other than GOD. GOD is a general word used for divine being. it can be a hindu God, or Jewish God or may be a Muslim God. We as humans know our fathers name e.g david, george, malik, saeed, Timothy, Rajesh and so on. So my point is If "ISSA AS"( My respect to him as Prophet) was human he would have said the name of his father to his pupil....Word of Wisdom.....Read Quran and you will get your answer Brandy.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
  2. Ladislav Nemec Big Bear California

    Thousands of comments here – nobody can read them all. Just briefly: It is completely irrelevant to speculate WHY most Muslims are so religious. Just as the geography or weather, they just ARE and it is not going to change anytime soon.

    So, we have to learn to live with it and try to limit the number of these 'believers' in the Western world as much as legally possilble. A minuscule percentage of them are ready to kill us.

    December 4, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • Jimbo54321

      If Muslims want to live here, they have to play by our rules and not flood our great nation with all of their noise. I say that if Muslims hate America so much, then they should go back to where they came from.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  3. ali

    ISLAM the more you read about it , the more you will love it. ( it just make alot of sense ). talking with knowing is our worst enemy.

    December 4, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • Rick

      Yes, islam the more you read it , you will love it!

      The more you SEE it, you will RUN from it

      December 4, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • Fnordz

      My experience has been the opposite.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • Tim

      If you love to hate, then you are absolutely correct about Islam.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • richard

      Hi Ali what you say is what all Muslims say. However they never practice what they preach.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • Jimbo54321

      Muslims are a bunch of crazy Pakistanis, in cahoots with the Iranians and Russians.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • Jim Elwell

      Ali, you do realize that the reason Muslims are so fanatic is because Islam requires an intellectual suspension of disbelief. That is not an easy thing to do if you are a thinking man. So Mohammed rode to heaven on a winged horse? Man is made of cloted blood? Islamic Abrogation...where a conflicting Sura exists only because Allah has chanded his mind? The all knowing changed his mind? Wouldn't that make Allah unknowing? This and much more nonsense is found in the Qu'ran. Now look at the Hadiths... why did Mohammed dislike dogs so much? Because dogs disliked him! Are you aware of the amazing distiction that Dogs can sense in men? A unstable man cannot hide his instability from a dog. The dogs behavior will reveal an untrustworthy man every time. IIts too bad the seventh century Bedowin weren't as wise.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  4. John the Baptist

    Religion will eventually bring man to the brink of extinction with nuclear war right around the corner. Its sad that with all the information we have today people still can't let go of there childish religions. Atheists are just as silly considering they believe in something they don't have the answer to.

    December 4, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
  5. Truth

    Islam peaceful religion, my foot. Most violent religion on earth.


    December 4, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • Rick

      pieceful reglion, yes!

      December 4, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
    • Really

      Looks like Jews need to take care of the snitching Trees and stones in Jerusalem too.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
  6. Really

    People should read history as a whole instead of taking bits and peace and promote there agenda. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1PxJomypQE

    December 4, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
    • Really


      December 4, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
  7. Truth


    December 4, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • Chuck

      I think you're forgetting the lower (if any) level of education parvasive in muslim countries. As in this country, the lower level of education there is, the more rabid the adherence to their "faith". Opiate of the masses.

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

    Jews are leading the West around by the nose. Enough, ugly squat Jew!

    December 4, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
  9. hippypoet

    Oh look, it appears that what I've been saying since the begining is now being said by "experts"...interesting, I bow for you all. Perhaps now my other posts don't seem so farfetched, yes? 🙂

    December 4, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  10. Deborah

    Muslims around the world are more religious for lack of better education. Islam has spread throughout Africa and the asian continent not through education but through killing and forcing the previous generations to convert. I will not even comment about Mohammed and his philosophy of eliminating anyone who did not follow him. However today muslims follow the same customs as 1400 years ago for the lack of better understanding the basic rights that GOD has given us. Women and children do not count in this religious sect and christians are called slaves. This is a religion of dividing and controlling of threatening and scaring its own believers and of regarding women as objects for abuse. CNN you can published as many articles that you want to beautify Islam, history will prove you wrong.

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

      Like this...nice post.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • ibno malik

      Thats not true everyone knows who did spread using bloodshed islam spread by merchant to Indonisia which is the bigest muslim country, first visitors use to close their camels mounths in order to avoid disturbing local indonisians prophet PBUH is a pease for all word current technology has a muslim heritage so please stop ignorance.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • Sam

      Try and read the english translation of the Quran, and you may not look so clueless next time you decide to talk so much!

      December 4, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  11. 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. Maybe you should look for something else to right about rather than stir up the opinions of readers.

    December 4, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • Wicket

      Exactly! The guys in the power structure don't want to give up their bullying power over women. When the only book you've read is the Quran, which you spent 4-8 years of your youth memorizing, and you can own your own woman, what do you expect? Of course you must die if you start getting secular and try moving out of the dark ages.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  12. David Bustamante

    You would be more "religious" too if it you had no choice. The God of the bible does not impose Himself upon anyone. He offers a free gift of salvation to all mankind and has created us with a free will. To impose a belief under the threat of the sword is no choice.

    December 4, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • true

      muslims in the west are more into their faith than any other muslim majority. they born or grew up in the west. they have read more books than the average westerner. the reason is because the qur'an is very influential, and Mohamed (pbuh) is the most influential person in the history of man. muslims get psychological help from the qur'an and the role model of the Mohamed (pbuh)

      December 4, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  13. Wicket

    Perhaps they are more fervent because of ignorance. It seems like poverty breeds religion due to lack of educational resources and opportunities. Once a power base of religion is established, it's easy to keep power. It looks like some Muslim cultures will punish you if you're NOT religious enough, which causes a lot of religious DISPLAY. Muslims get radical because they have scapegoats, *infidels*, to blame for all their problems...they have less personal responsibility that way...and religious belief/display in enforced under penalty of death. Of course it makes them appear more religious.

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

      You have a valid point. We are witnessing what an 86% illiteracy rate coupled with a generational ideology can do to people.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • Greenspan

      Heard of the 'Occupy world movement'
      The muslims have the largest lobbying group in Washington, wonder what they are lobbying for?

      A trojan horse!

      December 4, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • true

      seems like you are more ignorant then those you are claiming to be ignorant. here in the west we somehow belief that if you cant read english (ABC) you are illiterate. i have seen people from china, egypt and in countries in Africa who can read their books with their language but cant read English, to say those people are illiterate is just ignorance. i came to USA when i was 12 years old. i did not know how to read in english but i did know how to read in my language. i knew and my friends back home know more about the west than the American kids. American student in my class used to ask me whether there is buildings in Africa and roads or if we had tv or chased my lion. now thats is ignorance.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • Wicket

      No, @True, I meant ignorance of science, as well as illiteracy in one's own language or the language of the culture. Illiteracy is rampant in most third-world countries. Also, if one is able to read only the Quran, how does that reduce ignorance?

      December 4, 2011 at 11:51 pm |
  14. 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 3:57 pm |
  15. talezspin

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


    December 4, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
  16. Really

    The beauty of Islam to me is when you stand in front of God with your brothers in faith regardless of race, ethnicity, colour or status and pray as equal that is the most beautiful thing in this world.

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

      Kind of like Catholicism then?

      December 4, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • Really

      You have to go through priest and stuff in Catholicism I think. In Islam for forgiveness you don't go to a mullah to hear your confessions. You ask God directly.

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

      Hypocrisy seems to be highest among Muslim people. The say something and do something. If we look in the Arab world, any and every rich Arab who call themselves true Muslim has been debauch at some time or the other. They always do that behind veil and secrecy. If what is mentioned in this article was true then Muslim World would have been the best to live in and we would not have seen so much of unrest. Human rights paradoxically does not exist in the Muslim world, if anyone tries questioning the royalty or the religious leader, they are immediately silenced.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • Kevin

      It's all a means of control. You are like sheep. Following your shepperd blindly.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  17. Jay Z

    Still feeling a bit frustrated at my wife's comment on this article, can't seem to stop an old classic song from rolling around in my head, "I want bourbon, I want scotch, I want beeeeeeer"

    December 4, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
  18. Terry Brookman

    Death cult membership sets a very low standard, all you need to do is read a ripped off jumble of the bible including a bunch of ravings from a opium addict and then you get to kill and mutilate anyone you want. Seeing that it appeases the lowest animal mind set it collects a lot followers. I have never heard of a Muslim woman going to heaven, while the men get forty virgins, what kind of BS is that. They are perverted, narcissistic little boys with the power to kill.

    December 4, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  19. Lalalala

    In the United States true Christians are persecuted by people every day. People are taught to love all religions except Christianity. This may be one reason why Muslims are more religious, they don't get made fun of.

    December 4, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  20. Truth

    Muslims are more religious because there is a gun on their head. Blasphemy law in Muslim country are used to suppress, killing and torture people who even say anything against Islam. Islam is oppressive, radical and idiotic religion.There is a witch hunt against innocent people who do not follow Islam in Islamic country.

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

      DING DING DING!! We have a winner. you are 100% correct. Believe or die.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.