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. reader 2010

    A lot of Moslims must be working for CNN.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • Daniel Allen

      No doubt. Soon they will change their name to INN. The Islamist News Network. Or Al-jazeera will just buy them out.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  2. CSX

    Typical non Christian crap from the UN belief blog.

    BTW, there is a way which seems right, and wide is the way....to destruction.

    Religious practices is one thing, but KNOWING the one and only TRUE GOD whose Son is Jesus is the way.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • warmesTghosT

      And how do you "know" that, again?

      December 4, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  3. Stan

    Dear CNN,
    Can you have an article next time on "Why muslims are more prone to terrorism?" And please get opinion from both Muslims and non-muslims.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      "terrorism is the poor man's F-16"

      December 4, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • warmesTghosT

      I'm reasonably certain that more Christians commit "terrorist" activities in the US than Muslims do. I also believe there are quite a few more Christians in American prisons than Muslims.

      Just saying.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • Rick

      Stan- That will be a good eyeopener to one and all, why muslims are more prone to terrorist activity?. A simple google search reveals the top terrorists organization in the world are muslims.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • Majid khan

      Dear Stan.
      The Answer is simply don't terrorize me I will not terrorize you. Word of Wisdom

      December 4, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
    • Majid khan

      what you have asked is being answered in better way in previous posts. With record of athrociticites againsts muslims. Which simply give rise to self protection. Word of wisdom

      December 4, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
    • Majid khan

      @RICK... You IDIOT Who declare them TERORISTS..... word of wisdom.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
  4. max crusader

    better brainwashing then the rest

    December 4, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  5. Dino

    Islam IS the largest religion in the world, not the second largest. Grow up and stop spreading lies.

    December 4, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Jimbo54321

      "You guys pair up in groups of three, then line up in a circle."
      – Bill Peterson, Florida State football coach

      December 4, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • onid

      Aren't ya that nut that advocates killing people for their belief?

      December 4, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • Majid khan

      @ONID if your belief is killing muslims then muslims have the right to protect themselves. I think there is no law in this world that does not allow self protection. If someone breaks into your house aren't you going to protect yourself and yourself and your family. Are you going to be held responsible for that???...wisdom buddy.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  6. One11one

    Religion is a great thing.

    Both Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain said they were "at peace with their god" for their past indiscretions.

    How convenient!

    December 4, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  7. Jimbo54321

    Muslims are all a bunch of crazy Pakistanis working as undercover Soviet spies.

    December 4, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Dino

      ..and you are a bimbo moron! Educate yourself before you start leaving comments!

      December 4, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • Jimbo54321

      Sorry, I think I had my facts mixed up. Actually, Muslims worked for the Nazis during the American Civil War. And so now the Americans are helping Texas fight Mexico.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • Majid khan

      Islam does not have terrotorial boundries!!!!! Its a divine religion.... word of wisdom

      December 4, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
  8. Sitnalta

    It's the same reasons why any culture is super religious: lack of education, economic desperation and poor quality of life. The Middle East and Africa are going through a cultural dark age at the moment, so it's no surprise that the people believe in something that tries to make sense of all the horrors.

    December 4, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • JF

      Everyone take a row – we'll go along abd kick each one of them in the a$$

      December 4, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • chavela

      i couldn't agree more. religion thrives in poor and uneducated societies and until these problems are resolved, there will always be people who wish bad things upon us.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • Majid khan

      @Sitnalta. The Richest ppl are in middle east. They have Invested in every corporation based in USA. When the economic meltdown started in 2008, the first foriegn visit Obama made was to middle east to convince the investors not to pull out there assets. So I don't think middle east lack economic power... Its wat they lack is the realization that if they pullout there money and invest it in african countries they can get rid of poority and change the balance of power in current affairs. which has already started where middle eastern investors are investing china. USA and Europe owes trillions of dollars to china.....Word of Wisdom

      December 4, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  9. whoopitydoo2


    December 4, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • Majid khan

      PLEASE NAME ONE PERSON THAT WAS BEHEADED COZ OF NOT PRAYING FIVE TIMES A DAY. ITS A CHALLENGE TO YOU WHOOPITYDOO2!!!!!!!!! As muslim its my duty to correct the misgiving about islam. Read about islam you might gain wisdom. And I mean wisdom not INFORMATION( I am differentiating the two).

      December 4, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Dino

      In the western 'civilized" countries you execute people for treason? So, if country and people are more important to you than God that is okay with us. BUT if God is above country and people for us, why do you have a problem with that? Treason to God is a bigger offense than treason to country!

      December 4, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Jordon

      Majid-What about all the killing you do in the name of islam for someone who converted to another religion?

      December 4, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Jordon

      Dino-What gives you the right to take away another life in the name of your religion? what makes you think that your belief is right. Pure nonsense

      December 4, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • prac_it

      Dino defending killing people for conversion! what a pathetic belief system you have for yourself, and you call yourself a human?

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

      Don't say something that you have no idea or what so ever about it ,

      December 4, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • Yousef

      Hey Muslim-you have the gall to defend kiiling people for conversion. Who gave you that right to take the life of another human being?

      December 4, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • Majid khan

      Jordon!!! Name one incident please where you were a witness not the propaganda media we see nowadays.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • Jordon

      Why is Pastor Yousef on death row?

      December 4, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • Majid khan

      @Jordan is killed yet? Is his trial held in shariah Court (Islamic court)? If his trial is based on a specific country law then you must study the law of that country. Do not generalize..... There is not country in this world as of yet that practice shariah law.. Word of wisdom.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
    • Rick

      Majd -Interesting how you defended the law in cover up your acts of violence against humanity.

      Your comments speak about you and your religion!

      December 4, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  10. bluemax77

    Who the he$l cares...!!

    December 4, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
  11. Tbm

    The Muslims put very little emphasis on education and knowledge. This is because critical thinking skills run counter to religious belief systems. Religions Don't want their followers to think, they want them to follow blindly. The less the education the more ferverent the believers are.

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

      Yup they keep their women barefoot and pregnant, so the next generation does not get education. There is not a single good university in any of the Muslim. If it was not for the oil they would be barbarians like some tribe on an isolated island

      December 4, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • Fred

      Agree, Muslims don't want their people to do any free thinking....if they only knew the actual truth about who they are worshiping they'd drop it if they had any common sense. Most are ignoran followers. What's up with praying 5 times a day? Do they have that many things that change in a few hours? This is a CULT.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      agreed, muslims don't want any of their people to be doing free thinking – otherwise they will also start having world wars

      December 4, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • BatterUp

      Genghis, your ignorance of history is very revealing. The Islamic Ottoman Empire was the main Nazi Germany main ally in WW 1!!!!! You and Moslems are made for each other, you are both ignorant.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
  12. trekfuel

    face facts, the muslims are about at the retard level of intelligence, with the rest of religious people slightly above them. the more well-rounded of us are smart enough to know that all religion is a bunch of bull-poop. the only thing we can hope for is eradication of the lower classes (meaning religious people) and then the rest of us of the higher class can live our lives without even thinking about these....how do i put this....lummoxes?

    December 4, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • Dawkins

      All muslims are fanatics;
      All lunatics are fanatics.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  13. R

    IQ definitely explains this. Muslims wouldn't be so devout if they had an education. Then again, maybe if Jesus promised 72 virgins, I'd be more religious. I'm joking, that's stupid and insulting to women, just like most of the muslim so-called faith.

    December 4, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • Jimbo54321

      And their so called "holy book" is just filled with a bunch of scribbles. No wonder they talk about so many crazy things. Once Islam is gone the world will be a better place.

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

      You should educate yourself and stop making such stupid claims.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • Genghis Khan

      i bet there are nt 72 virgins in the entire christian world!

      December 4, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
  14. EasternRomanEmpire

    Basically, Muslims are more "religious" because they are both Anti-Humanists (they are against Classical Humanism) and Arians (they believe God has no Son). Both contribute to their low false-humility opinion of their potentiality ( a Heaven of virgins and earthly delights) and renders them susceptible to Islamic legalism.

    December 4, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • BatterUp

      Sounds like Mormons. Mormons are Arians and anti-Intellectuals in the sense that they also believe that they received a Book directly from Heaven!

      December 4, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • OnwardChristianSoldiers

      @BatterUp, you mean that both Moslems and Mormons do not believe that Jesus the Uncreated Son of God. In that case you're correct.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  15. Raymond Ost

    What is the sense of this article? Why does CNN continually try to push Islam down our throats. CNN never mentions the atrocities, absolute slaughters that was committed in the name of Islam. Hundreds of thousands of Indians, Pakistanis were either put to death, or converted. Sometimes every single man and woman in a village would be murdered. The daughters would be married off as slaves. The young boys were put in dresses with makeup as 'Dancing Boys,' forced to dance before the local mullahs. Disgusting. Only when CNN gets into these facts will I read CNN. Even today, try to be a Christian or Jewish person in Iran, Turkey or Saudi Arabia. They would slit your throat. Forced conversion is still going on.

    December 4, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • Rick

      Right on!, The world has to put a STOP on these forced conversions!.
      It is the 21st century and people do not have freedom to practice their religion in these countries.

      Islamists know that it is a free world and you have NO right to take away this freedom from anyone anywhere.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  16. Jimbo54321

    They should all go back to Pakistan, the place where all Muslims come from.

    December 4, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • Majid khan

      Islam did not start in pakistan nor all muslims come from pakistan. Word of wisdom jimbo

      December 4, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  17. Jimbo54321

    Muslims are crazy fanatics that need to leave the rest of us alone.

    December 4, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Majid khan

      jimbo!!! don't bother me I wonder bother you. Word of wisdom!!!!

      December 4, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Dino

      We will Bimbo, once you leave US muslims alone. Withdraw from all of our countries and stop 'spreading' democracy.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  18. Tim

    Because Islam is based on terrorism.

    December 4, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • Sitnalta

      It's based on Christianity and Judaism. So, yup. Terrorism.

      December 4, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • Majid khan

      define the word terrorism!!!!!!!

      December 4, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  19. Tim

    Because they're all terrorists and Islam is a terrorist religion.

    December 4, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Majid khan

      Generalization based on propaganda. Christians terrorized jeruselum with there crusades muslims never called them terrorist. Word of wisdom!!!!

      December 4, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  20. Mike

    I believe they also correlated a very low IQ with the muslim countries as well.

    December 4, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Majid khan

      ummmm I wonder. can you please define IQ!!!! Word of wisdom... Lets check your IQ what is two plus two multiply by two.????

      December 4, 2011 at 5:08 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.