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. Ian

    This is indeed true as Islam simplifies your life. You are not left to twist or manipulate anything as many Christians do. Muslims do not talk about "being a good Muslim" as do Christians. Islam is a faith of dignity. I am convinced that my Catholic parents would not have divorced had they accepted Islam. They would have seen that their differences (that were totally reconcilable) were blips of nonsense in the larger picture of their lives. I was raised Catholic and had questions. No one had the answers: parents, priest, Monsignor. There is more to this life than income (homes, cars, cash flow, electronics, yadayadayada) This is where I found myself as a sucessfull, driven young man. You get lost in it all. I married a beautiful Pakistani woman that was raised in the US. She is the light of my life and my rock. At first I couldn't put down the beer and the shots. How could I live without this as this my social scene? She asked me what good ever came from it. Jokingly, I told her that it allowed me to hook up with a lot of girls. Other than that, jabbering nonsense with friends, fights, drunk driving, hangovers, weight gain, and overall bad judgement. It's a joke. I love Coors Light/Bud Light/ML commercials showing everyone having a blast. Never do they show a DUI, a car wrapped around a pole, puking, alcoholic men and womens that have lost their life, family, etc. -they show only the "glamour". Bacon, pork, etc? Whatever. I can live w/o bacon...do miss it though. I'll stop now. Just know this friends, if you are lost, which most of us are, if you embrace Islam with an open mind and an open heart -you'll TRULY be happy. I know some pretty happy Jews, Christians, Hindus, Atheists, etc....however their inept without Islam. It completes you. You question nor debate nothing. Why? ....because it's perfect. Don't let 9/11 and these terrorist nutjobs scare you...if you're ignorant they win, if you learn, read, embrace – you win. Happy Holidays! btw, my Christmas tree is up, lights on house/bushes, and the spirit of Christmas is alive in me -IT ALWAYS WILL BE.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:04 am |
    • Googles121

      Good One.. I think u are right.. Anyways, merry Christmas

      December 4, 2011 at 12:28 am |
  2. privateryan

    "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."

    That false statement, it is not distorted by others, it is already corrupted trash, full of hate, violence, women and child abuse. if you need to know about Islam don't ask Muslims, either read Quran and hadith ( oral tradition) in Arabic, not a translation or ask the people who live with Muslims in a Muslim majority countries. BTW, many Muslims when trying to defend Islam, they start criticizing other religions specially Christianity. So let me tell you this I am not religions and I don't care about other religions. It is just that your Islamic ideology is full of crap if you are aware of it.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:03 am |
  3. ryan

    I wouldn't be surprised if Muslims were on average heavier in poverty as well than their Christian counterparts. The poor are on average more religious than the rich. Nothing new there...

    December 4, 2011 at 12:03 am |
  4. Gary

    Moslems stick with their religion because there's a death penalty if they leave it.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:03 am |
  5. Bullet

    I guess if strapping a box of TNT on your back and walking into a crowded place and setting it off is a religious act, I guess you have a point.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:03 am |
    • youaredumb

      Suicide is a sin in Islam which is clearly stated in the Quran.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:12 am |
  6. The internet

    Here is some help so that you can spot a heathen:

    December 4, 2011 at 12:02 am |
  7. Chiniquy

    These so called experts don't know anything about Islam or about the majority of Muslims.

    One of them said this, "Our prophet aimed to nullify the message of the previous prophets."

    If that is so, then why is the Prophet Muhamed's name only mentioned 4 times in the Qur'an.?

    Whereas these names are mentioned numerous times:

    Adam – 25 times

    Prophet Noah – 47 times

    Prophet Abraham – 69 times

    Prophet Lot – 28 times

    Prophet David – 16 times

    Prophet Solomon – 19 times

    Prophet Moses – 167 times

    Prophet Aaron – 24 times

    Mary the mother of Jesus – 32 times

    Jesus the son of Mary – 28 times

    December 4, 2011 at 12:01 am |
    • RangerDOS

      So are you Islamic or a Numerologist?

      December 4, 2011 at 12:07 am |
  8. NanookoftheNorth

    Maybe the better question is, why are they so violent !

    December 4, 2011 at 12:00 am |
  9. Colin

    As an atheist, watching Islam and Christianity argue is like an educated astronomer watching two simmple astrologers debate whether Virgo or Gemini will find love that month. It is reason against two silly, bickering superst.itions.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:00 am |
    • RangerDOS

      P1ss off Colin, Atheism is just another religion, get of your high and mighty soap box.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:05 am |
  10. ALI

    only if we knew what God knows

    December 4, 2011 at 12:00 am |
  11. naweed

    As an Afghan-American raised in the west, I am in debt to the west for the basic necessities needed to live. However, I must say that as a human being I'm in greater debt to Islam, the Prophets especially the Prophet Muhammad peace and blessings upon him for teaching us how to be human. I have studied at the University level, worked at a professional level, paid taxes, have and had secularist classmates, and colloquies and the one thing that I can attest to is that they are slaves to their own personal wants and desires. A slave to a system that is temporary and rewards on material wealth rather than character and merit. To call Muslims barbaric and Islam backwards is an oxymoron. Islam is rather liberating and modern. It is full filling and a challenge to injustice. Look up the history of Islam through unbias eyes and you will see what I'm talking about.

    December 3, 2011 at 11:59 pm |
    • ALI

      well said baba

      December 4, 2011 at 12:01 am |
    • Realist

      Great, feel free to go home to that cesspit of a country that is so morally superior to ours.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:02 am |
    • RangerDOS

      Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And you came over from Africa to save all us westerners right?

      December 4, 2011 at 12:03 am |
    • naweed

      What you have to understand Realist, is that I am in my country so are many other Muslims. America is our country, we are a vital part of the American diversity. The sad part is that after September 11, we are no longer as accepted as we were in the past. Our religion as been hijacked and painted with the face of Osama bin Laden. Whereas historically we had a different face in America, a face of greatness ie Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Hakeem Olajuwon,Cat Stevens etc. Why are we targeted all of the sudden?

      December 4, 2011 at 12:08 am |
    • EZ Rider

      naweed, you could be right. Over the span of your lifetime. Your lifestyle could have been moving towards a more liberated style that enjoys more liberties than it used to. Whereas folks in the West (majority being non-moslem) seem to be going in the opposite direction with liberties being chipped away thanks to the actions of a few members of your religion. See where I am going with this? The question remains....Even though the "peaceful" moslems don't actually commit the violence hands on....why do they not cooperate with western agencies trying to head off said violence

      December 4, 2011 at 12:20 am |
  12. RAMBLE3144

    The virgins.

    December 3, 2011 at 11:58 pm |
  13. RangerDOS

    Dumber than a rock article... It's only written to jerk everybody else's chain. Just another religion.

    December 3, 2011 at 11:58 pm |
  14. HotAirAce

    Nothing better than an intra-believer scrap!! Perhaps when they are done scrapping they will realize they all wrong...

    December 3, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
  15. dinak

    Also, when will the media and Hollywood start mocking Islam the way they do Christianity? If one is inane, stupid, and hypocritical, isn't the other as well?

    December 3, 2011 at 11:56 pm |
    • Colin

      yes, yes the yare just as stupid.

      December 3, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
  16. Marc Daniels

    Through their prayer and faith, MOST Moslems understand the necessity for weeding out hatred in the hearts in order to experience the broadband sensations of the spiritual reality in their hearts and souls. I discussed this sensation in my German language book "Der Himmelsgarten"... For those of you familiar with the Williams Christ Pear Brandy with the pear brandy, you might have asked yourselves how they place the physical pear in the bottle. The bottles are placed over pear tree blossoms on the trees so that the pears actually grow inside of them. Majority of population believe that their souls are totally detached from spiritual roots that very much are implanted within them. The egoistic spirits surrounding the soul, work to detach all the more. Spiritually inclined individuals feel these connections. For them there is no rock hard barrier–only a permeable membrane through which these sensations can be felt. The more one harmonizes with God and Nature, the deeper the dimension of fulfillment. As a symbol gardening is the foundation of all three Western religion and gardening as a family and even collective gardening can help sensatize people to desire to emphesize their chosen religion in their hearts. Hopefully this description can help individuals understand with their minds, that with which cannot yet be felt with their hearts and souls. After all of this research, I conceived the weed out hate initiative: "I have a dream that the President of the United States will assemmble children from all over the world on the White House grounds to symbolically weed out hatred for themselves, their countries, and the planet. From this venue, the President would call upon every child in the world to participate in the fullfillment of Martin Luther King, Jr.s Promised Land vision. Just think of it...Moslems, Christians, Jews, and others risinig above their instincts in order to feel the common brotherhood and sisterhood in their bonds for a short time. Let's weed out hate and sow the seeds of peace, love, and respect in each other.

    December 3, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
    • dinak

      Your post makes me sad, because the one thing that you and other liberals do is assume that your logical mind and kind heart is something that you have in common with people the world over and for some reason, they just haven't had peace and love explained to them properly (by our President, no less). The problem is that there are many evil and powerful people who don't find it lucrative to have peaceful relations. Sociopaths rise in power and seek to intimidate and control the masses. Until we can cure insanity and evil ( a form of insanity, I believe) then there will not be peace. No president can fix that.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:00 am |
    • Chiniquy

      Excellent comment Marc Daniels.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:06 am |
  17. dinak

    The main point that is left out is that THEY HAVE NO CHOICE but to be very religious, or they'll be thrown in jail by their oppressive regimes.

    December 3, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
    • hitawi

      Not exactly true. belief is within the soul. it is not forced. If you notice most people that move to the west still hold on to their belief even more. It is a way of living. It is very easy to follow, not the way that most people assume it is. There is one book for all sectors to follow. And 5 main things that every muslim should be doing in their life time: Belief in God and his Prophet, Pray, Fast, Donate and Do the Pilgrim to the designated area in Saudi Arabia. It is that simple, but takes much power and will to do all of that.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:15 am |
  18. RadarST

    They seem to be more religious because they are doing their best to earn those 42 virgins after their deaths,

    December 3, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
  19. GodisaPlacebo

    So, basically, Islam has the most effective brainwashing routines

    December 3, 2011 at 11:54 pm |
  20. SoStupid

    Because if you DONT you are ostracized, shunned, and shamed if not outright killed eventually.


    December 3, 2011 at 11:54 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.