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. Free Pastor Yousef!!!

    We don't care how deeply religious you are, free Pastor Yousef and all the others you have imprisoned for their belief!

    December 4, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • Peace

      Amen Bro!

      December 4, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
  2. UpChuck.Liberals

    One more observation. Are these so called 'experts' related to the 'experts' that foisted 'Global Warming' off on us? We all know how that turned out. Well those that don't get their 'news' from CNN, MSNBS etc do, the rest are in blissful ignorance.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:25 pm |


    December 4, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • UpChuck.Liberals

      So many TANGOS, so little time. Let's help them get their ultimate reward, it's the least we can do.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • D

      Yes, finally someone shows the truth. Thanks!!!!

      Muslims = Insanity

      December 4, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • JonC

      Love the video, and I have to wonder what was the point of this article? Sure, Christians have the westboro baptists, but muslims have millions of these idiots believing you should die for insulting their religion.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
  4. bacon

    Why are the muslims so devout? According to islamic law the penalty for apostasy / blasphemy is death. I'd say that has a little something to do with it.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  5. Peikovianii

    The world needs an alternative fuel. Then the economy of the Arab/Muslim region will change and fanatics can be on to their next age of history, cannibalism.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  6. Muneef


    Haha. Just wanted to tell you that am watching the movie named "Grumpy Old Men" 🙂
    Some how it reminded me of you....

    December 4, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  7. JonC

    The crime of apostasy in Islam is punishable by death. Now what was the point of this article?

    December 4, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  8. oneone

    My god and religion are real and true!!!
    NO ! MY god and religion are real and true!!!
    NO ! MY god and religion are real and true!!!
    NO ! MY god and religion are real and true!!!
    NO ! MY god and religion are real and true!!!
    NO ! MY god and religion are real and true!!!
    Repeat forever.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
  9. Bryce

    Why would a caring, compassionate religion ask people to pray 5 times per day, everyday? Don't these people have other things to do in their lives? Guess not.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • oneone

      They are not "asked" to pray 5 times a day. It is demanded. It’s all about obedience. And if you don't submit, your loving god sends you to hell to burn forever. Jesus has the same rules. He is said to be loving and forgiving. Except if you don’t believe in him, he seeks vengeance and punishes you with flaming fire. 2 Thessalonians, 8-9.

      It’s obvious these primitive and vengeful gods sprang from the minds of primitive and vengeful people.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • M Ahmed

      You guys didn't gave your slave food without let him work entire day. Don't expect heaven is free for you and you will never die

      December 4, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  10. Peikovianii

    The Saudis are a good example. One hundred years ago they were desert bandits. They fought and killed rival gangs, took over Arabia, and were recognized as kings because they helped the Brits fight the Turks. If not for outsiders who located, extracted, and developed what the Saudis didn't want or need - oil - the Saudis and their violent mystic culture would be unheard of in the West. Today having "nationalized" the oil they are part of an OPEC cartel that funds lunatics in a world war.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  11. Daniel Allen

    Because members of some religions will kill you if you try to leave their religion.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:18 pm |

    I don't understand how Muslims worship a pedofile.... he got married 15 times

    December 4, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  13. bug expert

    brain washing over millenia accounts for it, as does the same for any other relegion,
    control of people fears, someone figured that out soon after the passage from Africa to
    the north, from then on those who feared death bought into any salvation possible!
    hahaha, there are no 40 vergins and splashing fountains at the other end
    only "nothing" ... you are dead and dead is nothing, molecules, atoms, recycled

    December 4, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  14. modern man

    I have an alternate theory...they are more religious because they are backwards red necks.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  15. labandme

    I hear CNN is moving their offices into a mosque.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  16. Kevin

    There is no such thing as my way or my religion is the only way to salvation. It is such a joke, At the end of the day,none of us know what happens. Anyone who claims otherwise or abuses religion to perputuate this myth is a fanatic. Most of these fanatics are Muslims but some are Christian, Jewish, it really does not matter. Organized religion is the cause of 99% of the world`s violence. Muslims are a perfect example of this. People who have brains of their own and can think for themselves can still believe in a "God" or live a righteous life but why does it have to matter which God you choose to believe in?..The answer is..It does not matter unless you a F***** lunatic.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • M Ahmed

      its a one religion line from Adam to Noah to Ibrahim to Moses to Jesus to Muhammed. Only one religion true one

      December 4, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • ambi

      well said Kevin I agree, I will never ever be a part of ANY organized religion it's a way to control people for whatever various reasons the leaders have

      December 4, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • M Ahmed

      still you go restroom to get out your guts from the body and how powerless you are can't control any.............

      December 4, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  17. UpChuck.Liberals

    So " "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." Let's see, MooHamMad was a Rapist, a Murderer, Pedophile and a world class lier. What isn't to like? Besides if you say anything against Islam you're murdered, tortured or mutilated. Yep that tends to inspire true love. Jesus the Christ only asked that you believe in Him for entrance to Heaven. Islam promises men 72 virgins or sheep or something like that. Personally, the reason they present their rears is to get ready for their 72 Virgin Demons that the Devil has waiting for them.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • John

      You're extremely ignorant, it is embarrassing.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • Tbm

      Your Christianity is just as guilty, deadly, insane as Islam.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • Fabyso

      @UpChuck.Leberals, his name was Mohamad (peace be upon him). He was not a pedophile and he was not a rapiset. Everyone women he married loved him, according to every record issues through out the history. He was not a lier- even the "kufar" who tried to oppress him and his people and torture him (your friends per say), considered Mohammed to be one of the most honest people in the area even before he became a prophet. People would leave their money with him even if they were not muslims because he was the 'trusted one'.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  18. fastball

    Firstly, the radical element is more attractive to people who have not much education. In ANY religion, the less knowledge people possess, the fewer experiences they have, the fewer questions they'll ask. A great majority of these suicide bombers are basically hill people who have never been outside their village, let along out of their country. They know NOTHING about the world, which is great for indoctrination. They know only what they've been told by their elders. And face it, Islam is a great religion....if you're a man. Women are second-rate citizens. They live by male askance. And since Islam is literally the word of Allah...there is no "interpretation" allowed. No deviance from the "one true way". No exceptions. Very black and white...which suits certain people very well. Don't have to think.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • M Ahmed

      Bible also certify that man is created over woman. Islam believe that there is no doubt about it. Eve was created for Adam. Looks like you starting to disbeliebe your own book. We respect Jesus (PBUH) more than you do. There are many examples of that.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  19. M Ahmed

    Jesus claim Muhammed (PBUH) will be last prophet, Read Gospel of Barnabas, it is your book and Barnabas was desciple of Jesus (PBUH) and He acknowledged that Jesus (PBUH) told about Muhammed (PBUH).

    Well, Don't belive Barnabas. Why Islam is the fastest growing religion in the west and entire world. I asked a remote farmer son caucatian and he told me nobody invite me I searched myself and became Muslim. So look at your brothers and sisters. We don't convert anybody by force. But how many human spirit you will ignore? Nobody can control your thinking and it is proven free thinking people are the most converted religious one.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • UpChuck.Liberals

      I don't suppose you'd care to quote the exact verse in the Bible where Jesus said anything about your false prophet. We'll wait patiently as you ignore any real facts regarding your false religion.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • John

      Why are muslims always so misinformed?

      December 4, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • M Ahmed

      read Gospel Of Barnabas. Don't deny Barnabas is not a desciple

      December 4, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • JonC

      It seems that you and maybe many muslims suffer from compulsive disorders. You can't say jesus without adding your silly poobah in parenthesis. Do you also have to stick your right leg in and then out before you turn yourself around? Islam is goofy and a lie. Just like Judaism and Christianity. You morons will be the death of us all.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • M Ahmed

      Please read this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Barnabas

      Barnabas also said Jesus was weeping that his followers will make him son of God

      It is minutes away from you, search google wiki

      December 4, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • JonC

      Yes, we are just minutes away from seeing the truth of your grand poobah! Now go wash your hands 4 times and then open and close the fridge 3 times before removing exactly one coca~cola.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
  20. read

    Cnn continually posts articles about muslims, and creates this vision of them as the "other" to further aggravate their marginalization within society...muslims are more religious because they practice what they preach. the book is centered around everyday practices..connections to modern science engraved in a book written centuries ago only solidifies the element of truth within the book..the bible underwent numerous changes why doesnt cnn chronicle these changes for its viewers? instead of focusing on radical islamists..all a bunch of hogwash but ignorant ppl on this site are oblivious to the world around them!!

    December 4, 2011 at 5:11 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.