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. ashrakay

    All religions are based on evolutionary "kinship" concepts like "us versus them". The more isolated a people, the more likely they are to give themselves over fully to the illusion of god or other fantasies. To say someone is more religious than another is no different than saying someone is more deluded than another. Any willful disregard of reality or blatant acceptance of fantasy as truth without evidence is insanity.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
    • Me123

      Evolution is a blind faith to follow which has no evidence, So is that your faith? Athiesm or Darwinism?

      December 4, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
    • johnfrichardson

      @Me123 Evolutionary biologists have generated reams of data in support of evolution and published it in books and refereed journals. To all this, the religious fool presents some old book full of tall tales and supersti-tions. You are a joke.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
    • ashrakay

      @Me123, if you believe evolution has not evidence, you need to read more books, go to a museum, watch some educational programs or go back to school. There tons of physical evidence that shows the progression of species as they developed. Like I said, willful ignorance is insanity.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • Vince

      You know, it's a very common misconception that there isn't any evidence for evolution, but the truth is there is a lot of evidence. If you look at the DNA for different species, for example, you can see that there are common codes for life. If you pick a major one, such as the ribosomal RNA codes, you can trace its lineages throughout different species. The only problem with this is that some species, especially the single cellular organisms participate in a lot of horizontal gene transfer that may influence results. Multicellular organisms, on the other hand, are pretty easy to track with gene analyzation.

      December 4, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
    • Majid khan

      This world we live on existed before humoinds. read Quran and you will your answer about evolution. Quran details each and evry step of birth. Quran is not bible. So Please do not blame the current fight of evolution on islam. If you Read Quran You will know How every thing came into being. and what is the purpose of every being on this planet. UNLIKE THE POPULAR THEORY OF CHRISTIANITY THAT THE EARTH WAS BUILD IN SIX DAYS AND ON THE SEVENTH DAY GOD RESTED. Come on guys, if you have theld you power to change things in seconds would you rest for a millisecond.......WORD OF WISDOM

      December 4, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
  2. SheilaKA

    It doesn't matter which religion one is speaking of; just because you wear an outward sign of your faith, it doesn't mean you are "more religious". .Additonally, just because you obey all the directives and tenets of your faith, it doesn't make you a paragon of virtue in and of itself. Nobody knows the heart of the individual person except God himself.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
    • ashrakay

      Whether your fairies have 6 wings or 4, believing in fairies is still a fantasy.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  3. 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 5:54 pm |
    • FKMA

      Its Funny and stupid how a Jew talking about Islam without knowing what he is talking about. You look stupid as is, and when you talk crap about others, without knowledge, you become really stupid and ignored just the way you look.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  4. talezspin

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


    December 4, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • Jimbo54321

      Sounds more like a gangsters paradise to me.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
    • Jimbo54321


      December 4, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  5. Jimbo54321

    99.9% of all Muslims are in Afghanistan. As long as we keep them all in Afghanistan we should be fine.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
    • ashrakay

      Read a book.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • Jimbo54321

      I read plenty of books. Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Louisa May Alcott. Do you like their books?

      December 4, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  6. Limbaugh Loons Unite

    The real question is why are Muslims more fanatical. Between the Jesus cultists and the Mohammed (excuse me. the Prophet) cultists, the Mohammed nuts win the nut contest by light years.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
  7. Lester

    Interesting, but I'm not sure the article proves much. I thought "opt-in" surveys were more or less by definition unreliable. Also, it is likely that the results are misleading for an American audience because it is well known that the devotion of American Christians is different from European Christians: thus results for "average Christians" doesn't necessarily reflect American Christians–even though I bet most American readers of this article assume Muslims are being compared to Americans.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
  8. redlenses

    People who are poorly educated and have not experienced "the enlightenment" in their education, are more religious. If Muslim countries liberalize education, the religion's followers will be the same as other religious followers – believers but not extremists. There isn't anything complicated about this.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
  9. wikiIeaks

    excuse me good sir... could you please get your feet out of my face??? (from picture above)

    December 4, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • wiki


      A Muslim on Saturday night attacked a Habad Rabbi who was conducting a public Chanukah lighting ceremony in Vienna. The Muslim attacked Rabbi Dov Gruzman, who is the principal of the Habad school in the city, as he was lighting a Menorah in a central Vienna square, pummeling him with punches and blows.

      The Muslim then bit Rabbi Gruzman, detaching part of his finger. The Muslim was arrested and is being held for questioning. The Rabbi was rushed to the hospital, where doctors rushed to repair his finger, and gave him tests to see if the Muslim had infected him with diseases.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
  10. Jimbo54321

    I believe Afghanistan is the home of all Muslims, so as long as we stop the Taliban and take away all of their books I think we will be able to get rid of Islam.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
  11. Really

    While Islam ended racism in religion 1400 years ago its still an issue in the west with a church banning interracial marriage. Not a single mosque in Islamic world can ban interracial marriage or be racially biased.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • Hitler II

      Whatever. Just so long as Muslims continue to exterminate African blacks. That's the important thing.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • theinfidel2

      Not really: Islam allows to own slaves as long as they are captured in war and are not Muslims, the first countries to ban slavery were actually Christian European coutnries, yet the last country to ban slavery was Mauritania, a Muslim country, and it did it only in the 1970s (so did Saudi Arabia). Also, Islam descriminates in so many other ways: for example, a Muslim woman can marry ONLY a Muslim, a Muslim man can marry ONLY a Muslim, Jewish, Christian or Zoroastrian woman, a Muslim cannot have non-Muslim friends (and if he/she does that's despite of all Islam demands, not because), etc. etc. etc.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • usingmisinformationastruth=idiocy


      You are quite wrong about no Muslim can marry a non-Muslim – I am Christian and married a Muslim man. I still practice my faith. I am NOT Muslim. He understands my faith and I his. There are several married couples in the world who could prove you wrong on that, but I'm sure those facts fall on deaf ears. Plus, they do not have slaves...indeed they do have people that do work for them but they are servants who are normally from Indonesia or Malaysia looking for a better life (kind of like the immigrants that come to America). Funny thing is I thought a slave is someone forced into hard labor and a servant is someone paid to do work (ie. housemaid, personal chauffeur). I'm sure you may think I am a traitor to my country, a terrorist lover, a stupid fool, etc. I like to think of myself as a true American, a promoter of the "melting pot" who is open to understanding and accepting everyone in the world – not just the people the media tell me to accept.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:51 am |
  12. help us

    Why are there no women in the picture of them praying to the peach loving Muhammad?

    I'm sorry, but this is a sick religion and I am so sick of CNN promoting it.. Where are all the women libs denouncing how women are treated in this Islamic religion? Does it not bother you?

    December 4, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • Ness1

      Christianity promotes the killing of children if they disrespect their parents. – Make ready to slaughter his sons for the guilt of their fathers; Lest they rise and posses the earth, and fill the breadth of the world with tyrants. (Isaiah 14:21 NAB)

      December 4, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • help us

      Ness -- you need a lot of help

      December 4, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
    • Ness1

      You too. I'm just pointing out that every religion has it's flaws. Who are we to judge about what other religions do?

      December 4, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  13. Muneef

    Wow guys you are flying here already reached 71 page and can't catch up with you that only proves how much Islam arises you... 😉

    December 4, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
    • help us

      Most Americans know that Islam is a sick religion that breeds violence -don't believe me, just take a look at the Arab world right now. If we were not such a political correct country and our liberal media trying there best to show Islam as peaceful and loving, it would be a different story.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • Obvious

      Terrorism speaks for itself, doesn't it?

      December 4, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • Muneef

      Ignore the bustards and learn about it your self then only you will enjoy what it calls for....you should not hate some thing that you know nothing of or just taking the shell of it...

      December 4, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
  14. Gopherit

    It appears that when there is some sort of catastrophe, even one which affects primarily Muslims, countries with at least the trappings of a Christian ethos and even when running huge fiscal deficits and certainly Christian charities respond generously, while comparatively wealthy Muslim counties generally respond comparatively less.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
    • Really

      Because Islamic countries don't make public aid packages and show off like the west. In Islam every wealthy person gives 2.5% of their wealth to poor every year. When ever there is a disaster Muslims give money they just don't like to show off.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
  15. lou50

    If you keep the masses in ignorance as reflected here over the last 1700 years of little accomplishments except killing you can get support for a hate ideology as this story alludes to religion. Education mostly wiped out the KKK I would suggest it would have the same effect on this ideology.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
  16. Monson

    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.

    Only 2 out of 10???

    What in the world ever happened to Jesus?

    December 4, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
  17. Peikovianii

    Because of the deep and abiding insanity that is the culture in that part of the world, the US has to chose between nuclear-powered criminals and nuclear-powered mass murderers. The criminals kill to stay in power, the mass murderers kill because they hear voices from God. I'd vote for the criminals. At least their motives make sense.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  18. EasternRomanEmpire

    What if we made an agreement with Moslems that we would read 5 of their greatest books of Islamic Civilization if they would read 5 of the West's greatest books? Then we would have a logical and reasonable debate between their greatest Thinkers and our Thinkers. Am I dreaming in technicolor?

    December 4, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • SquareRootOfMinusOne

      What 5 books would the West offer to the Moslems? They dispute the authenticity of the Bible and we dispute the uncreatedness of the Qu'ran. Darwin's book of Evolution would put a wrench into this debate. Sorry to rain on your parade.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
    • Peikovianii

      It was the Muslim philosophers' rejection of Aristotle that began their decline into mystic violence. They were superior to the West until that moment, then Al-Ghazli's "The Incoherence of the Philosophers" argued against Greek philosophy and in favor of noncausality. According to Al-Ghazali, cotton doesn't burn because of the flame, it burns because of the will of Allah. There's really nothing left to do but drink the Kool-Aid after going as crazy as that.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  19. JudyTTexas

    Its not a committment. It's a cult based on fear and intimidation...

    December 4, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • Ness1

      Same can be said about Christianity.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
  20. Religious Freedom

    While, it could very well be that Muslims are more religious, I believe it's this religiousness that is causing a schism between Islam and the West (which is alluded to in the article) and which fosters terrorists. Other religions are more moderate and accept that others have different beliefs. Of course there are members of every religion who feel that their religion is the one true way. The problem with Islam, though, is that if you follow it strictly, there is no moderation to other beliefs. One of the quotes from a "moderate" Muslim says something along the lines of Muslims believe that Mohammad was the last prophet and nullifies all the other prophets. Essentially, what this is saying, is that Muslims don't accept any of the other religions and anyone who is not a Muslim is in the way of the cause. Additionally, their attachment to Mohammad in way more of just respecting him as the founder, is troubling. Mohammad was anything but peaceful and was essentially a terrorist and war monger. Closer attachment to Mohammad by trying to live like him will only lead to a more militant and violent Islam across the board. I predict in the future there will be a war between the West and Islam. It's a shame that that has to happen, but really Muslims have no one else to blame other than themselves by attaching themselves to a more violent and radical form of Islam. If Muslims want to prevent such a battle, they need to get rid of the militant parts of Islam, teach how Mohammad was wrong for his more violent actions, and teach religious tolerance.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:30 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.