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.

The case against TLC’s “All-American Muslim”

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.

The case for TLC’s “All-American Muslim”

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. Dave Stein

    Not sure if they are the most religious or not but they are surely the most tied to and with terrorists!

    December 4, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • Peace

      They are 'Fanatics'

      December 4, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
  2. Bryce

    More people have died in the name of religion than any other cause. When we advance past the need for religion, we will have a better chance at peace.

    December 4, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • nottrue

      That is the most naive and most narrow conclusion you can draw. Actually, its disease, cancer, etc that is responsible for the death of people than any other cause.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • ashrakay

      He's referring to non-natural deaths as in human on human violence obviously.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
  3. Hitler II

    The struggle is still young, but Jewish cultural hegemony in the West is fading.

    December 4, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
  4. hawaiiduude


    December 4, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
  5. Al

    Muslims are showy when they practice their religion. You don’t see Christians praying on a street corner. I think this survey is mixing up showy or flashy with being religious

    December 4, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • Majid khan

      why because christians are controlled by church. Muslims do not require a mosque to pray. Word of wisdom

      December 4, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
    • Really

      Christians don't pray five times a day. They just attend Sunday church and party all weekend . Then they confess to a priest who could be a child molester and bam they are sin free.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
    • Peace

      Oh please tell me what is so flashy about that pic???

      December 4, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • Majid khan

      @Really. Thanks for reminding me of priests as child molestors. Should christianity be declared as religion of child molestor? As a muslim I answer myself and say no. Why Because I know better...

      December 4, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
  6. Muneef

    Talk about that love to hate.... 😉

    December 4, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
  7. Jimbo54321

    I read somewhere that at least 85% of all Muslims have had contact with a Soviet agent at least once.

    December 4, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • Really

      I never had contact with a soviet agent nor do I know any other Muslims I know having a contact with a soviet agent but I would like to make contact with that Russian agent caught in US Anna Chapman.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
    • Majid khan

      Jimbo!! So now its about Soviet Union. Come on Buddy. anything you read is information. Anything that can change the way you live is knowledge. word of wisdom

      December 4, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • gps137

      Fox News: if it ain't fake, it ain't Fox.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
    • Majid khan

      Totally concur with gps

      December 4, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
  8. Jack

    Your religion is between you and God. No one else. As long as you have faith you are as religious as the person that goes to church everyday.

    December 4, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  9. Truth

    Simply because they are violently insane.

    December 4, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
    • Majid khan

      England is Christian country they attacked and conquered every conner of the world are they declared terrorists. Americans invaded veitnam for no good reason are christians to be blamed. IRAQ did not had WMD'S but muslims died for false Information America is christian country shouldn't christainity be declared as the religion of lunatics who falsify information to there own needs. Word of wisdom

      December 4, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
  10. Hitler II

    This back-and-forth is getting us nowhere. The issue is the Jewish question. The issue has ALWAYS been the Jewish question! No Jews = world peace.

    December 4, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
    • Really

      Not really Jews are the final peace of the puzzle for Muslims the formation of this Jewish state was another Islamic prediction come true. If you know about the signs of the day of Judgement being near Jews inhabiting Jerusalem is one of the signs and the other is the return of Jesus (PBUH) and the killing of Jews after he arrives.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
  11. blah

    Religions just bring hate among people. If you want to know the truth about Islam just read the actual Quran in English. Don't just believe what the media says. No religion is perfect.

    December 4, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • Peace

      You have never read the Quran in English that's why you are saying religion bring hatred among the humans.

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

      I didn't make an english Quran

      December 4, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  12. Michael

    The answer is very simple any christian shouls be able to answer this question without a doubt, they probably don't because of the ridicule they would recieve from the rest of the people on this board.

    December 4, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • Really

      Yeah like people are throwing rose petals at Muslims commenting here.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • Majid khan

      Read the threads Buddy. The majority are in your favour but the ones we are replying to your brethren have no answer for them. word of wisdom

      December 4, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
  13. isee

    Maybe it's simply a matter of education. More educated, less dedicated to religion, or at least more willing to question as to blindly accept. At a minimum there is at least a strong correlation.

    December 4, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • Peace

      There are many scholars who educated as well as religious! You dumb A***!

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

      Stephen Hawkins knows I exist, why don't you?

      December 4, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
  14. Mycology

    Everywhere islam is present, there is violence, death worship, discrimination / assault / vandalism / terror / threats used against the non-muslims to try and intimidate them into joining the islamic cult.

    It happened large scale in Lebanon, what was once a christian country, it is happening now in Sudan, it happened already in pakistan, iraq, it happened in dearborn michigan,

    and one day, it might come to your neighborhood too. But people won't come to help, because they will choose to believe that all religions serve the same purpose, the same god, and that islam is the "religion of peace"...

    find me one example of islam being the "religion of peace"... somebody... please.

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

      You sound like all your problems are attached to Islam. Hitler wasn't Muslim and the banking system that has sucked US economy dry isn't Islamic too.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • Peace

      Oh yeah! Which country is wagging wars on the name of freedom and democracy, killed millions of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan? Which country aiding Israel to kill innocent Palestinians? Which country is sanctioning Iran because of which Iranian civilians are dying each day? Which country is supporting dictatorship in Saudi Arabia to get better OIL DEALS? ANSWER IS ONE AND ONLY UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!

      December 4, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
  15. Chris Honry

    Does more religious mean closer to God?

    December 4, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • Really

      No people who love sin are closer to God.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
  16. Really

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1PxJomypQE Take a look at history

    December 4, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  17. Muslims Are Intolerant And Violent

    Without the West, this world would look like some medieval nightmare. Muslims are the destroyers of progress.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • Peace

      Oh really! Which country is wagging wars on the name of freedom and democracy, killed millions of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan? Which country aiding Israel to kill innocent Palestinians? Which country is sanctioning Iran because of which Iranian civilians are dying each day? Which country is supporting dictatorship in Saudi Arabia to get better OIL DEALS? ANSWER IS ONE AND ONLY UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!

      December 4, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
  18. Really

    Go read some unbiased History books and then talk about Islam. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1PxJomypQE

    December 4, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • Really


      December 4, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • talezspin

      Unbiased or whitewashed history books?

      Search 'The Religion of Peace Jesus Muhammad'

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

      @talezspin The video I am referring was not made by Muslims. It is educated people laying out history as it is.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
    • talezspin

      If the video is not made by Muslims that makes it authentic? First, there are no other sources of early Islam except that which is written by Muslims. Hadiths and Sirat are collected by Muslims and that too after 150 to 300 years after Muhammad with ample time for whitewashing history. Any Hadith that were by non-Muslims are considered not authentic. Even if one goes by the authentic Hadiths there are so many terrible things about Islam! PBS is run by stupid liberals who have no clue about Islam and willingly suppress any negative Hadiths about Islam. Go read the Hadiths and Sirat yourself and then comment!

      December 4, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • Majid khan

      @talezpin here is the difference between Islam and other religions. Islam seperate haddiths. Haddiths are sayings of the holy Prophet (PBUH). There are several writters of haddiths name one and I will tell you who he was because the best and credible hadiths written by the person on date was not a born muslim......Word of wisdom.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  19. Hitler II

    The Jew feels his power slipping away. Just look at the world. Consider the influence the Jew has in wars and rumors of war. No Jews = world peace.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
    • BL

      No YOU makes it even more peaceful.

      December 4, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • hawk

      The Jews didn't start WWll, Hitler did, so how can you blame that war on them?

      And Muslims kill hundreds of thousands more Muslims, than anyone else.

      You can't be a true Christian and hate Jews,
      Jesus Christ was Jew, his Mother was a Jew, Most of his followers were Jews.

      We both follow the old testament.

      Hitler killed millions of good people, there is no way to spin that to be good.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
    • Hitler II

      Who said I was a "true Christian"? Aryans must free themselves from Jew religion and ideology.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • Majid khan

      @hittler. I am true Aryan. even though I do not belong to the nation of iran named after Aryan nation. ISLAM is not territorial or sect bound it is for all human kind where all territorial and sectarial or tribal boundries are limitless. word of wisdom

      December 4, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
  20. BL

    Not more religious, more deluded.

    December 4, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 100 101 102 103 104 105 106 107 108 109
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.