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. hawaiiduude


    December 4, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  2. hawaiiduude


    December 4, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  3. hawaiiduude


    December 4, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
  4. annika

    The article states, "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." These may not be the most appropriate questions for understanding the commitment and conviction of religious groups.

    Belief that one's own interpretation of the Quran, and belief that it is the only true holy book, thereby discounting any possible truth or legitimacy of any other holy book, does not mean that a person it more committed to his/her faith. Christians, especially Mormons, are often taught that there is some truth in many holy teachings, that there may be additional information out there that we Christians haven't considered/discovered, and that it is disrespectful, even immoral, to completely disregard all other teachings about God. Many Christians believe that the modern church may or may not be the only path to paradise with God (or Allah). The 'my way or the highway' belief is not necessarily a more faithful approach; it may just be more arrogant.

    Likewise, the Muslim religion tends to be more ritualistic, requiring followers to adhere to strict guidelines for praying several times per day, etc. Christian teachings do not require such regimented practice; Christianity provides more freedom in manner of worship. Again, this does not necessarily mean that Christians are less dedicated or have less conviction; it means that the requirements of followers are different. As such, Christians would be less likely to say that their faith is an important part of their daily lives.

    December 4, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
    • Ness1

      What about the learning of "evolution"? And how religious people are forcing "intellegent design" in school curriculum?

      December 4, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
  5. Al

    1. If I was rich, I would send a correctly translated Quran, the Hadiths and the sharia law for every American to read. They will all see for themselves how twisted it is. Anyone in the media that tells you that Islam is a peaceful religion is either lying or just repeating what they heard without any knowledge of what they’re talking about…

    December 4, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • Ahmed

      Your terrible grammar and punctuation already show how ignorant you are with all things linguistic (spoken or otherwise).

      December 4, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
  6. Peace

    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 6:29 pm |
    • talezspin

      Aha.. so Iran, Iraq, Afganistan and Palestine are beautiful countries which have done nothing wrong? Why don't you just migrate to one of these countries then?

      December 4, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
    • wiki


      One Thousand Christian Men, Women & Children Tortured by Police in a Period of 30 Days
      Egypt jails two Christian Human-Rights activists for "defaming Islam"
      3 Christian churches in Egypt attacked on Easter Sunday
      Christian Girls Kidnapped In Egypt And Forced To Convert To Islam
      Christian Girl Escapes Muslim Kidnappers
      Persecuting Egypt's Christians
      Four Christians arrested in Egypt
      Egyptian government openly discriminates the Christians of Egypt
      Confessions of a Former Islamist who used to lure Christian girls into Islam through deceptive methods
      Faith Under Fire in Egypt
      Coptic Christian Killed in Knife Raids on Egypt Churches
      22 Christians Arrested in Egyptian Crackdown on Converts
      Extremists attack Coptic Christians
      Two Copts die from injuries from attacks in Udaysat
      Protestant Pastor Killed in Egypt after Threats
      Christian Woman Tortured for Helping Converts Change their ID Cards
      Egypt Christians Persecution Profile
      Christian cobbler knifed for Offhand Comment
      More Egyptian girls forced to convert to Islam
      Christian convert from Islam jailed
      Convert Arrested for Marrying Christian
      Egyptian Christians Sent to Prison after Brutal Police Raid
      Rumor Leads To Attack On Christians
      Copt Leaving Sanctuary Knifed In Minya; Bomb Explodes Near Venerable Structure In Cairo
      Egypt's Christians Protest Forced Conversion of Children
      Muslim Attacks Church and Se xually Molests a Coptic Girl
      Thousands of Muslims Attack Coptic Church, Barricading 800 Christians Inside
      More Attacks by Muslims, Police Randomly Arrest Copts as Ploy to Portray Symmetry in ‘Sectarian Clash.’
      Another Attempt by Egyptian Authorities to Remove Coptic Culture & History
      Muslim Mob Attacks Church and Loots Christian Homes in Egypt
      Nearly 1,000 Coptic Christians in Hiding From Stone-Throwing Muslims
      Two Unarmed African "Migrants" Shot to Death at Egyptian Border. At Least 28 migrants Shot Dead Last Year
      Sharia Law Used to deny Rights of Christians by Prohibiting Them From Bringing Evidence Against Arson, Looting, Assault, Kidnap,

      December 4, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
    • twiddly

      Much of what you state is true enough; however, none of that validates or "makes right" the idiocy of Islam and the backwards medieval governments in muslim-dominated countries.

      Islam is a ridiculous and dangerous farce that is perpetuated through childhood brainwashing and cultural peer pressure.
      The same can be said for other religions as well, but in present day no one can compete with muslims for their misogyny and intolerance and cruelty.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
    • Ness1

      Talespin- They're not "beautiful" countries as you sarcastically pointed out, but they didn't ask to be invaded either.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
    • jebb

      the sooner we western democracies remove and eradicate all arabs-the better off we all will be!
      if you love islam and the koran so much-why leave your country!?
      nuke all ME countries!
      start up the gas chambers and kill all ra ghe ads!!!

      December 4, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  7. Reality

    How much money would the following save the US taxpayers ?:

    Saving 1.5 billion lost Muslims:
    There never were and never will be any angels i.e. no Gabriel, no Islam and therefore no more koranic-driven acts of horror and terror

    One trillion dollars over the next several years as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will end.

    Eighteen billion dollars/yr to Pakistan will stop.

    Four billion dollars/yr to Egypt will end.

    Saving 2 billion lost Christians including the Mormons:
    There were never any bodily resurrections and there will never be any bodily resurrections i.e. No Easter, no Christianity!!!i.e. No Easter, no Christianity.

    The Mormon empire will now become taxable as will all Christian "religions" and non-profits since there is no longer any claim to being a tax-exempt religion.

    Saving 15.5 million Orthodox followers of Judaism:
    Abraham and Moses probably never existed.

    Four billion dollars/yr to Israel saved.

    All Jewish sects and non-profits will no longer be tax exempt.

    Now all we need to do is convince these 3.5+ billion global and local citizens that they have been conned all these centuries Time for a Twitter and FaceBook campaign!!!!

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

      Vietnam was not Islam republic face it US loves war.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  8. larsfox

    There's a simple reason Islam is strongly adhered to. If one tries to leave it, one will lose one's head, or be stoned to death. Honor killings are rampant. They even happen here on occasion, in the good ol' USA. If a Muslim converts to Christianity, at the very least he/she will be booted out of the family and community, and if in a Muslim nation, will probably lose their life. If a "Christian" person converts to Islam, true Christians will mourn, but there should be no physical action taken, and certainly no action required from Biblical scripture.

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

      not really no one is enforcing it in the west so why are Muslims even religious there.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
  9. Hitler II

    The world is about to experience an Aryan renaissance. Muslim Aryans will crush the Jew parasite. Western Aryans must unite with their Middle Eastern brothers. The greedy squat Jew shall defile us no longer!

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

      Muslims are not a race.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
    • Hitler II

      I didn't say Muslims were a race, I said "Muslim Aryans," i.e., those Muslims that are Aryans.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
    • Really

      @Hitler II There is no such thing

      December 4, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
  10. Mike Smith


    December 4, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
  11. Plug1

    Americans,are ignorant, about religion. Look at all the comments, trying to defend themselves. They follow their own desires,and follow very little from their religion. Their not following their religion, but following a customs.

    December 4, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
  12. talezspin

    LEARN THE TRUE ISLAM – search online for 'The Religion of Peace Jesus Muhammad'

    December 4, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
  13. Bill


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

    If you're a Muslim reading these comments, please know how much we hate you. Your tolerance and sometimes outright support of those Muslims who kill our family members in the name of your religion is the source of our disgust for you.

    December 4, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  15. Mike Smith


    December 4, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
    • Hitler II

      Typical Jew propaganda.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
  16. ID

    A significant number of Muslims support and act on their desires to murder for Allah.

    December 4, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
  17. Mike Smith


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

    As I said before, 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 6:19 pm |
    • Ness1

      You do see Later Day Saints people at bus stops passing out pamphlets or even going up to your house and ringing the doorbell to ask if you want to join their religion. They are more intrusive than people just praying on their own.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
    • ashrakay

      Obviously we prefer non-violent insanity to violent insanity

      December 4, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
  19. Tippens

    The Koran like other religions in history has been the opium of the people in times when societies needed structure and standards of behavior. Islam has existed for thousands of years because of it's "Gestapo Clause" heresy and blasphemy. Anyone and his family that questions or contradicts The Koran or interpretations of the Koran is just outright killed. Here in America we see the benevolent part of the Koran and silently one day the faithful would be obliged to honor the call to Jihad or be a hieratic and face death by another faithful. This religion become a horrific group of murderers that dare not question the call of Jihad and World dominance call Caliphate or Uhma. Sharia law is so designed that terrorists need only to suggest that one is unfaithful to the Koran. The "Gestapo" switch lies dormant until one person or a group begins it's terror on the unfaithful which are worse than infidels. Ask anyone of Islam if it wise to dissent and they will not discuss it, unless it was a lie designed to miss-lead another society it wished to conquer.

    December 4, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
    • Peace

      Quite enlightening!

      December 4, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
    • max

      When people have a terrible life they point their eyes towards hope of a better eternity. in the western world life isnt so bad therefore most people are less religious in comparison.

      December 4, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
  20. 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 6:19 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.