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. b4bigbang

    This article makes some valid points, but misses a couple of vital ones, e.g., their use of the words "religion" and "religious". My point is that classical, "Primitive" (New Testament only, no added traditions) Christianity is not a religion but a relationship with God. Just read the New Testament and my point will become clear. For example, Judaism requires adherance to the Mosaic Law and Islam has its own formal set of religious obligations and these are totally absent in new testament Christianity.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
  2. Dave In Texas

    The media hates Christians so much that you will never hear an honest story on Christianity. The main stream media, including CNN, are leading the way to kill all Christianity, but the result will be opposite from what they believe America will be as a secular nation. Keep it up media...Christians are all that is between you getting your heads lopped by achieving your wishes.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
    • vintage274

      Paranoid much? Coverage and analysis of religious behavior (as witnessed in the article to which we are responding) is not hatred; it's reasoned thinking.

      December 4, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
    • ashrakay

      From Texas? Shocking!

      December 4, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
    • johnfrichardson

      Another childish Christian with a WAY overblown persecution complex. How pathetic.

      December 4, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
  3. rdude

    Long live the sun god!

    December 4, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
  4. Jimbo54321

    I heard on tv that lots of people are angry in arabia.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
  5. Keylolo

    Why does CNN continue to do articles that do nothing but point out the differences among ourselves instead of doing articles pointing out the similarities. These articles do nothing but promote division among people and give fuel to those who already have chips on their shoulders to begin with. Most of these comments are nothing but hateful vile words, and CNN already knew that would be the response when they chose the topic. You arent fooling anyone.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
    • Kambing

      assalaamu `alaykum, There is a hadith that stetas, la hayaa fi-deen or There is no shyness when it comes to inquiring about one's way of life (deen) . The word deen (badly translated as religion ), when you look it up in an extensive Arabic dictionary, has hundreds of meanings and religious faith/practice is one meaning among many others that include the social, cultural, political, etc. realities of one's life. As we all know, the Quran is a text that fundamentally deals with the basic premise of the ebb and flow of life (this doesn't mean every detail, for if the Quran dealt with every detail, it would have been obsolete outside of its 7th century, Arab context very quickly). Figuring out the details of life is the obligation of Muslims in each society and culture and at each epoch. In fact, the word, fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) literally means understanding as in putting forth the effort to come to some understanding, which according to the verbal structure of the word (faqiha), also indicates an ongoing action and not something static or complete. And it also implies one singular fiqh (understanding) among others. So, different understandings of Islamic practice is key, as in the saying al-ikhtilaaf fi ummati rahma (differences of opinion in my umma is a divine mercy). When you read how the Muslims developed different kinds of legal decisions and theological determinations for a huge range of conditions throughout the ages, it becomes clear that there is certainly a fard kifaaya (social or communal obligation and not just the fard `ain or personal obligation related to the five pillars). This requires each Muslim community to understand their environment and devise the best Islamic and social practices in response to that environment. This is the reason there is a different hukm (religious judgment or decision) in the form of hukm juzi' (or partial judgment) that will differ from one Muslim community to another during the same period. Even when we study the social context of the four Sunni schools (not to exclude Ja`fari) of jurisprudence [usul al-figh], we see how their social conditions forced each one to understand Islamic practice in light of particular sociocultural or political experiences, particularly for Imam al-Shafi'i, who traveled most widely and, thus, gathered his own understandings or interpretations. Now, as our dear sister, Margari Aziza, already eloquently stated days ago, the Quran draws our attention to not only the fact that Allah created so-called tribes and nations that are not to be merely ignored (and the fact that the Quraysh as a tribe, like any other ethnic, racial, or national group, was not denounced in the Quran as an illegitimate group, but what was denounced was tribal arrogance, injustice and violence, which would apply to even an arrogant or violent Muslim). The ethnic or tribal differences were created according the book of Allah so we might know each other (lita`aarafu). Now, we definitely understand race to be a social construction or not biologically legitimate but all other groups including tribes or nations are likewise socially created. Still, the Quran mentions them because they are real in their social consequences. That is, they are a reality that Muslims are encouraged to understand. And how are we to lita`arafu, (know them), as the Quran stetas, if we don't talk about their construction, formation and relationship to other realities and our social worlds? To be honest, this issue is so very clearly spelled out in our textual sources and in the vast materials of Islamic history. Take, for example, the medieval and Arab Muslim scholar al-Jahiz (776-869), who was born in Basra as Abu Uthman Amr ibn Bahr al-Kinani al-Fuqaimi al-Basri. He wrote books on Islamic theology, biology, zoology, Arabic literature, etc and a very important book on race examining blackness and whiteness during his time in the 8th and 9th century. I just wish Muslims today would study, I mean really study, their own literary and religious sources, particularly including and BEYOND the first 23 years of Islam. There is almost 1,500 years of Muslim histories (plural not singular) and materials that we don't even talk about, read, or know. And this history reveals a great deal about how Muslims have already dealt with these issues over time and in a variety of ways. This is a great discussion and real learning moment!May Allah guide us! Abu Hamza

      September 7, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  6. T

    Islam is roughly 600 years behind Christianity. So, if you extrapolate... Islam is in the 1400s. Where were Christians in the 1400s? They were cutting people's heads off, defending their religious convictions with fire and swords. They were raping, murdering, pillaging all in the name of God. Now, 600 years later, most Christians have a faint belief in God, and a growing number have realized that Jesus is just about as real as Santa Claus (actually, Santa Claus did exist in some form at some point, unlike Jesus). There's a number who think this is all true, but even their most radical members troll soldier funerals, with the occasional Oklahoma City bombing or Anders Breivik.

    Islam is stuck in its Conquistador phase. They're still hanging witches, keeping women down, taking their holy book literally, thinking God has sent them on a mission of baptizing the world. In 600 years, they'll be wondering why Scientologists are blowing up airliners and beheading people on crude videos posted on the internet.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
  7. Desi

    Amazing ! Muslims like the freedom enjoyed by the West. Most Muslims want to immigrate to the West – if they had a chance. However, they secretly think that that very same freedom is perverted. How silly ? Very few muslims will come out and accept that the radicalized muslims are wrong. Why ? If God (whoever/whatever religion you practice) is there, then there are these various paths to attain peace – which we call religion. To me, muslims are OK, they almost always want to have more than one wife, yet at the same time they do not want to give them any freedom. Almost always freedom of expression is subdued in muslims countries.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
  8. rdude

    I beleive in the easter bunny, santa, unicorns, fairies, the kebler elves.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
  9. Ronen Newmark


    December 4, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
  10. Ronen Newmark

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrO_KSqrmns?version=3&rel=1&fs=1&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&wmode=transparent&w=640&h=390%5D

    December 4, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
  11. Jimbo54321

    70% of all Islums believe that Jews have horns.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
    • THE POPE

      and i believe you asked those 70% yourself right? you are so silly !

      December 4, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
  12. bookgirl

    All religions have extremists, but Islam has more people who get up in the morning and think "how many people can I kill today in the name of my God." It's the truth, and they know it. And, when attacks take place, where is the outrage among their Islamic brothers (brothers only, as they subvert women )? Not to be found. They are complicit by their silence. They are the axis of evil– the only thing that W ever said that I agree with.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
    • THE POPE

      IS THAT what your Muslim boyfriend saying when you wake with him up ?

      December 4, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
  13. pagan

    Bahhhhh....freeking sheep.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
  14. G

    Don't have much else in their lives and they are killed if they question or don't obey.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
  15. Tusken Raider

    Sand People!

    December 4, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
  16. dilberth

    All religions are full of it.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
  17. 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 7:09 pm |
  18. BillMaher


    Silly Monkeys

    December 4, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
  19. Dr Jamil M Chaudri

    The report is ill-informed. The Prophet Mohammed DID NOT aim to nullify the messages of the previous profits. The messages given to the previous prophets had been DISTORTED over time, and Propher Mohammed was commanded to re-iterate the REAL, TRUE message.
    Islam has not had an "enlightenment" for only beliefs touched with DARKNESS, need enlightenment. Islam is ENLIGHTENMENT. This person, Azyumardi Azra, is a unlightened crackpot, to come up with such stupidities.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • Tusken Raider

      You sound like you actually believe in this filth.

      December 4, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
  20. talezspin

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


    December 4, 2011 at 7:08 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.