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. janeausten111

    i heard that that pakistan stole all the salt from mexico and that's why i have no salt on my sandwich. I really think that we need to get the salt back because without salt i feel like a moron. Where the hell is jane austen? who took the salt from her?

    December 4, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
    • Jimbo54321

      What the hell are you talking about loser? Pepper is way better than salt.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
    • PTI

      I can assure you we did not steal mexican salt. Now please stop doing drugs.........

      December 4, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
  2. Mycology

    It gives me hope that people are starting to realize the cult of islam needs to be completely eradicated if humanity, and all cultures that are not islam, are going to survive.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
    • tinkering_thoughts

      seems like your board pseudo name suits you well with your comment...your narrow mindset and thinking manifests a definitive identification service of fungi and yeasts on you

      December 4, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
    • lalala14

      Well, you need to quit being so arrogant of other people's religion. I think this is something u need to consider in regard of you having no manners.

      December 5, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
  3. bannister

    For the last 50 years, Hollywood and other Jewish media have ridiculed and ostracized Christianity in television, movies, and print. Give this Muslims 50 years under the same system and they'll eventually give up their beliefs too. Perhaps that's the plan.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
    • Mycology

      I guess you've never watched any stand up comedians, cartoons, "roats", etc, the jews are regularly the subject of comedy and insults and off-humor jokes, try family guy some time, I dont think i've seen a single episode where jews are stereotyped... but I guess thats the "jew owned media" trying to destroy judaism...?

      December 4, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
    • Mycology

      *aren't stereotyped.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:09 pm |
  4. Chas

    For several years after 911 a hobby of mine was talking to and listening to Islamsits in voice chat. I think I know more about islam than christianity now. My conclusions, Islam is a political system, not a religion as christians understand the term. The survey asked the wrong questions. Ask muslims anywhere if muslilms who renounce islam should be excecuted for apostacy and the overwhelming majority will say yes. Death for apostacy is compulsion. Compulsion abolishes faith which abolishes god which abolishes religion. WIthout the absolute right to believe or not believe the word religion is meaningless from any modern point of view.

    Muslims will respond with one of their slogans, 'no compulsion in religion". That slogan means something unobvious to non muslims and is said as a delierate deception. I'm sure most muslims are perfeclty nice people, just like most people who are not muslims but muslims are terrified of the gangster culture that always seems to get the upperhand where ever there are muslim majorities. There isn't a single credible democracy in any muslim majority nation. When you understand why that is you'll understand islam.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
    • Really

      The Qur'an itself does not prescribe any earthly punishment for apostasy it is BS made up by people.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
    • *frank*

      Their tea and coffee is quite strong. If you ingested 2 grams of caffeine per day, you'd be a bit militant too.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
    • PTI

      I hope your realize 98% of what is said in the media about Islam is crap. Its just things that people who call themselves Muslims/scholars make up for their own reasons and then convince others to follow. There are currently two 'versions" of Islam right now: the actual one from the Quran that most follow and then the extremist one with things warped out of proportion that is followed by a select few. But those select few have explosives..............

      December 4, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
  5. rdude

    I really hope nobody farts in the pic at the top of the page where everyone is bending over, it could cause pandemonium.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
    • Really

      That never happened in my life.

      December 4, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
    • rdude

      @ Really, if it had you would be a fart eater

      December 4, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
    • Really

      @rdude Well there are a lots of places you can eat fart not just here. I am sure you must have been to many since you know so much about farts.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
    • rdude

      @Really, Why don't you do yourself a favor and go blow yourself up or something Muslim like that

      December 4, 2011 at 8:08 pm |
  6. ashrakay

    @Really, it's in the quran and the hadith. There a multiple references to kill those who do not believe or those who convert away from islam. Therefore followers and believers of such a religion are the enemies of peace and threaten those who would believe otherwise.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
    • Really

      Most of references given I have checked taken out of context. They were in the time of war when the enemies killed Muslims just because of their faith and planned to kill more in the future. They were all in defence. Muslims have been told not to be aggressors because Allah is never with the people who are the agressors.

      December 4, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
    • Hitler II

      Ugly Jews are the enemies of beauty.

      December 4, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
    • Really

      @Hitler II Jews are not ugly they good looking but they have to give Palestinians their rightful land back.

      December 4, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
    • PTI

      Ummm....I actually READ the Quran, you know like regularly and I can assure you it says nothing about randomly killing nonbelievers the only time for "war" is if you are oppressed so much you can not follow your religion and so far that is not true.

      December 4, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
    • ashrakay

      "Slay them wherever ye find them and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter." – 2:191
      "Make war on them until idolatry is no more and Allah's religion reigns supreme" – 8:39
      "Allah will humble the unbelievers. Allah and His apostle are free from obligations to idol-worshipers. Proclaim a woeful punishment to the unbelievers." – 9:2-3

      December 4, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
    • ashrakay

      Quran (5:33) – "The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement"

      December 4, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
    • Really

      @ashrakay Another war time one this one is really popular on the Internet. Jews specially use it for some reason. Another war time one and this time too it was not Muslims that were killing first it were the nonmuslims that were and it refers to the people at that time not for all time.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:09 pm |
    • PTI

      ashrakay" its great that you at least have reference but once again the whole issue is about CONTEXT! I would love to explain but these comment boards are not worth it. It was a time of WAR> of course it does not apply now! It applies in those situations..

      December 4, 2011 at 8:09 pm |
    • ashrakay

      @Really, I love how people try to justify hypocrisy by citing "context". Both the bible and the quran are full of examples promoting violence. As if a commandment to kill children which is done on more than one occasion in the bible can be justified by context. Were they atomic children that were going to wipe out humanity if we didn't stop them first?

      December 4, 2011 at 8:09 pm |
  7. Really

    I love Jews for give me for generalizing but if they weren't in love with money so much. I wouldn't have realized by seeing them that its all for nothing.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
  8. TexDoc

    When they threaten to punish with death, those who convert to other religions–of course it's no big surprise that they have fewer people leave the faith.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
    • Really

      Who threatened you ? or anyone you know other then seeing it on media.

      December 4, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
  9. Be Afraid

    They are not more religious, they are less secular and hence less as humans.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • Really

      You are not human you are more secular more machine.

      December 4, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  10. Hitler II

    The time is near! The Jew can sense it, like a flukeworm writhing under a microscope lens.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • ashrakay

      troll or idiot... you decide.

      December 4, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
    • Hitler II

      ashrakay: Spare us your primitive Jewbabble!

      December 4, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
  11. Joe from Kalispell

    I think the author is confusing being religious with being an activist. Most Christians would disagree that Muslims are more religious. I do think Muslims are perceived as being more activist but I am not sure that is completely true. Many Christians do missionary work and help others as teachers in other counties or engineers on public works projects. Muslims on the other hand just kill people as suicide bombers.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • PTI

      Glad to see you give example based on 5% of the Muslim population. Very accurate. Bravo

      December 4, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
    • Nabil

      wow... you had a point until you mentioned killing people!! Think of the Spanish inquisition of South America, then you will see how many our Christian friends have killed in the name of god. 90% of native population.... not enough?

      December 4, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
  12. b4bigbang

    Muneef, i follow Jesus, and one of your fellow Muslims told me that Muslims are NOT children of Allah (because God cant have children, wife, etc) but that Muslims are in fact slaves of Allah.
    My question is why remain a slave when God is inviting you into His house, his kingdom to be his adopted sons and daughters?

    December 4, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • Really

      Slave of Allah means submission to Allah using free will that has been given to us. Everything in Universe follows the instructions earth revolves around sun you get the seasons. We have been given a choice. Islam doesn't mean peace it means submission (to Allah) that is all. Now if you want to make your owns Gods your will you responsibility.

      December 4, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
  13. truthkeeper

    God doesn't look at outer appearances as mankind does,...God looks at every persons heart and mind. The Pharisees were all pious looking outside but inside they were as sepulchre of dead.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
    • ashrakay

      Magical bunnies also don't judge you and they skate on rainbows made of pixie dust.

      December 4, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
  14. Raza

    Muslims may be more religious than other religions, but not because their religion has any special virtues that other religions don't have. Rather, it is a result of:

    1. Reaction to western colonialism and neocolonialism.
    2. For lack of any contributions to science, technology, arts and literature
    3. Radicalism which was originally promoted by the West to contain communism (which is now eating the hand that fed it).

    In any case, they are guaranteed to stay ignorant and backward for another 100 years.

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

      Good points...

      December 4, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
    • Nabil

      wow... you are in for a big disappointment bro... look at this list: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Muslim_scientists also read about al-khawarizmi.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
    • Raza

      The link and name you gave are of people mostly from 10th century. Wake up "bro" and do something constructive or if you want to live in past glory, then go join them.

      December 5, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  15. ace

    Ignorance and indoctrination. the lower the education the higher the faith.

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

      Can't agree more. Since childhood, they indoctrine about their religion and teach them all other religions are false and anti-islamic.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
  16. Ruth in Ohio

    Do you notice women are not allowed to worship with the men.....and by the way what jobs do these men have I never see them woking...they are always on the street protesting...maybe they should go home and help out !

    December 4, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
    • Mohammed A Hossain

      You are wrong...Muslim women can say their prayers together, but in a seperate places behind a curtain with the same Imam.......

      December 4, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
  17. rdude

    That's it I'm starting my own religion where Im God and every one worships me. My followers will get 50/50 odds on their prayers, pretty much like every other religion. I promise not to make them read any crazy books, or follow any crazy rules all they have to do is use common sense. They won't even have to give money. You won't even have to dress funny in my name. We will all just get together have fun, and have drinks while we laugh at the other nutty religions. Nothing but good times. Come one come all.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
  18. Muneef

    Now is that Islam-phobia or jealousy from Islam...any way what ever it is mind what happens and what you get when you pick on some Wasps Nests..maybe reading about it's behavior might refresh your minds;


    December 4, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      Muneef, i follow Jesus, and one of your fellow Muslims told me that Muslims are NOT children of Allah (because God cant have children, wife, etc) but that Muslims are in fact slaves of Allah.
      My question is why remain a slave when God is inviting you into His house, his kingdom to be his adopted sons and daughters?

      December 4, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
    • johnfrichardson

      @b4bigbang God isn't inviting anyone into any house. Grow up.

      December 4, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
    • Muneef


      Abdullah...means worshiper...so the real meaning of the word is GOD's Worshippers and not GOD's Slaves...after all GOD granted us the power of choice as a test in life...while the word if tobe GOD's Slaves then that means we have no power of choice.. But rather means we are to slave our way towards him...!
      I agree that GOD said he can adopt any of his creations as sons or daughters...but he has no wife or sons or daughters of his own..as stated in Q/sura 112..
      Then Q/sura 6:101
      Then Q/sura 39:4

      December 5, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • Muneef


      Dear friend if I was you I would chose to follow Jesus pbuh as the Messanger of GOD...he was created in this way to fascinate as miracle the children of Israel into believing in GOD and Jesus pbuh as his Prophet/Messenger to them but unfortunatly even that did not work out with them as should...

      December 5, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  19. POLLON

    to Jebb: find a psychiatrist who enjoys a challenge, you insignificant and pitiful excuse of a man. With or without health insurance, you can still get your head examined. Follow up on that.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
  20. dinak

    They r more religious, because they are instructed from an early age that if they aren't, they will not go to heaven. It's conveyed in a much more severe and mandatory way compared to the "mandates" of other religions.

    December 4, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      Absolutly. In fact, i chatted with a Muslim Poster who informed me that Islam teaches the Muslims that they are "slaves" (the exact word he used) to Allah.

      December 4, 2011 at 7:33 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.