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.

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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. Argue_dis

    Fundamentalist muslims and christians tick all the same boxes: prayer in school, anti-evolution, anti-abortion, no separation of church and state, dislike of foreigners, love of conspiracy theories, weapons in everyone's hands, capital punishment, etc. The only thing they disagree upon is which prophet to idolize....muhummed, jesus or j. smith.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
    • Really

      Jesus is a Prophet in Islam we just don't like idolizing the cross they tried to crucify him on.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
  2. Al

    @ Really. Just to be clear, you don't need to 'believe' in the theory of evolution because it is a scientifically proven fact that it is correct i.e. empirical repeatable and testable scientific evidence exists. So, "Theory of Evolution" is a misnomer because it is no longer a just a theory.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
    • well

      Actually, Al, you know slightly less than you believe. That evolution occurs is a fact. Whether it is strictly the result of Darwinian forces acting on inherited traits or some other, perhaps more group oriented evolutionary pattern is up to debate. Thus, there is no "theory of evolution" rather "theory of Darwinian evolution" which is far from proven fact.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
  3. Really

    @dscon not really more ignorant people like you.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
    • dscon

      The only grey matter you have is the mold growing on that terd between your ears.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
    • dscon

      Same Taqiyya different day...

      December 4, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
    • rdude

      @Really, Hey, hey sand monkey calm down it's only a fairytale religion, have some tea or something

      December 4, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
  4. Don

    and just because someone practices islam, they're experts on the subject? I think not.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
  5. janeausten111

    I can't believe you guys, you're all nutso. I will start speaking to every Mooslum I see about how big my craps are, and maybe that will show you that you don;t want to be here. I will not stop talking about the shape, size and temperature of your feces until you stop trying to convert everyone. I'm really ashamed of CNN for asking this question in the first place. Moozlims are more religious because they won't accept how big my poops are.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
  6. Cheyla

    Might this have something to do with being murdered if you try to leave?

    December 4, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
  7. The Bobinator

    They are more religious on average because they're less educated on average. Education and belief are inversely proportional.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
    • Really

      You wouldn't what education means if it wasn't for Islam. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1PxJomypQE

      December 4, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
    • The Bobinator

      > You wouldn't what education means if it wasn't for Islam. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1PxJomypQE

      Perhaps you should understand the difference between the people of islam and the religion of islam. That's your first mistake. Your second mistake is assuming that because Islam did it first means that we wouldn't have it now. That's your second mistake.

      You should think about what people are writing.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
  8. Pablo

    Mohamed created islam and started attacking other communities. He started the tradition of child brides in islamic countries.

    Women and children do not benefit in muslim societies.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
    • Really

      Girls were berried in that area after being born before Muhammad put a stop to it. The communities in that area were always fighting over wells women and God knows what. Islam also put a stop to it. Read the history of the region first.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      No child brides b 4 islam? Not so sure. Mohammed's people were pagans, i think all that stuff was already going on, Mohammed prob just codified it. He may have even improved their rights (anybody here know how women/children were treated by 7th century arab pagans? Prob not too well is my guess.
      Btw, im a christian, islam is not the way to find God, but im not a muslim-hater.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
  9. Bella

    Mahmoud.....I've been to Turkey and to other Muslim countries I have eyes .....Btw.there is No freedom of choice .....if you are born in a Muslim country to Muslim parents you MUST become a muslim
    because if you don't you will be exciled or worse killed in an honor killing. SO,p don't give me your CRAP that'I am mis informed ...apparently YOU are the deceived one...I am NOT a Muslim woman that you can order around!,,,,

    December 4, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
    • Really

      Are you hot ? if not, I don't care what you think about.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
  10. Al

    Atheism is not a religion, it is a lack of religion. Saying that atheism is a religion is like saying that NOT collecting baseball cards is a hobby.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
    • Really

      Atheism for me is religion just how defensive those people become if you challenge the theory of evolution makes it a religion. I believe in evolution but I also believe if you think about it God created different races from Adam and Eve that for me is evolution.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:43 pm |
  11. janeausten111

    why dont you all suck my dick. because i hate dick.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
  12. Al

    @Really. Saudi Arabia was also included in the survey. Try becoming an apostate in Saudi Arabia, or practicing any other religion openly there and let me know how it turns out for you. You have to acknowledge that it is factor in the "supposed" devoutness.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:39 pm |
    • Really

      Yeah but there is not early punishment prescribed for a person leaving Islam that is something people of that region made up. There never have been an execution of a person leaving Islam during Prophet's (PBUH) life.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
    • dscon

      Honor killings are cool, right?

      December 4, 2011 at 8:43 pm |
  13. Kevin Courtney

    It is a fallacy that Christianity is the worlds largest religion as many who check the box on surveys which identify them as such, are not Christians at all. Cultural christians that know nothing about the faith are not Christians, they only think they are because they grew up in a culture that is based on Christian principles. Many people will denounce this position but you wouldn't go to a doctor who only called himself a doctor but never read a medical book, so you shouldn't call people that don't believe or study their bible Christians. Truly, biblical Christians are a very small group and are far outnumbered by all the major faiths including Mormons. I say that since Mormons do not believe the bible is the authoritative word of God and is flawed and that their book is the truth, therefore, not Christians, Smithians, perhaps. Islam, Mormons and Catholicism all teach doctrines that disagree with the bible which is the only authoritative word of God. If the people on the political left want to denounce this as hate, they only show their ignorance of the concept. Hate is common in religion, but if one believes the bible, hate is not possible. Jesus does not teach us to hate but He does want us to share our faith with anyone that is not a Christian and that includes many that believe thay are. The bible teaches that everyone that relies on his own good works or self righteousness will be judges for his every thought and action in life and only those that conclude that they are incapable of being good enough for God and rely on Christs righteousness can be saved.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
    • Really

      Yeah atheism is the world's largest religion.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
    • ashrakay

      Not believing in magical bunnies, fairies, santa clause, god or leprechauns is not a religion.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
  14. abd

    No need for any survey, look at us how we get angry when a jerk say something bad about our beloved prophet whom nonmuslims knows nothing about except few things FOX news keeps repeating all the time and they are not even true, and look how they make movies and cartoons that makes fun of Jesus, and christians watch and laugh, if you have no respect for your "Lord" you have no respect for your religion, and that means you are not religous. Peace.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
    • Pablo

      Real christians don't go to those movies.

      However, freedom of speech requires we tolerate them. Radical Muslims don't tolerate freedom of speech or choice or conscience.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
    • Dana

      How typical: insult first and then say PEACE. Well, I wish you exactly same PEACE.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
  15. *frank*

    Praying guy in the bottom right is either wearing socks or he needs to see a dermatologist pronto.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
    • Really

      Its a great way to discharge your electromagnetic waves Google it.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
  16. Really

    @Alfredo Ok good so you got the message and rejected it not my problem.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
  17. Al

    Easy... Because apostasy is punishable by death in many Muslim countries and/or societies. I would be devout too if the alternative was being stoned to death by my neighbors.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
    • Really

      Yeah again this survey was also conduct in Turkey where there is no such punishment.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
    • Nika

      CNN cant figure that out??

      December 4, 2011 at 8:34 pm |
    • Creg

      @Really – The report indicates that this is a global survey. So your indication that this is related solely to Turkey is incorrect.

      December 4, 2011 at 8:39 pm |
  18. Really

    @PTI Again if you feel pain Allah has said not to be among people that are talking bad about Islam leave the place. Well its not the exact word but the meaning are the same. You will find it. As for people hating there are always haters.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
  19. ron

    Such a peaceful religion.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
  20. dscon

    Duh....'cause it's that or death silly CNN.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:23 pm |
    • Nika

      No way I signed in JUST to say that very same thing. lol Find me another fai th that threa tens beh ea dings for ap ost asy & I'll find you a people just as "de vo ut".

      December 4, 2011 at 8:32 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.