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. Aurel

    Hi guys,

    Islam is a religion based on human works. You have to do things to earn your salvation, or Heaven.
    That's why we see muslims doing things routinely. They sincerely and wrongly believe that good works will get them to heaven.
    In true Christianity, Jesus did everything at the Cross, to pay for the sins of mankind.
    Man's works are not accepted by God, for earning Salvation.
    For more info visit:

    December 4, 2011 at 12:11 am |
    • Observer


      You are right. God doesn't care at all if you are the nicest, kindest, gentlest, helpful, considerate, caring, etc.person in the world. All God cares about is that you believe in something that God won't prove to you.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:15 am |
  2. Reality

    Fear is the driving motive for belief in Islam but there is an easy answer to said situation:

    From the studies of Armstrong, Rushdie, Hirsi Ali, Richardson and Bayhaqi)

    The Five Steps To Deprogram 1400 Years of Islamic Myths:
    ( –The Steps take less than two minutes to finish- simply amazing, two minutes to bring peace and rationality to over one billion lost souls- Priceless!!!)

    Are you ready?

    Using "The 77 Branches of Islamic "faith" a collection compiled by Imam Bayhaqi as a starting point. In it, he explains the essential virtues that reflect true "faith" (iman) through related Qur’anic verses and Prophetic sayings." i.e. a nice summary of the Koran and Islamic beliefs.

    The First Five of the 77 Branches:

    "1. Belief in Allah"

    aka as God, Yahweh, Zeus, Jehovah, Mother Nature, etc. should be added to your self-cleansing neurons.

    "2. To believe that everything other than Allah was non-existent. Thereafter, Allah Most High created these things and subsequently they came into existence."

    Evolution and the Big Bang or the "Gi-b G-nab" (when the universe starts to recycle) are more plausible and the "akas" for Allah should be included if you continue to be a "crea-tionist".

    "3. To believe in the existence of angels."

    A major item for neuron cleansing. Angels/de-vils are the mythical creations of ancient civilizations, e.g. Hitt-ites, to explain/define natural events, contacts with their gods, big birds, sudden winds, protectors during the dark nights, etc. No "pretty/ug-ly wingy thingies" ever visited or talked to Mohammed, Jesus, Mary or Joseph or Joe Smith. Today we would classify angels as f–airies and "tin–ker be-lls". Modern de-vils are classified as the de-mons of the de-mented.

    "4. To believe that all the heavenly books that were sent to the different prophets are true. However, apart from the Quran, all other books are not valid anymore."

    Another major item to delete. There are no books written in the spirit state of Heaven (if there is one) just as there are no angels to write/publish/distribute them. The Koran, OT, NT etc. are simply books written by humans for humans.

    Prophets were invented by ancient scribes typically to keep the un-educated masses in line. Today we call them for-tune tellers.

    Prophecies are also invali-dated by the natural/God/Allah gifts of Free Will and Future.

    "5. To believe that all the prophets are true. However, we are commanded to follow the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him)
    Mohammed spent thirty days "fasting" (the Ramadan legend) in a hot cave before his first contact with Allah aka God etc. via a "pretty wingy thingy". Common sense demands a neuron deletion of #5. #5 is also the major source of Islamic vi-olence i.e. turning Mohammed's "fast, hunger-driven" hallu-cinations into horrible reality for unbelievers.

    Walk these Five Steps and we guarantee a complete recovery from your Islamic ways!!!!

    Unfortunately, there are not many Muslim commentators/readers on this blog so the "two-minute" cure is not getting to those who need it. If you have a Muslim friend, send him a copy and help save the world.

    Analogous steps are available at your request for deprogramming the myths of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Paganism..

    December 4, 2011 at 12:11 am |
    • j

      I totally agree with your message of urging people to deprogram from religion, but wow...you've written a lot of words and said basically nothing. You've nicely outlined the points to refute but haven't done so in the slightest. What are you trying to say?

      December 4, 2011 at 12:29 am |
    • FusionX

      There's just one thing to de-program you from Islam..
      The very thing Islam prohibits you from doing,, because the day you question, your faith is "KABOOOMMM"

      December 4, 2011 at 12:40 am |
    • Reality

      For those who are "reading and understanding" challenged:

      – from a PowerPoint slide:




      Added details upon request.

      December 4, 2011 at 7:15 am |
  3. Canada

    Pleas guys, respect other peoples beliefs.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:11 am |
    • Robert in Seattle

      WHY? Do they respect mine? Im an atheist...

      December 4, 2011 at 12:20 am |
    • ROBERT


      December 4, 2011 at 12:37 am |
  4. Tom

    Extreme religious dictatorship.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:11 am |
  5. OakRockers

    As soon as Islam becomes the dominant world religion (and it will relatively soon), and as soon as the number of Muslims in the USA is more than Christians (which may not happen right away, but it will happen eventually), when Muslims are trying to use their beliefs in the Qur'an to legislate laws from, then the Christian population who once clamored in favor of religious theocracy, will be screaming bloody murder about the 1st Amendment keeping church and state separate!

    December 4, 2011 at 12:10 am |
    • Aretemis

      Amen! (so to speak)

      December 4, 2011 at 12:16 am |

      You may be on to something....

      December 4, 2011 at 12:17 am |
    • Skepgnostic

      Religion is in a terminal decline–EVERYWHERE-not just in the U.S. I highly doubt that Islam would have any real power in the U.S. within at least the next 300 years.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:26 am |
  6. curt

    I wonder what happens if you fart

    December 4, 2011 at 12:10 am |
    • Reality

      o Islam has an "ap" for that:

      To wit:
      "Farting is problematic in Islam. During prayer, a worshipper must not fart. Sahih Bukhari (1.4.137) writes that Allah will not accept a Muslim's prayer if he/she passes wind during the ritual.

      The exception occurs if the worshipper farts silently, or the fart does not smell. In such a case, he/she may continue with the prayer (ibid, 1.4.139).Sunaan Nasai (1.162) writes that if you fart during a prayer you must redo ablution. Sahih Bukhari (9.86.86) says that for a "farter" Allah will not accept his/her prayer until he/she performs another ablution."

      December 4, 2011 at 12:13 am |
  7. AhhPures

    Because primitive people are more easily led.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:09 am |
  8. Johnny

    while I believe in God, religion has done more to harm this world than anything else. Everyone kills in the name of God. and lately, nobody is worse than muslims. Sorry, just a fact. Why are they so religious? I dunno, cause you get killed if you aren't? Even here in the states we've had instances of "honor" killings. And I still believe in God, just not his followers. Religion has become a disease and a brain washing cash cow. That goes for the evangelicals as well, but Islam is just a sad disease. Open your eyes. Think for yourself.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:08 am |
    • Maxx


      Religion has killed more people than anything else? I don't like doing numbers, but perhaps you may wish to examine the number of people murdered by god-less atheist governments during the 20th century Hitler – Stalin – Pol Pot, etc... You may not like the numbers your research will give you. I don't. The numbers are in the tens of millions. See for yourself.

      Good evening.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:26 am |
  9. twiddly

    Religion is the opiate of the masses, it keeps people in line for easy control by the rich and powerful.
    The middle east, still in the middle ages, is the perfect example.
    For muslims [and other religions as well], ignorance literally is bliss.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:08 am |
    • Arran Webb

      Democracy is the opiate of the masses, it keeps people in line for easy control by the rich and powerful.
      TV is the opiate of the masses, it keeps people in line for easy control by the rich and powerful.
      Cough medicine is the opiate of the masses, it keeps people in line for easy control by the rich and powerful.
      CNN is the opiate of the masses, it keeps people in line for easy control by the rich and powerful.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:11 am |
  10. William

    This is so simple. Muslims are more religious than Christians because religious fervor is directly proportional to ignorance, and no group of people on the planet are as ignorant as Muslims. The fact is it's not even close!

    December 4, 2011 at 12:08 am |
  11. sally

    The fact that so many Muslims receive a religious education wherein they are not exposed to other ideas speaks volumes as to why Islam is so convinced it is the only way. This is not something to be proud of. On the contrary, it fosters intolerance of other viewpoints, it creates anger when being exposed to other ways of behaving in the world, and it insures that believers feel superior to other people. Of course, this is not just an Islamic trait. Many Christians, especially the fundamentalist sort, are just like them...also, Jews. Rather than creating a peaceful world, religion tends to insure division and hatred!

    December 4, 2011 at 12:07 am |
  12. AC

    Afrad you have no clue. Moses and Abraham are not considered Gods. Jesus is the son of God! Muhammed was a prophet.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:07 am |
  13. scutt farkas

    Look at all those mindless sheep in that photo. Sad what religion reduces people to.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:06 am |
  14. Maxx

    Just an observation...

    Muslims do seem 'more religious' but, this is based upon the idea of performance earnings. A Muslim must perform in order to reach whatever said Muslim is reaching for. This inevitably leads to comparisons. Islam is a performance based religion – in other words – you have to work for what you're aiming at.

    Christianity by comparison is a faith based religion based on the idea that no amount of performance can get you where you are aiming to go. That has all been done by the work of Christ on the cross and a Christian is to understand this, yet it leaves a tendency to take such liberty for granted which some seem to do – license.

    Whether you agree with each or either, these are the fundamental differences which supply more than ample evidence to refute the ignorance of propounding that both are basically the same thing. If that were true, than why are Christians murdered in Muslim dominated countries? Because they are not saying the same thing – period.

    Good evening.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:06 am |
  15. AndrewC

    When will CNN stop having so many articles about Islam and start giving time to other faiths? Are you afraid of Muslims CNN? Why not have a series of articles about a faith that is unknown amongst most Americans, Orthodox Christianity? Or is that not politically correct enough for you, CNN?

    December 4, 2011 at 12:05 am |
    • AhhPures

      Maybe because in reality the western world is at war with Islam, even though politicians are careful to not put it that way.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:11 am |
  16. BIZKIT

    This Article is an affront to everything we Americans who hold dear to Christianity, all because of this crazy notion that the Muslim religion is a peaceful religion, its only peaceful to the people who believe in islam, and thats not even true, its only peaceful to muslim men, the woman are slaves to there perverted minds, this whole article is a joke. I will bet you anything that the next world war, is going to come because of the fascism that is the muslim religion. I dont have any problem with the people who believe there religion, I just know that they are incorrect. check out the world news column at dailyepicalert.com and you can read about this peaceful religion.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:05 am |
  17. curt

    They have nothing better to do... And it's an organized cult which leads they're government?

    December 4, 2011 at 12:05 am |
  18. Tom

    Fear and testosterone.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:05 am |
  19. Zain Siddiqui

    Every website I go YAHOO, CNN, MSN, ETC, I see racist comments towards religion and race. Cant we all live in peace and serenity? and cant we all be respectful for each others religion/race. Theres no need for assured comments. Allah is watching all of us, just know that, you can hide yourself behind a computer screen but Allah knows everything. May there be peace to everyone. Ameen.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:05 am |
  20. ReligionIsInsanity

    This article is ludicrous, as are everyone who has commented here. People seriously don't understand why Muslims are more religious? How about because their god hasn't become consumption yet? Give them another 20 years of westernization and access to consumer goods, and like american "christians," they will realize that their REAL god – their one true love – is GETTING STUFF. It's laughable to say that christianity is the religion of america – hysterical, really, since pretty much every single thing that the US is built on is in direct contradiction to every single thing Christ every taught. The reason Muslims are more religious is because the truth is that american "christians" aren't actually religious AT ALL. If they were, this nation wouldn't be founded on genocide and slavery, nor would a holiday supposedly celebrating the birth of christ be the largest consumer festival of the year. We all know who god is in america, and it sure as he!! isn't Jesus, or Jehovah, or any other fantastical deity – no, god in the US is MONEY. Period. And anyone who didn't figure out the reason behind any religious "disparity" between the east and west before finishing the first sentence of this article is a moron. And probably an american one.

    December 4, 2011 at 12:04 am |
    • Ben

      So the Deity is "fantastical" because of the way most professing Christians behave? Absurd. However, you describe Americans very well.

      If your local bank was robbed by someone in a yellow raincoat, and your friend knocks at your door wearing a yellow raincoat, would you immediately call the police?

      December 4, 2011 at 12:13 am |
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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.