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. Glen

    The mixing of church and religion can only have this result. Instead of being able to take action and stands politically you are required to take action and stands religiously. It makes political mobility difficult and increases the role in religion in people lives (its' intended consequence). Hopefully future generations will break the tie between Islam and politics, it is the only road to progress. The West has similarly motivated people, but thankfully many fewer of them.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
    • Greg

      Church and religion?

      December 4, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
    • Glen

      Ahem, church and state. If you could get the church out of religion that would be an improvement too!

      Thanks Greg!

      December 4, 2011 at 9:43 pm |
  2. rotorhead1871

    what is religious??? it has many meanings....and many are religious...so let the religious be with their religion and belief..quit trying to rack and stack them..you are showing your secular stupidity...

    December 4, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
  3. Shaji

    Main reason muslims are religious due to the believe in the life after death. This life is short and it is going to end sooner or later for everyone. Life here after will be forever and it will be justice depending on what human being believed and done in the world.
    They believe in oneness of God, it is the God for all human beings not just for Muslims. He sent the prophets to convey his message to humanity. All the prophets from Adam(PBUH) to Muhammed(PBUH) are human being and they stayed with their nations during their lifetime. Gods message has been revealed in the original Bible, Torah, Zaboor and Quran. I suggest to read the old and original versions of Bible and Torah and then Read Quran. Anyone with a sense of mind will realize what is truth and purpose of life.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
    • SimonSed

      Anyone with a properly functioning mind will quickly realize, upon reading all of the books that you mention, that the gods they speak of are complete fiction.

      There has never, ever been any evidence of a god that has stood up to reasonable tests. You can choose to remain ignorant, but that is your choice.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
    • fimeilleur

      No, they won't...

      The genesis account of creation is flawed and demonstrably erroneous. If your God cannot instruct those he commanded to write His words accurately, he cannot be all powerfull. If His book is flawed, He is flawed. If He is flawed, He cannot be God.

      1 Billion Hindus also believe in everlasting life (perpetual re-incarnation) but they have many gods. If their gods exist, your "oneness of God" cannot.

      Your God is impossible, and Faith is synonymous with Gullible and Naive.

      Not all religions can be right, but they can ALL be wrong.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
  4. Amar

    I find it funny that people say christianity is the faith of america when america is based on freedom of any religion!!!! People say that we are not american because of our culture or religion!! But then i ask you what makes you american? I am born and raised in america the only difference between me and you is what we believe in!! No matter how many hateful comments i see in this page the REAL americans are the ones who follow what america stands for!!! I am grateful that my neighbors(mostly white and afrrican-americans) are very open-minded!!!! P.S. i have a BA in political science!!!

    December 4, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • Jimbo54321

      congrats amar

      December 4, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
    • Really

      Good for you.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
  5. Dean

    How old was Aisha when 48 year old Muhammad "married" her ? 6 years old ! And that monster banged her when she was 9 ! What a psychotic pedophile ! And those brainwashed muslims worship this monster !

    December 4, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • Arun

      Very interesting. If Messenger of God can do this, why not his followers.
      The messenger should show the rite path and looks like its a rite way...phedophilia ?

      Marry as many (for men only) if you can afford. For Women dedicate your life to husband though he humps many. If women involves in extramarital relationship, she would be stoned to death, lol crazy.

      Women in veil are like women in prison.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
    • askn

      Can you cite where did u get the ages from, because I read the translation and it doesn't say the age!

      December 4, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
    • askn

      You are really a big liar because translation of Quran doesn't tell the age!

      December 4, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
  6. Arun

    This is the true face of islam. Religious persecution of hindus and genocide in Pakistan and Bangladesh.


    Please read.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • Jimbo54321

      Muslims are straight up loco. It's a fact.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • Really

      @Jimbo54321 Well then we should go to el poyo than.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
  7. Jimbo54321

    I heard on tv that a lot of arabians are angry.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
    • Really

      We should have an Arabian night that will help.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
    • Jimbo54321

      Yes there will be plenty of beer.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
    • askn

      I never heard about Arabian. What is that? OR maybe you mean to say Arab. In this article there's no mention of race only religion!

      December 4, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
  8. Bella

    Abdul....spoken like a true MUSLIM with your insults and cursing...(AND I BELIEVE YOU ARE KKK TOO, BELLA? YOU RACIST FUC K)

    ."keep following that religion of peace of yours"
    Im not surprised ....if I were in front of you you might even try to kill me. BTW, I pray daily for muslims and NO I am not white KKK! I have stated FACTS ...can you even deny them??????? Islam is a religion that is ruled by the sword. The TRUTH hurts Abdul ....you are a BLIND follower of a cult leader ...so sorry for you!!!!!

    December 4, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
    • Really

      Can you also pray for me sorry about the hot thing just don't go around bashing other religions it might just come back to hurt your own religion.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • Amar

      He shouldn't have made those remarks! Thats your opinion and I as a muslim respect that!! But i urge you just because you are of a different faith that you shouldn't speak so negative of others because i surely would not speak ill of yours. But if you do want to speak of islam you should learn more about it!! I am a muslim and i like to learn about christianity!

      December 4, 2011 at 9:26 pm |
  9. well

    Knowing that for our universe to have formed able to support life is a many hundreds of billion to one shot, the only logical conclusion is that it was created, or that it is one of many billions of universes. Only a fool would sat, based upon these FACTS that they can believe there is no God. There may certainly be billions of universes, but there is zero evidence that there are. Yet so many seemingly intelligent people will claim that they believe only in evidentially supported ideas, then say they believe there is no god.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
    • Ravi

      "There may certainly be billions of universes, but there is zero evidence that there are."

      .. and there is ZERO evidence that God exists.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
    • ashrakay

      That's reductionist logic. The odds of winning the mega millions lottery is 1 chance in 175,711,536. Yet people win. Therefore, there must be a god. Nonsense.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:26 pm |
    • goddog

      The scientific opinion is that there could, and probably are, other worlds with life on them. And that it's not impossible that there are multiple universes. Also, it's not impossible that there is a god like being out there. But there is no evidence that says that there is a god. he doesn't fit into any scientific equation. He is not a factor that could provide any information to answer any questions. In fact, if you input god into any equation as data you will always get the wrong answer because his properties would be unknown. If you are easily satisfied don't blame intelligent people. Please tell me, since you are certain that there is a creator, which god is he? There are hundreds of god faiths, so which one is the "real" creator?

      December 4, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
    • well

      Ravi, did you even read my post? There is zero evidence for God or billions of universes. So only a fool would claim to know either way. Do you claim such knowlege?

      December 4, 2011 at 9:30 pm |
    • ashrakay

      @well, unlike most of the commenters out here, I think you're actually smart enough to get this. You do a great job of connecting dots and you seem to have the ability to think reasonably. For some reason, which I can't begin to understand, you seem to be willfully ignoring the evidence staring you in the face. Maybe you want a place to spend your afterlife or you want to see a loved one that's passed on... but personally, I think you can do better.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
  10. Really

    @Bella Because they are morons the Islamic law is that the girl should be old enough to make decisions on her own. That means she should not be a child.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
    • Bella

      then why is it accepted (to marry a girl as young as 9)in a "religious" country like Saudi Arabia. And if Mohamed was REALLY a prophet of GOD shouldn't he have NEVER done such a horrible crime???? If Mohamed was alive today he would be thrown in jail for pedophelia...a true prophet of god would NEVER put himself in such a position .........just saying

      December 4, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
    • John Utah

      Dumb As*!! Get a real education and educate your self about Islam. We are more religious because we have more faith then all other religions that our path to God is the truth. Nobody is more religious, more charitable, more dedicated to God then the Muslims. Try fasting for 30 straight days morning to sunset without even a drink of water all for the sake of your Lord, Lord of the heavans and the universe,whom there is NO equal to.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
    • Really

      @Bella How many times do I have to tell you the Age of Muhammad's bride is historically incorrect and conflicts with other historical records of the time. Also there is no mention of Aisha's age in Quran.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:26 pm |
  11. Death-Is-Inevitable

    jamesnyc - apparently have not read the Quran...

    December 4, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
  12. ashrakay

    @William, yes... everyone is confused, but you and your band of merry men

    December 4, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
  13. Shawn

    Just look at Christmas ... Christian's today don't care about following Jesus' word/path of helping the poor, needy, etc. They care about 'me, myself and I' and what is best for them and their immediate friends and family. It has turned into a joke!

    December 4, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
    • Really

      Yup yup

      December 4, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
    • ashrakay

      Well, christians ripped off christmas from the pagan celebration of solstice. Even decorating the tree is condemned in the bible by jeremiah. According to the bible, jesus was actually born closer to the month of april. You can't expect people of a made up religion to celebrate a made up holiday properly.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
  14. hussein

    Islam is way of life, and it as nothing to do with all what you guyz saying,

    December 4, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
    • Arun

      You zealots want to make "ONLY WAY OF LIFE" in this world. It can't be way of life for sure. Its the only way to paradise with 72 VIRGINS waiting for you all. please leave this hell called Earth for us to live. you are such a pain for everyone since 1400years..

      December 4, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
    • CHK

      Well said, a frog in a well 😉

      December 4, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
  15. LetsCoExist

    I was taken aback by the comment made by Ed Hussain..who is cited as a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He Remarks : "Our prophet aimed to nullify the message of the previous prophets.". I am a practicing Muslim and I dont believe that is what our Prophet intended. As Muslims, we believe in the words and teachings of all Prophets ...all the way from Adam, to Abraham to Moses to Jesus and to the final Prophet Mohammed. Mohammed continued the message of all other Prophets and never said we should Kill people from other religions. He did stress very much on not attributing partners to the Almighty – Monotheism. We are all the children of the same God and lets live in peaceful coexistence. Salaam.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:14 pm |
    • Death-Is-Inevitable

      TRUE THAT!!!!!!!!

      December 4, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
  16. Hani

    The idea is Not to get caught up in who is the most religious or adherent to the faith. We, Muslims, Christians and Jews, Should NOT be obsessed about self validation by demonizing each other. We should focus on the good things that our faiths could provide to our humanity.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
    • SimonSed

      Nice sentiments, but they are not supported by the principles of your stated religions.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
  17. Dean

    Islam gives you a choice : either become muslim or become a dead non-muslim !

    December 4, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
  18. Hitler II

    The Jew must slander Islam because it threatens Jewish cultural hegemony. Look closely at Western decadence and decay and you will find the Jew maggot feeding.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
    • dscon

      Fire up the oben #2

      December 4, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
  19. Addi

    Salam(peace) to my fellow muslim brothers... Allah give guidance to my non-muslim fellows... (Thanks to Allah) I am muslim!
    Why are people so mad on this fact that muslims are religeous. Why? Are they jelous? or they realize what they follow is not true? or they know Islam is the only true religion but they can't accept it because their father and their father didn't accept this Truth. Allah says in Quran"Prohpet Mohammad (S.A.W) they know you so clearly like they know their kids". Christians do realise that jusus is not a son of God but can't accept it because their father didn;t..

    December 4, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
    • goddog

      You are an idiot. Not because you are a Muslim but because you make the same statements that any other religion does; My god is the one true god. To an Atheist like me you all sound like a bunch of blue marbles that say "I am a red marble", no, I am the red marble" when you don't realize that red marbles don't even exist. haha. Please tel me what proof you have that your god is any more real than any other god out there. If you cannot, kindly keep your delusions to yourself, all of you.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
    • goddog

      I'm sorry that I called you an idiot. I meant it, but I'm sorry I called you one. You might be a good person but you're still delusional.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
  20. scott

    I wonder if this has any thing to do with the fact that Islam is more violent, oppressive, and intolerant then other religions?

    December 4, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
    • Addi

      Not true.. you need to Read and Learn. you will know the truth. All muslims will pray for you that Allah will show you the Guidence. Muslims can be good and bad like the followers of every other religion but Islam is the onl true religion and the Quran is the Code of life for all humanity...

      December 4, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
    • scott

      I lived in a Muslim country for 5 years and have seen first hand the fear that the people live under. I have many friends that converted to Christianity and were imprisoned and torchered simply because they chose to leave Islam. Please explain how that is NOT violent, oppressive and intolerant? Please dont give me this crap about a code for life. God is LOVE not fear.

      December 5, 2011 at 7:22 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.