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. Ahmed Ahmed

    Of course Muslims are more than most others. What can one expect when the Christian world has been dominated for the past 300 years by Atheistic anti-Christian ideologies like Socialism, Nazism or Communism whether it be reformation, enlightenment or the Renaissance to which nothing similar had occurred throughout the Islamic world. In fact, the Islamic World retrogressed back under the vale of Islam and its Sharia most certainly after the initial conquest of dar al-Harb forming the Caliphate, most especially after the 11th and 12th centuries. A very good book on this subject was by Toby Huff "The Rise of Early Modern Science" The Islamic World adopted many of the Earlier Greek, Roman, Eastern, Jewish and Christian scientific and philosophical teachings until the Islamic scholars took action against the various pre-Islamic or contradictory Scientific, Philosophical etc. ideologies and put a stop to it throughout the Umma. The Islamic World never developed any independent thinking University or Educational system aside from the Religious Madrassas/Mosque and their various school of Sharia Law. It is true that many Madrassas, Mosques, Hospitals had extensive Libraries composed of Western, Eastern, Greek, Jewish, Christian etc. commentaries, philosophies, theologies and physical scientific teachings, some arguably adopted by Nicolaus Copernicus from Nasir al-Din al-Ṭusi and Ibn al-Shaṭir who adopted much of their theories from the earlier Greeks. All of this educational and scientific progress stalled and was often literally erased due to the onset of Islamic Orthodoxy which made such progress punishable by Death. To this day, Islam and the Islamic World remains largely closed off in ignorance, intolerance and backwardness solely due to Islam and its Sharia. SRA

    December 4, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
    • ari

      "the Christian world has been dominated for the past 300 years by Atheistic anti-Christian ideologies "

      sorry, what universe are you inhabiting, and may i borrow whatever illicit substance you are using to get there?

      December 4, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
    • ReligionIs4Dolts

      Yes, let's just shun science and any new discoveries. I don't want to know anything about the universe. I just want to bury my head in the sand.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
    • ashrakay

      Yeah, obviously you don't live in America.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
    • Serious?

      Did you pass World History? Did you know that without the Arabs (most of whom were muslims) we would not have advanced mathematics(geometry, trigonometry, algebra), astronomy and other sciences? Do you remember learning about the dark ages? When Europe was repressing its peoples and not embracing any innovation and change? Guess what, the Arabs maintained and ADVANCED sciences and mathematics during that time!

      December 4, 2011 at 10:35 pm |
  2. Mypath

    Carrying scarf on your head growing long beard doesn't translate your union with divine. I was born and raised in Muslim neighborhood and know for sure how they had to follow their religion. In Islam debate is forbidden. You have no choice but to follow otherwise you will be issued Islamic Fatwa. The 10 percent of Islamist are controlling 90 percent of peaceful followers of Islam.

    Time has come when these 90 percent of peace loving Islamist need to come openly out and take charge. Otherwise nation after nation will see destruction as Afghanistan is witnessing.

    Also after post 9/11 equation has changed. Every Muslim thinks Islam is in danger from West. I have personally witnessed my liberal Muslim friends turning into too religious. Not sure they are pretending or really following strict version fo Islam. They have started going on namaz during Friday afternoon no body at work can challenge them why they are taking 2 hours from work. Of course they do bill to client for those 2 hours. Managers are careful not to ask them about their absence as they don't want to get labeled as racists. Very tricky situation.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
  3. Hitler II

    Jews still owe Germany the cost of having to build those luxurious detention centers. Pay up, Jew!

    December 4, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
  4. Really

    @ari So how does it contradict Quran exactly. I just gave an explanation of what I think the spreading earth would mean in that verse you cited. If my explanation doesn't satisfy your question my knowledge is limited I am not a know it all. Other than what you want to believe its up to you. Islam doesn't say I am responsible for making you believe it says just to tell you the message rest is up to you.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
    • ari

      the qu'ran says that the planet earth is flat. it says that it (the planet itself) was spread (like butter on bread), that the stars are actually missiles, that the sun sets in a particular place on this flat earth, that adam and eve existed, and that people are made from clay. if you cannot see how this is non-scientific, i don't know what to say.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
    • ashrakay

      Convenient. If I were a cult leader I'd want the same from my followers.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:12 pm |
  5. Addi

    There is no God but Allah and Mohammad (Peace be upon him) is the prophet of Allah. Witness this from your heart and read Quran. Come back and post you views.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • Really

      I don't think people commenting here would do that but 100% for trying.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
    • ari

      The Noble Qu'ran 22:19 These [believers and non-believers] are two adversaries who have disputed over their Lord. But those who disbelieved will have cut out for them garments of fire. Poured upon their heads will be scalding water by which is melted that within their bellies and [their] skins. And for [striking] them are maces of iron.

      peace, love, harmony, etc

      December 4, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
    • mark

      classic muslim zealot...

      December 4, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
    • ashrakay

      2:191 And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter. And fight not with them at the Inviolable Place of Worship until they first attack you there, but if they attack you (there) then slay them. Such is the reward of disbelievers.
      2:192 But if they desist, then lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
  6. Buck Adams

    Jailhouse converts & 3rd wolrld illiterates account for a large percentage of the religions increasing demographics. The non-Muslims need to pay attention considering how muslims are trying to turn our part of the world into a part of the world that represents their religous & cultural beliefs. The British flag and French flag will have a crescent on them in a couple of generations.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:01 pm |
  7. b4bigbang


    Read your self what Quran say you can go to a Islam hate site or gain some knowledge for a change. If youve been reading my posts, u will see that im not a troll, but have a reasonable curiosity re islam. You seem to be a knowledgeable Muslim, were on a discussion board and i just thought id ask the ques since another guy made the statement. I realize u r offended by trolls (as am i) but i in no way meant to offend you.
    If the ques is embarrasing i will look it up privately.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:01 pm |
  8. Addi

    To Know about Islam please read Quran....Just Quran... May Allah give you the Guidence.(Ameen)

    December 4, 2011 at 10:01 pm |
    • ari

      indeed! here's a good place to start:


      enjoy the peace, love, and harmony!!!

      December 4, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
    • ReligionIs4Dolts

      Ambush and kill all infidels where ever you may find them. That's all you need to know about Islam.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
    • karma

      Get f ucked kiddy rapist..

      December 4, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • ashrakay

      Yes, I find it personally enjoyable to compare which book is more violent, the bible or the quran. Definitely read both. If you do and subsequently don't find yourself questioning the morality of god/allah, then proceed immediately to your nearest asylum for treatment.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
  9. ReligionIs4Dolts

    Gee, why are there no human fossils found in the same geological layers as, say, dinosaurs? Probably the same reason that no dinosaurs are ever mentioned in the bible....because they did not coexist! Put 2 and 2 together. This planet is WAY older than any religion that was made up out of thin air within the past several eons claims. Stupid religions! Even dumber followers!

    December 4, 2011 at 10:01 pm |
  10. Pooran

    When you force feed s hit down someones throat with a side order of we'll cut your head off then you'll get devout pretty d amn quick..

    December 4, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
    • Darling

      Eyeopener "the important qesotiun is, why did the French government..." We'll never know for sure and we shouldn't waste our time with such qesotiuns. We need to focus instead on the fact that Islam is seeking to conquer Europe and on our duty to stop it.

      September 6, 2012 at 11:08 pm |
  11. Addi

    revert to Islam and know why muslims are religious...

    December 4, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
  12. Notislam

    islam doesn't even pass the religion test. islam is no better than a violent street gang. A better question would be why to members of gangs stay members of gangs...Answer = Because they are murdered if they try to leave. Such is islam.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:52 pm |
    • Really

      @ari Decades ago ? before Islam or now.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
    • americanwoman

      They are 1/5 of humanity, many live as minority in non Muslim countries...sorry the gang thing does not apply

      December 4, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
    • ari

      decades ago as in the 1950s/1960s

      December 4, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
  13. Really

    @ari Well then I don't know what was the wisdom behind it the only other thing that comes to mind is the core burning hydrogen atoms and the earth expanding.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:52 pm |
    • ari

      the expanding earth hypothesis was discredited decades ago. keep up.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
  14. Addi

    Why muslims are more religous? Becaue of the
    Love of God(Allah), believing in Allah as the only God.
    Fear of Judgement day, when all the deeds a human did, will be accounted on the right and wrong bases and based on that it will be decided who will go to hell and who will go to the paradise.
    Love of Prophet Mohammad (S.A.W)
    Submission to Allhah as their only GOD and Praying five times a day to say Thanks for all the blessing has provided..

    December 4, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
    • ari

      at least you admit that your religion is based on fear. i give you props for that. most try to ignore that part.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
    • Notislam

      islam is vile. moslems are victims and prisoners of islam.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
  15. The Loon

    because the religion carries threats of death and dismemberment, honor killings, murdering cartoonists and authors...Muslims aren't more religious, they are hostages

    December 4, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
  16. ReligionIs4Dolts

    And Ishmael, the spurious offspring of Abraham and his wife's maidservant, went on to form the Arabic people, who were obviously just insanely jealous of their Israeli half-brethren. They didn't have their own religion in their own language/culture. Thus, Islam was formed to fill this void. And look at all the good that this product of jealous rage has done for the world......


    December 4, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
    • americanwoman

      oohhh...thats just deep

      December 4, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
  17. Arun

    Any muslims around ? Need some clarity on below Qs if you know THE TRUTH.

    Why Prophet Mohammed did not say Kalima before his death? if he was true muslim he should have but did not.
    What was he doing when he died?
    Why Prophet Mohammed the Messenger of the Allah did not had burial as per Islam?

    any responses will be appreciated.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
  18. Really

    @ari I am bored seen all the shows and stuff so yeah no life thing is right.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
  19. Really

    @ari Well back then they didn't have fancy terms as crust and what not.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
    • ari

      yes they did. they had a term to refer to what we call the geological earth and another term to refer to what we call the planet earth. الأرض vs قشرة أرضية. i know your own religion better than you do.

      December 4, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
    • ashrakay

      smack down!

      December 4, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
  20. Dan

    They're just a bit more brainwashed. That's why.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:46 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.