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. Really

    @ari Yeahby your definition saying earth is spreading it is saying it is flat right. Also doesn't explain the great flood very well does it nor does it tell how Mary explained that she was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
    • ari

      the earth is not spreading, the great flood didn't happen, mary wasn't a virgin. next?

      December 4, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
  2. Hitler II

    The Jew skulks about, rubbing his hands together and smacking his thick lips in anticipation of his next abomination. It's no wonder they are universally despised!

    December 4, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      I dont despise Jews and im part of the universe......

      December 4, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
    • collins61

      Speak for yourself. When we see some Muslims awarded the Nobel or Pulitzer or something other than a fatwa they too can have some respect.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
  3. justhuman

    Please don'd take just some parts or Quran and Bible and interpret them as you need, please understnd the time and relations of all these verses both in Quran and Bible to understnd what was the reason of these words.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
    • ReligionIs4Dolts

      Like this one, for instance?

      Numbers 31:17-18 (which is a DIRECT commandment from "god")
      17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
    • ashrakay

      Isn't that exactly what christians do? The bible commands death for people who don't observe the sabbath by stoning. Aren't you selectively avoiding that when you don't do it? Jesus said turn the other cheek, but how many christians stood up and preached this when we were attacked?

      December 4, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
  4. True light

    Islam commands to slay those who recant Islam, also kill all non believers. Here are couple of Quran verses ... There are thousands more, so, those who want to present Islam should read and know first what is it:

    Qur'an:9:5 "Fight and kill the disbelievers wherever you find them, take them captive, harass them, lie in wait and ambush them using every stratagem of war."

    Quran But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, an seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem.

    Here one of similar thousands commands from their prophet: Bukhari:V4B53N386 "Our Prophet, the Messenger of our Lord, ordered us to fight you till you worship Allah alone or pay us the Jizyah tribute tax in submission. Our Prophet has informed us that our Lord says: 'Whoever amongst us is killed as a martyr shall go to Paradise to lead such a luxurious life as he has never seen, and whoever survives shall become your master.'"

    Islam is the only religion which commands killing any Muslim recant his religion ... Is this not enough fear for Muslims spare their lives?

    December 4, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
    • ashrakay

      Though it wasn't under commandment of the bible, catholics did the same things to those not toting the party line.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:32 pm |
  5. Rocky

    Dearborn, Michigan has become a Sharia enclave, much like those populating many European countries. The city of Dearborn, Michigan denied a permit Wednesday for Qur’an-burning Pastor Terry Jones’ planned protest outside the Islamic Center of America on Good Friday.
    Islamic supremacists were handed a victory for their violent intimidation and threats. City spokeswoman Mary Laundroche said that Jones’ permit had been denied for “public safety reasons.” In other words, they’re afraid Muslims will riot. And so the rights of free Americans have to be curtailed.
    Terry Jones burned a Qur’an. So what? What happened to the freedom of assembly, the freedom of speech, and the freedom of expression? Terry Jones is prohibited from rallying in Michigan for fear of Islamic violence. Is that how far down the Sharia rabbit hole we have gone? Why is it that any time American law comes into conflict with Islamic law, it is American law that has to give way?

    December 4, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
  6. EnjaySea

    Why are they more religious? I suppose because they're more gullible.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
  7. Wilder Napalm

    Because they are beheaded if they don't? Just sayin..............

    December 4, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
  8. UglyTruth

    Religion is an abomination to all humanity.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
    • ashrakay


      December 4, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
  9. Addi

    Muslims believe in Allah as the only God(Provider, sustainer, forgiver, kind, loving). Allah loves to a human 70 times more than his/her mother. Imagine that 70 times more... Prophet Jesus is the messange of Islam and a muslims can't be a muslim until he belives that Jesus is the prophet/Messanger of Allah..Muslims believe in Bible, Torah and zaboor and Quran.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
    • ari

      it is a lie to say that muslims believe in the bible. muslims believe that the bible is corrupted and that christians who believe in jesus' divinity will go to hell. they believe that a man named jesus was a prophet–but "isa" is pretty far, ideologically, from jesus.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
    • True light

      Thou either are ignorant of your religion or deceiving others. Did not your Quran says:

      Ch 4:17 Certainly they disbelieve who say: Surely, Allah– He is the Messiah, son of Marium. Say: Who then could control anything as against Allah when He wished to destroy the Messiah son of Marium and his mother and all those on the earth? And Allah's is the kingdom of the heavens and the earth and what is between them; He creates what He pleases; and Allah has power over all things.

      Did not your prophet said: slay all Jews and Chrisitians until the Arabia is for Muslims only?

      Read saheeh al bukhari, read sura al tauba .... Rad your books first!

      December 4, 2011 at 10:24 pm |
    • True light

      You either do not your religion or deceiving others. Did not your prophet said: slay all Jews and Chrisitians until the Arabia is for Muslims only? Read saheeh al bukhari, read sura al tauba .... Read your books first!

      December 4, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
  10. ari

    some people say that islam calls upon muslims to kill or convert all non-muslims. in fact this is false and islamophobic. islam calls upon muslims to kill or convert all non-muslims UNLESS they pay them money. behold:

    Qu'ran 9:29 Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture – [fight] until they give the jizyah willingly while they are humbled.

    the jizya would be the tax that muslims imposed upon their non-muslim people when they conquered various lands, btw. the verse right after that is also a real loving one:

    Qu'ran 9:30 The Jews say, "Ezra is the son of Allah "; and the Christians say, "The Messiah is the son of Allah ." That is their statement from their mouths; they imitate the saying of those who disbelieved [before them]. May Allah destroy them; how are they deluded?

    the sad thing is that over 1 billion people actually believe this.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
    • Addi

      ari you are not doing or saying something new YOU ARE QUOTING QURAN OUT OF CONTEXT.

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

      I'm sure all the muslims who kill people are killing in the name of some other Allah. That's it.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
    • ari

      you're right, addi. here's the context:

      Qu'ran 9:28 O you who have believed, indeed the polytheists are unclean, so let them not approach al-Masjid al-Haram after this, their [final] year. And if you fear privation, Allah will enrich you from His bounty if He wills. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Wise.

      see, mohammed forbade the infidels from visiting mecca, and then the mecca shopowners lost all their money. so mohammed said "HEY GUISE ALLAH SAYS TO COLLECT MONEY FROM THE INFIDELS NOW, IT'S ALL GOOD" to avoid a mutiny. lovely.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
    • ashrakay

      @Addi, Look at the teachings of Buddha. Is there anything that can be taken out of context to justify violence? No. Because it's true message is peace. If this were there true message of Islam, there would be clearer instructions to avoid violence at all cost. If Mohammed lacked the insight that people might take his words out of context to justify violence, he doesn't really seems to be up for the job he was given.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
    • MeMelvin

      My experience with Muslim acquaintances is that they are always trying sell me on Islam as the perfect and only true approach to the Divine. I have also been approached by Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. The main difference I have yet to meet a Mormon or Jehovah's Witness carrying a gun or setting off explosives to make their point. My experience with Muslims has been that it is their way or the highway. Islam may be a great political philosophy to control (Islam = Surrender) large masses of people, but it is not a great religion.

      "Oh, what fools these mortals be."

      December 4, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
  11. Truth

    Majority of Muslims are brain-washed with "Me and my religion is better than anyone" ridiculous fanatic thought. When I look at Muslims, they all look like sheep to me, following a path of other sheep, believing that it is the best. They don't have independent thinking or thoughts. Some pedophile thought of ruling the tribes, came up with wicked idea of ruling them and devised Allah. He came down from mountain and start saying that Allah sent messenger to me and everybody started following him blindly. He must be ahead of his time and a very good story-teller. Even Lord of the Rings sound more believable that Koran's God stories. LOL. That is why whole Muslim world is going in to gutter

    December 4, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
    • MeMelvin

      I do so agree. And in that illusion of superiority, lies Islam's great flaw. Surrender (Islam) arises out of fear and not from the heart.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
  12. Really

    @ari Then why are you referring to a verse that describes hell to be peaceful you think that God will go by your definition of peace and Justice.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
  13. ReligionIs4Dolts

    Quran (Surah 9:5):
    Fight and slay the infidels wherever you find them ... confine them, and lie in wait for them in every place of ambush"

    Bible (1 Samuel 15:3)
    Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.

    I just love all the HATE that this "god" has for his beloved creation, man.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
  14. Rocky

    The current communist Obama administration has backed terrorists now in both Libya and Egypt who are implementing Sharia law, violating human rights, killing Christians, and pushing radical Islam. What a great foreign policy in the Middle East the president has. Give our enemies weapons, give them money, hand over several countries to them, which were taken away from non-radicals, and let them run with it, to make it worse than ever and less tolerant than ever! That is a great Middle East freedom plan ! They are killing more now in Egypt than ever before the overthrow, and will go against America with our own weapons. Way to go Comrade B. Hussein Obama! Keep up the great work !

    December 4, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
    • ashrakay

      Go read a book.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
  15. Really

    @ari Now you are just making stuff up now the flat earth thing is in Christianity not in Islam. People were killed in Europe for saying earth is round. Don't confuse it with Islam.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
    • ari

      the bible actually does not say that the earth is flat. the qu'ran does. people have known that the earth was round in europe since the ancient greeks, it is a myth that people were killed for saying that. gallileo et al were on trial for saying that the sun was the center of the solar system, not that the earth was round.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
  16. Rocky

    Islam is an abomination to all humanity. All muslims must be made to feel shame for their vile, perverted, abominal, belligerent, homicidal ideology of islam until they no longer want islam just as Germans were convinced to give up nazism.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
  17. justhuman

    i am deeply saddened to see so much hate and ignorance.
    God bless you all and show you the righteous path. Amin.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:12 pm |
  18. Really

    @ari Islam doesn't mean peace it means submission to God. Peace term is used when Muslims great other Muslims.

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

      i never said it meant peace. i know what islam means.

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

    Allah is most Kind and Generous he will forgive your sin and the day you will revert. you will be like a newly born child. But afterwards if you make any sins you will be accountable for that...

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

      Also there is no earthly punishment for that for all those earthly punishment fearing folks.

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

      Santa Clause will too, AND you get presents if you're good and only coal if you're bad. That's way better than eternal damnation.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
    • Jon

      I agree, I would pray to Santa way before Allah.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
  20. Really

    @b4bigbang I am never offended by trolls they always add to my knowledge only trolls that offend me are those that keep saying the same stuff over and over again just kills my brain cells.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:09 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.