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. Rocky

    Try testing your free speech rights in predominant Muslim countries and see how that goes over. They will use our laws against us until the get majority and then take away all rights. Wake up people, Islam is a dangerous evil cult. They just laugh behind our backs at how stupid our liberals are.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
    • ReligionIs4Dolts

      Right. Why does Iran, for instance, have to be an Islamic Republic? Hmmm. How else could Zoroastrianism have been stamped out except by force? You will be a Muslim or die!

      December 4, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
  2. ReligionIs4Dolts

    I am a religious fanatic. I don't want to know anything except what I have been told. I do not want to know how anything works, why anything happens. If it ain't been learned to me by some ancient text written by folks that didn't know $h|+, then it must not be worth learning. I want to bury my head in the sand and die stupid.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
  3. Rocky

    Lets see, they celebated 9-11, the Cole explosion, the WTC bombing in 1993 and numerous other terror attacks with street celebrations. I am sick of this pestilence, always crying foul when they get called something they don't like, but they can say and act as they please when its hurtful to others. They are a satanic death cult that should be eleminated from the planet, otherwise we ALL will suffer for a long time !

    December 4, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
    • Hitler II

      Are you an ugly, squat Jew, Rocky?

      December 4, 2011 at 10:32 pm |
  4. Addi

    Christians are misguided through their chuches and their political and religious leaders. I would request to my all non-muslim folks Just read the Quran..

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


      December 4, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
    • Fnordz

      Yeah, see that's the problem. It's mostly gibberish to begin with.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
    • Jeff

      Just read the Quran? I have. The mislead nonsense which you call a religion? How about the corrupt and evil leaders in Islam? Or the politics of Islam itself?
      I've read the Quran numerous occasions. Its just the same boring trite like all the other religions. This world will never find peace until we stop worshipping angry space daddies

      December 4, 2011 at 10:36 pm |
    • collins61

      Words are cheap. I watch the actions of Islam. Thats all I need to see.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
  5. b4bigbang


    "religion bashers" and pacifists are two completely unrelated things. Any half-intelligent person should be able to ration god serves no purpose except to scare people into doing good and attempt to explain holes in science. Pacifists on the other hand, believe that people should be good for the purpose of being good. But sadly, some people are truly rotten. It's as simple as that, and as long as people like that exist, there will and should be people to kill them. You make a good 2nd point, but your 1st point re religion is ill-informed, therefore illogical. (but your opinion nevertheless, 4 what it's worth).

    December 4, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
    • Jon

      How is it ill-informed? You must imagine it's really a giant gamble if you are religious to assume that you are right and every one of the other thousands of religions is wrong isn't it? How do you know Islam isn't the right religion or buddhism, or hindi? Picking one with absolutely certainty and assuming that God gives a hoot what a tiny single individual human does is just optimistic at best.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:39 pm |
  6. Rocky

    The massive inbreeding in Muslim culture may well have done virtually irreversible damage to the Muslim gene pool, including extensive damage to its intelligence, sanity, and health.

    According to Sennels, close to half of all Muslims in the world are inbred. In Pakistan , the numbers approach 70%. Even in England , more than half of Pakistani immigrants are married to their first cousins, and in Denmark the number of inbred Pakistani immigrants is around 40%.

    The numbers are equally devastating in other important Muslim countries: 67% in Saudi Arabia, 64% in Jordan and Kuwait , 63% in Sudan , 60% in Iraq , and 54% in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar .

    December 4, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
  7. Rocky

    Organised pedophilia as a 'community activity'
    Of course you find pedophiles and rapists in all communities, but these are nearly always loners operating in secret, because pedophiles are despised and hated by normal people.

    However Islam is different . Pedophilia is socially acceptable in Islam because 'the perfect man' Mohammed was a pedophile. In addition, pedophile attacks on 'kaffir' (non-Muslim, infidel ) children are seen as a legitimate form of jihad, inflicting humiliation and demoralisation on the children and their parents.


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

    Islam is fastest growing religion in the world and the its the biggest myth that Islam was spread through sword. If this was true whem muslims ruled the world there would be no non-muslims left.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
    • ari

      "If this was true whem muslims ruled the world there would be no non-muslims left."

      that is not correct. islam was indeed spread by the sword–not sure how you can deny this, look up the history of the islamic conquests–and most people were forced to convert to islam. there are few non-muslims left in the middle east (and none in some places, like saudi arabia) but those who still are there are descendents of those who could afford to pay the jizya, and thus keep their religion. islam was spread by violence and extortion, like many religions.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
    • ashrakay

      And more people watch American Idol than Nova. That says more about the audience then it does the message.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:35 pm |
  9. Hitler II

    If six million Jews were exterminated in a forest and no one heard their screams, would they make a sound? Who cares?

    December 4, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
  10. CJ

    From the day they are born Muslims are fed only Islam, Islam dominates all other matters education. Being educated causes people to ask questions, and questioning Islam, or leaving Islam, can be punishable by execution. Every single day, five times each day, Muslims must stop what they are doing a pray. Friday prayers are mandatory. Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam,Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam.........

    December 4, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
  11. Rocky

    The muslim's body is simply a life support system for a rectum.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
  12. Joe

    Jews are just as religious as Muslims if not more.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
    • ari

      most jews are atheists.

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

      The doctrine of Judaism does not mandate the Jews kill other people.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
    • collins61

      Jews get Nobel Prizes, Muslims throw acid in the face of women who spurned them. Jews build communities , embrace science and progress, Islam burns churches and synagogues to the ground, usually with worshipers inside.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
  13. Rocky

    "palestinian" Racism directed towards Blacks

    Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, has been the subject of some viciously racial personal attacks, alongside vociferous criticism of her policies. These included an anti-black racist Cartoon in Palestinian Authority's controlled Press Al Quds. The New York Times reported in 2006

    "Her comment that the Israel-Lebanon war represented the “birth pangs of a new Middle East” — sparked ridicule and even racist cartoons. A "palestinian" newspaper, Al Quds," which "depicted Ms. Rice as pregnant with an armed monkey, and a caption that read, “Rice speaks about the birth of a new Middle East."

    The "palestinian" media has used racist terms including "black spinster" and "colored dark skin lady."

    December 4, 2011 at 10:24 pm |
  14. Earl Weaver

    I can tolerate any religion that doesn't want to kill me for my beliefs.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:24 pm |
    • AGuest9

      How about when they try to ram said beliefs down your throat, preach to you on your front porch, or teach them in your childrens' schools as "science"?

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

      How about you have the freedom to question it, demand it's removed and choose not to participate. How about try that with Islam in, oh, say Saudi Arabia or Pakistan? Can you see the difference or are you deaf, dumb and blind?

      December 4, 2011 at 10:43 pm |
  15. Addi

    Islam has the best charity system, If followed properly, can help to elimenate poverty. According to islam, if you have saved certain amount of Gold or equivalent(money property. wealth) (this year stander is $4552 ) you have to give the atleast 2.5% to the charity and its a states reponsibilty to make it possible it reaches to the Poors.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
    • ari

      that's not charity. that's a tax. charity is voluntary.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:24 pm |
    • ReligionIs4Dolts

      Charity? Like the two Somali Muslim women who were recently sentenced to jail in Minnesota for raising nearly $8000 for their so-called "charity", which in fact turned out to be a terrorist organization?

      December 4, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
    • ashrakay

      Honor killings need your support. Send money now.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
    • collins61

      We need more acid to throw in the face of our young women because they dare to say no. Give generously.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
  16. Mike in SA

    They aren't. A better quesiton would be why are the Muslims so easily led to violent radicalism towards ANYTHING that does not fit their narrow mindset.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
  17. oldblindjohn

    Subtract 635 years from todays date and tell me what the state of christianity was at that time.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
    • ari

      the renaissance?

      December 4, 2011 at 10:24 pm |
    • AGuest9

      John Wycliffe was studying at Oxford, prior to founding the Lollard movement, a precursor to the Protestant Reformation.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
    • Sir Craig


      Not quite. The Renaissance was in direct contrast to Christianity. I believe the answer is, Christianity was both the church and the state, and it was only through the efforts of those who saw what a lousy situation that was that we finally broke free of that particular system. Why Muslims want to go back to that is beyond me.

      For that matter, I cannot understand why more than a few Christians want to do the same thing. (Think: The GOP front-runners.)

      December 4, 2011 at 10:34 pm |
    • collins61

      Subtract whats your point from that was then and you get lets talk about today. Subtract 3 million from last Thursday and it has nothing to do with today either.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:47 pm |
  18. Rocky

    The Complete Infidel's Guide to the Koran. A decade ago families and nations witnessed the frightening destruction of the World Trade Center. As we watched these monolithic icons crash to the ground our hearts broke for the many thousands of innocent lives lost. Families broken; relationships severed. Men, women, and children perished. And for what? For the last ten years Americans have been told that Islam is the "religion of peace," and that we have nothing to fear as it creeps upon our shores, erects mosques near our homes, and spreads like wild-fire across the globe. It's time we took off the blinders; it's time we identify Islam for what it really is.
    In The Complete Infidel's Guide to the Koran, Robert Spencer brings to light the facts and details Muslims and mainstream media wish to keep out of sight. The Koran instructs Muslims to kill non-muslims, but the news won't tell you that. The Koran permits a man to beat his wife (and even tells him how!), but the media won't tell you that. The Koran demands that Christians, Jews, and all non-muslims pay a tax to Muslim leaders to show subjection – but the media won't share that with you either.
    Did you know that much of the growth of Islam is the result of people not understanding the religion? Let's change that. This year, remembering the tragedy of 9/11, let us open the eyes of our great nation. Let us expose Islam for what it is, and protect the innocent lives it wishes to take.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
    • Sir Craig

      Yes, because we NEVER murdered Muslims. Ever. Not a single innocent life was lost in Iraq/Afghanistan. And certainly never before 9/11.

      Are you even aware of history outside of what you learn from Faux News?

      December 4, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
    • collins61

      You're going to use the Iraq/Afghanistan war as your template? You are the one that needs to open your eyes. How can you completely ignore 1400 years of Muslim aggression? Educate yourself, please, you're an embarrassment.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:55 pm |
  19. Rocky

    The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam
    Everything (well, almost everything) you know about Islam and the Crusades is wrong because most textbooks and popular history books are written by left-wing academics and Islamic apologists who justify their contemporary political agendas with contrived historical facts.
    But fear not: Robert Spencer refutes popular myths and reveals facts that you wont be taught in school and will never hear on the evening news. He supplies a revealing list of Books You Must Not Read (as far as the PC left is concerned), and takes you on a fast-paced politically incorrect tour of Islamic teaching and Crusades history that will give you all the information you need to understand the true nature of the global conflict America faces today.
    Bet your teacher never told you:
    •Muhammad did not teach peace and tolerancehe led armies and ordered the assassination of his enemies
    •The Quran commands Muslims to make war on Jews and Christians
    •The much-ballyhooed Golden Age of Islamic culture was largely inspired by non-Muslims
    •What is known today as the Islamic world was created by a series of brutal conquests of non-Muslim lands
    •The Crusades were not acts of unprovoked aggression by Europe against the Islamic world, but a delayed response to centuries of Muslim aggression
    •The jihad continues today: Europe could be Islamic by the end of the twenty-first century
    •Ex-Muslims must live in fear even in the United States

    December 4, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
    • Really

      Woo you just opened my eyes now I know you must also not believe in any science too. You engine starts by a miracle called fuel and your brain is miraculously empty.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
    • Republicans Are The American Taliban

      You are as educated as Sarah Palins children

      December 4, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
    • collins61

      Really. Was that your best shot at refuting anything Rocky said? His statements can all be backed up. You chose to attack his alleged empty mind. And your head? Refute with some facts because as of now your credibility is in tatters.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
  20. b4bigbang


    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.

    Then i assume u and the rest of the relgion bashers are total pacifists, meaning u are also loudly outspoken against any and all war, including all US wars, police actions, war on terror, etc...???

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

      "religion bashers" and pacifists are two completely unrelated things. Any half-intelligent person should be able to ration god serves no purpose except to scare people into doing good and attempt to explain holes in science. Pacifists on the other hand, believe that people should be good for the purpose of being good. But sadly, some people are truly rotten. It's as simple as that, and as long as people like that exist, there will and should be people to kill them.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
    • collins61

      Yes, all the mosques burned to the ground by Christians and Jews these days has our heads spinning. Thank God, I mean Allah that Muslims do not burn churches down. Then and only then could we question their real agenda. Oh, wait...

      December 4, 2011 at 10:29 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.