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. ari

    Qu'ran 5:72 They have certainly disbelieved who say, " Allah is the Messiah, the son of Mary" while the Messiah has said, "O Children of Israel, worship Allah , my Lord and your Lord." Indeed, he who associates others with Allah – Allah has forbidden him Paradise, and his refuge is the Fire. And there are not for the wrongdoers any helpers.

    Qu'ran 5:14 And from those who say, "We are Christians" We took their covenant; but they forgot a portion of that of which they were reminded. So We caused among them animosity and hatred until the Day of Resurrection. And Allah is going to inform them about what they used to do.

    Qu'ran 5:51 O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you – then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people.

    Qu'ran 5:73 They have certainly disbelieved who say, " Allah is the third of three." And there is no god except one God. And if they do not desist from what they are saying, there will surely afflict the disbelievers among them a painful punishment.

    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?

    that's for my friend addi, who said that muslims "will never talk trash about christians".

    December 4, 2011 at 10:44 pm |
  2. chris

    It's very simple. Easily understood. There is only one god.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:43 pm |
    • ari

      And his name be the Flying Spaghetti Monster, most Holy; yea, verily, His Noodly Appendage guides us through the corridors of darkness.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
    • streetsmt

      I don't understand

      December 4, 2011 at 10:47 pm |
    • ashrakay

      In his secret sauce we are drenched. For those who sit at his table will never hunger for pasta. Lo, they will be filled. For my spaghetti bowl runneth over and stains my white tablecloth with love.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
  3. ReligionIs4Dolts

    If I go alone into the mountains or a cave or whatever, and come back claiming that "god" revealed "his" plan for mankind to me and only me....does the fact that I write it down thus make it TRUE? What a bunch of idiots to follow some garbage that no one can corroborate! Sheep!

    December 4, 2011 at 10:43 pm |
  4. Hitler II

    Rocky's Jew lover "seeded" him with HIV.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:43 pm |
  5. achepotle

    More religious than the kooks who run for Prez and the Talibubbas who vote for them?

    December 4, 2011 at 10:42 pm |
  6. Amit

    If the so called best religion followers are the most involved across the world in crime, hatred, ... It's in the best interest to follow the worst religion or humanity. All the countries having best religion why not have peace

    December 4, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
  7. Addi

    Allah Says to Prphet Mohhamd in quran "Say: He is Allah, the One and Only! Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not nor is He begotten. And there is none like unto Him.'

    December 4, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
    • ashrakay

      Are you trying to convince us or yourself?

      December 4, 2011 at 10:50 pm |
    • im


      December 4, 2011 at 11:47 pm |
  8. Rod C. Venger

    Islam is a religion full of sin. There's is no communication with or from "allah" to anyone except Mohammed, yet God communicated with many people, pre-jews, jews and the immediate precursors to Christianity. God gave us the Ten Commandments, something that is glaringly absent from Islam. Christianity, and Judaism, tells us not to do certain things. Islam turns that on it's head and tells Muslims when they can do them. The Bible specifically said that none others would come after Christ, yet along comes Mohammed and appoints himself a prophet. Islam was first a cult of personality, now a barbaric after-effect of egomania and psychopathology. Mohammed is David Koresh, had he lived and thrived another 50 years. Mohammed was simply a self-promoter, a hedonist.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
    • Keith Grove

      What a pile of hogwash, god speaks to christians. Sure he does, he answers our prayers to cure children of cancer with complete silence. If I am wrong please send me an e-mail saying what his reply is, while you are at it ask him how to cure all the diseases that children suffer from. If the answer is something like, god helps those who help themselves or god works in mysterious ways, then don't bother I have heard those fairy tales thousands of times.
      Come on tell me what your god says I am dying to know, if you can't do this don't feel bad I have askedthis question thousands of times and so far NO ONE has come up with an answer. I don't undestand why this is so difficult.
      Now you can just dismiss this and pretend I don't exist, that's the weak mans way out, I am sure you are a strong and devout member of the flock so please, please answer my question

      December 4, 2011 at 11:01 pm |
  9. Rocky

    Q: How do you tell a Sunni from a Shiite ?
    A: The Sunnis are the ones with the Shiite blown out of them.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
  10. Rocky

    Q: did you hear about the muslim that got a job with al qaeda blowing cars ?
    A: he burned his mouth on the tail pipe.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
  11. Addi

    You won't see a single abusive statement for the christianity and Juses form a true believer of Islam...you are not a muslim if you don't believe that a jesus is the messanger of ISlam and the bible is the word of God

    December 4, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
    • ari

      you are a liar. the qu'ran states that christians are going to hell, that the bible is corrupted, and that christianity is idolatry. i'll post verses if you'd like.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:39 pm |
    • Death to Islam

      Considering we have millions of hateful letters, videos, and other evidence that "true believers" do indeed say bad things about Christians and Jews, your post is shown to be an utter bald-faced LIE!
      Plus, we have thousands of acts of violence against Christians and Jews by Muslims, which also show you to be a LIAR.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:54 pm |
  12. Lewis Skolnick

    Why are Muslims more religious? Because they're insane.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
  13. ari

    i think that islam actually has something going for it when it comes to women. see, as a man, i am allowed to marry up to four wives–they can be slaves, free women, believers, non-believers, whatever (4:3)–but women can only marry one man, and he must be a muslim. i get twice as much of daddy's money as my sister does (4:11), and can exchange my wife for a better one if i don't like her (4:20). plus if my wife is lewd, i can just make her stay in the house forever (4:15), and can beat her if she gets sassy (4:34). it's very progressive.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
  14. Hitler II

    I own a Jew-scrotum change purse. It has a brass clasp and is ever so soft.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
  15. Rocky

    Muslims in third world countries are indoctrinated from birth to hate and lie to and kill the 'infidel'.

    Liberals Socialists in the USA are also indoctrinated to hate the 'infidel'. They hate Christianity but give quarter to Muslims.

    Deductive reasoning says that Liberal Socialists are our biggest threat.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
  16. Addi

    In a real world it also makes sense. before you discuss a book first you need to read it. I would request my non-muslim friends please read Quran first. QUran is the most reading books in the world. It is in the original from since it was reveled to the Prophet Muhamamd. only one testament. no human interventon in God's word. Million of the people learn this book by heart.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:36 pm |
    • ReligionIs4Dolts

      Same old talking points. The problem is it was based on and MADE UP AFTER two other major religions that it is obviously just a copy of. Get real, dude. And on top of that the religions it was copied from were themselves copies of other preexisting religions from Persia, Greece, Egypt, etc.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:39 pm |
    • ashrakay

      Alright dude, at least 4 or 5 of us out here have read it and are giving you comments on it. You may not like the comments, but people are quoting verses to you. Obviously, we've read it.

      December 4, 2011 at 10:49 pm |
  17. Rocky

    Anagrams : President Barack Obama – Arab base, pink Democrat.
    President Barack Hussein Obama – A Democrat speaks inane rubbish.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:35 pm |
  18. Rocky

    Hamas condemns killing of "holy warrior" Osama bin Laden.

    GAZA (Reuters) – The Palestinian Islamist group Hamas on Monday condemned the killing by U.S. forces of Osama bin Laden and mourned him as an "Arab holy warrior."

    "We regard this as a continuation of the American policy based on oppression and the shedding of Muslim and Arab blood," Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas administration in the Gaza Strip, told reporters."
    And Israel is supposed to make peace with them ? !

    December 4, 2011 at 10:34 pm |
  19. Rocky

    وكان محمد خنزير.

    December 4, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
  20. Rocky

    In Islam, there are only three groups of people: Believers, Unbelievers and Hypocrites. Guess what the Western term "moderate" is by Islamic standard. What is an Islamic extremist? A Muslim who strictly follows the koran, kills in the name of Allah? If Osama bin Laden who merely killed a few thousands was an extremist, then what was Prophet Muhammad who started 77 aggressive wars of conquest, whereby 25 of them he himself participated on the battlefield, which finally ended in an ethnic cleansing of the entire Arabian Peninsula from every Jew, Christian, Zorastrian, Bahai, etc.?"

    December 4, 2011 at 10:31 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.