Conflict, theology and history make Muslims more religious than others, experts say
A recent global survey suggests that Muslims are more religious than Christians and Hindus.
December 3rd, 2011
10:00 PM ET

Conflict, theology and history make Muslims more religious than others, experts say

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN

(CNN) - Every religion has its true believers and its doubters, its pious and its pragmatists, but new evidence suggests that Muslims tend to be more committed to their faith than other believers.

Muslims are much more likely than Christians and Hindus to say that their own faith is the only true path to paradise, according to a recent global survey, and they are more inclined to say their religion is an important part of their daily lives.

Muslims also have a much greater tendency to say their religion motivates them to do good works, said the survey, released over the summer by Ipsos-Mori, a British research company that polls around the world.

Islam is the world's second-largest religion - behind Christianity and ahead of Hinduism, the third largest. With some 1.5 billion followers and rising, Islam's influence may be growing even faster than its numbers as the Arab Spring topples long-reigning secular rulers and opens the way to religiously inspired political parties.

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But while there's no doubt about the importance of Islam, experts have different theories about why Muslims appear to be more religious than members of other global faiths - and contrasting views on whether to fear the depth of Muslims' commitment to their faith.

One explanation lies in current affairs, says Azyumardi Azra, an expert on Islam in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim majority country.

Many Muslims increasingly define themselves in contrast with what they see as the Christian West, says Azra, the director of the graduate school at the State Islamic University in Jakarta.

"When they confront the West that they perceive or misperceive as morally in decline, many Muslims feel that Islam is the best way of life. Islam for them is the only salvation," he says.

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That feeling has become stronger since the September 11 attacks, as many Muslims believe there is a "growing conflict between Islam and the so-called West," he says.

"Unfortunately this growing attachment to Islam among Muslims in general has been used and abused by literal-minded Muslims and the jihadists for their own purposes," he says.

But other experts say that deep religious commitment doesn't necessarily lead to violence.

"Being more religious doesn't necessarily mean that they will become suicide bombers," says Ed Husain, a former radical Islamist who is now a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

In fact, Husain argues that religious upbringing "could be an antidote" to radicalism.

American Muslim women who cover explain their choice

The people most likely to become Islamist radicals, he says, are those who were raised without a religious education and came to Islam later, as "born-agains."

Muslims raised with a grounding in their religion are better able to resist the distortions of Islam peddled by recruiters to radical causes, some experts like Husain argue, making them less likely to turn to violence.

But he agrees that Muslims are strongly attached to their faith, and says the reason lies in the religion itself.

"Muslims have this mindset that we alone possess the final truth," Husain says.

Muslims believe "Jews and Christians went before us and Mohammed was the last prophet," says Husain, whose book "The Islamist" chronicles his experiences with radicals. "Our prophet aimed to nullify the message of the previous prophets."

The depth of the Muslim commitment to Islam is not only a matter of theology and current events, but of education and history, as well, other experts say.

"Where religion is linked into the state institutions, where religion is deeply ingrained from childhood, you are getting this feeling that 'My way is the only way,'" says Fiyaz Mughal, the director of Faith Matters, a conflict-resolution organization in London.

The Ipsos-Mori survey results included two countries with a strong link between religion and the state: Legally Muslim Saudi Arabia, which calls itself the guardian of Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina; and Indonesia, home of the world's largest Muslim population.

The third majority Muslim country in the study is Turkey, which has a very different relationship with religion. It was founded after World War I as a legally secular country. But despite generations of trying to separate mosque and state, Turkey is now governed by an Islam-inspired party, the AKP.

Turkey's experience shows how difficult it can be to untangle government and religion in Muslim majority countries and helps explain the Muslim commitment to their religion, says Azyumardi Azra, the Indonesia expert.

He notes that there has been no "Enlightenment" in Islam as there was in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, weakening the link between church and state in many Christian countries.

"Muslim communities have never experienced intense secularization that took place in Europe and the West in general," says Azra. "So Islam is still adhered to very strongly."

But it's not only the link between mosque and state in many Muslim majority countries that ties followers to their faith, says professor Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani diplomat who has written a book about Islam around the world.

Like Christians who wear "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelets, many Muslims feel a deep personal connection to the founder of their faith, the prophet Muhammad, he says.

Muhammad isn't simply a historical figure to them, but rather a personal inspiration to hundreds of millions of people around the world today.

"When a Muslim is fasting or is asked to give charity or behave in a certain way, he is constantly reminded of the example set by the prophet many centuries ago," argues Ahmed, the author of "Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization."

His book is based on interviews with Muslims around the world, and one thing he found wherever he traveled was admiration for Muhammad.

"One of the questions was, 'Who is your role model?' From Morocco to Indonesia, it was the prophet, the prophet, the prophet," says Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington.

But while Ahmed sees similar patterns across the Islamic world, Ed Husain, the former radical, said it was important to understand its diversity, as well.

"There is no monolithic religiosity - Muslims in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are following different versions of Islam," says Husain. "All we're seeing (in the survey) is an adherence to a faith."

Political scientist Farid Senzai, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington, raised questions about the survey's findings.

"Look at the countries that are surveyed - Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Turkey," he says. "There are about 300 million Muslims in those three countries, (who make up) about 20% of Muslims globally."

Islam is "incredibly important" in Saudi Arabia, he says.

"But in Tunisia or Morocco you could have had a different result. It would have been nice if they had picked a few more Arab countries and had a bit more diversity," says Senzai.

The pollster, Ipsos-Mori, does monthly surveys in 24 countries, three of which are majority Muslim – Turkey, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. The other countries range from India to the United States, and Mexico to South Korea, and are the same each month, regardless of the subject the pollsters are investigating.

In the survey released in July, about six in 10 Muslims in the survey said their religion was the only way to salvation, while only a quarter of Hindus and two out of 10 Christians made that claim about their own faiths.

More than nine out of 10 Muslims said their faith was important in their lives, while the figure was 86% for Hindus and 66% for Christians.

Ipsos-Mori surveyed 18,473 adults via an online panel in April and released the findings in July. Results were weighted to make the results as representative as possible, but the pollster cautioned that because the survey was conducted online, it was harder to get representative results in poorer countries where internet access is not widespread.

CNN polling director Keating Holland also warns that in an "opt-in" survey, where respondents actively choose to participate, results tend to come from "people who are confident in their opinions and express them openly... not good for intensely private matters like faith or income or sex."

Online surveys in countries that are not entirely free are also open to the possibility that pollsters get "the approved response" in those nations, "where the people who are most likely to be willing to talk about such matters are the ones who hold, or at least verbalize, opinions that won't get them in trouble if they are expressed," Holland says.

That may have been an issue in Saudi Arabia, where respondents were given the choice of not answering questions on religion due to their potential sensitivity in the kingdom. The Saudi sample was the smallest, with 354 participants, meaning "findings for Saudi Arabia must be treated with caution," Ipsos-Mori said.

About 1,000 people participated in most countries, but sample sizes were smaller in the three majority Muslim countries and in eight other countries.

The survey participants did not reflect the true percentage of Christians and Muslims in the world. Christians were over-represented – as were people who said they had no religion – and Muslims were under-represented.

Nearly half the respondents identified themselves as Christian. Eleven percent were Muslim, 4% were Buddhist, 3% were Hindu and 3% were "other." A quarter said they had no religion and 6% refused to say.

Fiyaz Mughal, the interfaith expert, argues that even though the countries surveyed might not be representative of the entire Muslim world, the findings about Muslims rang broadly true. Muslims in different countries were committed to their faith for different reasons, he says.

"Saudi Arabia is an institutionally religious state. Indonesia has religion tied into its culture," says Mughal.

But Muslim immigrants to Europe also show strong ties to their religion, either as a defense mechanism in the face of a perceived threat, or because of an effort to cling to identity, he contends.

He detects a link between insular communities and commitment to faith regardless of what religion is involved. It is prevalent in Muslim Saudi Arabia, but he has seen it among Israeli Jews as well, he says.

"The Israeli Jewish perspective is that (the dispute with the Palestinians) is a conflict of land and religion which are integrally linked," Mughal says.

"What does play a role in that scenario is a sense of isolationism and seclusion in Israeli Jewish religious communities, a growing trend to say, 'Our way is the only way,'" he says.

Religious leaders of all faiths need to combat those kinds of attitudes because of the greater diversity people encounter in the world today, he argues.

They have a responsibility to teach their congregations "that if they are following a religion, it is not as brutal or exclusive as possible," Mughal says. "Things are changing. The world is a different place from what it was even 20 years ago."

Politicians, too, "need to take these issues quite seriously," he says.

"In the Middle East there are countries - the Saudi Arabias - where you need to be saying that diversity, while it may not be a part of the country, is something they have to deal with when moving in a globalized area," he says.

But Senzai, the political scientist, says that it's also important for the West to take the Muslim world on its own terms.

"Many Muslims want religion to play a role in politics," he says. "To assume that everyone around the world wants to be like the West - that they want liberal secular democracy - is an absurd idea."

- CNN's Nima Elbagir and Atika Shubert contributed to this report.

- Newsdesk editor, The CNN Wire

Filed under: 9/11 • Islam • Middle East

soundoff (5,459 Responses)
  1. Devin

    The constant arguing over religions is really boring now. No person in the world has solid evidence that their religion is the correct one. It's just mindless arguments based on personal opinions.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:42 pm |
    • ashrakay

      or verifiable evidence that god even exists.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:43 pm |
    • Mr. Hat

      These arguments usually end in both sides resorting to insulting each other.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:00 am |
  2. Ace

    Why doesn't the liberal media refer to these people as religious zealots or nuts like they do with christians, scaired much?

    December 4, 2011 at 11:40 pm |
  3. Anthony La Macchia

    Read all the hateful comments posted here from people all all religions in our mortal world, and maybe then we can all understand why more and more people are turning away from the dogma/control of organized religion.

    This is a sad state of affairs. And we are all dust in the wind.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
  4. Rocky

    Islam does not assimilate into cultures, they dominate them & eventually conquer them, rendering their traditions and social values extinct. It's the same tactics & methods Islam has used in their 1400 yr. history of infiltration, threats, violence & submission, to their never ending social demands, as they continue in their quest for world dominance. Pay less attention to what they say & more to their irrefutable actions. Islam already has a foothold here & we have terrorists living amongst us, planning their next attacks, right here on our soil, just as the hijackers did before 9/11, using our freedoms & liberties to achieve their evil agenda. There's no such thing as a "moderate" Muslim, anymore than a moderate piranha, once the feeding frenzy begins, moderates will be no where to be found. Just as it is now, Muslims will never stand up for America, against Islam. To do so would mean an eternity in hell, for disagreeing with or doubting Islam. Don't expect American Muslims to stand for America, above Islam, but you can be sure, if cartoons or anything considered bias against Islam is perceived, rest assured, they will come out en mass. A snake may shed it's skin, but it's still a snake beneath & the nature of the beast is to strike & kill. American Muslims will betray us to Islam, when the time is right & that time is coming, as America comes to terms with who the enemy really is. Moderate or radical, Islam is the enemy of the world, themselves & any non-Muslim.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
    • Dean

      Rocky,you are my hero ! You are a fearless warrior of truth !

      December 4, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
    • Archie

      Rightly said. Never found many educated Muslim pointing out the true horrific problems of the religion. What they do is mere defending but never an aggressive attack or questioning. Follower of other religions are free to do so but not Islam. I have mingled with many Muslims and desperately tried to find out some normalcy expected from a 21st century person but failed to obtain in most of the cases, even from educated Muslim. They avoid discussion about religion or become defensive but never question. How can someone be so fanatic after all these education and exposure. Still baffles me!!!

      December 4, 2011 at 11:48 pm |
    • moas786

      Sir you are a very poor student of history, please go back to educating yourself before trying to sound like a man possessed by his own agenda. also do not go to Fox or Newsmax and talk radio for your education on history if you want to learn the truth.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:51 pm |
  5. Ted

    Most other religions won't slit your throat or stone you to death if you doubt the religion, MAYBE THAT IS WHY!?!?!

    December 4, 2011 at 11:37 pm |
    • moas786

      Maybe thats what you need to tell yourself to keep yourself in the DARK, find the truth my man, it is a simple as "their is only ONE God and adam, noah, abrahim ,moses, jesus and muhammed are all His messengers.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:54 pm |
  6. Rocky

    "Moderate muslims" are a figment of liberal infidels' imagination. One can never be a true muslim unless he kills infidels if he can find any, or fellow muslims if he cannot find. The "holy" koran is clear on this.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:37 pm |
  7. Rocky

    Muslims committed the first GENOCIDE of the 20th century by butchering 1.5 million innocent Armenians.
    Muslims committed GENOCIDE against Millions of BLACKS in the SUDAN.
    Muslims committed GENOCIDE against Orthodox Christians in the Balkans.
    Muslims are committing GENOCIDE against Jews and Christians in Israel.
    Now they are committing GENOCIDE against innocent Russians.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:37 pm |
  8. aj

    As they are least educated in science, common sense, logic and above all liberal views..........

    December 4, 2011 at 11:36 pm |
  9. Maltese Falcon

    Why are the Germans so scientific?

    December 4, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
    • Hitler II

      Germans are "so scientific" because they are among the most fully human of peoples. It's an Aryan thing.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
    • Dean

      hitler, stop ambarassing the real german people, go back to your cave in iran.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:43 pm |
  10. Rocky

    Don't buy islamists' b.s.

    Khomeini pretended to be a moderate, too. He said that he believed in democracy and tolerance – and he lived in France. The Western weaklings hosted him.

    Second he got back to Iran in power, he began executing thousands of people. He said that Islam has no humor and dissent must be crushed.

    Never trust an islamist. They are loonies, always.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
  11. Rocky

    I want to become a muslim. What is the proper attire to a good stoning? or to a post 911 party?

    December 4, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
    • moas786

      take it easy my jewish friend, stoping hating everyone outside of your clan. their is enough of God for all His followers even though you dropped the ball on Moses (peace be upon him) as he went to the mountains.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:11 am |
  12. TJ

    Um, Muslims do NOT believe their religion is the only way to paradise. Islam is a lot more based on good deeds and believing in One God. That is, Islam teaches that while Muhammad is the last Messenger of God, all those who subscribe to monotheistic religions will be granted heaven, especially "the People of the Book" aka Jews and Christians.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
    • Death to Islam

      TJ is a lying Muslim!
      The filthy koran is full of hate and violence towards all other religions!
      He lies like a dog who eats its own vomit!
      Death to Islam!
      Destroy the modern Nazis! Destroy Islam!
      Destroy the evil liars who pretend before they murder innocents!
      Destroy Islam! Death to Islam! Obliterate Islam from the earth!

      December 4, 2011 at 11:36 pm |
  13. Rocky

    The world fears Islam and the reasons are as long as the verses of the Koran. The world has allowed Islam to spread to spawn to the point no civilization is free from it's corrupt suicidal, homicidal, perverted, barbaric beliefs. Never in the history of mankind has there been such a violent, insane cult way of life like Islam. As with the spread of any disease such as Ebola. Islam protects Muslims from crimes and genocides that a civilized nation would be repulsed at. With Islam the Muslim can be a child molester, rapist, murderer, polygamist, terrorist, thief and lier for many reasons, all explained in that "holy" book – Koran. It frees the Muslim soul, giving them the ability to commit any abhorrent crime free from guilt.'

    December 4, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
    • moas786

      Yo Rock, you sound like a boxer that has been HIT one TOO many times? you O.k. their Rock or should I get Adrian or Pauly for you? get some rest my friend before you put your foot in your mouth and make a great fool of yourself?

      December 5, 2011 at 12:14 am |
  14. b4bigbang

    O man, i answered w/a big post and then hit enter instead of post!
    Are the gospel accounts reliable? There r good scholarly books on the subject. Many scientists are believers. Its good to doubt, but w/an open inquiring mind.
    A little less jesusnevexist, zeitgeist, etc and a little more checking the others claims maybe? (ive cked out zeitgeist have u read evidence that demands a verdict?)

    December 4, 2011 at 11:32 pm |
    • FYI


      Hitting "Enter" doesn't make your post disappear.

      Try paging back to find it and look it over for those automatic filter no-no letter combinations.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
  15. Rocky

    Dearborn Michigan may need predator strikes in the nearest future if the Christians don't act fast.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
  16. Rocky

    Osama Bin Laden and those who have perpetrated the over 13,000 jihad attacks worldwide since then repeatedly point to the Koran as their inspiration and authority.

    Yet Barack Obama, Tony Blair, and other Western leaders have praised the Koran as a "book of peace" - without providing any evidence of actually having read it.

    It's time they did - and it's time that all Westerners got to know the book that inspires our enemies to commit their hideous acts of hate and terrorism.

    Trouble is, the Koran is not an easy read. It's been called "wrist-slittingly boring" as well as confusing, contradictory, and muddled.

    Now, in The Complete Infidel's Guide to the Koran, Robert Spencer - the bestselling author and Islam expert - shows exactly what's in the Koran, and why every American should be concerned about Islam's holy book.

    Spencer also shows how the Koran developed, and even provides a revealing, disquieting glimpse into the Hadith, the traditions of Muhammad that for Muslims worldwide are second in authority only to the Koran itself.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:30 pm |
    • bccrean

      I am not a Muslim, but when did Laden started representing trillion Muslims across the world? Stop being ignorant and hateful and read and think more rather taking things out of context.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
    • Open eyes.


      December 4, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
    • Islam

      You have answered your question in your opening lines. The fact is Islam has a long history and when people (world leaders) say Islam is a religion of peace that’s because they are not basing their opinion on Islam based on just one radical group like Taliban or one radical leader like O.B.L or late Khomeini of Iran.

      If you look at Islam on a global level you will find many Muslim communities living peacefully. What you have today is 2 groups of Islam fighting it out and causing all the problems. Its the Shia and Sunni (ARAB/PERSIAN). This will be like Baptist and Catholics engaging in a cold war on a global scale. Some nations being on the Baptist side while others on the Catholic side.
      The vast number of Muslims are not from main stream Sunni/Shia. They are like the Sufi, Ismailia, Bohras etc..... They are not even considered Muslims by hard core Sunni/Shia majority. In fact they are often victims of their brutal actions.

      Now are Muslims more religious ? I dont think so. I say this from experience. I have met many Muslims living overseas from many different parts of the world over decades. What I notice is that YES THEY ARE from the most part strict followers of the RITULAS like pray 5 times a day, go to Mosque on a regular basis, do fasting etc...... But when you get to know them personally you realize that’s just a habit they are thought to practice since many of them will drink, take drugs , sleep around before getting married etc..... They are by far from being religious as any other group of people on earth.

      Don’t get fooled by their ritualistic life style. That’s just for show !

      December 5, 2011 at 12:06 am |
  17. Hitler II

    The Jew is a congenital liar and thief. His so-called "accomplishments" in the arts and sciences are mainly well-hidden plagiarisms, clumsy aping of true human brilliance.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:29 pm |
    • Aezel

      Eh whatever you say but then again your man HItler is dead. I heard he died like a little b***h hiding in a rat hole with his whøre.

      December 4, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
    • Death to Islam

      Hitler ll is a lying Muslim!
      Death to the modern Nazis of Islam!
      Death to Islam! Destroy Islam!
      Wipe out the murderers!

      December 4, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
  18. Archie

    I try to keep an open mind about Islam as much as possible but find it very hard. I have quite a number of Muslim friends/classmates but very very few of them I will call "normal". They are highly educated but still like to keep their wives under burkha, believes their religion is supreme and rest all are rubbish and list goes on and on which will be considered abnormal by majority of other religions. I am not telling everyone in the religion is bad but if a religion produces majority of fanatics even in 21st century something is seriously wrong. I hope one day the Muslims will have the guts to admit it which they seriously lack.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:27 pm |
  19. Rocky

    The top 6 T-shirt slogans in Iran...
    6) My other car is a camel.
    5) Sand.....it's not just for breakfast anymore.
    4) It's always Sunni in Saudi Arabia .
    3) moHAMmed, the other white meat.
    2) My parents went to Tehran, and all I got was this stupid turban.
    1) Good muslims don't use Toilet Paper !..

    December 4, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
  20. Rocky

    Muslim Cleric Plans Protest in Attempt to Spread Sharia Law
    February 21, 2011

    Anjem Choudary, who once said “the flag of Islam will fly over the White House,” says he will lead a demonstration in March rallying Muslims to establish Sharia law across the United States.
    “The event is a rally, a call for the Sharia, a call for the Muslims to rise up and establish the Islamic state in America,” Choudary told London’s Daily Mail in an interview.

    December 4, 2011 at 11:24 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.