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. lastofall

    For me it is a matter of ceremonies, and rituals, and formalism, and legalism, which attracts people to Islam, because of their regimented daily requirements, therefore do the people have the feeling of accomplishment. Unfortunately ceremonies, rituals, formalism, and legalism, cannot take away sin; for if it could, then the worshippers once purged should have no more conscience of sins, but it is not the case, rather they return week after week, year after year. It is not possible that ceremonies, rituals, etc, can take away sins, and it is evident that such activities cannot. Remission [passing over] of sins require a sacrifice for sins, and ceremonies and rituals fall far short of even being considered to be a sacrifice. It is self deception in supposing that one is cleansed by a show of religion.

    December 5, 2011 at 2:21 am |
  2. Really

    A young man came before Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) with a carpet and said, "O prophet of Allah! I passed through a jungle and heard the voices of young birds; and I took and put them into my carpet; and their mother came fluttering around my head, and I uncovered the young, and the mother fell down upon them, then I wrapped them up in my carpet; and there are the young which I have."

    Then Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, "Put them down." And when he did so, their mother joined them: and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, "Do you wonder at the affection of the mother towards her young? I swear by Him who hath sent me, verily God is more loving to His creatures than the mother to these young birds. Return them to the place from which you took them, and let their mother be with them.

    December 5, 2011 at 2:20 am |
    • Answer

      Fluff piece of writing. Full of nicety about an idiot. I rather read the "three little pigs."

      December 5, 2011 at 2:24 am |
  3. ConfucianScholar

    Simply put, Islam is afflicted by a retardation measured by its development today which compares to that of Christianity and Judaism during the early middle ages. They are not more religious but instead fixated in a period history left behind.

    December 5, 2011 at 2:17 am |
    • Answer

      "They are not more religious but instead fixated in a period history left behind."


      December 5, 2011 at 2:19 am |
  4. Jon

    I think they just enjoy bending over five times everyday.

    December 5, 2011 at 2:10 am |
    • Fiza

      All are children of God / Creator.We love you and accept you the way you are.

      December 5, 2011 at 3:04 am |
  5. Fiza

    This is comment number 4439

    December 5, 2011 at 1:52 am |
    • Really

      lets make it a even 5000 and call it a day.

      December 5, 2011 at 2:10 am |
  6. J

    Being religious doesn't amount to anything. It is faith in God that matters. Muslims are motivated by fear..they believe if they even doubt allah once they will go to hell. They are also kept in line by other muslims or the state. It is a false religion based on works.

    December 5, 2011 at 1:50 am |
    • Thomas

      A staggering amount of ignorance in such a small comment. I'm impressed.

      December 5, 2011 at 2:15 am |
  7. ashrakay

    @truthBtold, and christians worship a god that commands the murder of women and children, accepts ra-pe, and gives instructions on how to handle slaves. Congratulations! You sure picked a better fantasy to buy into.

    December 5, 2011 at 1:45 am |
  8. Hitler II

    Well, that's enough trolling for one night. Hey everyone, give it up for Maxx, he just spent the last hour going back and forth with a troll. Good job, buddy! That was fun.

    Good evening

    December 5, 2011 at 1:34 am |
    • Maxx

      hitler ii;

      Touche. I enjoy trolling a troller. But, I tire of your lackadaisical approaches. Smell ya later. Do make sure that you lick the swastika three times for luck before you slumber. Signed off...

      Good evening.

      December 5, 2011 at 1:39 am |
  9. ahmad

    stupid article, stupid comments

    December 5, 2011 at 1:32 am |
  10. ashy57

    Because Islam deal with the every aspect in your daily life.Islam has a solution for Economic,political,social problems so Moslems are more engage with their religon more than others .Islam is life and religon.the most imprtant thing in Islam (LA ILAH ILA ALLLAH)which means No God but Allah.its clear point in Islam.Mohamed(PBUOH)is a profet no more.Islam a nswered the most difficult question still raise what is the Holly Sprite

    December 5, 2011 at 1:29 am |
    • jA Adler

      Hate to say it but that equals CULT. I truely believe that all religions that interweave faith with all aspects of life and that teach no tolerance for others should be considered a cult and outlawed. Have you seen what goes on in a madrassa? Do you see what goes on in a orthodox Jewish religious school...brainwashing pure and simple.

      December 5, 2011 at 2:24 am |
  11. VJ

    Islam spreaded all over by the edge of sword before the world wars, and now its spreading by the edge of patro dollar brainwashing criminals in prisons.

    December 5, 2011 at 1:25 am |
  12. Branchgraft

    Imagine if the creator of our universe could put on a human form and expose this world's religions for what they really are... just practicing religion.... if that religion were to kill this creator and return to practicing its religious ways, wouldn't that pretty much put an end to any debate that mankind doesn't really know what they worship? It did in the realm that matters. The religious worship in vain and are eternally exposed as impostors.

    December 5, 2011 at 1:24 am |
    • Really

      God doesn't need to put on a Human form to expose anything everything that is happening is happening by God's approval. What are the reasons ? our knowledge is too limited to understand.

      December 5, 2011 at 1:31 am |
  13. Mike Smith


    December 5, 2011 at 1:17 am |
    • Really

      Here is perfect example of a moron. No you can't beat your wife the only eating allowed is lighter than a feather slap well I don't know if you can even call it a slap if its lighter than a feather not like these misogynist do.

      December 5, 2011 at 1:20 am |
  14. jeremy

    first off there NOT all MORE religious..... the muslims of eastern europe "white muslims" almost dont talk about there religion. ONLY the sand people do, because there blind by there own foolishness with eyes stright ahead....looking into the clouds for a sign with a bomb strapped to there thigh.... allllahhhhhh

    December 5, 2011 at 1:17 am |
  15. Roderick

    If you look at the media, you can tell they are doing all they can to repaint Islam as a "religion of peace". Notice what is missing from this article is any sort of definition as to who Muhammad was. After all the threats on the lives of people who would even dare to criticize Muhammad, much less give a pictorial portrayal of what he might of looked like it is no wonder that this article doesn't broach who Muhammad was and its link to why Muslims may be so dedicated to him. We are told we can't question people's faith. Why not? Why can't we ask why Mitt Romney follows Mormonism and its founder, Joseph Smith Jr. Who was Smith? Who was Muhammad? Let's look at the Qur'an and the Hadith. We could ask why were people so dedicated to Jim Jones or David Koresh but if we don't explore who these "prophets" were and what they actually taught, then we can't really answer the question. Muhammad, as depicted by the Qur'an itself was an extortionist. He was a bully who forced people to support his cult or die. By any other standard, he would have been seen as a violent cult leader. Then we wonder why so many Muslims are also prone to violence? They are merely following the model of their "prophet".

    December 5, 2011 at 1:13 am |
    • Really

      Questioning faith and using abusive words for a person you haven't met and have no idea about is something very different. Muhammad was what he was in his time ? who are you to be the judge but you can question why ? this why ? no harm in that.

      December 5, 2011 at 1:17 am |
    • QuestionYourOwnFaith

      You were bold enough to question others faith. The problem really comes when a Christian starts questioning his own faith and thats why it is a taboo in Christiandom. Try this out. If Jesus was God's son or God then howcome he stayed in the wilderness forty days tempted by Satan? Is your God so week that Satan can over power Him?
      Because a third person made a mistake God killed his own son on the cross. Is this a sane logic? is this justice? Would you kill your son because your neighbor stole an apple from a supermarket.
      Since you've not studied the Quran yourself you can claim based on your pastors claim "Muhammad, as depicted by the Qur'an itself was an extortionist". You shouldn't be saying it because Luke says 19:27 But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them–bring them here and kill them in front of me...". Also in this world of hightened killings and terrorism most of the Christians welcome interfaith discussions to better their understanding about different faiths but some of the Christian cults don't who think of themselves "holier than thou". For them Moses or Mohammad were all false Prophets.

      December 5, 2011 at 2:02 am |
    • LY

      I think you should read about Islam before commenting so you don't sound so bad. Muslims don't follow or worship prophet Mohammad. To Muslims, all prophets are respected the same way. We respect Jesus, Moses, Ibrahim, and Mohammad the exact same way. We believe that they all came at different times to spread the word of God. If you read the Quran, there is a special Chapter on virgin Mary. The Quran also talks very highly of all other prophets including Jesus. Also, if you read the Quran, you see that killing another human is the sin that God can't forgive you for.
      If you don't know anything about Islam and don't want to read about it, here it is for you: We believe in one GOD above us all. We don't worship any humans i.e. Jesus, Mohammad, Moses, etc..we respect all of them and rest of the rest of prophets the same exact way. We worship God alone and his words in the Qur'an. Qur'an has stayed the same since the start of Islam and hasn't not changed since. All Muslim around t he world own the same exact book. Unlike bibles, many different people wrote it and it keeps on changing over time.
      Its time to questions yourself and let me know if you have any questions. I will be more than happy to explained it to you. Take care.

      December 5, 2011 at 3:02 am |
  16. Mike Smith


    December 5, 2011 at 1:10 am |
    • Really

      What do you expect don't you eat meat ? If not than you have a right to say these things if you do. Think about how we slaughter those animals and eat them. Who made those animals God did who made it permissible to eat them God did. What do you expect roses you are part of this chain too. Something will be done to you too. Think about it.

      December 5, 2011 at 1:15 am |
  17. Dan W

    Religious adherence = (Current Year – Year Of The Messenger + Amount Of Intolerance Towards The Religion). Thus RA(Christianity) RA(Atheism)

    December 5, 2011 at 1:08 am |
    • Dan W

      WOW this article is buggy.

      December 5, 2011 at 1:12 am |
  18. Mike Smith


    December 5, 2011 at 1:06 am |
  19. Hitler II

    Who else thinks "the Holocaust" is funny? C'mon, don't be intimidated by the pc hall monitors .... Just as I thought: We all think it's at least a bit funny.

    December 5, 2011 at 1:05 am |
    • Maxx

      hitler ii;

      Wrong again. I'm an American Irishman. Thanks for playing. Yeah, you're right; the Holocaust is about as funny as 911. Either way, innocents were murdered. And, if your not in the mood, please feel free to sign off and go read some more of your waffen ss guide on, "how to murder defensless women and children,' for the greater good of, "Heil hitler!" Oh right, I think the Irish were the enemy right? Did your kind murder us as prisoners of war as well? I think they did. Thanks for observing the Geneva Convention friend.

      Good evening.

      December 5, 2011 at 1:18 am |
    • Really

      @Geneva Convention went out the window with the terrorist thing going on. I don't think countries will even follow it in the future wars they will just declare the other party terrorist and do whatever.

      December 5, 2011 at 1:24 am |
    • Hitler II

      Maxx, I've obviously struck a nerve somehow. Perhaps it was something I said. Frankly, I am unaccustomed to responding to people as ... rude as you. Some of the things you say are truly shocking. I can only guess that you're doing this to provoke me, i.e., to satisfy some perverse "need" to upset me. It's not going to work. Troll somewhere else!

      December 5, 2011 at 1:25 am |
  20. Becky

    First of all, any "Christian" who says faith is not important in their lives can't actually claim Christ, who demands that we completely lose our life that we might gain Him. I would much rather these people be open atheists or agnostics than claim Christianity while denying Christ. Second of all, the moral decline of the west has coincided with the decline of Christianity. Therefore, these Muslims are not truly positioning themselves against Christianity, but only what they think Christianity is (in large part due to people mentioned above, who claim Christ without knowing him at all). In fact, Muslims are positioning themselves against the postmodern west. True Christianity and Islam in fact have a lot in common in that both are diametrically opposed to postmodernism.

    December 5, 2011 at 1:05 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      >>>"ONLY the sand people do"

      Sand People .... wow ...digging deep to find a slur that might get someone to flame war with you.

      December 5, 2011 at 1:26 am |
    • Ebi

      What you have mentioned Becky is absolutely spot on. As a muslim growing up, the western influence and all its bells and whistles has always been frowned upon, however, this has always been associated with Christianity. Later in my life as i gained more wisdom (i hope), i understood that Christianity, Judasim has nothing to do with western culture. Very important to note a muslim can never call himself a muslim if he does not accept Judasim and Christianity, as the God that i believe in is the same God that has revealed Judaism and Christianity.

      December 5, 2011 at 1:38 am |
    • Q

      I wonder how the increase in various human and civil rights concord with your moral decline of the west? Looking at the US, one can find any number of examples of social injustice (both internally and projected externally), but nonetheless, the trend has been towards recognition of the rights of minorities and interventions to protect oppressed populations. In the European West, one could also point to improved access to various infrastructure, e.g. health care, etc. The west in general, for the last 500 or so years has provided the bulk of technological and artistic innovation, with an exponential dominance over the last 50-100yrs. Again, plenty of examples of inequity and injustice, but largely, the entrenchment of individual human and civil rights have improved lives far above standards of the recent and distant past.

      When you assert a moral decline, I presume you are referencing the gradual but increasing divide between general culture and the historical omnipresence of religious dogma. From this vantage, it appears to have been more beneficial than detrimental...

      December 5, 2011 at 2:09 am |
    • Answer


      It is a classic response where the religious fanatics attach their 'decline in importance' to said references in morality. They love to attribute to themselves the glory that is religion. That they somehow were the leaders and providers of all mankind's moral structure. In reality the morals that every free society were developed and discussed over, even argued and fought into changes that we see them in our lives today. They don't want to accept these facts and the way we humans have brought them about against their power.

      I love seeing them driven mad by their delusions. By their loss in importance. This is what we have as a society really have fought for – the changes we see today in effect.

      December 5, 2011 at 2:16 am |
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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.