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. Ad

    Reading the comments on this article has saddened me deeply. To think that there are so many stupid, intolerant, unintellectual and just plain bad people in this country is a depressing thought. It proves how much we rely on the media for all our information. I can personally guarentee you that everyone here who has hated on Islam hasn't done so based on their own research into the religion, but based on what they watch on TV. I shouldn't really be surpised though. The fact that I thought anyone here even had the ability to read is my own fault.

    December 5, 2011 at 7:51 am |
  2. redzuan of danga bay

    i trust 100% of islam because of the addeen....i.e. ways of life. I do believe on taurat, injil and it was perfected by Quran.

    December 5, 2011 at 7:47 am |
  3. mrizkhan

    Islam is religion of peace. Those who are engaged in extremism and killing innocent people are not followers of islam. Islam say's "killing of one person (Muslim or non musilim) is guilty to kill humanity.......... People can be at fault but not the religion

    December 5, 2011 at 7:41 am |
    • LOL

      Well, they're certainly not Wiccans. Looks to me like they're following their instruction book to the letter. Most sane people put the instruction book down and started trying to figure things out for themselves.

      December 5, 2011 at 7:43 am |
    • redzuan of danga bay


      December 5, 2011 at 7:48 am |
  4. LOL

    Why? In a nutshell they're all crazy. Crazier by far than me.

    December 5, 2011 at 7:39 am |
    • Ad

      Do you know even the slightest bit of information about Islam? Or do you just make stupid comments like that on every topic?

      December 5, 2011 at 7:45 am |
    • LOL

      I've read their propaganda and accompanying hadiths. It's very clearly insane. Do you know the slightest bit of information about me, or do you make the same stupid assumptions about everyone you run across?

      December 5, 2011 at 7:47 am |
    • Ad

      Well I know you're stupid, for one.

      December 5, 2011 at 7:51 am |
    • LOL

      Why, because I've read the material and found it to be tripe? I don't see you doing much of anything except shouting UH UH UR DUMB. The Quran is crazier than the Bible, however it's not quite as crazy as the Book of Mormon. afaic, they're all pretty crazy, but islam is by far worse than most established faiths.

      December 5, 2011 at 7:54 am |
    • Ad

      All I'm reading from you is random spouts of stupidity. You should just stop. You're embarrassing yourself.

      December 5, 2011 at 7:55 am |
    • LOL

      Perhaps I'm not the one being intellectually dishonest.

      December 5, 2011 at 7:56 am |
    • Mab

      LOL you will know after your death,,,, You know that we, the Muslim, believe that Ibrahim (Abraham), Moses, Jesus and others were also Messengers of Almighty God. While Mohammad is the last Messenger of Almighty God. If we don't believe them, we cannot be Muslims.. On Eid Azha (which was last month), we sacrifice goats, sheep etc., to remember the sacrifice of Ismail, son of Ibrahim (Abraham). Your Holy Book Bible says that last Messenger of Almighty God will be Ahmed. We, Muslims, are followers of that last Messenger.

      December 5, 2011 at 7:58 am |
    • Ad

      Oh, you're still talking?

      December 5, 2011 at 7:59 am |
    • LOL

      I'm sure that's nice, Mab, but I don't remember saying I was jewish or x-tian, either. When I die, the worms will come along and nibble nibble nibble, and that'll be it.

      December 5, 2011 at 8:00 am |
    • LOL

      Ad, did you come to find Allah in the fifth or sixth year of working on a liberal arts degree?

      December 5, 2011 at 8:01 am |
    • Ad

      When I was born actually. Also, I have a Computer Science degree, not liberal arts, sorry.

      December 5, 2011 at 8:03 am |
    • LOL

      1) I'm sorry about the birthright. 2) Applied Comp Sci and another in Network Admin/CISCO here. 3) I read, and I disagree with what I have read while you, apparently, are following along in typical believer fashion and calling anyone who disagrees an idiot. (Fundamentalist xtians are the worst at this followed immediately by muslims)

      December 5, 2011 at 8:06 am |
    • Ad

      Calling all Muslims "crazy" isn't disagreeing with what you have read. My main problem with you, and the reason I'm trolling you is because you make a stupid ass generalization, and then try to come off as intelligent. I'm sorry, but it makes you out to be a bigot and intolerant.

      December 5, 2011 at 8:10 am |
    • LOL

      Intolerant, no. Prejudiced, no. Racist, no. Bigoted, yes. There's a subtle difference between the 4. Every single Muslim I've met (and i met a lot of them working in IT) have all been pretty much crazy in some fashion. It's common with believers. About the only plus Muslims have going for them with me, is that I don't get a knock on my door from any Muslims at 8am on a Saturday while I'm hungover with them wanting to tell me about "The Good News!" I've never actually had to run a Muslim off the property at gunpoint like Jehovah's Witnesses. I don't think most Muslims are that dumb.

      December 5, 2011 at 8:14 am |
    • Paul

      AD – the one to come after Jesus was not Mohammed, but the comforter of the Holy Spirit.

      John 14:15-17
      Jesus Promises the Holy Spirit

      15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

      December 5, 2011 at 10:24 pm |
  5. Jide Agboola

    Good article, but not concise enough for people who are also busy . . . you can expect people to be reading 'dissertation-like' articles... just my own opinion – not user friendly!

    December 5, 2011 at 7:38 am |
  6. Melba Toast

    All that study proves is that Muslims are more gullible and stupid and stink like doo doo from my hot tastee butthole.

    December 5, 2011 at 7:32 am |
    • Ad

      I don't think any Muslim can be more stupid than you. Based on this comment, I don't think you have any intellectual capacity whatsoever. Congratulations on being a failure. I'm sure your parents are so proud.

      December 5, 2011 at 7:44 am |
  7. Darren Malin

    There is no god.

    December 5, 2011 at 7:25 am |
  8. tabu

    like every religion, muslims also believe in good works and they trust that the only way to paradise is GOOD DEED.

    December 5, 2011 at 6:59 am |
    • Mobama

      Is this why they kill their own daughters, nieces, or relatives when they suspect of adultery, or they dont want to marry? or why they dont allow other religions to flourish in their lands? or why they blow themselves trying to kill as many as they can? Or why........(read the daily news–plenty of muslim atrocities every day)

      December 5, 2011 at 7:11 am |
    • fuzzball

      Mobama. An action of few people cannot be attributed to everyone within that faith or faith itself. You have already diluted your own argument or lack of it.

      December 5, 2011 at 7:32 am |
    • Ad

      Therein lies the fundemental problem, Mobama. The media is your main source on information on Islam. Maybe if you weren't so reliant on the media, you would be able to go to your local library, read a Quran or any book on Islam, and all your stupid crap will be rendered false.

      I think the biggest "atrocity" here is your clearly intolerant and unintelligent personality. You're a disgrace.

      December 5, 2011 at 7:32 am |
    • Belos

      @Mobama This is a small percent of Muslims. In Islam it is clearly forbidden to commit suicide or kill citizens. Also no one has the right to kill his daughter or his niece. He would have been executed under the Sharia law. You people show small percent of muslims and make them represent the whole muslims. The examples you are showing are results of culture and misleading.

      December 5, 2011 at 7:42 am |
    • mrizkhan

      Mobama: Religions are meant to follow by peoples whether you call them Muslims or nor Muslimg. Wrong doing is worng doing whether it is being done by muslim or non muslim. Everbody have right to live peacefully and respectfully which is cleary described in holy book. If someone is not following then religion doesn't require to recognized by people or so called muslim.

      December 5, 2011 at 7:46 am |
  9. mitch


    This is the main strategy now, I don't understand this crap


    its all
    about God and Glory and Gospel
    about money and power and oil

    December 5, 2011 at 6:56 am |
    • William Shelton

      Are you high?

      December 5, 2011 at 6:59 am |
    • Jason

      Can I buy some weed from you?

      December 5, 2011 at 7:32 am |
  10. Jason

    More devout? No.
    Dumber? Yes.

    December 5, 2011 at 6:54 am |
    • Ad

      Dumber? You mean even dumber than you? I don't think that's possible. You've clearly shown that you've crossed the boundaries of stupidity with this baseless comment.

      December 5, 2011 at 7:34 am |
  11. Zaki

    The comment provided by non muslims belevers does not express the ideal theory of Islam.

    December 5, 2011 at 6:52 am |
  12. ABC

    I completely agree ISLAM is the religion of peace. All religion like jews, christain & islam is from one GOD. First was Jews than came Chirstain & than Islam. Becuase there were alteration in tawrat (Jews devine book) & Ingeel (christain devine book) by Human as per their need & requirement, it is no more 100% complete revelation from GOD. Thats why Islam book Quran, where NO A SINGLE VERSE being changed, it is 100% reliable book from GOD. Even Quran mention about Tawrat & ingeel as a book from GOD but they have altered. Therefore we need to move to Quran for ultimate salvation & success in this world & hereafter.

    December 5, 2011 at 6:42 am |
    • Mirosal

      It's only because Arabic is not a dead language. Not too many speak Latin, Aramaic, or Attic Greek these days. Your "god's" word doesn't mean a lot to me at all. It means as much to me as the Oracle at Delphi, and we all know just how accurate THAT was. Even online, Muslims tell us to convert, that THEIR way is the one true way. One true way to what? There is no god, and your book is a waste of paper. I actually have a Qu'ran, and it serves nothing more than to be used as a coaster for my beer stein, or to protect my table when I have a hot pulled pork BBQ sandwich... so there.

      December 5, 2011 at 7:01 am |
    • Ad

      I feel sorry for Mirasol. In fact, i feel more sorry for his parents. They had to give birth to a child with no intelligence or intellect.

      December 5, 2011 at 7:41 am |
    • Mirosal

      @ Ad ... so will I be seeing you at the next Mensa meeting? I'll be there, as I have been for almost 30 years.

      December 5, 2011 at 8:10 am |
    • Paul

      There was an alteration to the Old and New Testament?!? Isaiah 40:8 8 The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. That means that it will NOT BE ALTERED! Of course the Koran says it was!

      1 John 4:1-3
      Chapter 4

      Test the Spirits

      1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.

      December 5, 2011 at 8:23 pm |
  13. Simply Me

    I would encourage everyone to read the book written by Brother Andrew called "Secret Believers". Take a look behind the scenes at the world of Middle Eastern Islam and true stories of Muslims who choose to follow Christ.

    December 5, 2011 at 6:10 am |
  14. MidianRoad

    Again, so many self professed experts yet so many mistakes made, some of them out-right inexcusable errors. The reason Muslims are more adherent to Islam is because Islam is a comprehensive and complete religion without any inconsistencies – this is a very convincing Religion without the problems that infest other religions and other religious books. The events that occurred after 9-11, the obvious Western War on Islam did make many Muslims return to being more adherent for sure but but this is relatively speaking – They were true believers who simply got bogged down in the routines of daily life and were reminded by Bush & Co. of their negligence towards their faith, but these events didn't convert them from non-believers to true believers – Islam itself does that for a Muslim.

    December 5, 2011 at 6:00 am |
    • Ray

      There are so many inconsistencies in the K'oran that your post is obviously false. You must be one of those lying Muslims I keep hearing about. Liars like you should be shot. There is no reason for you to lie, but you do it anyway. I'd ask you why but why ask a liar anything?

      December 5, 2011 at 6:08 am |
    • fuzzball

      Ray. Typical idiotic response. Don't have any counter argument so let's call the person a liar and shoot him.

      December 5, 2011 at 7:44 am |
  15. Jose M. Pulido

    The deadly, worthless and useless ideology called Islam appeared 600 years after Jesus, the Son of God retured to heaven to be with his Father God. If Islam had come to confuse all those poor idiots one day after Jesus left, it would still be too late. Even if Islam had appeared before Jesus Christ, it would still have been useles and worthless to humankind.

    December 5, 2011 at 6:00 am |
  16. brother

    did i spell right in my comment? because i`m not a very good speller.

    December 5, 2011 at 5:55 am |
  17. brother

    all that i can see in that picture is just a million butt!!!!

    December 5, 2011 at 5:51 am |
  18. Steve

    Step1: No child should be geared to ANY faith based system. We will call it "No mind left behind".

    Step 2: Universal law of humanity.

    December 5, 2011 at 4:35 am |
    • Ray

      Those are two steps that most religions do not support at all. Good thing you didn't prepare with other steps. Then those would be much farther down the list and much more realistically proposed. Wouldn't want that, would we?

      December 5, 2011 at 4:59 am |
    • Steve

      What do you suggest? (steps)

      December 5, 2011 at 5:16 am |
    • Ray

      If you can't even imagine what might have to happen before such goals are met, then even explaining the process is not likely to be understood. Plus, I'm quite liable to leave a bunch of stuff out or forget to include pertinent stuff, so it's probably better all around if I just leave it as is.
      Nobody listens to me anyway, so what's the diff? Do you think someone in a position to do anything is going to bother reading these blogs? I doubt you are in any position to do things beyond your immediate situation. It's just a fart in the wind.

      December 5, 2011 at 6:04 am |
  19. Yes Man

    Prophets are all friends with each other when they were busy working for God. We all should also try to get along.

    December 5, 2011 at 4:33 am |
  20. Adam

    A wise man once said, "when I see friends and allies, I see men, when I see enemies and threats, I see men."

    December 5, 2011 at 3:33 am |
    • Jose M. Pulido

      Who said that, Yogi Berra?

      December 5, 2011 at 4:28 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.