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.

The case against TLC’s “All-American Muslim”

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. palintwit

    Mohammed is reincarnated millions of times every morning, the world over, in " The Great Porcelain Bowl ".

    December 5, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  2. ryan

    The education and money you have, the less religious you are on average. Extrapolate from there.

    December 5, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • Godless

      I don't necessarily agree with this one. All of my bosses and their bosses are Jewish and most of them are PhDs. Look at all the gold the Pope surrounds himself with, he's got more Gold than any Rapper I've ever seen. Look at Scientology. The reason Ron L Hubbard created that religion was for the money, he even states it several times. Religion has all of the worlds wealth.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:26 am |
  3. Syed

    I am a muslim living in the US. I try to follow my religion as I believe Islam is a way of life. It is not a part time thing. I also despise the terrorists because I believe they are doing everything that Islam forbids. I hope people can actually talk to some learned people and find out for themselves.

    December 5, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • jimbob22

      Does your imam tell you that Jews stole 'Muslim land' in Palestine, and thus the Jews, Christians, and pro civil-rights Muslims of Palestine should all perish?

      Does he tell you about the mufti of Jerusalem, who worked for Hitler during WWII helping to round of Christians in Yugoslavia? The lie that 'the Jews stole our land' can only be foisted by lying by omission regarding the role of Islam in WWII.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  4. Mike

    Probably because they tend to cut your head off or threaten fellow Muslims with violence if they don't prey ten times a day. Can you imagine what would happen if someone just stood up while everyone else knelt to pray to Allah. They would most likely stone him or rip him to pieces for not worshipping their Satanic God.

    December 5, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • Syed

      nice job mr. ignorant.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • Godless

      Satanists believe in the power within themselves, not some invisible deity. To claim the Islamic God to be Satanic is an insult to Satanists.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  5. jimbob22

    Why does CNN call orthodox Muslims 'radicals', even referring to Islamist killers like Doku Umarov as 'charismatic', yet CNN slanders orthodox Jews as 'conservatives', or 'obstacles to peace'?? Similarly orthodox Christians are slandered as 'rightwing fundamentalists'?

    Why do orthodox Muslims, who support eugenic type supremacist ideology, escape such slanders?

    December 5, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  6. USandCDN

    Jose, you are absolutely correct!!

    December 5, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  7. Jose M. Pulido

    My fellow Americans: Some Muslims here mention the fact that they are nice guys and not like their fellow Islamic terrorists and that they were even members of the US Armed Forces.
    Muslims should know that we have nothing against them personally, neither against freedom of religion. But Islam is not a believer –friendly religion but a harmful ideology that wishes to conquer other countries by the sword or by increasing population.
    Islamists/Muslims try to blend, equalize and portray their ideology as a harmless religion like all others that do not have plans to take over the USA and the rest of the world by force or by increments of its membership.
    Many Muslims in America, using their freedom of speech, often and openly boast their desire to take over the USA and establish their so-called Sharia Law. Therefore, we do not hate Muslims neither do we want to prohibit them to practicing their Islamic ideology but the problem is that the greatest goal of every Islamist/Muslim is to take part in the destruction of the USA and the rest of the world. There is a segment of the Islamic population whose role in the destruction of the USA is to play “nice guy;” but deep inside, they also hate the USA and wish to destroy all of those who are not Muslims. Therefore, no matter how religious or non-religious they are, their purpose is to destroy the USA.
    We have studied world history where many armies have conquered other countries by force or by ideological reason such as Islam did in North Africa and the rest the Islamic countries oppressed by Islam.
    The USA has never been directly invaded by land by a large army. But we are being stealthily invaded by Islam via the Trojan Horse style. Muslims are rapidly growing in number and influence in the USA.
    Islam is a clear and present danger to the USA and the rest of the world. It is imperative to stop Islamist immigration and the spread of it in the USA. Islam is like a cancer that is growing in every state of the North American Union. As of now it might be too late to save the USA from the oppression of Islam.
    American women, start getting used to dress yourselves wrapped like Egyptian mummies and forget about driving vehicles. You keep marrying Islamists and you will become their slaves and contribute to the growth of such a deadly ideology called Islam. No more bikinis on the beach; start getting used to Burkinis. May God save America from Islam and its Muslims.

    December 5, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • richunix

      I'm more for "God Save America" from religion PERIOD!

      Stephen F Roberts: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

      Atheism is not a religion nor is it a belief.

      December 5, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • ladydi

      Yes, the USA is in for a terrible religious war. The Muslims take over streets, actually stopping traffic in mid-town Manhattan NYC every friday afternoon to pray with total disregard to others. Muslims want "prayer time" at the workplace – WITH PAY!!! Check out Atlas Shrugs on the web.......... and stand up and stop this madness!!!!

      December 5, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • Godless

      "But Islam is not a believer –friendly religion but a harmful ideology that wishes to conquer other countries by the sword or by increasing population." Isn't that the exact thing that has allowed Christianity to thrive? Oh wait....

      All Gods are man made.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • PO2 USCG

      The belief in religious all mighty never seen some times heard by nut jobs like (presidential hopefuls) aka Perry,Cain, Romney is proof this is a Mad Mad world and not just the rag heads around the planet. I have a sad feeling that in my life I will see the use of nuclear weapons and the loss of all my love ones for the satisfaction of SOME MADE UP ALL GOD DAM MIGHTY.. In today's age of human thought we still cling to the dark ages. Stop brain washing or children with this crap and just maybe we mite start to get along on this rock...

      December 5, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Godless

      @PO2 USCG ... Sadly, our lives are in the hands of religious fanatics, that in theory makes them our Gods, correct?

      December 5, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Mclovin

      @PO2 USCG.... I too feel this coming to a bad ending and we are being lead strait at it by the leaders of the world.
      It would be best for the world to make sure from now on. No one can be a world leader if they believe in some religion.
      Perhaps this mite save us all from a nuke in the back yard. Gods can't help us just man can help mankind.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • Achmed theterrorist

      Silence I'll Kill You !!!!

      December 5, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • Gunney

      That is funny (silence i'll kill you ) LOL

      December 5, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  8. Jessica

    I think the answer to question posed on the home page – "Why are Muslims more religious?" – is at least partially, if not largely, related to an issue not touched on at all by the article. The greater poverty and lack of modern development in a place, the more religious the people in general. The U.S. is something of an exception to this, but generally speaking it has been true as the world has modernized. Islam is prevalent primarily in poor, underdeveloped countries where any wealth lies entirely in the hands of a small ruling class. And as the piece noted, the survey was taken in some countries that fit this bill perfectly – Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. In Turkey outside of the major cities, there is a lot of poverty as well. As much as they would like to think otherwise, as their lives improved, the number of fervently religious Muslims would decline.

    December 5, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • Godless

      "Islam is prevalent primarily in poor, underdeveloped countries where any wealth lies entirely in the hands of a small ruling class."

      Do you comprehend the entire Occupy Wall Street movement? Our nations wealth is held by 1%. You've opened your eyes this far, now open them a little wider next time.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  9. Just-A-Guy

    Who is more religious, Muslims, Christians, Jews or Hindus? Who is more crazy, John Hinckley, Charles Manson, Jeffery Dahmer, or John Wayne Gacy? Who cares. they are all nuts!

    December 5, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • PO2 USCG

      Good way to say it. Has a ring about it don't you think?

      December 5, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  10. USandCDN

    This article really shows how we should not take news from CNN to be reliable. The author is either a muslim himself or is trying to provoke the audience to improve the readership of his article. As for muslims being more "religious" they actually have not enjoyed religious freedom for centuries like Christians and other non-muslims have. Most have roots in muslim dictated countries and to not appear devout would result in torture of death. We are not comparing apples to apples.

    December 5, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • yep

      good point.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  11. AndyTheGameInventor

    I think one thing that is being missed here is that all faiths thrive best in the absence of opposing viewpoints – be those viewpoints another faith or secularism. In many Muslim countries, there is very little in the way of other faiths and not even much of a secular alternative. If everybody around you practices in a certain way it becomes more a part of your life. By contrast, even in so-called Christian countries there is typically a larger variety of beliefs, not to mention the internet, which exposes everyone to the existence of other beliefs and secularism. Islam has found its political voice for the first time in the western world, but I think in time it too will start to assimilate and become more cultural and less religious, following the example of all other faiths.

    December 5, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  12. Carlton

    It's what you have to do when you never come into a spiritual reality of the only true and living God! Religion is man-made, but spirituality comes from God!

    December 5, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • Binky42

      News Flash: God is man made too. There were no signs of a God before humans were around.

      December 5, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • richunix

      Yup, funny thing what man can makeup in his spare time....See Elvis lately?

      December 5, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  13. palintwit

    Once when I was vacationing in the Middle East I saw a muslim by the side of the road with his arm all the way up a camel's butt. " Car trouble ? " I asked. Badda-boom ! Badda-bing !

    December 5, 2011 at 10:47 am |

    Muslims are usually more "religious" because they come from a poorer part of the world where religion is their only true relief from the day to day. poor people love their religion it gives them hope when there is none.

    December 5, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  15. Muslim Man

    durka durka

    December 5, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • Kool Aid

      Mohamed Jihad!!! Ahahaha!

      December 5, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  16. awe

    religious = brainwashed

    December 5, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  17. PersonalFreedom

    Religion, just like freedom of speech(whether we like what others say or not), the right to keep and bear arms, are all personal choices we enjoy in the US. Not many other places in this world can still say that. Also, the freedom of religion includes the right to not believe. All this hatred in a general way overshadows the believe of individuals who ARE made more centered by actually believing in their faith and not just being as people like to say 'Sunday Christians'. 'News' articles like these generalize to the point of making the original point of article meaningless. People that read articles like this and agree with the generalities should seriously consider researching the topic further before posting in ignorance.

    December 5, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  18. gerald


    December 5, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • Alex

      who wrote this web site ?
      KKK or Skinheads
      the whole translation is twisted and not right

      December 5, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • Sal


      December 5, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • apniAwaz

      Sorry Gerald,
      Quran never states to fight against innocent people. Suppose someone wants to kill you or killed your people or dragged out you and your people from your home land then in this case what will you do? If some one restricts you to follow your own rule then what will you do? In these scenarios, Quran states its verses from believers. Quran states that If you kill an innocent people(of any society) it is like you have killed all the people of the world. The site you mentioned does not states the exact meaning of Quran verses. If you want to know what the reality is then you must study the Quran. This book is not for Muslims whereas it is for those who believe in God(with fear), truth and equality(among human being).

      December 5, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • apniAwaz

      Read the last sentence as:
      This book is not only for Muslims whereas it is for those who believe in God(with fear), truth and equality(among human being).

      December 5, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  19. teresa, ohio

    ummm, I THINK that Muslims just APPEAR more religious... they have more OUTWARD showy signs. The clothes, the prayers, the kneeling down, VERY OUTWARD and ShOWY... "look at me, look how religious". While I believe Muslims are "followers" oft times i question all the display : )

    December 5, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • Toez

      How very like Christians they are in that respect. At least Christmas lights look better than giant phallus buildings.

      December 5, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • Binky42

      And God said, let there be light....lots of twinkling Christmas lights adorning a pagan evergreen tree.

      December 5, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  20. Devi Bakt

    Misleading. Hinduism has never promoted itself as the only true path to paradise; nor do Hindus even have a concept of eternal "paradise" in their theology. Also, I question whether this journalist really knows anything about how Hindus worship when he compares the level of devotion between Hindus and Muslims. Hindus and expatriate Hindu communities tend to be very religion-oriented. In fact, Hindu faith is more culturally ingrained with being "a way of life" than any western notion of religion (Islam is a WESTERN religion, by the way). Sounds like yet another ignorant American who has found a "cause" and is trying desperately to twist his facts to suit his propaganda.

    December 5, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • doughnuts

      Nice comment. Care to try it without the bigotry?

      December 5, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • richunix

      How many heads does your Elephant-look-alike god have? So your point is…trying not laugh too much here.

      December 5, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • jimbob22

      Looks like the expected Hinduphobia going on. Hindus rock.

      Indian weddings = fun. Indian people = fun. Orthodox Muslims? Their orthodoxy is predicated on fiction-based hatred.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • Toez

      I hear it's turtles all the way down.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:05 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.