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. Abu Abbas Tater

    In my region of Iran our worship of Allah also includes the worship of the holiest of holys...The Baked Potato.

    December 5, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • bill

      yo must be related to the french fry

      December 5, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Abu Abbas Tater

      Once we islams take over the world we will do away with french fries, mashed potatos, potatoes au gratin. NO MORE of this blasphemy. You all WILL bow to the Baked Potato.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • bill

      what are your views on gravy. are they alies and counter agents?

      December 5, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      Well, I whole heartedly agree with the potatoes au gratin (nasty), but I will got to war in the defense of waffle fries and shoe string fries!

      December 5, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • bill

      i think tater is checking with swanson foods for his response.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  2. Colin

    Muslims really are like retarded Christians. They suffer all the same delusions about living happily ever after in Heaven, but are much more fanatical about it. I have no respect for them. They are straight out of the Dark Ages.

    December 5, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • ULameMouth

      Most people did not respect each others by the religion but by what they have said. Hater like you ... I believe..have no friends may be a retarded one. Poor soul.

      December 5, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  3. god isnt real

    god isnt real, get over it

    December 5, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  4. Abdullah the Butcher

    I love worship time. We get to bend over and blow smelly farts into one anothers faces. *POOT* <--Smell that one INFIDEL!!

    December 5, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  5. george

    Centuries of threats, beatings, beheadings and stonings will do that. Saudi Arabia has the Mutawwa'in, a police force for the enforcement of piety. The Taliban had the same and held weekly executions for violations (as well as daily beatings in the street and an occational hanging from the corner lightpost.) Boys are educated from an early age in the Koran and not much else. Girls are not educated at all in many Muslim countries. I should come as no surprise that they are very religious.

    December 5, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  6. Chad

    They're willing to blow themselves up and attack innocent people who haven't even said or done anything negative to Muslims. You can't get more committed than that, but there's no reason to put a positive spin on their dedication. They are sick. When the civilized world goes to war they attack exactly the people who are attacking them.

    To those that say, those are just the extremists. You're right. But why are there SO MANY in comparison to other religions? And why are they so disgustingly destructive compared to all other religions? The Crusades were a liquor store robbery compared the suffering Muslims have caused. It's a good time to be Jewish because there's little reason to have the attention be focused on your religion for bad-mouthing.

    December 5, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • Colin

      Hello Chad. Do you still think the World began with a man, a woman and a talking snake about 6,000 years ago?

      December 5, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  7. Stanley the Imam

    Quick, get me a sword!! I want to cut his head off.

    December 5, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  8. Islam Fail

    There is absolutely no thing as a higly intelligent, religous person. Those two concepts are completely mutually exclusive.

    December 5, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • george

      Though not religious myself, I have seen proof many times that your statement is incorrect.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Jeff

      You could be right.... Fortunately, Christianity is not a religion, it's a way of life.. and I am an Engineer. So, in this particular case, you would be wrong.. and for that matter, I guess C.S. Lewis was an oaf too huh?

      December 5, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Islam Fail

      WRONG. You've never seen it. It's impossible.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • george

      Fail: Your statements prove you to be a very ignorant person.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • george

      Jeff: Christianity is most certainly a religion and all religions are a "way of life" (whatever that nebulous statement inferes.)

      December 5, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • Islam Fail

      Wrong..........again. Go read the bible.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • george

      Fail: Been there. Read that. So what? Your statement means nothing, nor do any of your previous statements.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • Islam Fail

      Then why respond? Leave me to my ignorance.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • Nate

      I believe what this person is trying to say, is that they contradict. It's like saying Critical Thinking and Religion work together. (They don't.)

      December 5, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  9. Ayetollah Jimmy

    Yes we love our Islambs religion and let me state this to you one time. JOIN OR DIE!

    December 5, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  10. bill

    because the muslin countries are generally governed by devils in the flesh – and god is the best and only option the people have to fight it.

    December 5, 2011 at 11:46 am |


    December 5, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  12. Obvious

    Because the majority of Muslims are sheltered and do not have the means to explore and attempt to figure out and analyze things for themselves. You are a product of your surroundings, period.

    December 5, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  13. hawaiiduude

    Why are jews less religious and more racist than any other religion?

    December 5, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • Chuckles

      Why do you hate jews so much? Did we beat you in business? Is it because we're smarter, better looking? I understand it must be tough to see a group of people, against all odds, excel when given the chance. It's people like you that actually help jewish people out of obscurity. So thank you for all your help!

      December 5, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • Hob

      hawaiidude is a Muslim. He is trying very hard to not give it away but it is obvious to me and many others here.
      Go back and read some of his other posts and you'll see what I mean.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • Islam Fail

      The only thing jews have ever excelled at is slavery and being killed wholesale.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Chuckles


      I've seen a couple of his posts. Very anti-semitic but he doesn't have any good reasons, he just posts anti-jew stuff without any bacjground. Education is the first line of defense against ignorance and who knows, maybe I can give him a little push in the right direction

      December 5, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Mary Carter

      I would like to reply to all who say they have no belief in God. I f you think the present life is it-I wish I could help you see the error of your ways. Barring that, would you please let those of us who are Christians live our faith, have Christmas as was in a beautiful America of long ago and cease the hate and ridicule of those who profess their faith.We aren't bothering you so why don't you leave us alone. We have lost all of our rights and freedoms due to you and that is why I would love to leave America and live where there is freedom to worship, to speak and to live as I choose.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Chuckles


      Awwww give me a break. FIrst of all, criticizing religion is a freedom that anyone and everyone should enjoy, just like you should also equally enjoy the freedom to criticize atheism. Furthermore, when I think that religion, christianity, god, all that is a farce, that in no way means I'm directly going after you, I think it's your faith that's silly, but if you want to continue doing it, by all means, go ahead. However, I'll leave you alone when you and your cronies leave me alone and stop trying to use legislation to make me, other atheists and other people who aren't christian live by your rules.

      Also, as far as I'm concerned you have lost a total of 0 rights. Please, enlighten me and the rest of us to what rights and freedoms you've lost?

      December 5, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • J.W

      the freedom to not have to learn science.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • Chuckles


      Fair enough, that lousey education is throwing wrenchs into all those christians rights. I guess that no good government teaching science should be taught a lesson. Everyone togther, pray for an asteroid to hurtle through space into the captiol building.. 1......2........3........PRAY!

      December 5, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      @Mary. I've seen 6th graders write better and with more cohesive thoughts. I don't remember any christian "rights' taken away. And your christmas of old is not coming back, sorry. Move to Saudi Arabia and see how your religious freedom fares.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • J.W

      Well I guess really I could be like others and just leave the science stuff to the atheists. But that would take away my ability to argue with you.

      December 5, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  14. Islam Fail

    They are more religious because they are more illiterate and far dumber than most of the rest of the world. Plain and simple.

    December 5, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • J Jimenez

      True! Just like Europe in the middle ages. When u have nothing else in life going on, religion is the only thing that gives "hope". It's easy to control the masses, the poor and the ignorant with a god that will give you a better life in the afterlife. Yet no one has come back from the "wonderful" afterlife to make his/her case. Education is power and freedom... and religion... pure fairy tales for the weak

      December 5, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  15. john

    Islam is the youngest religion its only 500 yrs old, if you look at christianity when it was 500 yrs old you will a fiery bunch of zealots beating, killing and burning like terrorists. Yes its true, look it up.

    December 5, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Hob

      That is a nice-sounding but false analogy. The words are different in each religion. Muslims are constantly exhorted to slay non-believers and hate them and treat them as badly as possible. They are even commanded to lie about anything in order to protect their hateful and violent agenda.
      Most of the koran is about hating non-believers. The Bible isn't quite like that and actually talks about other things.
      You cannot expect a similar lessening of observance over time when the words are so different.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • john

      But what I said is factually true, I never said anything about each parties values or their teachings just that at the same time in their history the behavior of some of the followers is the same.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Bobs your uncle

      Islam is about 1500 years old, not 500.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Hob

      But the words are different! You are expecting the same results without taking into consideration the different motivations and guiding factors on each side. That makes it sound good but it is not realistic at all. You make it sound like Muslims just need some time to settle down and be as heedless of their actual religion as modern Christians, but the dynamics are very different.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • Jeff

      The crusades were instigated by Islam. Muslims attacked Jerusalem and took for their own. Now, that's a holy city in Christianity. It was Pope Urban in 1095 who sanctioned the 1st crusades..

      December 5, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  16. geckopelli

    Fear of Murder.

    December 5, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  17. MyT_Quinn

    The one, true and only path to God.....Hmmmm??.....How many times have we heard that ignorant, specious utterance? How many oceans of blood have been needlessly spilled over that erroneous and wicked, misguided belief? Yes Waldo, a foolish consistency is indeed the hobgoblin of very little minds !

    December 5, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  18. Salih Abdullah


    December 5, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • Bill W

      Because the world is in chaos and Armageddon is near. We all want our virgins when we get to our final destination.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • Islam

      Who cares ! being #1 does not mean its the best. Being #1 means a lot of people belong to this faith. Majority of the worlds 7 billion people are not muslims. About 1.5 Billion people on earth out of 7 Billion Plus on this planet are muslims.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • Jeff

      Too bad. Islam is a lie.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  19. Bill W

    How about this....Have your own relationship with God. Do good, and live like you want. We're not here for a long time, so we might as well be here for a good time.

    December 5, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  20. chip

    Another absurd article that overlooks the obvious. Couldn't have anything to do with the fact that NOT obeying the tenets of Islam can land you in jail or executed.

    December 5, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • Munster

      Chip – You are an idiot. Explain one country where you get executed for leaving Islam?

      December 5, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • Bill W

      Name one where a woman gets r a p e d and ends up the one being thrown in jail???? We all know this one by now. CNN has covered it plenty. barbarians.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • Colin

      Munster- Afghanistan. Abdul Rahman was sentenced to be executed last year for leaving Islam. It is also still a capital offense in PAkistan, as it is in Saudi Arabia and Iran

      December 5, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • anotherthinker

      I made the same immediate connection, had the same reaction.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • Jeff

      Munster, I seriously hope you were being sarcastic.. You were weren't you? Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq.. just to name a few. If you leave Islam and or convert to any other religion, especially Christianity, you are to be executed. Islam stabs at the heart of Christianity.

      December 5, 2011 at 11:54 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.