The Islamic World’s Quiet Revolution

Forget politics. Muslim countries are poised to experience a new wave of change -- but this time it's all about demographics.

Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images
Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images

Everybody who pays attention to these sorts of things knows Muslim societies are almost uniquely immune to the forces that have been driving down fertility rates on every continent for decades. But everybody, it seems, fell asleep before the final act.

Throughout the ummah (the Arabic term for the global Muslim community), the average number of children born to women is falling dramatically. (Apoorva Shah and I examine the evidence in detail here.) According to the UN’s Population Division, all Muslim-majority countries and territories witnessed fertility declines over the past three decades. To be sure, in some extremely high-fertility countries of sub-Saharan Africa (think Sierra Leone, Mali, Somalia, and Niger), declines have been modest. And in the handful of Muslim countries where a fertility transition had already brought childbearing down to around three births per woman by the late 1970s (think Soviet Kazakhstan), subsequent declines have also been limited. But in the great majority of the rest, declines in the total fertility rate have been jaw-dropping.

Indeed, as Table I shows, six of the ten largest declines in fertility in absolute terms for a 20-year decade period in the postwar era have occurred in Muslim-majority countries. What’s more, four of the six are Arab countries, while five of the six are in the Middle East. No other region of the world comes close in the sheer speed of its transition.

Table 2 offers another way to look at this demographic revolution. Again, we rank the top-ten fertility declines for a 20-year period since World War II. But here, the rankings follow percentage declines rather than absolute declines. By this metric, “only” four of the top ten (and two of the top four) were Muslim-majority countries. But all countries on this list count as Olympic-class sprinters in the reverse-fertility race, all recording declines exceeding 63 percent. Much of the ummah now has fertility rates comparable to affluent non-Muslim populations in the West.

Fertility rates vary considerably among Muslim-majority countries, of course — but so do rates in regions within most countries. Consider the United States. Algeria, Bangladesh and Morocco all have total fertility rates in the same ballpark as Texas, while Indonesia’s is almost identical to the TFR in Arkansas. Turkey and Azerbaijan, for their part, can be compared to Louisiana, while Tunisia looks like Illinois. Lebanon’s fertility level is lower than New York’s. Meanwhile, Iran’s fertility level is comparable to that of New England, the region in America with the lowest fertility. And no American state has a fertility level as low as Albania’s.


All in all, 21 Muslim-majority countries with a combined population of some 750 million – nearly half the population of the ummah — have fertility levels comparable to states in the USA. These numbers, remember, exclude tens of millions of Muslims in low-fertility countries (like Russia and China) where Islam is not the predominant religion. So it is likely that a majority of the world’s Muslims already live in countries where fertility levels would look entirely unexceptional in an American mirror.

What explains this light-speed transformation? A century of research has detailed the associations between fertility decline and socioeconomic modernization, as represented by income levels, educational attainment, urbanization, public health conditions, treatment of women, and the like.

But that’s not the whole story here. A path-breaking 1994 study by Lant Pritchett, an economist now at Harvard, made a persuasive case that the desired fertility level (as expressed, for example, by women of childbearing age in the Demographic and Health Surveys conducted worldwide in the postwar era) was the single best predictor for actual fertility levels in less developed regions. Indeed, 90 percent of the statistical variance in their fertility levels predicted on the basis of desired fertility alone.

This flies in the face of the conventional views of population policy specialists, in which (to exaggerate only somewhat) women mechanistically respond to changes in the socioeconomic environment. In particular, it seems to contradict the received wisdom that family planning programs make an important independent contribution to reducing fertility levels in developing countries: strikingly, desired fertility rates and the availability of contraceptives aren’t that closely correlated. Social and economic factors, to be sure, may well indirectly affect desired fertility — in fact, it’s hard to imagine they don’t. But at the end of the day, current fertility levels (in both Muslim and non-Muslim societies) seem to be a product of intangible factors (culture, values, personal hopes and expectations), not just material and economic forces.

Holding income and literacy constant, Muslim-majority countries actually seem to have significantly lower fertility levels than non-Muslim ones. Thus, despite more limited use of modern contraception (prevalence levels are approximately 11 percentage points lower than in non-Muslim countries, all else held equal), the ummah is looking ever more like other population groupings when it comes to fertility. To put it another way, where Muslim women want fewer children, they are increasingly finding ways to manage it — with the pill or without it.

The quiet revolution in fertility now unfolding across the Islamic world is (so to speak) pregnant with implications for the future: it portends a radical revision of population projections for many countries; an unexpectedly rapid aging of many now youthful societies; and a new outlook for economic development in societies whose accomplishments to date in this realm have so often been disappointing. But the fact that this hidden-in-plain-sight revolution has come as such a surprise should emphasize just how little we really understood about the societies beneath the frozen political autocracies that controlled so many Islamic populations over the past generation.

Indeed, the standard measures of development simply don’t explain all the great demographic changes underway outside the mature, industrialized countries. In particular, proponents of purely material models of development are confronted by the awkward fact that the fertility decline over the past generation has been more rapid in the Arab states than virtually anywhere else on earth. Yet few people disagree that those same countries have exceptionally poor development records over the same period.

For over a generation, bien pensants in the international community have been sagely informing us that “development is the best pill.” If this were really true, however, the great Middle Eastern fertility revolution could never have taken place. A new world is, quite literally, being born before our eye — and we would all do well to pay much closer attention to its significance.


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