By Saif Shahin, New Age Islam
How would you imagine a typical Muslim family? A god-fearing husband, an uneducated wife (or wives), and lots and lots of children breaking out the door and spilling onto the streets? That, however, is not what a typical Muslim family does or is going to look like in the years ahead.
New research shows a historically unprecedented decline in fertility rates or the number of births, among Muslim women worldwide. In Muslim-majority countries, such as in the Middle East, the decline has already brought them on par with the ageing West. Chances are that fertility rates would fall further.
The trend has grave implications. One, the working age population in Muslim societies is going to shrink as fewer children are born, leaving them with a problem similar to that faced by the West. Two, while the West has already achieved high levels of education, development and family income, most Muslim countries in Asia and Africa face demographic stagnation even as they remain largely uneducated, underdeveloped and with extremely low family incomes.
In 2009, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life estimated the global Muslim population at around 1.6 billion, or 23% of the global population at that time. However, Muslims form a much smaller percentage of the population of developed countries, just about 3% or so. This means Muslims overwhelmingly reside in lesser developed parts of the world.
Births per women in Muslim countries is declining sharply, according to research by political economists Nicholas Eberstadt and Apoorva Shah. They write: “Six of the ten largest absolute declines in fertility for a two-decade period yet recorded in the post-war [WWII] era (and by extension, we may suppose, ever to take place under orderly conditions in human history) have occurred in Muslim-majority countries.”
Of these, the top four are all Muslim countries? Oman, Maldives, Kuwait and Iran each of them has suffered a decline of more than 4.5 births per woman in just 20 years, Oman leading the list with a decline of 5.3 births per woman. The other two Muslim countries in the top ten are Algeria and Libya.
Eberstadt and Shah add: “Notably, four of the ten greatest fertility declines ever recorded in a twenty-year period took place in the Arab world (Algeria, Libya, Kuwait and Oman); adding in Iran, we see that five of these ‘top ten’ unfolded in the greater Middle East. No other region in the world? Not highly dynamic Southeast Asia or even rapidly modernizing East Asia, comes close to this showing.”
What explains this decline? Large drops in fertility rates are typically associated with rising income levels, rising education and easy access to contraceptives. None of these factors are true for these orthodox and often underdeveloped Muslim societies. The researchers, instead, attribute declining fertility levels in Muslim societies to “desired fertility levels” ? as expressed by women. That is to say, with or without access to education or contraceptives, women find ways to avoid giving birth to the extent they want.
The decline has already brought fertility rates in Muslim countries to the levels of the West. Using United Nations figures, the researchers say that “21 Muslim-majority populations would seem to have fertility levels these days that would be unexceptional for states in the USA … these 21 countries and territories encompassed a total estimated population of almost 750 million persons: which is to say, very nearly half of the total population of the Ummah.” The rest of the Ummah lives in countries that are already known to suffer from low fertility levels.
On the one hand, the research implies that Muslims are needlessly feared to be “breeding like rats” and planning to take over the world simply by procreation. But on the other hand, it shows that Muslim societies are staring into a dark and uncertain future.
One, the fall in fertility rates portends a shrinking working-age population. As fewer children are born, there will be fewer youngsters to replace people who grow old or die. While many Muslim countries today suffer from the problem of unemployment, tomorrow they may struggle to find enough people to till their farms, man their machines or service other sectors of their economies.
Two, this stagnation is taking place at very low levels of income, education and general socio-economic development in Muslim societies. While Western societies face similarly low fertility levels, they already enjoy high levels of education and family income. With technological advancement, these societies are quite capable of taking care of themselves, including their ageing populations. Muslim societies, on the other hand, will struggle to cope with it.
As Eberstadt and Shah write: “A number of Muslim-majority populations are already set on course for very rapid population aging… these same places enjoy only a fraction of US per capita income levels; even with optimistic assumptions about economic growth, it is hard to envision how they might attain contemporary OECD income levels—much less contemporary OECD educational profiles or knowledge-generation capabilities… How these societies will meet the needs of their greying populations on relatively low income levels may prove to be one of the more surprising, and unanticipated, challenges of the fertility revolution now underway in the Ummah.”
For decades now, Muslim societies have been debating the merits of modern social ethos such as secular education, technological advancement and freedom for women to work. Even as other less developed non-Muslim societies, such as India, China and Brazil, have adopted these “Western” modes of development and progressed, Muslim societies continue to wallow in unending deliberations over whether or not it is Islamic to be able to read English, learn to work with computers or let women go to offices. Clearly, time is running out.
Saif Shahin is a research scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. He writes regularly for New Age Islam.