Fertility decline in the Muslim world: a veritable sea-change, still curiously unnoticed

A woman and her child wait to commence prayer outside of a mosque at the end of Ramadan.

Article Highlights

  • Throughout the Ummah, fertility levels are falling dramatically for countries and sub-national populations

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  • There is a widely perceived notion Muslim societies are resistant to familial change, but such notions speak to a bygone era

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  • With extremely rapid fertility decline, many Muslim-majority populations are already set on course for rapid population aging

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There remains a widely perceived notion—still commonly held within intellectual, Fertility Decline in the Muslim World: A Veritable Sea-Change, Still Curiously Unnoticed
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academic, and policy circles in the West and elsewhere—that ―Muslim societies are especially resistant to embarking upon the path of demographic and familial change that has transformed population profiles in Europe, North America, and other ―more developed areas (UN terminology). But such notions speak to a bygone era; they are utterly uninformed by the important new demographic realities that reflect today's life patterns within the Arab world, and the grater Islamic world as well.

Fertility levels are falling dramatically for countries and sub-national populations throughout the Ummah—and traditional marriage patterns and living arrangements are undergoing tremendous change.Throughout the Ummah, fertility levels are falling dramatically for countries and sub-national populations--and traditional marriage patterns and living arrangements are undergoing tremendous change. This brief note highlights some of these changes, examine some of their correlates and possible determinants, and speculate about some of their implications.

The Size and Distribution of the Global Muslim Population

There is some inescapable imprecision to any estimates of the size and distribution of the world’s population of adherents to Islam (the Ummah)—an uncertainty that turns in part on questions about the current size of some Muslim majority areas (i.e. Afghanistan, where as one US reference source puts it, ―no comprehensive census based upon systematically sound methods has ever been taken‖1), and in part on the intrinsic difficulties in determining the depth of a nominal believer’s religious faith, but more centrally on the crucial fact that many government statistical authorities do not collect information on the religious profession of their national populations. For example: while the United States maintains one of the world’s most extensive and developed national statistical systems, the American government expressly forbids the US Census Bureau from surveying the American public about religious affiliation; the same is true in much of the EU, in the Russian Federation, and in other parts of the ―more developed regions‖ with otherwise advanced data-gathering capabilities.

Nevertheless, on the basis of local population census returns that do cover religion, demographic and health survey (DHS) reports where religious preference is included, and other allied data-sources, it is possible to piece together a reasonably accurate impression of the current size and distribution of the world’s Muslim population.

This is the seventh paper on the Working Paper Series on Development Policy.

Nicholas Eberstadt the Henry Wendt Scholar in Political Economy at AEI.

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About the Author


  • Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist and a demographer by training, is also a senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research, a member of the visiting committee at the Harvard School of Public Health, and a member of the Global Leadership Council at the World Economic Forum. He researches and writes extensively on economic development, foreign aid, global health, demographics, and poverty. He is the author of numerous monographs and articles on North and South Korea, East Asia, and countries of the former Soviet Union. His books range from The End of North Korea (AEI Press, 1999) to The Poverty of the Poverty Rate (AEI Press, 2008).


  • Phone: 202.862.5825
    Email: eberstadt@aei.org
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