Fertility rates have fallen in most Muslim-majority countries in recent decades. Yet they remain, on average, higher than in the rest of the developing world and considerably higher than in more-developed countries. This is one of the main reasons that the global Muslim population is projected to rise both in absolute numbers and in relative terms, as a share of all the people in the world.
Taken as a whole, the world’s more-developed regions – including Europe, North America, Japan and Australia – have Total Fertility Rates (TFRs)3 below their replacement levels of about 2.1 children per woman, the minimum necessary to keep the population stable (absent other factors, such as immigration).4 Fertility rates in these more-developed nations are projected to rise slightly over the next 20 years but to remain, on average, well below replacement levels.
In non-Muslim-majority countries in less-developed regions – including all of Latin America, much of sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia – fertility rates have dropped in recent decades. They are projected to continue to drop, reaching or even falling below replacement levels in these developing countries as a whole in 2030-35.
In many Muslim-majority countries – including Indonesia, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Turkey and Tunisia – fertility rates also have dropped substantially. The average Total Fertility Rate for all 49 Muslim-majority countries has fallen from 4.3 children per woman in 1990-95 to an estimated 2.9 children in 2010-15. Over the next 20 years, fertility rates in these Muslim-majority countries as a whole are expected to continue to decline, though not quite as steeply, dropping to 2.6 children per woman in 2020-25 and 2.3 children in 2030-35 – approaching and possibly reaching replacement levels.
If current trends continue, fertility rates in Muslim-majority countries eventually may converge with fertility rates in other developing countries and in the world’s more-developed regions. But complete convergence is not projected to occur in the next two decades, as the trend lines in the above graph shows.
Moreover, high fertility rates in the past create a certain demographic momentum. Due to previously high fertility, large numbers of Muslim youth and young adults are now in (or entering) their prime childbearing years, all but ensuring that relatively rapid population growth will continue in the next two decades, even if the number of births per woman goes down. (For details, see the Age Structure section.)
Among the reasons for declining fertility rates in both Muslim-majority and non-Muslim-majority countries are economic development and improved living standards, higher levels of education, people waiting until they are older to get married, growing urbanization and more extensive use of birth control. (See the Related Factors section for a discussion of how these factors affect the global Muslim population.)
The overall trends in fertility, however, mask a considerable amount of variation from country to country. Among Muslim-majority countries, the highest Total Fertility Rates currently are found in Niger, Afghanistan and Somalia, where the average woman has more than six children during her lifetime. The lowest TFRs are in Iran (1.7) and Tunisia (1.8), which are well below replacement levels.
A final, cautionary note: The impact of religion on fertility rates is difficult to assess and remains a subject of debate. One should not assume, just because fertility tends to be higher in Muslim-majority countries than in other developing countries, that Islamic teachings are the reason. Cultural, social, economic, political, historical and other factors may play equal or greater roles.5 For example, many Muslims live in countries with higher-than-average rates of poverty, less-adequate health care, fewer educational opportunities and more-rural populations. All of these conditions are associated with higher fertility rates.
Islamic authorities in some countries, such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, reinforce cultural norms that limit women’s autonomy by, for example, restricting their educational and career options or making it difficult for women to initiate a divorce. These restrictions may contribute to higher fertility because there is strong evidence that Muslim women, like other women around the world, tend to delay marriage – and consequently childbirth – as they attain higher levels of education. (See the discussion of education.) In Nigeria, for example, Muslim women generally have lower literacy levels and marry at younger ages; not surprisingly, Muslims also have higher fertility rates than non-Muslims in Nigeria. (For more details, see the Spotlight on Nigeria). However, recent studies suggest that in a number of other countries, including India and Malaysia, measures of women’s status cannot explain differences in fertility between Muslims and non-Muslims.6
Women in Muslim-majority countries tend to marry at much younger ages than women in more-developed countries, but there is little difference between the average age of marriage in Muslim-majority countries and in other less-developed countries. According to a Pew Forum analysis of U.N. data, women in Muslim-majority countries marry, on average, at 21.6 years, compared with 22.0 years in non-Muslim-majority, less-developed countries and 26.2 years in more-developed countries.7
Family planning is another arena in which the role of religion is not as simple as it might seem. Islamic edicts generally have supported the use of birth control, and a number of Muslim-majority countries (including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran, Turkey and Tunisia) have encouraged family planning programs. But many Muslims are either uneasy about contraceptives or do not have access to them, and women in Muslim-majority countries report using birth control at lower rates than women in other developing countries. In addition, many Muslim-majority countries forbid or strictly limit abortions. (See the discussion of contraception and family planning .)
There is also some evidence that across a variety of religious traditions, women who are more religious have higher fertility rates than less-religious women. This suggests that religiosity in general, rather than Islam in particular, may boost the number of children per woman.8 In short, Islamic beliefs may directly or indirectly influence the size of Muslim families, but religion does not operate in isolation from other forces; fertility rates appear to be driven by a complex mixture of cultural, social, economic, religious and other factors.
Life Expectancy at Birth
Muslims are living much longer than they did just a generation ago. The average life expectancy at birth in Muslim-majority countries, which was 62 years in the five-year period 1990-95, is estimated to be 68 years in 2010-15.9 By 2030-35, life expectancy at birth in Muslim-majority countries is projected to reach 73 years, slightly surpassing life expectancy in other (non-Muslim-majority) developing countries. This is another reason for the growth of the global Muslim population in both absolute and relative terms.
In more-developed countries, people tend to live considerably longer than in less-developed countries. In 2010-15, the average life expectancy in the world’s more-developed countries is estimated by the United Nations Population Division to be a full decade longer than in developing countries (78 years vs. 68 years). But life expectancy is rising in the developing world – including in countries with Muslim majorities – albeit from a lower base.
Between 1990-95 and 2010-15, the average gain in life expectancy in more-developed countries is estimated at four years (from 74 to 78). In less-developed countries where Muslims are in the minority, the gain is estimated to be five years (from 63 to 68). In Muslim-majority countries, it is estimated at seven years (from 62 to 68), when calculated from unrounded numbers.
A similar pattern is projected in the decades to come. Life expectancy is projected to rise by three years in more-developed countries (from 78 to 81), by four years in less-developed countries that do not have Muslim majorities (from 68 to 72) and by four years (when calculated from unrounded numbers) in Muslim-majority countries (from 68 to 73). The differences in the rate of improvement are small; the key point is that life expectancy at birth is rising across the board.
Behind the gains in longevity are numerous factors, including better health care, improved nutrition, rising incomes and infrastructure development. One measure of health care quality, for example, is the percentage of births attended by skilled health professionals. This indicator has improved dramatically in Muslim-majority countries, rising from an average of about 47% of all births in the 1990s to roughly 63% of all births in 2000 to 2008, a 16-percentage-point gain, according to the Pew Forum’s analysis of data from the World Health Organization. In developing countries where Muslims are in the minority, by contrast, the percentage of births attended by skilled health professionals rose by just five percentage points during this period, from about 68% in the 1990s to almost 73% in 2000-08. And, statistically speaking, virtually no improvement was possible in more-developed nations, where 99% of births already were attended by skilled health professionals in the 1990s.
To see how infrastructure development contributes to rising life expectancy in Muslim-majority countries, one might look, for example, at access to clean drinking water, which is less likely to carry diseases. Muslim-majority countries with better access to improved (i.e., clean) drinking water have longer life expectancies. For instance, the average life expectancy in the six countries whose residents have the most access to improved drinking water is more than 70 years, compared with less than 55 years in the five Muslim-majority countries where access to clean drinking water is least common.
Improved health care, better access to clean drinking water and many other gains in infrastructure development, living standards and nutrition have resulted in sharp declines in infant mortality rates in developing countries in general and Muslim-majority countries in particular. The decline in infant mortality, in turn, is one of the main factors driving up life expectancy at birth.
Between 1990-95 and 2010-15, the number of infant deaths per 1,000 live births is projected to drop by about 31 in Muslim-majority countries, by almost 17 in other less-developed countries and by almost five in more-developed countries. By 2020-25, Muslim-majority countries are expected to close the remaining gap and have infant mortality rates no higher than in non- Muslim-majority developing countries.
Yet, despite such dramatic improvements, there is enormous variation among Muslim-majority countries in both infant mortality rates and life expectancy at birth. In Afghanistan, for example, the infant mortality rate is 147 deaths per 1,000 live births – the highest in the world and nearly four times the global average of 33 per 1,000, according to U.N. figures – while average life expectancy at birth is just 45 years. By contrast, infant mortality rates in Brunei, Mayotte, Bahrain, Malaysia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are about the same as those found in more-developed nations, and average life expectancy at birth is 75 years or more.
Declining infant mortality rates and increased life expectancies mean that Muslim-majority countries will have more children surviving into adulthood as well as growing numbers of elderly people in the next two decades, as discussed in the Age Structure section.
On average, more people are leaving Muslim-majority countries than migrating to them. Although the rate of people leaving has declined significantly since 1990-95, Muslim-majority countries are still losing part of their populations to emigration, and that trend is projected to continue over the next 20 years, as the chart below shows.
The migration of people from Muslim-majority countries to more-developed countries is one of the main reasons that both the number and the percentage of Muslims are projected to rise in Europe, North America, New Zealand and Australia. (The regional impacts are discussed in greater detail in the regional sections.)
By 2030-35, Muslim-majority countries as a whole are projected to have average annual losses of 47 people per 100,000 population, down from net losses of 81 people annually in 2010-15. As recently as 1990-95, Muslim-majority countries were losing many more people – an average of 160 a year per 100,000.
More-developed nations in Europe, North America and elsewhere are likely to remain important destinations for immigrants from Muslim-majority countries (as well as from other less-developed countries) in the next 20 years. Annual net migration to more-developed nations is expected to be fairly stable over the next two decades. By 2030-35, more developed countries are projected to have annual average gains of 182 people per 100,000 population, down from 200 per 100,000 in 2010-15.
If economic conditions in developing countries – including Muslim-majority countries – continue to improve, there will be less motivation, or “push” factors, encouraging emigration. Likewise, if economic conditions in more-developed countries worsen, there will be fewer “pull” factors attracting new immigrants, including temporary workers.
Of course, not all people who immigrate to the more-developed world from Muslim-majority countries are Muslims. Studies show that religious minorities – such as Christians living in majority-Muslim countries in the Middle East – sometimes emigrate in larger proportions than religious majorities.10 In addition, there is movement from one Muslim-majority country to another. Many immigrants to the Gulf region, for example, are from other Muslim-majority countries, and a substantial amount of internal migration occurs within the Middle East, as people move in search of employment and to escape conflicts.
In short, there is a net flow of migrants from Muslim-majority countries to countries in more developed regions, such as Europe and North America, but Muslims also are moving in other directions, including into the Gulf states, which now have net inflows of migrants.
Generally speaking, Muslim-majority countries have very youthful populations. As of 2010, people under age 30 make up about 60% of the total population of Muslim-majority countries. By contrast, only about a third of all people living in the world’s more-developed regions, such as Europe and North America, are under 30. The comparatively large number of Muslims who are in or entering their prime childbearing years is another reason for the projected growth of the world’s Muslim population.
When a country has a large percentage of people in their prime reproductive years, it gathers a kind of demographic momentum: Because many women are having babies, the population may grow rapidly even if the number of babies per woman (the fertility rate) is not especially high. Moreover, this momentum can last for generations, as the children born in one generation reach adulthood and begin having families of their own. Even when fertility rates are falling – as is the case in many Muslim-majority countries – the momentum may take more than one generation to dissipate.
As a result of high fertility in the past, Muslim-majority countries clearly have such demographic momentum today. Women between ages 15 and 29 – those who are in or soon will enter their prime childbearing years – make up 14% of the total population in Muslim-majority countries, compared with 13% in non-Muslim-majority developing countries and 10% in more-developed countries.
More generally, people under age 30 of both sexes comprise about 60% of the population in Muslim-majority countries, compared with about 54% in non-Muslim-majority developing countries and almost 35% in more-developed countries. And Muslim-majority countries are projected to remain relatively youthful during the coming two decades. In 2030, more than 50% of the population in Muslim-majority countries is expected to be under 30, compared with almost 46% in non-Muslim-majority developing countries and almost 31% in countries in more-developed regions.
Indeed, by 2030, there will be more than 540 million Muslim youth and young adults (ages 15-29) around the world, representing nearly three-in-ten (29.1%) of the projected total of 1.9 billion people in that age group, up from 25.8% in 2010 and 20.0% in 1990.
Yet, notwithstanding the high percentage of youth and young adults in Muslim-majority countries, the global Muslim population as a whole is aging as fertility rates drop (meaning that fewer babies are born per woman) and as life expectancy rises (meaning that more people are living into old age). This is reflected in the median age in Muslim-majority countries, which has climbed from 19 to 24 over the past two decades and is projected to reach 30 in 2030.
The graph above captures the fact that the world population, as a whole, is aging. The median age – the point at which half the people in a given population are older and half are younger – is rising in Muslim-majority countries, but so are the median ages in non-Muslim-majority, less-developed countries and in more-developed countries. This explains how it is possible for the world’s Muslims to be aging and yet to remain very youthful compared with non-Muslims.
The so-called Muslim youth bulge – the high proportion of youth and young adults in many heavily Muslim societies – has attracted considerable attention from political scientists.11 Less notice has been paid to the fact that the Muslim youth bulge peaked around the start of the 21st century and is now gradually declining as the Muslim population ages. The percentage of 15- to 29-year-olds in Muslim-majority countries rose slightly between 1990 and 2000 (from 27.5% to 28.8%) but has since dipped slightly to 28.5% and is projected to continue to decline to 24.4% in 2030. While this is not a large drop, it means that the proportion of youth and young adults in many Muslim-majority countries has reached a plateau or begun to fall.
As the youth bulge moves along, the portion of the population in Muslim-majority countries between ages 30 and 44 is projected to remain fairly stable or rise slightly, from 20.2% in 2010 to 21.4% in 2030. In Muslim-majority countries, people ages 45-59 are expected to rise from 12.1% today to 16.3% in 2030.
The fastest growth of all, in percentage terms, will be among people age 60 and older, who are expected to make up 11.9% of the population in Muslim-majority countries as a whole in 2030, up from 7.3% in 2010.
Yet the percentage of the population age 60 and older will remain somewhat higher in non-Muslim-majority, less-developed countries and dramatically higher in more-developed countries, where a third of the population will be 60 and older in 2030.
Some Muslim-majority countries already have considerably older populations than others. The highest median ages at present are found in the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Albania. The lowest are in Niger, Burkina Faso, Afghanistan and Chad.
In 2010, the Muslim-majority countries with the highest portion of people age 60 and older are Albania, Lebanon, Kazakhstan and Tunisia. Albania will still be at the top of the list in 2030. By that year, nearly a quarter of Albania’s population (24.0%) is expected to be age 60 or older, mirroring trends in Europe as a whole.
In 2030, the Muslim-majority countries with the highest proportion of youth and young adults (ages 15-29) will be Burkina Faso, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Mali, where about three-in-ten will be in that age group.
3 The standard measure of fertility in this report is the Total Fertility Rate, defined as the total number of children an average woman would have in her lifetime if fertility patterns did not change. The TFR is calculated by adding the birth rates among women in each age group in a particular country during a given period; in other words, it is a kind of snapshot of fertility patterns at one place and time. (return to text)
4 The replacement level varies depending on mortality rates and sex ratios at birth. In countries with a normal sex ratio at birth and relatively low infant and child mortality, a fertility rate of about 2.1 children per woman is sufficient to replenish the population. In some developing countries with high infant and child mortality, the replacement fertility rate is substantially greater than than 2.1 children per woman. Based on 2001 U.N. data, one study estimated the average replacement rate in Africa at 2.7 and the worldwide average at 2.3. See Thomas J. Espenshade, Juan Carlos Guzman and Charles F. Westoff, “The Surprising Global Variation in Replacement Fertility,” Population Research and Policy Review, Volume 22, Numbers 5-6, pages 575-583, December 2003. (return to text)
5 One study in West Africa, for example, found that in countries where Muslims are in the minority, they tend to have higher fertility than non-Muslims, while in countries in which Muslims are in the majority, they tend to have lower fertility than non- Muslims. “There is no single, coherent Muslim reproductive pattern: the real story is local,” the author asserts. See Jennifer Johnson-Hanks, “On the Politics and Practice of Muslim Fertility: Comparative Evidence from West Africa,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Volume 20, Number 1, pages 12-30, 2006. (return to text)
6 For instance, a study of Muslim and non-Muslim communities in India, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines found that the Muslim communities had more children per woman even though they did not score any lower on measures of women’s power or autonomy. See S. Philip Morgan, Sharon Stash, Herbert L. Smith and Karen Oppenheim Mason, “Muslim and Non-Muslim Differences in Female Autonomy and Fertility: Evidence from Four Asian Countries,” Population and Development Review, Volume 28, Number 3, pages 515-537, 2002. (return to text)
7 These figures are the average (mean) age of first marriage. They have been weighted by country populations so that more populous countries affect the average more than smaller countries. (return to text)
8 A 2007 study, for example, found that Muslim women in Europe who are highly religious are significantly more likely than less-religious Muslim women to have at least two children. See Charles F. Westoff and Tomas Frejka, “Religiousness and Fertility Among European Muslims,” Population and Development Review, Volume 33, Number 4, pages 785-809, December 2007. Other researchers have demonstrated the connection between fertility and religiosity in a variety of religious traditions. See, for example, Conrad Hackett, “Religion and Fertility in the United States: The Influence of Affiliation, Region, and Congregation,” Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Sociology and Office of Population Research, Princeton University, 2008; Sarah R. Hayford and S. Philip Morgan, “Religiosity and Fertility in the United States: The Role of Fertility Intentions,” Social Forces, Volume 86, Number 3, pages 1163-1188, March 2008; Evelyn Lehrer, “Religion as a Determinant of Marital Fertility,” Journal of Population Economics, Volume 9, Number 2, pages 173-196, 1996; and William D. Mosher, Linda B. Williams and David P. Johnson, “Religion and Fertility in the United States: New Patterns,” Demography, Volume 29, Number 2, pages 199-214, May 1992. (return to text)
9 Life expectancy at birth is the average number of years a newborn would be expected to live if health and living conditions at the time of his/her birth remained the same throughout his/her life. (return to text)
10 For example, the 2008 World Refugee Survey, conducted by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, found that of the approximately 1.3 million refugees from the Iraq War living in Syria, fewer than 75% were Muslim, although Iraq is nearly 99% Muslim. In addition, data from the 2003 New Immigrant Survey indicate that the proportion of Muslim immigrants to the United States from many Muslim-majority countries is lower than the proportion of Muslims in those countries. Immigrants to the U.S. from Iran, for example, were about 50% Muslim, while Iran’s population as a whole is more than 99% Muslim. (return to text)
11 See, for example, Graham E. Fuller, “The Youth Factor: The New Demographics of the Middle East and the Implications for U.S. Policy,” The Brookings Institution, 2003; and Jack A. Goldstone, “The New Population Bomb,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2010. (return to text)