Fertile Crescent?

During the years I taught at the University of Ghana, the United Nations sponsored a Regional Institute for Population Studies there, infelicitously known by the acronym RIPS. Occasionally I picked up literature produced by the institute on ethical issues surrounding population control; in the process I learned some demographic jargon, such as the division of cultures into natalist (or pronatalist) and antinatalist, those that encourage childbearing and those that do not. One particularly inane pamphlet characterized Babylon in 1700 BCE as pronatalist because the Code of Hammurabi criminalized abortion. As a student of Islam, I remember being dismayed to see that a Muslim nurse in Sudan published an article under the aegis of RIPS claiming that Islam permits abortion. The pagan Meccans, with whom Muhammad contended before 622 CE, buried some of their infant girls alive to keep the population down. God reminded them in the Qur’an that the Day of Judgment would provide a forum in which “the female infant buried alive is asked for what sin she was executed” (Qur’an 81: 8–9). Evidently the Muslim nurse from Sudan was unfamiliar with that text.

Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd, demographers at the French National Institute for Demographic Studies, know more about Islam and abortion: “Sunni and Shiite Muslims hold different positions on dogma,” they write, “but they agree in condemning abortion.” But the authors also note—and this is a general theme in this brief but fascinating book—that cultural factors other than Islam have much more to do with population dynamics in Muslim societies. Muslims in the past Communist world (the formerly Soviet Asian republics, Bosnia, Albania) prefer “un-Islamic birth control” through abortion to types of contraception approved in the Islamic tradition.

Courbage and Todd demonstrate with statistics that the most notable differences in fertility rates among Muslim populations around the world correlate with female literacy rates. As soon as half the women in any society achieve literacy, the fertility rate declines. This decline has much to do with the age at which women marry (later in literate societies) and the careers available to literate women. In areas of high female literacy like the Maghreb (northwestern Africa), “remaining unmarried at thirty is now customary,” with 41 percent of Moroccan and 54 percent of Tunisian women marrying after the age of thirty.

Courbage and Todd manifest distinctly French secularist biases: “After the growth of literacy,” they claim, “the diffusion of birth control is a second fundamental element in the accession to a higher stage of consciousness and development.” Having lived for many years among some very happy illiterates, many with large families, and for not a few years as well among dyspeptic literates without families or with small ones, I am not so sure about who has reached the higher stage of consciousness. Apart from this cultural cavil, I found this succinct book fascinating and recommend it to anyone faced with gloom-and-doom interlocutors who bloviate about the “clash of civilizations” or mourn the passing of the civilized “West,” about to be overrun by prolific Muslims with multiple wives and dozens of children.

Contemporary Iran, the biggest bugaboo in America, Western Europe, and  their Middle Eastern client states, has a fertility rate slightly below the replacement level of 2.1. In 1979, the year the Shah Reza Pahlavi was deposed and the Ayatollah Khomeini seized power, the female fertility rate in Iran was seven children per woman. The Shah’s regime had promoted family planning without notable success for nearly twenty years. Khomeini, on the other hand, promoted natalism. But typically Shiite ijtihad (the independent working out of legal interpretations) by other Muslim clerics encouraged state-subsidized contraception. As a result, a new Islamic Republic program of family planning was inaugurated in 1989, the year of Khomeini’s death. The United Nations today estimates that the Iranian fertility rate is 2.08 (per woman of child-bearing age); the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau claims it is 2.00; and the U.S. Census Bureau suggests that it is 1.73. The authors never explain the divergence in these three figures. There are still a lot of Iranians (77 million), but their population is not growing at the rate that the scaremongers proclaim.

In areas where Muslim populations feel themselves under siege by non-Muslims (such as the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent—India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh), Muslim female fertility rates remain high: 4.5 per woman in Pakistan, compared to 3.2 per woman in India, 3.0 per woman in Bangladesh, the most densely populated country in the world, and one that has pursued population control quite vigorously.

The Muslim population of those three countries combined was just over 500 million in 2007 and the “Hindu and other” population of the three countries was just under 1 billion. At current growth rates in these three nations it is estimated that their combined Muslim population will be 880 million in 2050, when the “Hindu and other” population will be 1.2 billion. Muslims in 2007 were about 33 percent of the combined population of the countries in the Indian subcontinent and in 2050 may be more than 60 percent. Secular India already faces problems with Islamist Pakistan, but less so with relatively secular Bangladesh. By 2050 some Muslims of the subcontinent may be dreaming of restoring the Mughal Empire that once governed most of that area.

In the Arab world—about one-seventh of the total Muslim world—population growth continues, but generally at a much lower rate than five decades ago. Egypt in the 1960s had a female fertility rate of seven children per woman; today, with a population of more than 80 million, Egypt has a fertility rate of less than half that figure. On the other hand, Yemen, the poorest Arab country, still has a female fertility rate of 6.2 compared to 8.6 fifty years ago. But in Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza) “the Israeli threat...produced increased fertility, even among the most educated women.” In 1990 fertility rates among Palestinian women culminated at 7.57 in the West Bank and 8.76 in Gaza. Israeli Arabs, on the other hand, had a fertility rate of 3.72 in 2005, “one child higher than that of the Jewish population.” Israeli Jewish women in Jerusalem in recent years have outstripped their sisters elsewhere in the country, having a fertility rate of 3.95, while the Israeli Jewish settlers on the West Bank have a rate of 4.7. The battle of the bassinets continues, and it may explain why the state of Israel is still encouraging aliyah, return to Zion by Jews from other parts of the world.

Largely Muslim countries or Muslim regions of countries in sub-Saharan Africa have the highest fertility rates in the Muslim world. Niger, an 80 percent Muslim country with a population of about 15 million, currently has a fertility rate of 7.55 (down from 8.15 in 1998). Only 40 percent of Niger’s young men and 27 percent of its young women are literate. Nigeria, just south of Niger, has a population estimated today at around 150 million, 50 percent of it Muslim, with the overall fertility rate (Muslim and non-Muslim) estimated as 5.59 (down from 6.9 in 1983). Most of the family planning in Nigeria is going on in the largely non-Muslim southern half of the country. In the more Muslim areas of Nigeria, the rate is 7 in the northeast and 6.7 in the northwest. This may make intelligible the restiveness and Islamist radicalism that have arisen in both these areas in the past few years.

In Nigeria, 84 percent of young men and 68 percent of young women can read. In Niger, 123 out of every 1,000 babies die in the first five years of life; even though Nigeria is a much more advanced country in terms of medical infrastructure, 10 percent of all its children die in the first five years of life. One can understand the reasons so many African Muslim migrants have risked their lives crossing the Sahara and the Mediterranean in search of a better life in Europe.

The authors end their book with a clear “NO” to the question of whether Islam influences demography. Furthermore, “Muslim unity, unchanging Islam, and Muslim essence are imaginary constructs.” Courbage and Todd admit that “all religions are openly or implicitly natalist because they provide meaning to life,” but they also claim that “the undermining and fading of religion, along with increasing literacy, seem to be conditions for a fertility decline.”

Are we supposed to laugh or cry?

Published in the 2011-10-21 issue: 

Patrick J. Ryan, SJ, is the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University.

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