The following factors are not direct inputs into the projections, but they underlie vital assumptions about the way Muslim fertility rates are changing and Muslim populations are shifting.


As in the rest of the world, fertility rates in countries with Muslim-majority populations are directly related to educational attainment. Women tend to delay childbearing when they attain higher levels of education. As Muslim women continue to receive more education, their fertility rates are projected to decline.

md2-most and fewer education

The relationship between educational attainment and fertility rates is shown in the scatter plot below. Niger, for example, has an extremely high Total Fertility Rate (an average of 6.9 children per woman), and a girl born there today can expect to receive an average of just four years of schooling in her lifetime. In Libya, by contrast, a girl born today can expect to receive an average of 17 years of education, and the country’s fertility rate is 2.5 children per woman.


The eight Muslim-majority countries where girls can expect to receive the fewest years of schooling have an average Total Fertility Rate of 5.0 children per woman. That is more than double the average rate (2.3 children per woman) in the nine Muslim-majority countries where girls can expect to receive the most years of schooling.

One exception is the Palestinian territories, which has a relatively high fertility rate (4.5 children per woman) although a girl born there today can expect to receive 14 years of education, on average.12

Economic Well-Being

In Muslim-majority countries, as in many other countries, low economic standards of living are associated with rapid population growth.

In general, among the 24 Muslim-majority countries for which data are available from the U.N., the more people who live in poverty, the higher the national fertility rate, as the scatter plot below illustrates. The reverse is also true: As living standards rise, fertility rates tend to drop.


There are a number of reasons why fertility tends to be higher in poor countries. In agricultural societies, high fertility may be related to the desire of families to have more workers. In countries with poor health care infrastructures, families need to have more children to offset high child mortality rates. And in less-developed countries, parents may be more likely to see additional children as wealth-producing resources rather than as wealth-draining obligations.

The 10 Muslim-majority countries with the highest percentages of people living below the poverty line (as defined by each country) are projected to have an average Total Fertility Rate of 4.5 children per woman. That is nearly double the average projected rate (2.4 children per woman) in the 10 Muslim-majority countries with the lowest percentages of people living below the poverty line.


At present, Muslim-majority countries overall are among the poorest in the world, as measured by gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in U.S. dollars adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP).13 Their median GDP per capita of $4,000 is substantially lower than the median for more-developed countries ($33,700) and just slightly higher than the median for less-developed countries where Muslims are in the minority ($3,300).

However, the median GDP per capita figure for all Muslim-majority countries masks an enormous amount of variation from country to country and region to region. For instance, the median GDP per capita in Muslim-majority countries in Middle East-North Africa is $6,000, compared with roughly $1,200 in Muslim-majority countries in sub-Saharan Africa.14 And some oil-rich countries with Muslim majorities, particularly the Gulf states, have median GDPs per capita that are higher than that of the United States.


Three of the 10 nations with the world’s highest GDPs per capita are Muslim-majority countries (Qatar, Kuwait and Brunei), but three of the 10 countries with the world’s lowest GDPs per capita also are Muslim-majority countries (Afghanistan, Niger and Somalia).

Although fertility rates in the wealthiest Muslim-majority countries tend to be lower than in other Muslim-majority countries, they still are higher than in many of the world’s wealthiest non-Muslim-majority countries.

Contraception and Family Planning

Use of birth control is significantly lower in Muslim-majority countries than in many other countries, due to more recent adoption of family planning practices, among other factors. This directly contributes to higher fertility in Muslim-majority countries.

Fewer than half of married women ages 15-49 in Muslim-majority countries (47.8%) use any method of birth control. By comparison, 63.3% of married women in the same age group who live in non-Muslim-majority, less-developed countries and 68.5% of those living in moredeveloped countries use some form of birth control. Moreover, the proportion of married women ages 15-49 who use modern methods of contraception (devices or procedures such as condoms, birth control pills, spermicidal foams, intrauterine devices and tubal ligations) is much lower in Muslim-majority countries (39.4%) than in non-Muslim-majority countries (about 58%).


Notwithstanding these differences, use of birth control has become a more accepted practice in Muslim-majority countries since the 1990s, contributing to the decline in fertility rates in many of these countries.15

In the 44 Muslim-majority countries for which data on use of birth control are available, 20 report that half or more of married women ages 15-49 practice some form of birth control.

Ten of the 44 countries – Albania, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – report a rate of birth control usage of 60% or more. Topping the list is Iran, where 73% of married women ages 15-49 say they use some form of birth control, the same as in the United States (73%) and substantially higher than the world average for use of birth control among married women ages 15-49 (61%), according to analysis of a 2009 report by the United Nations Population Fund.16


In addition to the 20 countries that report a 50% or higher rate of birth control use, 11 other Muslim-majority countries report moderate rates of use among married women (between 20% and 49%). Thirteen countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, report fairly low rates of birth control use among married women (less than 20%).

As the scatter plot on the opposite page shows, use of birth control is strongly correlated with the fertility rate in each country. At one extreme, Muslim-majority countries in sub-Saharan Africa have lower rates of birth control and higher fertility rates. At the other extreme, most Muslim-majority countries in Asia-Pacific and the Middle East-North Africa, as well as Albania in Europe, have higher rates of birth control and lower fertility.

Some Muslim-majority countries, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran, Turkey and Tunisia, have had family planning programs for several decades, but use of modern forms of birth control did not proliferate until the 1990s. Today, birth control is legal and available in most Muslim-majority countries, and many have government-supported family planning programs.

While some Muslims oppose family planning for political and social reasons, religious authorities generally have held that Islam does not prohibit the use of birth control. Indeed, a number of Islamic jurists have endorsed birth control for the health of the mother and the economic well-being of the family, often citing a verse from the Koran that states: “Allah desires for you ease; He desires no hardship for you.”17

A Note on Abortion

Many Muslim-majority countries do not collect or do not publish data on the frequency of abortions. The partial data that are available do not allow for reliable comparisons of abortion rates in Muslim-majority countries with abortion rates in other countries. However, many Muslim-majority countries either forbid abortions or allow them only under tight restrictions.



Slightly more than half of residents of Muslim-majority countries live in rural communities, but they are moving to cities and towns at a faster rate than the populations in other countries of the world, many of which are already heavily urbanized. Because urban dwellers generally have fewer children than people in rural areas, this trend is a contributing factor in the overall decline in fertility rates among Muslims.


In general among Muslim-majority countries, there is an association between urbanization and fertility: the higher the portion of the population living in cities and towns, the lower the national fertility rate.

This pattern may be seen even more clearly by comparing fertility rates in the countries with the highest and lowest percentages of people living in urban areas. In the 10 least-urbanized Muslim-majority countries, the average Total Fertility Rate is twice as high (4.8 children per woman) as the average in the 10 most-urbanized Muslim-majority countries (2.4 children per woman).


The relationship between urban populations and fertility rates, however, is complex. It can be thought of as a two-stage process (though, in reality, the stages may overlap). First, high fertility rates lead to rapid urban growth as children from large families in rural communities tend to move to cities and towns in search of better economic opportunities. Then, the new urban dwellers gradually adopt the lower fertility patterns characteristic of urban centers, thereby reducing the future number of children.


Many Muslim-majority countries are still in the first stage of this process. They have largely rural populations but very rapidly growing cities and towns. About 48% of the total population in Muslim-majority countries lived in urban areas in 2009, and the average annual urban growth rate in 2005-10 in these countries was 3.1%.18 By comparison, in non-Muslim-majority, less-developed countries, 44% of people lived in cities and towns, and the urban growth rate was 2.7%. In more-developed countries, 75% of the population lived in cities and towns, and the urban growth rate was 0.6%.

One reason for a higher rate of urban growth in Muslim-majority countries is the relatively high fertility rate among rural Muslims. Muslim-majority countries in sub-Saharan Africa, which tend to have very high fertility rates, currently have the highest rates of urban growth, an average of 4.2% annually. By contrast, Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East-North Africa and in Asia-Pacific, which tend to have lower fertility rates, also have lower urban growth rates (2.9% and 3.0%, respectively). (For details on fertility see sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East-North Africa and Asia-Pacific.)

The 12 Muslim-majority countries with the highest annual urban growth rates have much higher fertility rates, on average, than the 12 Muslim-majority countries with the lowest annual urban growth rates (4.6 vs. 2.3 children per woman). Qatar is an exception. Being a relatively small and wealthy country, it has a substantial number of immigrants moving to urban areas in search of employment.



Statistical data on conversion to and from Islam are scarce. What little information is available suggests that there is no substantial net gain or loss in the number of Muslims through conversion globally; the number of people who become Muslims through conversion seems to be roughly equal to the number of Muslims who leave the faith. As a result, this report does not include any estimated future rate of conversions as a direct factor in the projections of Muslim population growth.

Indirectly, however, conversions may affect the projections because people who have converted to or from Islam are included – even if they are not counted separately – in numerous censuses and surveys used to estimate the size of the global Muslim population in 1990, 2000 and 2010.

There are a number of reasons why reliable data on conversions are hard to come by. Some national censuses ask people about their religion, but they do not directly ask whether people have converted to their present faith. A few cross-national surveys do contain questions about religious switching, but even in those surveys, it is difficult to assess whether more people leave Islam than enter the faith. In some countries, legal and social consequences make conversion difficult, and survey respondents may be reluctant to speak honestly about the topic. Additionally, for many Muslims, Islam is not just a religion but an ethnic or cultural identity that does not depend on whether a person actively practices the faith. This means that even nonpracticing or secular Muslims may still consider themselves, and be viewed by their neighbors, as Muslims.

The limited information on conversion indicates that there is some movement both into and out of Islam but that there is no major net gain or loss. For instance, the Pew Forum’s survey of 19 nations in sub-Saharan Africa, conducted in 2009, found that neither Christianity nor Islam is growing significantly at the expense of the other through religious conversion in those countries.19 Uganda was the only country surveyed where the number of people who identified themselves as Muslim was significantly different than the number of people who said they were raised Muslim: 18% of Ugandans surveyed said they were raised Muslim, while 13% now describe themselves as Muslim, a net loss of five percentage points. In every other sub-Saharan Africa country surveyed, the number of people who are currently Muslim is roughly equivalent to the number saying they were raised as Muslims. This does not mean that there is no religious switching taking place. Rather, it indicates that the number of people becoming Muslim is roughly offset by the number of people leaving Islam.

The Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in 2007, found a similar pattern in the United States. In that survey, the number of respondents who described themselves as Muslim was roughly the same as the number who said they were raised as Muslims, and the portion of all U.S. adults who have converted either to or from Islam was less than three-tenths of 1 percent (>0.3%). Due to the relatively small number of Muslims in the nationally representative survey sample, however, it was not possible to calculate a precise retention rate for the Islamic faith in the U.S.20

An independent study published in 2010 that examined patterns of religious conversion among various faiths in 40 countries, mainly in Europe, also found that the number of people who were raised Muslim in those countries, as a whole, roughly equaled the number who currently are Muslim. But the sample sizes for Muslims were so small that the results cannot reliably predict Muslim conversion trends.21


12 The continuation of high fertility despite high education levels among Palestinians has been described as a demographic puzzle. The reasons for it are not entirely clear. Partly, it may reflect the persistence of traditional attitudes in Gaza; studies suggest that fertility has started to drop in the West Bank but not in Gaza. Some studies also find that highly educated Palestinian women are more likely than those who are less-educated to remain single but that married Palestinians tend to have similar numbers of children regardless of their educational level. Some commentators have suggested that high Palestinian birth rates may have a political basis as “weapons against occupation.” But a study of fertility patterns among Palestinians in different political settings does not support this “political fertility” hypothesis. See Marwan Khawaja, “The Fertility of Palestinian Women in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon,” Population-E, Volume 58, Number 3, pages 273-302, 2003. (return to text)

13 After per capita GDP figures are adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP), they reflect the value of goods and services produced by each country in one year at a comparable rate in the United States so that comparisons from country to country are more accurate. (return to text)

14 Median GDP per capita is weighted by country populations so that more populous countries affect the average more than smaller countries. (return to text)

15 Studies have found that access to television and other forms of mass media plays a role in social change, including the acceptance of contraception. See, for example, Charles F. Westoff and Akinrinola Bankole, “Mass Media and Reproductive Behavior in Africa,” DHS Analytical Report No. 2, 1997, and Charles F. Westoff and Akinrinola Bankole, “Mass Media and Reproductive Behavior in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh,” DHS Analytical Report No. 10, 1999. There also is a strong correlation between use of birth control and access to the internet. For example, in the 10 Muslim-majority countries whose populations have the most access to the internet, more than half of married women of reproductive age, on average, use birth control, and the average Total Fertility Rate is 2.1 children per woman. By comparison, in the 10 Muslim-majority countries whose populations have the least access to the internet, only about one-in-five married women of reproductive age use birth control, and the average Total Fertility Rate is more than twice as high (five children per woman). (return to text)

16 United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, 2009, World Contraceptive Use 2009. (return to text)

17 Sura 2:185. See Population Reference Bureau, Islam and Family Planning, MEN A Policy Brief, 2004. For a discussion of the Islamic scholarly consensus in favor of allowing birth control, see Gavin W. Jones and Mehtab S. Karim, Islam, the State and Population, Hearst & Co., 2005. (return to text)

18 For the purposes of this report, a country’s level of urbanization is defined as the percentage of its total population that lives in cities and towns. The urban growth rate is a different measure; it is the average annual increase in the number of urban residents. Thus, a country that is largely rural but with fast-growing cities and towns may be described as having a low degree of urbanization but a high rate of urban growth. (return to text)

19 Results from the survey are published in the Pew Forum’s April 2010 report Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa. (return to text)

20 Because Muslims currently constitute less than 1% of the U.S. adult population, even such large studies as the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey include relatively few Muslim respondents in their representative national samples. Of the more than 35,000 respondents in the Landscape Survey, only 90 said they were raised as Muslims. That number is too small to allow reliable conclusions about the percentage of Americans who leave Islam after being raised in the faith. (return to text)

21 See Robert Barro, Jason Hwang and Rachel McCleary, “Religious Conversion in 40 Countries,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Volume 49, Number 1, pages 15-36, March 2010. This analysis of patterns of religious conversion among people age 30 and older found little evidence of a significant pattern of conversion to Islam in 40 countries where Islam is a minority religion. However, the country surveys were not designed specifically to study Muslim conversion and had too small a sample of Muslims in each country to draw firm conclusions. The most noticeable pattern of conversion across the 40 countries is movement from having some religious affiliation to having no reported religious affiliation. The cross-national surveys analyzed were conducted in 1991, 1998 and 2001. Overall, less than 1% of all the people surveyed identified as Muslim, according to the authors. (return to text)