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3. The Muslim birth rate

3.1. Muslim fertility

Is there anything demonstrably intentional about this Islamic demographic expansion? In an article seeking to “explode the myth” of Muslim demographic aggression, journalists Namita Bhandare, Louise Fernandes and Minu Jain themselves admit that according to official surveys, “the disapproval of family planning is highest among Muslims”, while “the practice of family planning methods in 1980 was lowest amongst Muslims (only 23% of those surveyed practised it as opposed to 36% Hindus)”.1 They further admit that between 1971 and 1981, “the Hindu population was up by 24.15%, whereas the Muslim population shot up by 30.59%”. Further, they give the decline in fertility levels in the same period: 20.1% decline for urban and 20.0% for rural Hindus, 18.5% for urban and 17.3% for rural Muslims. This means that the already lower fertility level of the Hindus is declining faster than that of the Muslims.

Let us hear the same indications from an official source: “The total fertility rate (TFR) is 3.4 children per woman. (…) Muslims have considerably higher fertility than any other religious group. Muslim women have a TFR of 4.4, which is 1.1 children higher than the TFR for Hindu women.”2

The implication of these data is that the Muslim rate of growth in percentage of the Indian population will go on increasing. Instead of extrapolating across centuries, we may make a safer prognosis for the next few decades. It is safe to predict that the 2001 census will show another sharp increase in the rate at which Muslims are demographically catching up with the Hindu majority. It is then that the full effect of the birth control campaigns of the 1960s and 70s will become visible. Given the higher Hindu participation in the birth control effort of the 1960s and 70s, we must now be witnessing a cumulative effect, of a proportionately smaller number of Hindu mothers (born in that period) having in their turn each a smaller number of children than the proportionately larger number of Muslim mothers, on average.

3.2. The economic explanation

Unable to refute the Hindu Revivalist perception of a visible and increasing Muslim demographic growth, the journalists retreat to their next line of defence: they admit the fact of Muslim demographic expansion but disconnect it from Muslim identity. They offer as their explanation that it has nothing to do with Islam as such nor with any aggressive designs: it is all due to Muslim poverty, “the reason has to do with economics and not with religion”.3 This is the old Marxist clich: reduce everything to economic factors. It is still the most common explanation for the higher Muslim growth rate: the average Indian Muslim is poorer and less educated than the average Hindu, and poverty and low education both happen to lead to a higher birth rate.

Baljit Rai, a retired police officer who was a personal witness to India’s failure in containing the rising tide of illegal immigration from Bangladesh, refutes this argument by pointing to the birth rate among Kerala Muslims, who have a high level of education and a relatively high standard of living. Mani Shankar Aiyar had claimed on the basis of statewise figures for the southern states that “Muslim birth rates in all these enlightened states are very much lower than Hindu birth rates in unenlightened states like Uttar Pradesh”.4 However, Rai’s closer analysis of the figures shows that the Kerala Muslims have a higher birth-rate than the national Hindu average and even than the Hindu average in poor and backward states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan: the population growth (+28.74% for 1981-91) in the Muslim-majority district of Malappuram (with female literacy at 75.22%, far higher than among Hindus in the Hindi belt) is more than twice as high as the average for Kerala (+13.98), and well above the Hindu national average (+23.50).5

A secularist journalist confirms: “In spite of this ‘near total literacy’ the population growth rate of Muslims who constitute one-fourth of Kerala’s population is as high as 2.3 per cent per year, which is more than even the national PGR [= population growth rate] of 2.11 per annum and is almost double the PGR of Hindus in Kerala itself.”6

The figures for Kerala exemplify a general rule: at any given level of literacy and economic status, Muslims will have a markedly higher birth rate than their Hindu counterparts, even to the extent of having a higher birth rate than Hindus in a lower educational or income bracket. A secularist journalist, Pranay Gupta, estimates that in Hyderabad, which has a large Muslim middle-class, a typical Muslim family has eight children while a Hindu family has four.7

3.3. The literacy factor

Ever since the propagation of birth control among the Hindu masses, rich and literate Muslims have more children than poor and illiterate Hindus – the religious determinant overrules the economic determinant. This comes out clearly when we compare with the admittedly high growth rate for the Scheduled Castes: “The high growth rate of Muslims, due to poverty, illiteracy etc., is comparable to the growth rate of Scheduled Castes”, writes Ashish Bose; but he himself gives the SC growth rate as 31% for the decade 1981-91 against the Muslim growth rate of 32.8%.8 True, some Muslims fall in the same low-income category as the SCs; but taking into account the Muslim middle-class, some old landed gentry and a lot of guest workers in the Gulf states, the average Muslim income is considerably higher than the average SC income.9

Likewise, illiteracy is definitely higher among the SCs than among Muslims. And yet, the Muslim growth rate is still 1.8% higher than that of the SCs. “Even after controlling for the level of education among women, religious differentials in fertility persist. Scheduled Caste women have a higher TFR (3.9) than Scheduled Tribe women (3.6) and non-SC/ST women (3.3)”10 -- all of them considerably less than the Muslim TFR of 4.4.

The same is true for the rural-urban differential: just like in other countries, Indian rural couples have a higher fertility (5.7 for Hindus, 6.2 for Muslims) than urban couples (4.2 for Hindus, 4.9 for Muslims), but this secular determinant of fertility is overruled by the religious determinant, for Muslims are more concentrated in the cities but have a higher over-all birth rate nonetheless.11

Incidentally, the source just cited, Mohan Rao, provides an example of the misplaced confidence with which secularists berate Hindu Revivalists as unreliable, mendacious etc. Though riding a very high horse in his denunciation of “communal propaganda”, Rao himself makes a conspicuously counterfactual statement: “The Hindu population increased by 0.71 per cent between 1961-71 and 1971-81. The population of Muslims rose by 0.05 per cent, much less than that of Hindus. (…) the growth rates of Hindus will continue to be higher than those of Muslims.”12

He confuses the figures for the increase in population with the actual population figures. The Hindu growth rate increased between 1971 and 1981, from 23.71% to 24.42% (a finding on which Mani Shankar Aiyar builds a similarly mistaken case against a further Hindu decrease and Muslim increase)13, but remained far below the Muslim growth rate of 30.85% c.q. 30.90%, so that the effective Hindu percentage decreased (by O.37%). Moreover, this increase was a freak development in a long-term decrease of the Hindu growth rate due to family planning, and was easily undone by a decrease twice as big (to 22.78%) in 1991.14

3.4. The Muslim growth rate worldwide

The same trend as witnessed in India is conspicuous at the international level: Muslim countries are among the champions of demographic growth. The economic explanation for high and low birthrates breaks down when confronted with the figures for Muslim countries: the rich and orthodox Saudi Arabs procreate much faster than the relatively poor but more secularized Turks.

The yearbooks of the Encyclopedia Brittannica give a wealth of countrywise data, including the population’s doubling‑rate, which is a more accurate indicator of effective demographic growth than the birth rate. It turns out that no Muslim country has a markedly lower growth rate than India. Indonesia, Turkey and Tunisia are at about the same level as India, which is already seen by many as a demographic disaster area itself (doubling in ca. 33 years). It is no coincidence that these are the three most secularized Muslim countries.15 The more Islamic a country, the higher the birthrate: Iran, Jordan, Lybia, Kuwait and Eritrea double their populations in 20 years or less, up to twice as fast as India.16

The Arabs are the champions: “In no Arab country does the population increase at a rate lower than 2.5% per year. In practically every Arab country, more than 4 inhabitants in 10 are youngsters below 15.”17 Pakistan is Asia’s fastest-growing non-Arab country, doubling its population every 24 years.18 No country is known to have a higher birth‑rate among non‑Muslims than among Muslims, but countries where the opposite is true are numerous.19 The starkest differential is probably found in the European countries. Thus, to use another demographic indicator, the percentage of the under-25 age group in Britain is 33 for natives, 48 for Indians (mostly Hindus) and Caribbeans, 60 for Pakistanis and 63 for Bangladeshis.20 A similar indicator for the Subcontinent: the under-15 constitute 46.3% in Pakistan, 45.1% in Bangladesh, and 35.2% in India.21

In Belgium, the average native couple (Christian or secular) has 1.7 children, the immigrant Moroccan couple (Muslim) has 3.25 children, i.e. nearly twice as many.22 About American Islam, a Pakistani observer makes an estimate for the year 2,000: “The US (…) may by then become the 14th or 15th ‘largest Islamic country’. Islam, in fact, is the fastest-growing religion in the US”. Though the growth is largely due to immigration, he also sees “a higher birth rate” as “a major factor”.23

3.5. Islamic government policies

In Malaysia, where Muslims were only 50% at the time of independence, just enough to declare it an Islamic state, the Government pursues a natalist policy at least as far as the Muslim Malays are concerned (non-Muslims are mostly members of the Chinese and Tamil Hindu minorities). It is only in countries where Muslims are in an overwhelming majority and demographic competition is simply not an issue that Islamic governments and religious leaders, faced with the problems resulting from overpopulation, have made an effort to curb the birth rate.

Iran now tries to encourage a three-children-per-family norm, and prides itself on reducing the yearly increase in population to 1.75%, about half of what it was in the 1980s.24 But this will not markedly curb population growth in absolute figures for the next few decades: “Although the rate of population growth has come down (…) the girls born in response to Khomeini’s call for more Muslims will soon reach marrying age; 45.5% of the population is under 15.”25

Given the extremely high birth rate in the generation now growing up to become the fathers and mothers of the next two decades (much more numerous than the generation presently in their twenties and thirties and trying to stick to the three-children-per-family norm), even a two-children-per-family norm would still amount to an impressive demographic growth for two more generations. With a norm of three children per family, Iran is not even pursuing a policy aimed at achieving demographic zero growth, but even if it were, it could only achieve it at a much later date, and at a much higher population level, than countries with a more stringent commitment to demographic responsibility.26

There is no indication that even one Muslim country will achieve a substantially lower growth rate than India’s Hindu community within the next decades.


  1. “A pampered minority?”, Sunday, 7-2-1993, with reference to a 1980 survey by the Operations Research Group. 

  2. K.M. Mathew, ed.: Manorama Yearbook 1996, p.458-459. 

  3. “A pampered minority?”, Sunday, 7-2-1993. 

  4. M.S. Aiyar: “Sex, lies and tushtikaran”, Sunday, 24-1-1993. 

  5. See Baljit Rai: Is India Going Islamic?, p.103 ff. 

  6. K.B. Sahay: “Incentives and Disincentives”, Hindustan Times, 19/12/1995. 

  7. P. Gupta: India, the Challenge of Change (Methuen/Mandarin, LOndon 1989), p.219. 

  8. A. Bose: “Muslim rate of growth”, Indian Express, 9-9-1995. 

  9. As Ashish Bose regretfully notes, the 1991 census gives no cross-tabulation between the data on religion, income and literacy, so we have to make do with old data, informed guesses or separate regional investigations into the connections between these factors. 

  10. K.M. Mathew, ed.: Manorama Yearbook 1996, p.458-459. TFR: total fertility rate. 

  11. Figures given in Mohan Rao: “Not born of faith”, Indian Express, 9-11-1993. 

  12. M. Rao: “Not born of faith”, Indian Express, 9-11-1993. 

  13. M.S. Aiyar: “Sex, Lies and Tushtikaran”, Sunday, 24-1-1993. 

  14. “Census 1991”, in S. Shahabuddin, ed.: Muslim India, Sep.1995, p.386. 

  15. Mohan Rao (“Not born of faith”, Indian Express, 9-11-1993) argues that “the percentage of couples using contraceptives in predominantly Muslim countries is very high”, and to prove his point, he cites figures for Indonesia, Turkey and Egypt, three countries where the Government policies are denounced as un-Islamic by the guardians of orthodoxy. 

  16. Figures taken from the countrywise data in the Encyclopedia Brittannica Book of the Year 1994

  17. “Arababy’s“, Trends (Brussels), 6-9-1990. 

  18. Confirmed in a different set of demographic indicators given in The Economist, 3-10-1992. 

  19. The only countries competing with the top Muslim countries for the highest demographic growth rate are some African countries (Kenya, Ivory Coast); at least on paper, for their projected doubling-time will have to be revised downwards because of the AIDS epidemic. 

  20. Figures given by Prof. Judith Brown, Beit Professor of Imperial History, Oxford, speaking at the Annual South Asia Conference, Madison, Wisconsin, October 1995. 

  21. Encyclopedia Brittannica, 1996 yearbook. 

  22. Guy Tegenbos: “Gezinnen kroostrijkst bij Marokkanen en Isralieten”, _ De Standaard_, 17-8-1994. 

  23. Abdus Sattar Ghazali: “Middle East poised to confront demographic explosion”, Dawn (Karachi), 3-11-1989. 

  24. “Iran brengt groei bevolking sterk terug” (Dutch: “Iran strongly reduces population growth”), Volkskrant (Amsterdam), 13-7-1995. 

  25. “Arrows in the heart of Iran”, The Economist, 3-10-1992. The title is a pun on Ayatollah Khomeini’s natalist exhortation that “every Muslim child born is an arrow through the heart of America”. 

  26. E.g. Vietnam, with a two-children-per-family norm but still increasing by over 1 million per year, not to speak of China with its draconic one-child-per-family norm but a population still increasing at a rate of over 10 million individuals per year.