By Dr. Nayyer Ali

November 13 , 2009

Why Does the Islamic World Under-perform?

The Pew Research Center just issued a fascinating study on "Mapping the Global Muslim Population". A large team of researchers scoured all the available data from over 200 nations to create the most accurate look at how many Muslims there are. Opinions on this issue have run the gamut, with some "pro-Muslim" advocates pushing numbers as high as 1.8 billion Muslims, and some critics, who want to minimize the importance of Islam, advocating numbers near a billion or so.

The Pew Center concluded that there were 1.57 billion Muslims in 2009, about 23% of the total world population of 6.7 billion. Around 1.3 billion Muslims live in Muslim-majority countries, with large Muslim minorities obviously in India, but Muslims can also be found in China and Russia, and less so in areas of Western Europe. The center of gravity of Islam is South and Southeast Asia, with 150 million or more Muslims each in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, and large populations in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Philippines, and elsewhere. Only 20% of the world's Muslims live in the Arab world, the Middle East and North Africa.

The researchers also found that the Shia make up around 1013% of the world's Muslims, with almost all of them living in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, or India. Shia make a large share of the population of Lebanon, but in absolute numbers, they are a small community.

The growth of Muslim populations has been incredible. In 1900, there were only 180 million Muslims, and almost all of them, except the Turks and Persians, lived in European colonies. There has been an almost 10-fold increase in Muslim numbers since then, with a less than five-fold rise in the world's population. This has doubled the Muslim share from 12% in 1900 to the present 23%.

All over the world, fertility rates are falling, and the pace of population growth is slowing. But in comparison to their nonMuslim neighbors, fertility in Muslim nations tends to run a bit higher. Pakistan has higher fertility than India, and Turkey is higher than Greece, while Indonesia runs higher than Vietnam or China. Because of this, and because of the very large number of Muslim children who will reach childbearing age in the next 15-20 years, the Muslim share of the world will continue to expand. In fact, it is now highly likely that Islam will overtake Christianity as the world's largest religion in the next 40-50 years.

But despite the huge number, the role Muslims and Muslim nations play in world affairs, commerce, art, science, and global culture remains marginal. Even the trillions of dollars of oil wealth, and it has literally been trillions (25 million barrels per day at 80 dollar/barrel yields a trillion dollars every 16 months), has not turned a single oil producer into a truly diversified and advanced economy. When's the last time a product made in Saudi Arabia was sold here other than oil?
Recently there was a ranking done of the top 500 universities in the world. As expected, the US captured many of the top spots. But how many spots were taken by universities in Muslim countries? The pathetic answer: zero. Israel, in comparison, has six universities listed in the top global 500. Not Cairo University, or Teheran University, or LUMS, or any other school in a Muslim country could reach that standard. Why is that?
What is wrong with the Muslim world? There are a host of obvious answers. The severe gender discrimination denies many girls the opportunity to become educated and work. Economic policies have retarded economic growth and kept nations much poorer. The oil wealth has turned many societies into dysfunctional trust funds where no one is motivated to achieve anything, while the government keeps its grip on power through extensive patronage paid for by oil revenues. Lack of democracy, compounded by religious extremists with muddled and confused ideas of creating some theocratic paradise, combine to keep power-hungry elites in place that fail to develop their societies.

All of these issues are made far worse by the general anti-intellectualism and anti-educational biases in Muslim cultures around the world. There remains a strong tendency in many areas to minimize the need to educate girls. But even for boys, the educational systems are under-funded and badly managed. The universities have no desire to produce excellence, and no significant research is done at Muslim universities.

We all know the history of the classical age of Islam. There was a time when science and learning thrived in the Muslim world, and without the base of knowledge laid down and transmitted to the West by Muslims, the Renaissance would have been long delayed or never happened. It is a sad and tragic state of affairs that science and learning are not flourishing once again in the lands of Islam. If the Muslim world wants to pull its own weight in the 21st century, it must rectify this situation. There should not be just 2 or 3 Muslim universities in the top 500, but a hundred or more. Comments can reach me at


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