Understanding Muslim Fertility

By: Aparajita Chattopadhyay and S Parsuraman
Gender Justice Magazine Articles

Since Independence India’s effort towards sustained fertility decline in all population groups is well documented. However, insufficiency of study on religious differentials of fertility due to political sensitivity proves to be barrier for enumerating programmes. The present essay, using National Family Health Survey II, 1998-99, data reveals that demand for children is higher among Muslims when compared to Hindus, and contraceptive use too is lower among Muslims groups. The widening gap between these two communities in states that are comparatively better placed shows a faster fertility transition among Hindus than Muslims in the same geographical setting. Although the son preference among Muslims is lower it may surface when they experience falling fertility levels.

Religion, overtime, has acquired a role of competitive tool in political mobilisation, which has increasingly widened the religious cleavages. The Hindu Muslim fertility differentials have been a subject of intense discussion which requires a dispassionate scientific understanding. The higher growth rate of the Muslims in India, further defined by the 2001 Census, could be the result of their demand for a large family to maintain a sense of security at individual as well as national level, could be for their poor socio-economic status, or due to discrimination against deprived groups in programme inputs, or might be a consequence of their religious practices and beliefs or perhaps it is political propaganda of Hindu nationalists that generate the difference.

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A study of four Asian countries reveal that Muslims have more children; and if they want no more children, then they are consistently less likely to use contraception. As opined by Caldwell and others, Islam is subjected to strong patriarchal norms than any other religion which limits women’s non-familial opportunities that strengthen social status and economic freedom. With limited mobility, women’s exposure to novel ideas or technological innovations, including contraceptives is inadequate – women are bound to reproduce more. However, the concept of women’s autonomy is value loaded and its definition may vary depending upon the purpose of research. Women’s status can be measured by several direct and indirect indicators like education, work participation, media exposure, household decision making, spatial mobility, access to money etc. A majority of Islamic theologies consider that withdrawal and other non-permanent methods of birth control are acceptable, though sterilisation is more problematic in Islamic jurisprudence.

Traditionally, in India, a woman enhances her status if she gives birth to a son, as son is still considered more profitable, in economic as well as in social security terms, than daughters. It is often documented that religious minorities set higher goals to their ideal number of sons as well as total children.

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Data and Methodology

National Family Health Survey II, 1998-99, has had limited use in understanding Hindu Muslim differentials in demand for children. Currently-married women of six states, which have 15 percent or more Muslim population, have been selected. Assam and West Bengal representing the east, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh – north, Kerala south and Jammu and Kashmir – north west.  Except Jammu and Kashmir, in all other states Muslims are the religious minority, while in Jammu and Kashmir, proportion of the Muslim population is 14 percent more than Hindus – graph alongside. In demographic terms, Kerala is the most advanced followed by West Bengal while Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the least developed.

Women’s demand for children has been studied as an outcome of two prime factors – demographic aspects and socio economic factors – the latter takes care of status of women. All variables have been included that fall under the purview of these dynamics. For understanding the effect of religion on ideal family size (categorised as ‘less than or equals 2’ and ‘more than 2’), desire for more children (for those who have at least one child) and current use of contraception (considering those who have at least one child, not pregnant and not experienced menopause), multivariate models are applied.


Results and Discussion

Ideal number of children the table below reveals the ideal number of sons desired. Ideal family size is unanimously higher for Muslims in all the states irrespective of its developmental level. Against 2.85 children a Hindu demand, it is 3.21 for Muslims.  The religious differential is highest in Kerala (1.1 points) where the Muslims desire 3.3 children against 2.2 of the Hindus. Interestingly, except in Jammu and Kashmir, the ideal number of sons is higher among Muslims.

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Demand for additional child without a son, the demand for additional children is remarkably high (70 percent and above) in both the groups except among the Hindus of Kerala, West Bengal and Assam where son preference among Hindus is comparatively lower (table below). For instance, in Kerala, 45 percent women desire more children when they do not have any son against about 85 percent women of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Jammu and Kashmir, inhabited mainly by Muslims, is the only State where demand for children among Muslims without sons is lesser over Hindus. The demand for children sharply drops if the family has at least one son. This decline is ever sharper for Hindus, signifying a greater preference for sons. Exceptionally, in Kerala, demand for additional children among Muslims is high with one son and the trend persists even with two sons.

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Current contraceptive use

The study analyses current use of contraception where proportion using contraception is much less for Muslims compared to Hindus. Bihar and Kerala shows the religious differential. For instance, when 81 percent Hindu women in Kerala are using contraception, it is only 56 percent among Muslims. Nevertheless, looking into the level of use, it can be ascertained that more than half the Muslims in West Bengal, Kerala and Jammu and Kashmir are practicing contraception.

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Reproductive choice

To statistically justify the above findings, multivariate analysis is carried out which makes it amply clear that religion, as popularly understood, remains an important factor influencing ideal fertility level. The intensity of demand is highest in Kerala where Muslim demand for additional children is 9 times more than Hindus followed by West Bengal. In terms of contraceptive use also, no significant difference is visible among Hindus and Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir. While for rest of the states, a higher proportion of Hindus are practicing contraception.

Two egalitarian States, Kerala and West Bengal, which experienced a communist regime for a substantial period, are revealing stronger anomalies in demand for reproduction. These two unique States, do not conform to the ‘discrimination hypothesis’ in providing access to programmes. The only plausible explanation could be that the mind-set of Hindus here have changed substantially compared to Muslims and as a consequence the pace of fertility decline among the majority group is faster than the minority group.


Son preference to investigate whether the preference for son is a factor for higher demand for children or lesser use of contraception among Muslims, we carried out regression analysis introducing interaction terms of religion and number of sons. It was seen that where the demand for more children is 1.6 times and 3.5 times more among ‘sonless’ Hindus in Kerala and West Bengal respectively, it is about 8 and 10 times more for ‘sonless’ Muslims in these two States. The fact signifies the wider gap between the two religious groups and a lesser son preference among Hindus of these two egalitarian states. This contradicts the situation that prevails in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and to some extent in Jammu and Kashmir. Use of contraception is unanimously low among Muslim women irrespective of presence or absence of a son and among ‘sonless’ Hindus. Son preference definitely enhances the demand side among Hindus, albeit to a lesser extent in Kerala and West Bengal. Among Muslims, whether they have a son or not, their demand for additional child itself is high.


Concluding remarks

The debate on Hindu Muslim fertility will continue till convergence of fertility levels is observed. Contradiction of views is obvious in such sensitive discussions. Some opine that fertility of Muslims is much higher than the Hindus in the post-Independence era while others say that the variation is narrowing down over time. Again, some argue that the geographical location and economic condition supersede religion, while contrarily, many allude that the gap in fertility is ‘real’ and it is not due to the difference in socio economic characteristics or variation in women’s autonomy. People within the same religious group behave differently in different cultural settings that are strong enough to modify religious practices. Again, within the same region, people act in a different manner if religious identity is very strong and cultural assimilation is less powerful than the religious doctrines and practices within the group.  It would be wrong to assume that the academic interest in this subject is primarily for raising communal passion. The higher levels of fertility among Muslims has become a matter of concern. Not only the levels of actual fertility but also the demand for children as measured by ideal family size, desire for additional children is higher among Muslims when compared with Hindu population. The levels of contraceptive use are lower among Muslims. Religion wise differences remain significant even after controlling socio economic conditions.

The analysis also shows strong son preference among Hindus, which is much less dominant among Muslims. Perhaps a son preference may emerge as the Muslims begin to experience lower fertility level. The preference for larger family among Muslims in comparison to Hindus might be in conformity with ‘minority hypothesis’. Low contraceptive use among Muslims in India is a matter of sincere policy research and perhaps the time has arrived to offer injectable contraceptives to Muslims as a means of long term protection.

It is necessary that all sub population groups in our country irrespective of their religion should realise the negative effect of high fertility. Although Muslim fertility is a matter of policy interest, Hindus have nothing to boast as fertility control has initiated another new and complex dimension in their behaviour i.e. son preference and daughter aversion. The rapid fertility decline in Muslim countries in recent years is a pointer to the fact that the particularised notion of Muslim religion in resisting fertility control and the practice of family planning are not always true. High Muslim fertility, resultant of Islamic theology is too naive a justification, in the light of growing evidence of fertility decline among the Muslims across the world.


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