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Demography

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Demography

No detailed demographic study of medieval Islamic societies is now possible, nor will it ever be. Even gross population figures are sheer guesswork until the mid-19th century, and there is no usable evidence for such crucial statistics as sex ratios, age-cohort pyramids and birth and death rates. However, a few generalizations can be advanced.

The overall population of the central Islamic lands probably held steady throughout the first seven centuries of Islam (i.e. to 1300). At the time of the Arab conquests, populations in the Mediterranean basin may have been depressed by historic standards, due to the lingering effects of the Justinianic plague, which continued until the mid-8th century. After 750 there may have been some general increase in population over a period of two or three centuries; the clear indications of urban growth and agricultural and commercial expansion during this era make such a statement plausible, albeit far from certain.

Between c.1000 and 1340 the population probably stagnated and may even have declined slightly. Certain countries, such as Egypt in the 1060s and again from 1200 to 1202, suffered hideous famines. The massacres and destruction of the Mongol invasions in 13th-century Iran far exceeded the usual mortality of medieval warfare. In general, the level of warfare and insecurity was extremely high during this period, a factor that in itself tends to depress birth rates. But catastrophic events were localized and sporadic; overall, there was downward pressure, not sharp decline.

The Black Death, however, was undeniably a demographic disaster, not only in the years 1347–9, when as much as one-third of the population in many districts may have perished, but for centuries after. The Black Death ushered in a new era of endemic plague, characterized by periodic outbreaks throughout the region. These were localized but severe, and it was typical for a city to be “visited” by a season of plague every 10–20 years. These periodic epidemics, which ended only in the early 19th century, prevented the area from achieving a full demographic recovery until perhaps the beginning of the 20th century. Indeed, it seems likely that, by 1800, overall populations from Morocco to Iran had barely recovered their levels on the eve of the Black Death five centuries earlier.

What numbers are to be associated with these trends? Some crude census statistics for the 1830s and 1840s can serve as a baseline for the early Islamic period. For 1830, Issawi estimated a total population in southwest Asia and North Africa of 34 million; by 1914 (a point at which there is quite reliable data for French North Africa, Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, though not for Iran), this figure had doubled. This increase reflects immigration and the simple public health measures of that period, but the bulk of it must be due simply to the end of major epidemics and improvements in nutrition and living standards. A number between these two extremes (no doubt towards the lower end) probably reflects the population of the period 750–1000.

In recent years the population in many Islamic countries has grown rapidly, averaging 1.9% in the opening years of the 21st century. In some countries, one quarter of the population is aged 15 or younger. In view of the economic consequences, many countries are taking steps to curb the surging birth rate and fertility rates are declining.

Bibliography

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