Why are Muslim majority countries lagging behind ?

Mohammed Amin

Mohammed Amin MBE’s personal and career history and current activities are detailed on the “About Me” page of his personal website www.mohammedamin.com He is writing in a personal capacity.

In a short article, I can only provide a high-level overview of the key ideas. Expanding on the details, including looking at social attitudes survey data, is a task for academics and for think tanks such as the Islam & Liberty Network which I support with both time and money. If you care about these issues, please join us.

The problem

The World Bank’s page GDP per capita (current US$) gives GDP per capita figures for most countries running back decades. After downloading the data, I prepared the document Countries Ranked by GDP Per Head

Quite a few countries have not yet supplied 2019 or even 2018 data, so my PDF document uses 2017 data. A few countries lack even 2017 data. For them I have cited the most recent years data available from the World Bank. That exercise reveals some sorry tales. Somalia’s latest data is for 1990. We know that since then civil conflict has raged.

I then copied the list of OIC members from the website of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. In the PDF file’s table they are coloured green.

The OIC countries are not distributed randomly. Apart from a few oil states, OIC countries rank badly, being clumped towards the bottom end of the table.

Why is this? Why are Muslim majority countries lagging behind?

Colonialism is not a sufficient explanation

Countries are rich and poor for many different reasons. History plays a big part. Western Europe industrialised long before any other region. European imperial powers exploited and held back their colonies.

However, some countries such as Thailand and Turkey were never colonised. Others, such as the countries of Latin America, gained their independence long ago.

States’ conduct significantly determines economic success

No matter how entrepreneurial a person may be, in some countries personal success is almost impossible to achieve. A South Korean individual magically transferred into North Korea will be as poor as other North Koreans because the state suppresses free economic activity. For example, North Korea has no data in the World Bank figures for any year.

A state needs to fulfil some basic requirements before its residents can achieve personal economic success. These requirements are easy to list but very hard to achieve.

Some key ones are:

  • Freedom from civil disorder or exceptionally high levels of crime
  • Low government corruption
  • The enforcement of legal contracts
  • The rule of law
  • Individual freedom to pursue economic activities
  • Openness to international trade

For more details, see the charity Network for a Free Society’s website and in particular the texts listed on its Resources page.

Individuals’ behaviours also significantly determine economic success

Mathematicians know that extreme cases provide the clearest examples.

Consider two Christian groups whose beliefs are summarised below.

Group A believes Group B believes
The second coming of Jesus Christ is imminent. Accordingly, nobody should make long-term plans. The second coming of Jesus Christ cannot be predicted. Meanwhile believers should plan for their own future and their descendants’ future.  
Conventional education is a waste of time. Only religious texts should be studied. Believers should understand their religion. They also need high quality education in science, humanities, professional pursuits, and business management.  
All the time not required for earning sufficient money to live should be spent propagating the religion. Some missionary work is important.   Believers should also excel in their chosen careers to benefit themselves, their families, fellow believers, and society generally.  
Many aspects of modern medicine are religiously prohibited. Believers should use all available medical provision to have long healthy lives. They should also do what they can to advance medical research.  

Obviously, after a few generations the members of Christian group B will be much wealthier and more successful in every way than members of Christian group A.

The table was composed with specific Christian groups in mind. Group B is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There are of course many other Christian denominations whose members also tend to be personally successful.

The absolute truth of a religious belief can only be known for certain after death; until then religion is a matter of faith. However, the impact of religious belief on the lives of people in this world is an empirical question, to be answered by observation and research.

What about Muslims?

Muslims are defined as the set (using the word “set” in its mathematical sense) of people who believe in Islam.

Some Muslim groups have a long list of required core beliefs before a person is defined as a Muslim; others have a short list of core beliefs.

Whether you use a wide or narrow definition of a Muslim, once you consider beliefs beyond the core definitional requirement, Muslims (like Christians) vary widely in their religious beliefs.

Belief differences lead to some groups of Muslims being far more successful in terms of wealth and health than other groups.

As with Christians, an extreme example provides a good illustration.

ISIS members believe they have a religious duty to attack and kill non-Muslims, and also to kill other Muslims because they believe those people are not really Muslims due to their sins.

Consequently, the non-Muslims and other Muslims ISIS endangers have allied together to deny ISIS any territory and to arrest or kill ISIS members. ISIS’s beliefs cause its adherents to ruin their lives so spectacularly that we don’t need to analyse whether an ISIS state could ever have a successful economy.

There are of course many Muslim groups whose beliefs encourage educational and financial success, and a healthy life.


Individual Muslims need to practice their religion in a way that is conducive to their success in this world and avoid focusing solely on life after death. Many Muslims do so; unfortunately, many others do not.

I consider that believing in Islam (properly understood) makes an individual more successful than if that individual had no religious belief. Unfortunately understanding Islam wrongly will ruin an individual’s life just as the beliefs of Christian Group A ruin the lives of its members.

States need to be organised in a way that enables their citizens to succeed. This requires focusing on the criteria for successful states listed above.

The fundamental reason most Muslim majority countries do not is corruption. The existing system suits those holding power, benefitting them and their cronies, even as it impoverishes the majority of their population. See my 2010 article “Why are Muslim majority countries more corrupt.”

Government corruption and government failure are maintained by the limitations on religious freedom, political freedom, and economic freedom seen in most OIC countries. A society with political freedom is much less likely to keep a corrupt government in power.

It is the absence of freedom that causes OIC countries (apart from the oil-rich states) to be distributed towards the bottom of the table of GDP per head.

There is nothing Islamic about tyranny. Islam is not just compatible with religious freedom, political freedom and economic freedom; it requires them.