Is the Muslim faith a major impediment to success in secular education? A simple cross-country comparison of educational achievement could lead to such a conclusion. In the 2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) assessment of 8th graders, countries with a Muslim-majority population achieved substantially lower test scores in maths (439 out of 500) and science (449) than, for example, Christian-majority countries (495). Similar educational gaps between Muslims and non-Muslims can be found even when they live in the same country under the same institutional environment. Muslims achieve 4.2 fewer years of schooling than non-Muslims in Germany, 3.2 fewer years in Spain, and 2.9 fewer years in France (Pew Research Center 2016). Whether underlying socioeconomic conditions or religion itself explains these gaps is largely an empirical question.
Recent research has substantially improved our understanding of the historical origins of religious differences in educational performance. We know of the high human capital investments of Jews and Protestants (Botticini and Eckstein 2005, 2007, Becker and Woessmann 2009) and the detrimental effects of Catholicism and Islam on educational outcomes (Squicciarini 2019, Chaudhary and Rubin 2011). After reviewing this literature, Becker et al. (2020) call for further research into the link between economics and religiosity.
Another literature examines the effects of Ramadan fasting. During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims are required to fast from sunrise to sunset. Fasting, one of the five pillars of Islam, is obligatory for more than a billion Muslim believers. During Ramadan, believers engage in social, moral, and pious activities that have an enormous impact on social life in Muslim societies. The daily fast-breaking meals at sunset are explicitly social: festive meals are shared at home with family and friends or with the religious community after the evening prayers at the mosque.
Studies point out that Ramadam fasting is physiologically demanding and therefore negatively affects educational performance (Oosterbeek and van der Klaauw 2013). Ramadan also appears to be detrimental to individual health (e.g. Almond 2009, Majid 2015) and reduces aggregate output (Campante and Yanagizawa-Drott 2015).
On the other hand, Campante and Yanagizawa-Drott (2015) show that a more intensive Ramadan increases subjective wellbeing, arguably via increased socialisation. This is in line with Clingingsmith et al. (2009), who analyse the religious practice of pilgrimage to Mekka, the Hajj and find that it fosters tolerance and creates a shared identity among participants.
Such positive consequences beyond the month of Ramadan may be explained by sociology literature that suggests that religious participation has, for example, positive effects on educational performance because it increases social capital (Coleman and Hoffer 1987, Muller and Ellison 2001, Glanville et al. 2008). Religious individuals are more likely to participate in religious activities and therefore have a larger number of social ties. Religiously active parents know friends of their children better and religiously active children have access to friends from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. Thus, while educational outcomes are lower among Muslims in general, more-religious Muslims may achieve better educational outcomes due to their higher social capital.
In a recent paper (Hornung et al. 2021), we analyse how changes in Ramadan intensity affect educational performance. In our empirical analysis, we exploit variation in Ramadan fasting hours across countries over time. Because Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, it starts earlier each solar year and rotates over the seasons, resulting in variation of daily Ramadan fasting hours over time and across geographic locations. Figure 1 illustrates how the length of fasting hours varies with a country’s location relative to the equator and over time. Ramadan is more intensive when it falls into the summer months in countries further away from the equator.
Figure 1 Average daily fasting hours during Ramadan
Notes: Average fasting hours during Ramadan of three selected countries. Fasting hours are determined by the time between sunrise and sunset in each country’s capital. Vertical lines illustrate test years of TIMSS.
We study the effect of Ramadan intensity on educational performance in two ways:
- across countries with varying shares of Muslim populations using the TIMSS dataset; and
- within European countries across students with different religious affiliations using the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) dataset.
Both educational performance studies can be combined into pseudo panels reporting the test scores of adolescent students. To abstract from the detrimental short-term consequences of fasting during Ramadan, we focus on tests conducted after Ramadan.
Using TIMSS data (1995–2019), we find that an increase of Ramadan intensity by 1.25 hours increases both math and science test scores by around 11% of a standard deviation. No such effects can be found in non-Muslim countries. Using PISA data (2003–2018) from eight major Western European countries, we find that an increase of Ramadan fasting hours by 10% significantly reduces the gap in PISA test scores between Muslim and non-Muslim students by 2.5 to 3.0%.
For this analysis, we exploit within-country-wave variation in religious affiliation that we approximate from information about the parents’ country of origin. No reduction in performance gaps in response to a more intensive Ramadan can be found between natives and immigrants from non-Muslim countries. These findings are illustrated in Figure 2.
Figure 2 Performance gaps and Ramadan fasting hours
Notes: Panel (a) – the binned scatter plot shows country-year performance gaps in science scores between students whose parents are from Muslim countries versus natives and logarithm of average fasting hours during Ramadan before the tests were taken. Panel (b) – the same for students whose parents are from non-Muslim countries versus natives. Both variables are adjusted by their country means.
Overall, based on two independent data sets, our estimates reveal a positive reduced-form effect of more intensive Ramadan on subsequent educational performance.
So, what might explain these positive effects? We broadly distinguish between mechanisms related to the formation of individual character skills and mechanisms related to the formation of social capital. First, religious activities could influence the individual skillset by affecting non-cognitive abilities or character skills that are associated with student performance (Heckman and Rubinstein 2001). If character skills exert positive externalities on human capital formation, we expect religious activities such as Ramadan fasting to be positively related to educational performance.
Second, the link between religious activities and educational performance might work through the formation of social capital and social identity. Coleman and Hoffer (1987) and Coleman (1988) suggest that religious activities promote the formation of social capital, which in turn fosters the creation of human capital. Similarly, Akerlof and Kranton (2002) highlight the importance of students’ social environments in schooling and predict that a more unified school community increases students’ skill formation.
To distinguish between these theories, we use information from the World Values Surveys to first establish that longer fasting hours during adolescence indeed increase religious participation. Second, using PISA data, we show that longer fasting hours are associated with higher educational performance only for students in schools with a high share of Muslim students. This indicates that our mechanism likely works through the formation of social identities and through giving students access to social capital rather than through the formation of individual character skills.
Although we ultimately cannot exclude other channels such as spillover effects, we tentatively interpret our findings as evidence that religious practice impacts educational performance by facilitating the formation of a common identity among students and providing them access to social capital – and not by affecting their individual character skills. This casts a positive light on the relationship between Muslim religiosity and secular education and implies that it may be worthwhile to promote the social aspects of religiosity.
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