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Mapping Religion in the Unfortunate Atlas of Islamic Republic of Pakistan

Submitted by on May 3, 2014 – 8:48 am 26 Comments |  
Mapping world religions is a challenging project, as will be discussed in a forthcoming GeoCurrents post. Although I have been disappointed by most global religion maps, nothing compares to the maps found, yet again, in the Atlas of Islamic Republic of Pakistan (2012, Rawalpindi, Survey of Pakistan Press). These depictions are so amusingly odd and awful that they merit extended consideration.

Bad World Religion MapWhen I opened the atlas to the ‘World Religions” map, I expected it to exaggerate the extent of Islam. On first glance, this expectation seemed to have been met. Note that the map incorrectly shows the Islamic realm as extending from Greece through almost the entire extent of the former Yugoslavia. Other non-Muslim areas added to the zone of Islam include: north-central Ethiopia and adjoining areas of Eritrea, much of southern Nigeria, the northern half of Madagascar, western Mongolia, East Timor, Papua and other non-Muslim parts of Indonesia, and northern Mindanao and Samar in the Philippines. Yet on closer examination, it quickly became apparent that the map minimizes the world of Islam in other places. Predominately Muslim areas depicted as non-Muslim include: Azerbaijan; the north Caucasus; Tatarstan and adjacent areas of the central Volga; central and western Kazakhstan; western Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan; northern Kerala in India; northern Ivory Coast; northern Ghana; Ningxia in China; the Rohingya area of eastern Burma; eastern Guinea; and southern and east-central Sulawesi in Indonesia. It would seem that incompetence, not ideology, has driven the mapping of Islam in this atlas.

Eastern Mediterranean Religion MapMost astounding, however, is the map’s portrayal of the Jewish area in the eastern Mediterranean. It is no surprise that the cartographers do not use the label “Israel,” but instead depict Israel along with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as “Palestine.” What is surprising is the fact that they map this entire region as the realm of Judaism. The more general portrayal of the eastern Mediterranean is so bizarre that that I have magnified it to form a separate map. Note that an oddly enlarged Bulgaria is depicted as following “Japanese Religion Shinto and Taoism” (wrong in so many ways), that the western Balkans are shown as an Islamic yet Communist-dominated area composed only of Serbia and Albania, that Cyprus, Lebanon (“Lebamon”), and Kuwait appear as labels but not as places on the map (Kuwait is actually depicted as part of the Gulf), and that western Turkey is marked as falling under communist domination.

Bad Map of IslamThe atlas contains a separate map of “The World of Islam” that is nearly as weird. This map is politically based, depicting the percentage of Muslims found in various sovereign states, although a few countries (China, Egypt) are divided. (The date of the political base-map appears to be 1992, as the Soviet Union does not appear, yet Eritrea is mapped as part of Ethiopia.) This map’s most clumsy element is it color scheme, which descends, as the Muslim percentage descends, from green to light green to yellow, but then pops back to a darker yellowish green in the bottom category, making the map difficult to interpret. But again, we can see that the realm of Islam has been bizarrely extended in some places (with both Switzerland and Ukraine mapped at more than 81 percent Muslim) and reduced in others (Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan are shown as having a Muslim minority, while Yemen, Oman, the UAE, and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula are mapped as less than 81 percent Muslim).

Bad Europe Language mapUnfortunately, the atlas’s world language map is no better than its religion map. I have posted here a detail of the portion of the map that covers Europe, which is particularly amusing. I am entertained not so much by the blatant errors in language mapping, but rather by the failure to capture both the basic patterns of land and sea and the essential contours of political geography. Note that two peninsulas have been turned into islands, while most of the Balkan Peninsula has become an extension of the Mediterranean. How, I wonder, could such a map have been made and published?

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  • James Mayfield

    hahaha. Terrible in every way. Unbelievable. And how did they say romania is finno ugric?

    • One can only wonder. My theory is that the actual work of making these maps was turned over to students or other underlings who had no knowledge of the matters under consideration, and was never checked by the authors and editors.

      • SirBedevere

        Do you know anything about the editors? Maybe this is what they were teaching their students? I wonder whether an Urdu-language atlas might be better and they just put the second string on this one.

      • Guest

        In fairness, one “positive” thing about the atlas is that, in its Own limited way, it is consistent, or some consistency. For instance, having transferred Nakhichevan to Armenia, it tops this by banishing Azerbaijan from the Islamic world. The Azerbaijanis, most of whom share Islam with most Pakistanis, must be fuming.

      • Jeronimo Constantina

        In fairness, one “positive” thing about the atlas is that, in a limited way, it is consistent, or has some consistency. For instance, having transferred Nakhichevan to Armenia, it tops this by banishing Azerbaijan from the Islamic world. The Azerbaijanis, most of whom share Islam with most of Pakistan, must be fuming.

        • I imagine that they would be fuming if they knew about the atlas!

    • Mathew Negru

      Possibly they referred to a detailed language/ethnic map (perhaps from the interwar period?) that labelled in large letters the considerable presence of Hungarian, a Finno-Ugric language, in the Romanian Transylvania region, and not understanding the historical geography, assumed that the label referred to Romanian, which they had never heard of, or did not know was, in contrast to Hungarian, a Latin language.

      See the following map, though it is not perfect, for the situation just before the transfer of Transylvania from then Austria-Hungary to Romania.

      Romanians in the past have tended to be touchy about anyone mistakenly thinking their language was a Slavic one; I wonder how they’ll feel about a Finno-Ugric label? It would be worth asking.

  • pg

    Chile “communism-dominated”? The whole of southeast Asia “hinduist”? The “Balkan Sea” ? These maps are indeed amusing. I hope nobody consults them for things like economic or, gasp, military planning! 🙂

    • Yes, and Bavaria is also marked as Communist!

    • WBBsAs

      Perhaps they hired Tea Partiers as consultants.

  • Ygor Coelho Soares

    I wonder how they define what is a “thinly populated region with no regular places of worship”. I mean, I know the Amazon and part of Brazil’s Center West is thinly populated, but it’s not like there is just a bunch of people here and there in that huge “green” part of the map of Brazil printed in the first map above. If I am judging it correctly, the Brazilian states – or part of them – that roughly correspond to that “thinly populated area” must have around 15 to 20 million living in them, hardly a “despicable” number of people.

    • SirBedevere

      Yes, I am pretty sure there is a church or two in Arizona and New Mexico as well.

    • Yes indeed. And the same is true, as SirBedevere notes below, in the southwest of the United States. And even areas that are actually thinly populated generally do have regular places of worship.

    • Xezlec

      Yeah, my first thought as soon as I saw that map was “wow, I never knew Phoenix was so secular!”

  • Mathew Negru

    To me, this looks like a public school atlas produced at rock bottom price for use by poor students in under-funded slum and rural public schools, and it was probably prepared by a “neighborhood type” Pakistani educator. The “Oxford School Atlas for Pakistan” published by OUP Pakistan ( see ) will likely be far better, even possibly superior to some Western school atlases. However, it and similar books are probably only affordable by children of the upper middle class and above, even in the form of a single copy in the school library.

    I think the problem we may well be looking at here therefore, is not a general Pakistani incompetence in mapping, but rather failure to allocate adequate public resources to elementary and secondary education textbooks for the poorer 50% of the population.

    The best response isn’t to hold this atlas up to embarrassing ridicule in my view, but rather to quietly offer cartographic and other help to the publishers so that the cheap textbooks on which poor Pakistani children must depend (if they are lucky enough to even have state schools available and actually staffed by teachers) are of sufficient quality to offer an educational path to a better future, something currently largely lacking. I also recommend taking into consideration the price of this atlas to students, and if it is kept very low for the reasons outlined, to praise this fact which is a considerable achievement.

    Similar compromises in quality in minimally priced school texts for the poor who are unlikely to proceed even to high school graduation probably obtain in many countries. The more humane response is to try to improve matters, not skewer the educators and government officials who are probably trying to help, but who haven’t the money to do so.

    • Excellent points, but as your other comments show, this is a very expensive national atlas. If it had been an inexpensive atlas produced at the local level, I would have ignored it.

  • Mathew Negru

    Here’s a little more information on the state of K-12 education in Pakistan from a Pakistani English newspaper recently. It gives a clearer context for the nature of the atlas under discussion.

    “Pakistan Education Atlas 2013: Education survey reveals mixed bag of results”

    The URL is as follows:

    • Thanks for this link as well. One important fact in this report if the “robust 95% [school completion rate] in Gilgit-Baltistan.” The educational improvement in this remote and rugged area over the past two decades has been extraordinary, largely due to the Aga Khan Foundation.

  • Mathew Negru


    Is the above the same as the one in Stanford University Library below, and is that the one the post is about:

    I thought it was a 10 Rupee “desi” atlas for poor rural and urban schools, as I remember them from India forty years ago…

    • Many thanks for finding this information. I should have done so myself.

  • Dan

    Whoever made this atlas, it obviously wasn’t important to them to make a good work.

    Speaking of sloppiness in Pakistan, look at this:
    A Czech prime minister visited Pakistan and was welcomed by banners showing the “check” flag, which someone probably googled. But still, it’s nice to see these welcome banners, we wouldn’t make any in the Czech Rep.

  • Xezlec

    OK, seriously, this atlas is hilariously awesome! I really want a copy, and I’m seriously considering buying one even at those prices.

  • Rockefeller_Illuminati

    How is Ethiopia, an ancient Christian country, mapped as Islam country? even after a secular government, the ratio is 66% Christian -34% Islam. This map need revision.

  • Iqbal

    Contributors’ of atlas’ names are mentioned on both links.
    someone should try to reach them and ask them directly the reasons behind the information provided rather posting anything and thinking anything about general public of Pakistan.