Islam-based legal language and state governance: democracy, strength of the judiciary and human rights


States embracing Islam-based laws are frequently seen as struggling with establishing democratic institutions, jeopardizing human rights and encouraging executive encroachment on the judiciary. This paper explores whether the presence of Islam-based legal language in a domestic legal system is associated with lower levels of electoral democracy, fewer protections for private liberties, women’s rights, and a weak judiciary. Relying on original data covering laws in 29 Islamic law states (2001–2012), we focus on Islam-based legal language in these states’ constitutional and subconstitutional domestic legal systems. By itself, Islam-based legal language is not associated with a weak judiciary or the absence of political liberties. However, subconstitutional—particularly legislative—commitments to Islam-based legal language are frequently associated with lower levels of democracy and fewer protections for private liberties and women’s rights.

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  1. 1.

    Following Powell (2015, 2020), we define an Islamic law state (ILS) as a state in which an identifiable and substantial segment of the legal system is charged with obligatory implementation of Islamic law and in which Muslims constitute at least 50% of the population (see the Measuring Islam-based legal language section below for detailed explanation of the ILS category). Our analyses include the following countries: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Brunei, Comoros, Egypt, Gambia, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen.

  2. 2.

    See Ahmed and Ginsburg (2014), Gouda (2013), Barro (1999), Diamond (2010), Fish (1992), Fox (2007, 2011, 2015), Fox and Sandler (2004), Gutmann and Voigt (2015), Henne (2012), Kalanges (2012), Karatnycky (2002), Kuran (2012), Lombardi and Brown (2006), Lombardi and Sherif (2004), Nexon (2009), Philpott (2000), Potrafke (2012), Price (1999, 2002), Rowley and Smith (2009), Sachedina (Sachedina 2009), Sarkissian (2012), Sarkissian et al. (2011), Shakman Hurd (2008, 2015), Toft et al. (2011), Voigt (2005).

  3. 3.

    For instance, Rowley and Smith (2009, 289) attribute the lack of democratic institutions to “the nature of Islam itself.” We acknowledge that rule of law and democracy constitute separate concepts and that each can exist independently of the other. As Gutmann and Voigt (2018a, 346) state, “Democracy refers to the citizens choosing their own policies or electing representatives to take these decisions for a limited period of time; the simplest definition of what makes a country democratic is, hence, majority-decision-making. The rule of law, in contrast, sets constraints on political decision-making; decisions have to be taken within the legal framework of a country.” Thus, in theory, rule of law can exist outside of a democratic environment (see Gutmann and Voigt 2018b). For more discussion, see May and Winchester (2018) and Gutmann and Voigt (2016). For the discussion of Islamic constitutionalism and rule of law, see Gouda (2013).

  4. 4.

    See, for instance, Bassiouni 2014. Several studies have shown no statistical relationship between Islamic political culture, Islam-inspired institutions, and democratic governance. For instance, Price (2002, 222) demonstrates that “government rooted in Islam does not facilitate the abuse of human rights.” Also, see Ahmed and Ginsburg (2014), Lombardi and Brown (2006).

  5. 5.

    Mallat (2007, 214) notes that in some of the Middle Eastern states, “politicians do not hesitate to call up judges on the phone to influence their decisions”.

  6. 6.

    In Iran, the Guardian Council, consisting of Muslim theologians and jurists, is the most powerful body in the country. As Hirschl (2010, 37) writes, it is a “de facto constitutional court.” Interestingly, the 1979 Iranian Constitution (with amendments through 1989) prohibits the judges from executing laws, such as regulations or statutes, that are in any way in conflict with “the laws or the norms of Islam, or lie outside the competence of the executive power” (Article 170).

  7. 7.

    We discuss this literature in detail below.

  8. 8.

    We use the term “Islam-based legal language” to denote language which refers to Islam, sharia, or language that describes specific institutions rooted in the Islamic legal tradition.

  9. 9.

    For example, a number of constitutions in Muslim-majority states proclaim sharia to be the supreme law of the land (Powell 2020). What this aspiration entails in practice is frequently left to subconstitutional legislation.

  10. 10.

    We recognize that the secular-religious dichotomy is problematic in conceptualizing Islam. See Agrama (2012), Hirschl (2010), Lapidus (1975, 1996).

  11. 11.

    In Ahmed and Ginsburg’s (2014) analyses, the dependent variable is a count variable, “the number of rights found in any particular constitution” from a list of 117 (p. 645). Thus, these authors do not focus on any specific rights, such as rights to freedom of association and expression. Instead, their measure comprehensively captures the presence of rights provisions that are frequently associated with “basic values of liberal democracy” (p. 616). These authors also show that the constitutional presence of Islamic repugnancy/supremacy clauses is not associated with high number of rights when looking at all countries worldwide (p. 647).

  12. 12.

    Other scholars have also investigated the relationship between Islam and the various aspects of democracy. For instance, Sachedina (2009) argues that Islam is largely compatible with human rights. An-Na‛im (2008) and Khatab and Bouma (2007) explain how democracy can flourish in Islamic societies. Also, see Hillman and Potrafke (2018) who focus specifically on the relationship between religion and economic freedom. Their empirical model shows that the Protestant faith is most conducive to economic freedom. When controlling for GDP per capita and political institutions, these authors find that “there is no evidence to conclude that Muslim-majority countries have less economic freedom than countries with other religious majorities (p. 262).

  13. 13.

    Some scholars argue that particular Islamic institutions have contributed to economic or political outcomes. For instance, Kuran (2016, 49) argues that the Islamic institution of waqf “perpetuated authoritarian rule by keeping the state largely unrestrained”.

  14. 14.

    Interestingly, these authors find no correlation between “Muslim influence” and the separation of powers, the protection of property rights, and respect for the rights of religious minorities. Also, see Berggren et al. (2017) who show that Islamic has adverse consequences for gay rights. These authors empirically document that negative attitudes expressed toward homosexuals continue in second-generation immigrants from Muslim-majority states, despite the fact that these immigrants have lived since birth in Western culture societies. Cooray and Potrafke (2011) find that gender inequality in education is particularly pronounced in Muslim-majority countries. See Gouda (2013, 57) who finds that a model of an Islamic constitution developed by Al-Azhar—one of the most respected Sunni universities—is “incompatible with essential concepts of rule of law”.

  15. 15.

    Some of religious activities include clergy ordination, wearing religious clothing/symbols, religious services, etc.

  16. 16.

    See Ahmed (2016), An-Na'im (2008), Bowen (2003), Glenn (2014), Hallaq (2005, 2013), Hodgson (1974), Mallat (2007), Quraishi-Landes (2015).

  17. 17.

    These sources include the Quran, comprised of rules that God revealed directly to the Prophet. Sunna consists of stories and sayings derived from the conduct of the Prophet. Judicial consensus and analogical reasoning constitute subsidiary sources of Islamic law (See Hallaq 2005).

  18. 18.

    See note 1 above for the list of countries included in our analyses.

  19. 19.

    We use this categorization for empirical reasons, recognizing the contested nature of its name and its constitutive parts. See An-Na‘im (2008), Quraishi-Landes (2016), Hallaq (2013), Feldman (2008). Importantly, not all states with majority Muslim populations are included in our data. By way of illustration, Turkey—though its population is overwhelmingly Muslim—is not part of the ILS category. Indeed, Turkey’s legal system remained secular during the timespan of our data. For an extensive discussion of how the ILS category differs from other concepts, such as “Muslim states,” “Islamic states,” etc., see Powell (2020, 42–50).

  20. 20.

    See, among others, Ahmed (2016), Feldman (2008), Hallaq (2013).

  21. 21.

    See Ahmed (2016), Hodgson (1974).

  22. 22.

    As Otto (2007, 149) suggests, “The position of sharia within national law can be regarded as the outcome of political and bureaucratic competition, clashes and compromise, an outcome that differs in each country.” Also, see Emon (2012) and An-Na‘im (2008).

  23. 23.

    Despite considerable reforms in 2004, the Moroccan family code, the Moudawana, frequently references the Quran.

  24. 24.

    One Indonesian province, Aceh, has increased sharia’s presence in official laws over the past several decades. According to the Malaysian Constitution, the provinces can decide which interpretation of Islamic law to follow.

  25. 25.

    While identifying the causal mechanisms that govern the relationship between a state’s domestic legal system and state behavior is important, we leave this task to other scholars. See, for instance, Bsoul (2008), Kelsay (2007), Khadduri (1966), Lombardi (2013).

  26. 26.

    Askari and Mohammadkhan (2016), Rauf (2015) and Rehman and Askari (2010) also generate indices of “Islamicness.” However, these indices function less as descriptive measures and more as assessments of how well a state or society corresponds to a particular normative vision of the proper goals and effects of sharia in society. Consequently, these studies focus on education, income, and other aspects of governance alongside assessments of the Islam-state relationship.

  27. 27.

    This index is constructed as follows: Share of Muslims in the population (0–1) + 0.5 * Relative Muslim majority (binary) + 0.5 * Absolute Muslim majority (binary) + Islam is constitutionally declared state religion (binary) + Membership in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (binary).

  28. 28.

    Interestingly, Price’s (1999, 187–190) study contains extensive discussion of the reliability of the Islamic political culture variable, including consultations with experts and survey of scholars of Islam and politics.

  29. 29.

    For discussion of the relationship between ILS and the International Court of Justice, see Powell (2013). There are several more general measures that gauge the relationship between religion and the state. For instance, the Religion and State (RAS) dataset codes government religion policy in 177 countries for 1990–2008 (Fox 2008, 2015). Also, see Fox (2011) for examination of the link between religion’s presence in constitutions and government religion policy. Grim and Finke’s (2011) data on religious freedom is another advanced effort at gauging state religion policy. Also, see Sarkissian (2012).

  30. 30.

    Though constitutional language is crucial to understanding state policies, other factors such as the content of ordinary legislation, the government’s political will, and the ability and willingness of courts to enforce legislation matter too (Davenport 1996; Fox 2011; Ginsburg and Huq 2016; Powell and Staton 2009).

  31. 31.

    See, for instance, Köndgen (2018).

  32. 32.

    Fox’s (2015) RAS dataset includes several indicators similar to those present in our data. Our data is distinct because it focuses specifically on Islam-inspired legal institutions from 2001 to 2012, instead of on religious institutions in general from 1990 to 2008.

  33. 33.

    Examples of cross-sectional measures include Gutmann and Voigt (2015), Potrafke (2012), and Rowley and Smith (2009).

  34. 34.

    There are no missing observations in our data. The 2001–2012 time period was chosen to avoid comparing ILS with constitutions to ILS that lacked such documents until recently.

  35. 35.

    See our discussion on p. 19 and the Appendix.

  36. 36.

    Powell (2020) elaborates on the descriptive statistics and coding rules of these indicators.

  37. 37.

    We considered transforming these count variables into proportions of the total constitutional word count, but these models suffered insurmountable identification problems. Moreover, alternative model specifications weighted the influence of overall word count excessively, leading to factor scores biased towards states with shorter constitutions.

  38. 38.

    See Ahmed and Ginsburg (2014) and Brown and Sherif (2004).

  39. 39.

    Such provisions appear in the 1961 Mauritanian Constitution, the 1963 Algerian Constitution, the 2010 Pakistani Constitution, and the 2004 Qatari Constitution, among others.

  40. 40.

    For example, see the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in Saudi Arabia ( or the Ministry of Endowment and Public Affairs in Qatar (

  41. 41.

    It is impossible to list all the secondary sources that we used to collect data for the practical indicators. See, for instance Hasan (2015), or reports from the Pew Research Center (, the Library of Congress (, or the World Bank (

  42. 42.

    Schools of Islamic jurisprudence disagree on the status of apostasy, but many scholars consider it among the hudud crimes (Hallaq 2009a, 310–311; Peters 2013; Peters and De Vries 1976–1977, 5).

  43. 43.

    Six ILS require mandatory zakat payment: Libya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen (Hasan 2015, 130). Several other states regulate zakat, but on a voluntary basis.

  44. 44.

    The other pillars of Islam are the testimony of faith (shahādatayn), prayer (salāt), pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) and fasting during Ramadan (sawm) (Hallaq 2009b, 225).

  45. 45.

    See the World Bank report entitled “Women, Business, and the Law,” at

  46. 46.

    See Fadel (1995), who shows that in the premodern period, Islamic jurists often held a favorable view of the position of women in the courtroom. Several male jurists, including Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya and Ibn Taymiyya, considered a woman’s testimony to be equal to that of a man. Also, see Powell (2020).

  47. 47.

    Sparseness in our data makes exploratory techniques like principal components analysis or exploratory factor analysis difficult.

  48. 48.

    These models were originally developed by psychologists for measuring human behavioral traits (Loehlin 2004; Skrondal and Rabe-Hesketh 2005), but they have broad application in economics, sociology, political science, and so on. Latent variable models are frequently used for index estimation. See, for instance the V-Dem project (Coppedge et al. 2016) and latent measures of judicial independence (Linzer and Staton 2015; Staton 2018).

  49. 49.

    Each observed variable also returns a constant, equal to the raw predicted value of the variable when the index equals 0.

  50. 50.

    Empirical Bayes prediction generates scores for latent variables by entering in parameter estimates and returning the posterior means of the latent variables conditional on those estimates and the observed data (Morris 1983; Skrondal and Rabe-Hesketh 2005, 2009).

  51. 51.

    While the latent variables in our models are assumed to have a mean of 0 and a variance of 1, the prediction process can produce factor scores that deviate slightly from these values due to sampling variability.

  52. 52.

    These models allow for the creation of nuanced indices from continuous, binary, and count data (Skrondal and Rabe-Hesketh 2005). This property is central to our study because our indicators of sharia implementation are either counts or dichotomous. For God Mentions and Sharia/Islam, we use a negative binomial distribution with mean dispersion and a log link. For the remaining variables, we use the logit link and assume a Bernoulli distribution.

  53. 53.

    We also compared the fit of our models to others that weight all indicators equally, by treating them as an unweighted average, (all factor loadings equal to 1) and models that treat all indicators as independent (all factor loadings equal to 0). Likelihood ratio tests and AIC/BIC comparisons indicate that our models produce superior fit compared to these alternative approaches. For more, see Konishi and Kitagawa (2008).

  54. 54.

    The estimated factor covariance shown in Fig. 1 assumes that levels of constitutional Islamic law implementation provide some information regarding subconstitutional sharia implementation, and vice versa. Given the distinct but interdependent nature of these legal spheres, we believe this assumption to be justified.

  55. 55.

    All statistical analyses were performed using Stata 15.

  56. 56.

    Multicollinearity is a common problem in standard linear regression analyses. However, in factor analysis models, high correlations between the measurement variables are expected and even necessary (Loehlin 2004). Additionally, the variables in question are far from perfectly correlated: a cross tabulation of Women in the Judiciary and Criminalized Apostasy reveals 86 ILS-years that fall on the off-diagonal, though only one case exists (Bahrain in 2001) in which women are prohibited from serving on the judiciary but apostasy is not criminalized. Importantly, though small sample sizes and data sparseness on these indicators contribute to their lack of statistical significance, large factor loadings suggest that higher levels of our factors are associated with higher likelihood of observing these statistically insignificant indicators.

  57. 57.

    Our indices are presented in a non-standardized form. Fixing the means and variances of our latent factors to 0 and 1 allows us to compare scores with considerable precision. Furthermore, standardizing the index scores leads to only negligible changes in the figures.

  58. 58.

    Because the Basic Law is a de facto acting constitution, we have coded the Basic Law of Governance as Saudi Arabia’s constitutional document (Basic Law of Governance 1992, Article 1).

  59. 59.

    Statistical testing bears out the distinctness of our proposed measurement dimensions. The Pearson correlation coefficient for the Constitutional and Subconstitutional scores is 0.61, indicating that they have a strong but imperfect linear relationship.

  60. 60.

    Hallaq (2013), Mallat (2007).

  61. 61.

    See Bassiouni 2014, Emon (2015), Gutman and Voigt (2018a).

  62. 62.

    Missing data on V-Dem component indicators causes the Electoral Democracy and Political Liberties models to have slightly fewer observations and, in the case of the Political Liberties model, two fewer states.

  63. 63.

    We use version 6.2 of the V-Dem project state-year dataset (Coppedge et al. 2016). Importantly, there are several alternative datasets and measures of democracy, political institutions, and political regimes including Cheibub et al (2010) and Bjørnskov and Rode (2019). Also, Gründler and Krieger (2016, 85) offer a new measure of democracy based on “Support Vector Machines, a mathematical algorithm for pattern recognition”.

  64. 64.

    Following Dahl (1971), the five components that make up Electoral Democracy are elected officials, free and fair elections, freedom of expression, associational autonomy, and inclusive citizenship (Teorell et al. 2016, 3–4).

  65. 65.

    See, for instance Gutmann and Voigt (2015, 371), who find that “women’s economic and social rights clearly are limited in Muslim countries.” Also, see Cooray and Potrafke (2011).

  66. 66.

    The appendix includes summary statistics for all of these variables.

  67. 67.

    Non-ILS score 0 on Subconstitutional Index, Constitutional Index, and ILS. Thus, for non-ILS, these variables and their estimated coefficients drop out entirely. Subsequent parameter estimates are unaffected by rescaling the index such that 0 is at the low end of the continuum, rather than in the middle.

  68. 68.

    We use the World Religion dataset (Maoz and Henderson 2013). Each observation is equal to the proportion of Muslims found by the most recent wave of data collection, since the World Religion dataset’s unit of analysis is the state-half-decade. We also estimated models with GDP per capita. Our primary findings remain unchanged.

  69. 69.

    We considered several model specifications, including adding a random intercept. However, the additional assumptions required by such models were not satisfied. Beta regression was considered for the 0–1 dependent variables, but these models returned the same results as simpler OLS models. We use bootstrapped standard errors because of significant inconsistencies between conventional, parametric clustered standard errors and the cluster bootstrapped statistics (Efron and Tibshirani 1993). We estimated our models with country-clustered standard errors: our results remain unchanged.

  70. 70.

    See Sarkissian (2012), who shows that restrictive state policies hinder political competition and weaken democracy.

  71. 71.

    See Appendix for results of these models.

  72. 72.

    Importantly, 10 (34%) of the 29 ILS in this study are ruled by dynastic monarchies with limited or no elected officials. This proportion is considerably higher than that found in the rest of the world. Thus, the negative association between Islam-based legal language in domestic legal systems and democracy may reflect the remarkable durability of monarchies in many ILS.

  73. 73.

    For an analysis of how constitutional rights may translate into practical respect for these rights, see Chilton and Versteeg (2015).

  74. 74.

    Bootstrapping and clustering the standard errors removes the assumption of normality for the estimated parameters while also correcting for within-state correlation in the error term (Efron and Tibshirani 1993). Iterative model testing revealed no significant non-linear relationships. We tested for multicollinearity using Variance Inflation Factors (VIFs). Unsurprisingly, ILS and Percent Muslim returned relatively high VIFs (4.75 and 4.02 respectively) because all ILS have a Muslim-majority population. We estimated each model separately with either ILS, Constitutional Index, Practical Index or Percent Muslim removed, without result. After removing influential observations, the coefficients for ILS dropped into significance for the Political Liberties and Physical Violence models. No other changes were observed.

  75. 75.

    Interestingly, as Ahmed and Ginsburg (2014, 639) remind us, “the majority of Muslims polled who desire that Islam be a source of legislation do so because they associate many positive rights with Islam—and these rights overlap with modern day human rights norms.”.


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See Tables 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14.

Table 5 Summary statistics: Islam-based legal language and state governance, 2001–2012
Table 6 Data Sources: Islam-based Legal Language and State Governance, 2001–2012
Table 7 Variance inflation factors for all independent variables
Table 8 OLS regressions: Islam-based legal language and state governance, influential observations removed
Table 9 OLS and logistic regressions: Islam-based legal language and components of the V-Dem Democracy Index
Table 10 Summary statistics: V-Dem electoral democracy component indices, 2001–2012
Table 11 Model Fit Statistics (Akaike’s and Bayesian Information Criteria): different specifications of measurement model for ILS indicator data
Table 12 Clustered Standard Errors OLS regressions: Islam-based legal language and state governance, 2001–2012
Table 13 Islam-based legal language and state governance, 2001–2012 (GDP Per Capita)
Table 14 Results with no control variables

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Powell, E.J., McDowell, S.C., O’Brien, R. et al. Islam-based legal language and state governance: democracy, strength of the judiciary and human rights. Const Polit Econ (2020).

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  • Islamic law
  • Comparative law
  • Human rights
  • Constitutional law
  • Strength of the judiciary

JEL Classification

  • K10
  • K38
  • Z12