Reading Time: 18 minutes

Is Islam compatible with American democracy?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

facebook twitter instagram

American Muslim girl with US flag painted on her face (Credit: Mangagirl3535 via DeviantArt)

On September 20, 2015, Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson was interviewed on Meet the Press. Chuck Todd asked him, “Should a president’s faith matter?” He replied, “Well, I guess it depends on what that faith is. If it’s inconsistent with the values and principles of America, then of course it should matter. But if it fits within the realm of America and consistent with the Constitution, no problem.”

Todd then asked, “So do you believe that Islam is consistent with the Constitution?” Carson replied, “No, I don’t, I do not. . . . I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.”i

A week later, he was interviewed by CNN’s Jake Tapper.ii When asked to clarify his earlier remarks, Carson stated: “I would have problems with somebody who embraced all the doctrines associated with Islam. If they’re not willing to reject shari’a and all the portions of it that are talked about in the Qur’an, if they’re not willing to reject that and subject that to American values and the Constitution, then of course I wouldn’t.”

Shifting attention to Tapper, Dr. Carson continued, “And I would ask you, would you be willing to do that? Would you be willing to advocate for somebody who would not do that? Probably not.” Tapper replied, “I don’t assume that because somebody’s Muslim, that they would put their religion ahead of the U.S. Constitution. And in fact the U.S. Constitution itself says, ‘No religious test.'”

Dr. Carson elaborated:

Of course Muslims can be patriotic. I’ve worked with Muslims, I’ve trained Muslims, I’ve operated on Muslims. There are a lot of Muslims who are very patriotic, good Americans. And they gladly admit, at least privately, that they don’t accept shari’a, or the doctrines. And they understand that Islam is a system of living, and it includes the way that you relate to the government. And you cannot, unless you specifically deny that portion of Islam, be a Muslim in good standing. Now, if that is the case, if you’re not willing to reject that, then how in the world can you possibly be the president of the United States?

Tapper pressed: “You are saying that there is something specific about being a Muslim, you have to reject Islam in order to be a president.” Carson: “You have to reject the tenets of Islam. Yes, you have to.” Tapper: “And that’s different from an Orthodox Jew or a devout Christian?” Carson: “If there’s a devout Christian who’s running, and they refuse to reject the ideals of our Constitution or if they want to establish a theocracy, I cannot advocate for them.”

Tapper: “The point is, you seem to be suggesting that Muslim Americans automatically want a theocracy. I just don’t know any Muslim Americans, and I know plenty, who feel that way, even if they are observant Muslims.” Carson: “In terms of the tenets of Islam, are you familiar with them? The corpus juris from the authoritative group of the people who make the rules, that goes back to the 10th century A.D.?”

Tapper: “I’m familiar with extremist interpretations of plenty of religions.” Carson: “I’m not talking about extremist interpretations. I’m talking about what is required. And you have to make a specific declaration and decision to reject the portions of it.”

“What portions of it?” Tapper asked. Carson: “The portions of it that tell you how you treat women, the portions of it that indicate that the kafir, the people who are not believers, are subject to different rules, that they can be dominated.”

Tapper concluded, “You’re assuming that Muslim Americans put their religion ahead of their country.” Carson: “I’m assuming that if you accept all the tenets of Islam, that you would have a very difficult time abiding under the Constitution of the United States.”

Is he right?

(Note: this paper is an objective investigation of the question whether a practicing Muslim can obey the U.S. Constitution. No endorsement of any kind is intended or implied regarding Dr. Carson or any other candidate or political party.)

What is the question?

Let’s begin by understanding the issue Dr. Carson addressed. The question is more complex than whether there is a religious test for political office. The U.S. Constitution, Article VI is clear: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

Presumably Dr. Carson knows this to be true. In fact, he nowhere stated that he believed a Muslim is disqualified to run for office. He stated his personal opinion, which is that a Muslim should not be president.

Nonetheless, critics of his statements have focused primarily on the constitutional issue. For instance, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina was asked by Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show if she agreed with Dr. Carson. Her response: “Well, I think that’s wrong. It says in our Constitution that religion cannot be a test for office. It’s also true that this country is founded on the principle that we judge each individual, and that anyone of any faith is welcome here.”

She added, “whether it’s a person of Christian faith, or Jewish faith, or Muslim faith, or other faiths, I think faith gives us humility and empathy and optimism, and I think those are important things.” “You would be fine with that,” Fallon asked again, referring to a Muslim as president. She replied, “Yes, I would be fine with that.”iii

After Carson’s September 20 interview, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tweeted: “Can a Muslim be President of the United States of America? In a word: Yes. Now let’s move on. ‘H” And she added a tweet citing Article VI.iv

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was also asked about Carson’s statement. His response: “There is no religious test to hold public office in America. I am less concerned about what faith a person has. I am more concerned about the authenticity of their faith, and how that plays out in their policies.”v

There is indeed “no religious test to hold public office in America.” But is there a specific conflict between Islam and the U.S. Constitution?

Fox’s Katie Pavlich: “The issue is about Sharia law, and Sharia law certainly is incompatible with the Constitution of the United States, because it doesn’t protect people equally like we believe in in the United States based on basic human rights, based on being able to do things equally, based on opportunity. And so, that is what Ben Carson is talking about.” Fox’s Stuart Varney agreed: “Under Islam, church and state are combined. They are one. There is no separation.”vi

These analysts are focused on our question: Is Islam compatible with American democracy?

It’s a larger question even than the presidency. The issue affects all decisions regarding public office, as well as the larger influence of Islam in America today. Will Muslim children inevitably grow up to oppose our form of government? Will Muslim mosques become footholds for anti-democratic sentiment and even insurrection?

In short, can a person be a practicing Muslim and a patriotic American?

Do democratic Muslim nations exist?

Writing for The Atlantic, Bernard Lewis addressed “Islam and Liberal Democracy.” Lewis, a recognized expert on Islam, states:

Of the forty-six sovereign states that make up the international Islamic Conference, only one, the Turkish Republic, can be described as a democracy in Western terms, and even there the path to freedom has been beset by obstacles. Of the remainder, some have never tried democracy; others have tried it and failed; a few, more recently, have experimented with the idea of sharing, though not of relinquishing, power.vii

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Turkey, Bangladesh, Mali, and Senagal are nations with strong Muslim majorities that function as democracies. Malaysia, Nigeria, and Iran are nominally democratic, but with fewer protections for civil liberties and legitimate opposition parties. Most of the world’s Muslim-majority nations conduct elections, of which some are relatively free and fair.viii

Many Americans assume that Islam and democracy are fundamentally incompatible, perhaps because we associate Islam with the Arab world, where there are no democracies. However, only 18 percent of the Muslim world is Arab. It is also true that Lebanon was a fully functioning democracy before civil wars divided the country in the early 1970’s.

On the face, therefore, it seems clear that Islam is not necessarily incompatible with democracy. Turkey, and to a lesser degree Indonesia (the world’s most populous Muslim nation) are examples of functioning Islamic democracies, as are a handful of other countries around the world.

What is shari’a?

Dr. Carson repeatedly claimed that a Muslim must deny shari’a if he or she is to participate fully in American democracy. So, what is shari’a? Is it incompatible with our governance?ix

Shari’a (“path”) is the code of conduct in Islam. It is derived from four sources: the Qur’an, the Hadith (a commentary on the Qur’an that transmits other sayings and actions of Muhammad), the ijma (a consensus of Muslim scholars on particular subjects), and the qiyas, legal deductions based on these authoritative sources. It developed over several centuries after Muhammad’s death in AD 632.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no single code of shari’a accepted by all Muslims. Rather, there are five different “schools,” each named for the scholars who inspired them:

  • Hanbali: the most fundamental; embraced in Saudi Arabia and by the Taliban.
  • Hanafi: the most liberal, focused on reason and analogy; dominant in Central Asia, Egypt, Pakistan, India, China, Turkey.
  • Malaki: dominant in North Africa.
  • Shafi’i: followed in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Yemen.
  • Ja’fari: Shi’a law (followed by Shiite Muslims).

The various schools of shari’a differ regarding the application of Islamic law. The stricter schools require punishments prescribed by the Qur’an for unlawful sexual intercourse, false accusation of unlawful sexual intercourse, wine or alcohol consumption, theft, and highway robbery. These punishments include flogging, stoning, amputation, exile, and execution. Less strict schools are less likely to require such punishments.

How does shari’a relate to democracy?

Shari’a can be practiced in three ways.

One: a completely secular Muslim nation. Modern-day Turkey is the best example of this approach. Here the government operates as a secular democracy (though movement toward an Islamic state is growing).

Two: a dual legal system where the government is secular but Muslims can bring family and financial disputes to shari’a courts. For instance, Britain now allows shari’a tribunals governing marriage, divorce, and inheritance. This arrangement is similar to mediation for Anglicans and Jews. Criminal law matters remain under the secular legal system.

Three: “government under God,” where Islam is the official religion and shari’a is the source of all laws. This approach is followed in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates. A similar approach is followed in Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq, where it is illegal to enact legislation that contradicts Islam. As an example, women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive, must be under the guardianship of male relatives at all times, and must be completely covered in public.

Shari’a also affects financial systems. Riba (charging or paying interest) is banned under Islamic law. Transactions related to pork, pornography, weapons, alcohol, tobacco, and gambling are also banned. Banks such as Citygroup, HSBC, and Deutsche Bank are now developing Islamic banking sectors. Some surveys indicate that Islamic banking is growing 15 percent a year.

Clearly, some forms of shari’a are less in conflict with the American Constitution than others. The secular democracy approach (cf. Turkey) is similar to the American approach. A dual legal system approach is already followed in America with regard to the Amish and Orthodox Jews.

Banks can avoid riba by charging user fees rather than interest, or charging interest to third-party non-Muslims, who then charge a fee to the Muslim customer. And shari’a practices such as prohibitions against pork and pornography) are not incompatible with the Constitution.

However, if a Muslim president sought to enforce his or her shari’a practices on non-Muslims, such an imposition would clearly conflict with the Constitution. And if the Muslim sought to enact the “government under God” approach, he or she would obviously seek to replace the Constitution with Islamic law.

Can Islam be compatible with democracy?x

Conventional wisdom views Islam as another religion alongside Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and others. But Islam is different in that the Qur’an prescribes an economic model, dietary code, and variety of governmental and cultural practices. In this sense, it is more like the Old Testament book of Leviticus than the New Testament.

For Islam to be compatible with American democracy, its followers must view shari’a as revelation to be followed personally rather than legislation to be enforced governmentally. For this reason, some question whether Islam will ever find a way to embrace both democracy and shari’a.xi

Scholars of Islam such as John Esposito disagree, claiming that democracy is in fact required by Islamic theology.xii They point to the doctrine that God is one (tawhid) and sovereign, which means that no person can be sovereign. They note that Muhammad consulted with rulers, sought the consensus of the community, reinterpreted laws when needed, and instituted programs for the welfare of the public. His successors were chosen through a process of consultation as well, beginning with the first caliph, Abu Bakr. In this view, democracy is the best means for Muslims to govern themselves.

Bernard Lewis lists several elements within Islam that are compatible with participatory democracy:

  • Shura, consultative decision-making.
  • Ijma, the principle of consensus.
  • The constitution of Medina (written by Muhammed in AD 622), which grants equal rights to Jews and Muslims who follow its laws

He also notes that relationship (bay’a) between ruler (Caliph) and subjects was contractual. The Caliph was to perform certain duties, while his subjects were to obey him. If he failed in his duties, he could be removed from office. Thus an Islamic ruler is not above the law, but subject to it.

However, he concedes that Islamic fundamentalists “make no secret of their contempt for democratic political procedures and their intention to govern by Islamic rules if they gain power. Their attitude toward democratic elections has been summed up as ‘one man, one vote, once.'”

Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol is the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. He makes four compelling assertions in arguing for democracy in the Muslim world.

One: the Qur’an does not prescribe a particular form of “Islamic” government after the death of Muhammad, and is “almost silent on the fundamental issues of politics.”xiii

Two: since Muslims vary widely in their interpretations of shari’a, a democracy not built on Islamic law is the only governance fair to all.

Three: only when people are free from fear of puritanical enforcement can they be free to choose genuine piety.

Four: only when people are free to reject Islam can they be free to choose it.xiv

Those who are skeptical about Islam’s ability to embrace democracy might remember that there was a time in medieval Western history when the same could have been said about Christendom. An era in which church officials appointed secular rulers and enforced religious dictates in every dimension of life would not have been viewed as fertile ground for participatory democracy.

Only one in four Muslim-majority countries is led by democratically elected governments. However, most of these populations were subjected to colonial rule for centuries. Many of their nations were created after World War II and are only decades old.xv By contrast, many claim that American democracy was not fully developed until after the Civil War, nearly a century after the Declaration of Independence.

When asked their political wishes, Muslims affirm by large majorities their desire to live under democratic governance. Substantial majorities want freedom of speech to be guaranteed in their countries and want women to have the same legal rights as men, including the rights to vote, to hold any job for which they are qualified, and to hold leadership positions in their countries. While majorities want shari’a to play a role in their country and governance, only small minorities want it to be the “only source” of law.xvi

Why did the Arab Spring fail?

If Muslims want democracy, why did the pro-democratic movements known collectively as the “Arab Spring” fail to bring about such reforms? Egypt’s government is led by a military ruler functioning in a dictatorial fashion. Libya has degenerated into civil war. No Muslim nation is more democratic today than when the Arab Spring began five years ago. Why?

Samuel Huntington (1927—2008) was one of the most significant political scientists of the last century. According to Francis Fukuyama (himself a significant political and social theorist), Huntington outlined three stages that lead to democratic reform.xvii

The first is educational and social development, which produces a class of people seeking better jobs and lives. This occurred in Egypt, for example, as tens of thousands of young adults graduated from colleges but had no pathway to economic or political advancement.

The second stage is the creation of tools and resources needed for democracy to function, such as a free press, labor unions, and political parties. These mechanisms empower the third stage, a transition to free and open elections and democratic governance.

The second stage is critical. In nations that have undertaken the third stage without it, lasting democracy has seldom been the result. For instance, the 2006 elections in Gaza empowered Hamas, which has not permitted elections since. Elections in Russia have produced a government that is widely viewed as more repressive than accountable. On the other hand, following Huntington’s three-stage strategy led to effective democratic transition in Taiwan and South Korea.

In Arab Spring countries, the first stage (unrest and political coups) led directly to the third stage (open elections). Not surprisingly, those parties that possessed their own governmental apparatus (such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) won these elections and then began repressing the people who elected them.

To summarize: the failure of the Arab Spring does not prove that Islam is incompatible with democracy. Rather, it shows that the stages essential to democratic reform are necessary wherever such reforms are attempted.


Is Dr. Carson right in claiming that Muslims must reject shari’a to be president of the United States? Yes, if the version of shari’a they follow is the “government under God” approach. No, if their version of shari’a permits a secular government (as in Turkey), perhaps permitting accommodations such as shari’a courts for civil disputes.

However, there is more to the story. Many Americans are concerned that a Muslim might campaign and win office while promising to honor the separation of church and state, then move to abolish such separation and impose more severe forms of shari’a.

Some critics also note the doctrine of taqiyya, by which Shiite Muslims were permitted to lie about their faith under persecution. This doctrine has been interpreted by some to mean that Muslims can lie to unbelievers in order to defeat them. And critics also note the doctrine of kitman, by which a Muslim can lie by omission.

Faith questions have long been asked about presidential candidates. Catholics Al Smith and John F. Kennedy were accused of greater loyalty to the Vatican than to the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson’s religious skepticism was lambasted by his opponents. Abraham Lincoln’s critics noted that he was not a church member.

While Muslim candidates face questions unique to their religion (such as their approach to shari’a), we can ask of any candidates whether their faith (or lack thereof) makes them more or less qualified for office. In the final analysis, the wisdom of the framers of the Constitution is demonstrated again: “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

It is the responsibility of the electorate to decide this issue, just as the framers intended.

i “Meet the Press Transcript—September 20, 2015,” NBC News, September 20, 2015 (, accessed 27 September 2015).

ii Eric Bradner, “Ben Carson again explains concerns with a Muslim president,” CNN, September 27, 2015 (, accessed 27 September 2015).

iii Tim Teeman, “Carly Fiorina: Yes, a Muslim Can Be President,” The Daily Beast, September 22, 2015 (, accessed 27 September 2015).

iv Ashley Alman, “Hillary Clinton Shuts Down Ben Carson Comments On Muslim President Eligibility,” Huffpost Politics, September 21, 2015 (, accessed 27 September 2015).

v Samuel Smith, “Huckabee: Muslim Can Be President; Obama ‘Pretends to Be’ Christian, Makes Living Out Faith Difficult,” CP Politics, September 23, 2015 (, accessed 27 September 2015).

vi Brennan Suen, “Fox News Defends Carson’s Objection To A Muslim U.S. President,” MediaMatters For America, September 21, 2015 (, accessed 27 September 2015).

vii Bernard Lewis, “Islam and Liberal Democracy,” The Atlantic, February 1993 (, accessed 27 September 2015).

viii Sharon Otterman, “MIDDLE EAST: Islam and Democracy,” Council on Foreign Relations, September 19, 2003 (, accessed 27 September 2015).

ix For more, see Radical Islam: What You Need to Know (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Elevation Press, 2011), 47-50.

x For more, see Radical Islam, 155-7.

xi See, for example, Ibn Warraq, Why I Am Not A Muslim (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2003 [1995]) 172-92.

xii John Esposito, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) 145.

xiii Mustafa Akyol, Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011) 250.

xiv Ibid., 247-86.

xv John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think (New York: Gallup Press, 2007) 30, 39.

xvi Ibid., 47, 51, 48.

xvii Francis Fukuyama, “Political Order in Egypt,” The American Interest May-June 2011 (, accessed 27 September 2015).