Política y Administración Pública

Política y Sociedad en Medio Oriente

GOVT 2701: Society and Politics of the Modern Middle East

Tutorial group

Tutorial paper: What are the characteristics of a Theocratic State? Provide evidence for your argument from one Middle Eastern State.

“O! People, although, I have been appointed to rule over you, yet I am not the best one. If I go on working on the right path, then help me. But if I deviate from it, then put me on the right track even trough force”

Abu Bakr, first caliph

I will divide this paper into three sections. The first: explain what a Theocratic State is and will give all its characteristics. Secondly, provide evidence of a Theocratic Middle Eastern State by talking about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and finally I will compare and discuss the similarities and differences between the theocracy ruled by a monarchy in Saudi Arabia and the theocracy of the regime ruling in Iran.

The word theocracy derives itself from two Greek words: `teos' which means god, deity, divinity, supernatural being, and `cratos' that means government, administration, rule. So theocracy can be etymologically interpreted as the rule by the deity or the divine, thus the separation between State and Church (religion to be more accurate) simply does not exist in the way that is known in the West. In a theocracy, the government claims to be divinely inspired and to be representing god (does not matter the name: Allah, Jehovah, Buddha, Vishnu) directly and immediately, so by definition they cannot be wrong. They follow their god's `divine mandate' therefore this `supernatural being' legitimates them. The first and primary effort of the regime would not only be to implement, but to enforce the divine law. Theocracy is not incompatible with democracy, albeit they are usually ruled by a theologically trained `elite' (e.g. Archbishops, `ulema)

There have been many attempts in history to implement theocracies. Some early civilisations living with this kind of political organization include the Hebrews, the Tibetans and the Egyptians, as well as some Amerindian civilisations like the Aztecs and Mayas in what is Mexico today, and the Incas in Peru, the slight difference with the latter is that they were polytheist. In Christianity among tries to implement theocracies through history are the Papal States before the establishment of the Vatican City, Geneva (in Switzerland) under John Calvin's protestant reform in the 16th century and New England in the newly discovered Americas by the Puritans in the 17th century. The only theocracy in Christianity nowadays is the Vatican City, ruled by the head of the Catholic Church who is since 1978 Pope John Paul II.

During the 20th century in the Muslim world, there was a lot of effort and significant pressure from many groups to establish theocracies in their countries, some examples are Algeria, Sudan, Egypt and Turkey. In these nations attempts are resisted most of the times by the military who actually prefer a more secular state. This groups base these attempts on the belief that the umma (community of believers) created by the Prophet Muhammad was a theocracy itself and so were the first communities founded by Abu Bakr (the first caliph of Islam) in what is today Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Even though this idea is strong among some Muslims, there is no model on how an Islamic theocracy should be organised nor agreement whether theocracy is intrinsic to Islam (the Qur'an) or not.

Today only two states in the Muslim world are considered to be theocracies: The Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A few months ago another Islamic theocracy disappeared, this is Afghanistan which was ruled by the ultra-fundamentalist Taliban.

Now I will start providing evidence with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which in Nevo's words is “the most theocratic state in the contemporary Sunni Muslim world”. Their Constitution is the Qur'an and the source of laws the Shari'a. As Khomeini wrote: “As for those who consider Islam separate from government and politics, it must be said to these ignoramuses that the Holy Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet contains more rules regarding government and politics than in other matters”

In the Kingdom a non-Muslim is not a Saudi citizen, while religion and religious practices are not only promoted but also enforced by the state, aided by the Shari'a. For the reason that an Islamic theocratic government is absolute, the King (in this case King Fahd) posses absolute power. Every member of the house of Al Saud (the ruling dynasty) uses religion as a unifying tool and a basis for their legitimacy for their ways of ruling (and very repeatedly, oppressing) the Saudi people.

In 1992 due to population's unrest and some other matters, King Fahd promulgated the Basic Law of Governance, which were basically systemic reforms. Some articles worth to be mentioned: “The political system is a monarchy, but government derives its authority from the Book of God Almighty and the Sunnah of his Prophet… The state protects the credo of Islam, it implements its Shari'a, it orders people to do right and avoid evil…” These Basic Law of Governance was another way to enhance the Kings and the whole royal family legitimacy.

In Saudi Arabia, the monarchy needs the cooperation and approbation of the `ulema, and at the same time they need royal support. In other words, they are both in the same level, the political leaders (the royal family of over 2500 members) and the religious leaders or `divine' (`ulema). One example is when King Abd al-Aziz, founder of the Kingdom in 1932, wanted to bring into the nation some of the modern tools such as motor vehicles and communication technology, then there was a conflict between state and religion and these `tools' were seen as anti-Islamic. In view of the fact that they were perceived as bid'a (new alien concepts introduced into Islam) King al-Aziz had to mobilize his `ulema to legalize them.

Political pluralism is simply inexistent in Saudi Arabia, political parties are completely banned since the monarchy is hereditary, -in other words, when King Fahd dies his half brother will become King and so on- and there are no popular elected representatives of the people. All the members of the cabinet are in some way or another part of the royal family.

The Saudi royal family also supports its legitimacy with the Wahabbi doctrine, which was founded by Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahabb in the mid-18th century. Wahabb called for the reinstatement of the same religious principles as well as political and social that were once practised by the Prophet Muhammad and his followers in the 7th century: strong obedience to the Qur'an and the Sunnah as the only sources of law and the total denial of any new belief other than these mentioned. One of the main principles of Wahabbism is tawhid (the oneness of God) He also held that religion and state and `indissolubly' linked and that neither of them can be put alone. “Without the coercive power of the state, religion is in danger, and on the other hand, without the Shari' a the state becomes a tyrannical organization”

Among Saudis there are two sides of looking at things; there is the emergence of fundamentalistic groups, who call the monarchy corrupt, say it has no legitimacy, and think state religion has become too permissible and must go back to the roots of Wahabbism. They refuse the way the monarchy is adopting so many habits of the West and of course repudiate the establishment of American military bases within its borders. On the other side there are young people that can be called Islamic dissidents, who search for a more liberal-secular state with more human rights and citizenship participation. The way the state negotiates with the latter is by making the state religion more radical, “indeed it is Islam that has undergone modifications and adjustments, not the state”.

To finish I will give a quick comparison between the theocracies in Saudi Arabia and Iran. The first and main difference is that Iran is an Islamic Republic since the Revolution of 1979 and Saudi Arabia a Kingdom. When Khomeini came to power after the Revolution it was granted to him “such broad supervisory powers as the appointment of the heads of the judiciary, the armed forces, the security organization, and the broadcast media… It is this provision that makes the Islamic Republic a theocratic republic”. Khomeini became not only the ruler and the leader of the Revolution, but the marja'-e taqlid (the highest position a cleric can attain in the Shi'ite Muslim world) Here arise two more differences with Saudi Arabia; the ruler is part of the `ulema and the basis of legitimacy is Shi'ite Islam instead of Wahabbi Sunni.

In Iran, after many different variants of Islam that have come and gone (Shariati's “radical”, Khomeni's “militant”, “liberal Islam”, `traditionalist Islam”, etc), in these late years Islamic theocracy in Iran has lost strength, just the same way it has lost it in Saudi Arabia, and is being actually rejected by a good percentage of the population in both countries, given that they do not believe any more in the `divine legitimisation' of the leaders of their countries. Even in Iran members of the `ulema are discarding theocracy as the way to rule themselves.

After looking at the characteristics of a theocracy, the facts in Saudi Arabia and a little bit in Iran as well, we can say that these types of regimes are very close to perish and become a new kind of `modern theocracy' if I may call it. The main problem these nations and regimes are facing is that in one way or the other opposition is increasing rapidly and their `divine legitimacy' may run out of arguments soon.


Arab.net: Saudi Arabia www.arab.net/saudi/saudi_contents.html Accessed: 05/05/02

Banuazizi, A., Islamic State and Society in Iran www.dayan.org/mel/banuazizi.htm. Accessed: 25/02/02

Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) 2001 Factbook: Saudi Arabia. www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/sa.html Accessed: 05/05/02

Eickelman, D.F. and Piscatori, J., Muslim Politics Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Hussain A., Political Perspectives on the Muslim World St. Martin's Press, New York 1984.

Mohammed Said, H., The Islamic Concept of state. Papers presented at: Symposium on the Teachings of the Holy Prophet Hamdard Foundation Press, Pakistan 1983.

Nevo, J., Religion and National Identity in Saudi Arabia Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 34, No.3, July 1998.

Piscatori, J.P., Islam in the Political Process Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1983.

Recent terrorism events: CQPRESS http://www.cqpress.com/context/toc.html Accesed 05/05/02

MOHAMMED SAID, H. The Islamic Concept of state. Papers presented at: Symposium on the Teachings of the Holy Prophet Hamdard Foundation Press, Pakistan 1983. P. 109

NEVO, J. Religion and National Identity in Saudi Arabia. Middle Eastern Studies Vol.34, No.3 (July 1998) p.35

EICKELMAN, D.F. and PISCATORI, J. Muslim Politics Princeton University Press (1996) p.49

ibid p. 62

NEVO, p.37

ibid p.41

BANUAZIZI, A., Islamic State and Society in Iran www.dayan.org/mel/banuazizi.htm. Accessed: 25/02/02


Enviado por:Mauricio Aréstegui
Idioma: inglés
País: México

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