4 Theocracies That Exist in the World Today

A theocracy is a government in which a supreme leader is or is adjacent to a deity. Only four theocracies exist in the world today.

Dec 6, 2023By Madison Whipple, BA History w/ Spanish minor
theocracies exist world today
A church superimposed over the Capitol Building of the United States, via Capitol Ministries


To many, the term theocracy conjures images of a time in the past. Power handed down by a god or gods is seemingly an antiquated form of government, as most countries in the world have trended away from absolute and monarchical rule. However, theocracies still exist in modern society in four countries. The governments of these countries are ordained by and per a religious belief; usually, the power is bestowed upon a divinely chosen person. This article will explore modern theocracies and how they operate.


1. Vatican City

pope francis full regalia
Pope Francis in his Papal Regalia, via Aleteia


Vatican City, or the Holy See, as it is also called, is the only Christian theocracy left in the world. It is also, perhaps, the most antiquated version of a theocracy in the world today, where the leader is not only the absolutist ruler of the country but also of the religious sect that the country adheres to.


The Pope is the leader of the Catholic Church worldwide but is also the absolute monarch of Vatican City. The Pope is appointed for life and is elected by a select group of cardinals, made up of bishops and archbishops, who are themselves appointed by the Pope.


When the previous pope dies, the College of Cardinals meets in the papal conclave in the Sistine Chapel and usually deliberates for many days. The Pope must be elected by a two-thirds majority, and the public can see how long the election takes based on a chimney in which the paper ballots are burned after collection. With the help of additives, if the smoke from the chimney is black, the decision has not yet been made, but if the smoke is white, a new pope has been elected.


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As with all absolute monarchies, executive, legislative, and judicial power all lie in the hands of the pope. However, the pope delegates many governmental powers to others who operate the government in the pope’s name.


vatican city map
A map of Vatican City with its important buildings labeled, via Political Geography Now


The legislative body of Vatican City, the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State, is a unicameral legislature led by the President of the Governorate of Vatican City. Every official within the governmental system of the Vatican is a member of the clergy, including the President of the Governorate and the Pontifical Commission, who are all cardinals appointed by the pope. Only five people serve on the Commission, with a sixth member being the President of the Governorate, but all laws and policies must be approved by the pope and his Secretariat of State, a cardinal also appointed by the pope.


The Vatican’s legal system is operated, once again, by the clergy. The population of Vatican City is just over 500 people, so many of the crimes that take place are not committed by actual members of the Vatican, and many crimes are handled by the Italian police in practice and simply funded by the Holy See. However, Pope Francis has, during his term, appointed a place for a leader of the Office of the Promoter of Justice, who serves as the Vatican’s lead prosecutor.


2. Iran

khomeini theocracy revolution
A large crowd holds a picture of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, via The New York Times


Iran’s government is a theocracy as a result of its 1979 revolution. The previous dynasty, that of the Pahlavi Shah, was increasingly secular under the Shah’s Western ideals. This pattern of secularization, coupled with Westernization, led to the Shah’s deposition from power and saw the installation of a new form of government: the Islamist Republic.


The Iranian Revolution was initially enacted by a few different ideological groups who opposed several aspects of the Shah’s power. The Islamists hated the move toward secularization, the nationalists hated the move toward westernization, and those who favored democracy hated the move toward increasingly autocratic power. In its infancy, the revolution was a fight against all three of these facets, but eventually, the Islamist faction won the day and became the ruler of Iran.


Nominally, Iran is a republic. However, practically, it runs as a theocracy. The government of Iran is based on wilayat al-faqih, or Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist, which began with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and has since moved on to its second Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.


This governmental structure, the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist, is based on an absolutist form of Islamic law that stipulates that an Islamic Jurist must rule politically and religiously in preparation for the arrival of the “infallible Imam.” Twelver Shia law, in this case, became the established government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.


iran voting khomeini posters
Iranian women cast their ballots beneath a poster of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran in 2005, via The Hindu


Every aspect of the government of Iran is run according to Sharia law. Iran’s parliament, the Islamic Consultative Assembly, was established after the revolution as well as the Guardian Council, a group of 12 Islamic Jurists and experts in Sharia, who still reserve the right to veto any legislation, supervise elections, and approve or disqualify candidates for elections.


The Constitution of Iran is based on Shia Islamic practices, and the laws of Iran suppressed and deposed any Western secular ideals that had cropped up during the reign of the Shah. Women, especially, suffered in the wake of the revolution and continue to suffer today. The theocracy denies women the right to work, to be educated, and even to leave their homes without a male relative. In addition to this, modesty laws were put in place and enforced by the Revolutionary Guard, often called the Morality Police.


It is safe to say that Iran went from one absolutist regime to another. The difference between several other theocracies and Iran, however, is that Iran is a reactionary and revolutionary theocracy. Its government, in all forms, is dictated by Islam, with the Supreme Leader as the voice of Allah on Earth.


3. Afghanistan

taliban fighters in afghanistan
Taliban fighters hold Taliban flags while standing guard along a road in Kabul on September 9, 2021, via NewLines Institute


Since the end of the Cold War, Afghanistan has experienced significant governmental and sociocultural upheaval. Its break from the Soviet Union caused civil war between several factions that lasted until 1994, when a movement of militant students from Pakistani Madrassas (schools) began taking control of the Afghan government. By 1996, Afghanistan was known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, whose leaders followed a scorched earth policy of adherence to Sharia law.


The Taliban were known for their cruel treatment of civilians during this first takeover, as they committed massacres and denied UN donations to starving civilians. They also welcomed the terrorist network al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, to the country. After the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, the United States invaded Afghanistan and its strict theocracy and established in its place an Islamic Republican government.


In the spring of 2021, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced the departure of NATO troops from Afghanistan. A Western-backed, constitutional republic had been established, and it was felt by many powers, the United States included, that peace talks would be able to begin. However, almost as soon as troops withdrew from the country, the Taliban launched an offensive against the Afghan government and swept into complete power by August 2021.


Despite promises to respect the rights of women and minorities, the Taliban has once again imposed a theocracy that strictly adheres to a harsh interpretation of Sharia law. The government, led by Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhunzada, has imposed laws that impinge on the rights of Afghani citizens, including freedom of the press and freedom to demonstrate.


womens ministry turned into morality ministry
The former Women’s Ministry in Kabul that now serves as the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, via AP News


In addition to the crackdown on protesting, the Taliban has reestablished the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which, like in Iran, is a sort of morality police responsible for suppressing any unIslamic activity.


The Taliban’s theocracy interprets Sharia law to its most violent extent. Public floggings and executions have been ordered to resume as of November 2022, and women are now subject to increasingly oppressive policies. Women were not only forced out of secondary school and jobs but are not allowed outside without a male chaperone, nor can they wear anything that does not fully cover their bodies. Amnesty International reports that the rate of child marriages in Afghanistan has also increased since the takeover of the Taliban.


The government of the Taliban in Afghanistan is completely tied to its interpretation of Islam. The Supreme Leader is not only the political head of the country but also the religious head. The people of Afghanistan, while subject to the theocracy, are not in support of it. In 2019, before the re-establishment of the Taliban, 13.4 percent of Afghans reported having sympathy for the Taliban. After peace talks began in 2021, the majority of people also stated that it was important to keep their constitutional rights, especially as it related to women and freedom of speech.


The Taliban’s theocracy has caused a significant decline in the quality of life for the Afghani people, ushering in not only oppressive policies but famine, displacement, and lack of healthcare. The theocracy of the Taliban is largely unorganized beyond its interpretation of Sharia and continues to commit rampant human rights abuses.


4. Saudi Arabia

king of saudi arabia
King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud who ascended to the throne in 2015, via BBC


Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, and it is home to two of Islam’s most important holy sites: Medina and Mecca. It is no surprise, then, that this Middle Eastern Kingdom would highly value the tenets of Islam.


Saudi Arabia is not only a theocracy but, like the Vatican, is an absolute monarchy. The name “Saudi” comes from the ruling dynasty of the kingdom, the Al Saud or Family of Saud, which has been in power for over 300 years. The King of Saudi Arabia is determined by inheritance, and the power is given to the crown prince, elected from a council of family members after the death of the former king.


The Saud dynasty impacted every aspect of Saudi governance and policy. The king appoints all judicial and legislative officials and holds supreme power over the government. Though the country has no official constitution, the Saud dynasty holds that the Quran and the law of Sunni Islam are the documents by which the country is run and its policies are created.


Several laws restrict the freedoms of Saudi Arabians, most significantly those that ban freedom of speech, assembly, and religion. All Saudi Arabian citizens are required by law to be Muslims, and criticism of religious leaders is banned. Similarly, criticism of the royal family is harshly dealt with, and any violation of the royal family’s decrees can result in torture and undue imprisonment.


protest jamal khashoggi
A protest against the disappearance of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, via The Guardian


Women’s rights are also severely curtailed under the Saudi government, as women did not have the right to drive until 2018. Women cannot marry freely, nor can they divorce or escape abuse freely. In recent years, though, several restrictions regarding women’s modesty have been loosened.


The theocracy of Saudi Arabia is derived from the perceived holiness of the royal family and its supposed divine right of power. Regular citizens are forbidden from participating in government in meaningful ways beyond heavily religiously influenced municipal elections. Though the king and his advisory council hold concentrated power in Saudi Arabia, they are known for being opaque and not at all honest about their power to their subjects.


Like the kingdoms of old, Saudi Arabia’s monarchs stand as divinely appointed stewards of their country. Since the main Saud family has over 100 members, the end of the dynasty looks unlikely.

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By Madison WhippleBA History w/ Spanish minorMadison is a contributing writer with specialties in American and women’s history. She is especially interested in women’s history in the context of the American Civil War. In her free time, she enjoys going to museums, reading, and jogging.