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Is Islamic Theocracy Possible?

Whether or not the political model of Islam is theocratic, it has taken an important place in Islamic political studies. It is distinguishable that the “Islamic state” is identified with theocracy when the studies carried out by the Westerners on this subject are observed. However, the Islamic scholars persistently reject this observation and point out that theocracy has nothing to do with Islamic ruling by no manner of means.

There have been numerous conflicting studies around the subject up until today. By “theocracy”, the people comprehend that it is a government system based on religion and it is implied that religion intervenes in the state. However, it is impossible to assert that every single state that has a relationship with religion will have theocratic characteristics. Therefore, it is important to confirm the limits, form, and nature of this relationship. Except that it is also extremely difficult. 

Another reason for the exposure of different approaches on this subject is the inability to distinguish theory from practice. It is not possible to talk about a theocracy that is well understood and performed by the West when the first-period Islamic practices and principles on the provisions of the Quran and Hadith about ruling are observed. However, it will be concluded that they draw close to theocracy to a great extent if we focus on some of the heads of state in history and the regimes of the countries like today’s Iran. 

It is worth reminding the following before getting into the subject: The provisions imposed by Islam on public law and especially on state governance do not go beyond some basic principles and guidelines. Moreover, the “Islamic political theory” that was presented around the “caliphate” and “imamate” concepts during the fourth and fifth centuries is substantially based on judicial thought. And the influence of social and political conditions of the period on this judicial perspective is an unquestionable fact. Similarly, when the Islamic states established throughout history are observed; it is impossible to deny the fact that other foreign states and cultures had a significant influence over their political organizations.

Considering all of the above, it gradually gets difficult to provide an answer for the following question: “What is the political model Islam prescribes?” Furthermore, it is difficult to state that there is a particular model prescribed by Islam. It is always possible to habilitate different political models to Islam. In this respect, getting to work by providing an answer to the following question of Ali Bulac will have a significant contribution towards understanding the subject properly: “What is not the political model of Islam?” (Ali Bulac, Islam and Democracy, p. 8)

As it is understood from the article we have written previously titled “Autocracy and Islam”; no form of totalitarianism may be in harmony with Islam. And it is also not possible for theocracy, which constitutes an important sort of totalitarian governments, to be recognized by Islam and be in harmony with Islamic principles.

Definition and Character of Theocracy

Theocracy, which is a Greek word (theokratia), is the combination of the words “teo”, which means God, and “kratos”, which means “to rule”. Thus, theocracy refers to a divine/deific ruling as the etymology of the word suggests. More clearly, theocracy is a form of government that grounds its legitimacy on God and predicates the source of its power and rulership to God also. In this respect, it identifies and determines the ultimate source of the state authority rather than presenting a form of government such as democracy or monarchy fundamentally. 

Ensuring legitimacy has always been the primary objective of all political systems and rulers due to the fact that the heads of state and governments cannot establish sovereignty over the people and make them obey as long as they cannot manage to express themselves on a legitimate and legal basis. And there is no doubt that religion is the most sacred and supreme source of legitimacy. This is the reason for many of the heads of state tried to legitimize themselves by putting on cloaks of religion and attributing their rulership to a divine source since the first periods of history. At the same time, they also prevented their actions to be questioned by alleging that they ruled in the name of God. 

Not all the theocratic regimes are all the same just like not all totalitarian regimes are the same. For example, some of the rulers like Pharaoh claimed that they were divine and attributed with some divine titles, established a complete hegemony over their people and nearly enslaved them. Similarly, it is possible to see throughout the theocracy-dominated states that some of the rulers claim they are the son of God, some are representative of God, some are the shadow of God, and while some are specially selected by God, some are ruling on behalf of God. And the ruling is recognized as the duty of the religious functionaries and the political decisions were left to their discretion as well as the religious decisions. 

Although it seems that there are some differences between them by all appearances; their common purpose is to prevent any questioning, disobedience, and opposition by placing themselves and the state into a place that is impossible to reach and touch because it is not possible for the decisions and actions that are considered coming from a “high and supreme authority” to be criticized. 

Rulers, who are the so-called representatives of God and use the authority they receive from God, would not assume any responsibility for their actions inherently. Moreover, they would even legitimate their oppression and cruelty in a genius way and find a cover for their mistakes and errors due to the fact that they place themselves in a transcendental position where their actions cannot be questioned, attribute holiness to themselves, and regard themselves as excellent and perfect. Needless to say, no one would have the courage to question these tyrants who seize even the divine authorities aside from every kind of political authority. 

Theocratic States Established in History

It will be obvious that the theocratic perceptive prevailed for long centuries when the states established in history are observed. The fact that gods were depicted as the kings on their thrones in general in many archaic cultures and civilizations and many states were ruled by the god-kings shows this. The kings, who wanted to ground their rule on a divine source, described themselves with the titles such as “the master of the sky and the earth”, “the shadow of the God on earth”, “ruler of all countries”. 

To provide an example, many scientists stated that Hittite and Urartian states were governed by a theocratic system. The Hittite kings regarded themselves as the representatives of God on earth and alleged that all of their actions were carried out according to the will of God. The people accepted that they took their power and rulership from God and believed that they were gods even after they were deceased. Those who dared to oppose the orders of the kings supported by divine powers were sentenced to death since it was out of the question to do so. The situation was no different with the Urartians. They also regarded themselves as the representatives of God and claimed that they were protected by the gods and they were the servants of the gods. Thus, they became absolute rulers of the country and decorated with unlimited authorities. (See Veli Unsal, Eski Anadoluda Teokratik Devlet Duzeni / Theocratic Government System in Ancient Anatolia)

Various civilizations and empires established throughout history had shown similar characteristics. For example, the city-states in the Sumerians were ruled by the “patesi” who were priest-kings one each. They regarded themselves as the representatives of God on earth and monopolized all kinds of political and religious authorities. And the former Japanese emperors, who regarded themselves as the son of the sun, grounded their rulership on a divine origin and even divinized themselves. 

The emperor was regarded as the son of the sky and believed to be entrusted with organizing the world in ancient China. Another example of theocracy was emerged in India, which has one of the oldest civilizations. Here too, the state was governed by the oracles and religious functionaries (Brahmans), who are at the top of the caste system, and those in the lower layers were forced to obey the Brahmans. Because, according to their belief, the Brahmans had some privileges due to the fact that they were created from the mouth of God.

Similarly, the “kisras”, who were the Sassanid emperors, were regarded as having divine power and granted significant privileges. There were seen as almost superhuman beings. Thus, the people were not able to casually come into their presence and even not even speak of their names. Their sovereignty was regarded as a sacred and non-transferable right for the dynasty members who descended from the kisras. Similarly, the Zoroastrian religious functionaries monopolized important power, influence, and unlimited authorities, and represented the highest offices of the state.

Certainly, the states where the reference of the rulership is sought in the heavens and the rulers played the role of a god-king are not limited to the ones mentioned above. Similar ideas and practices exist in countries such as Ancient Egypt, Babylon, Rome, and Tibet. As we have already pointed out, it is a fact that some of the sultans who ruled in the Islamic geography attributed some kind of sanctity to their rulership in order to strengthen their authority and attributed some titles for themselves such as “the shadow of Allah on earth” or “the ruler of Allah on earth”. We would like to content ourselves with these examples in order not to be wordy and focus on the church which immediately comes to mind when theocracy is mentioned. 

Church and Clergy Class

When it comes to theocracy, many will immediately think of Catholic Christianity and church administration that dominated the Middle Age. As a matter of fact, the theoretical studies about the theocratic state have been rather shaped around this. Moreover, one of the most important reasons for the emergence of the secular and laical state is the totalitarian rulership style of the theocratic state that dominated the Middle Age, which basically disregards human rights and freedoms. 

The church made good use of the political vacuum that emerged after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century and became stronger day after day. It completed its religious and bureaucratic organization and covered the whole West like a network especially after the 8th century. In this respect, it replaced Rome which was almost being destroyed. The church also possessed large quantities of property and land and seized political authority as well as spiritual authority. Such that the church reached a power to bring the kings to power, crown them, and dismiss them when necessary. The kings had to obey the Pope even though they reigned on their own territory. Because the church gained an indisputable superiority against the kings and earthly powers. 

Of course, it was not easy for the church to be organized until it reached to the towns and villages and gain a serious strength in the political, economic, and military fields besides religious authority. Therefore, it entered into endless conflicts and wars with the kings and developed a new Christian doctrine that gave the church and clergies very serious authorities.

Catholic Christianity claimed that the Roman church was built on the tomb of Peter, and therefore, the powers, which were given to Peter by Jesus, were transferred to it. Paulos developed the doctrine of Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, and suggested the church was under the protection of the Holy Spirit and received revelation through it. Moreover, popes were regarded as the deputy of Jesus and the successors of Peter in Catholic Christianity, it was claimed that they were protected from mistakes (innocence), and they were given the authority to decide on behalf of Jesus and legislate on behalf of religion. And the authority to interpret the Bible was monopolized by the church. 

In addition, Paul’s comments also presented that the church was universal and salvation outside the church was not possible; it was accepted that the church could forcibly convert anybody into religion and also make anybody abandon the religion too. It is thereafter that the church itself did more of the Roman oppression and cruelties in the first years of Christianity in order to transubstantiate the people and punish those who opposed it. It killed tens of thousands of people in the inquisition courts it established. It also executed the punishment of the people, who were punished by death, by burning them alive. It was thought that the burning of those who reject Christianity would protect them from the fire of hell. 

The authorities of the church did not remain exclusive to religion. It was asserted that one of the two swords mentioned in the Bible that Jesus was given to indicates spiritual power, while the other one indicates the earthly power. These swords were entrusted to the popes by God according to the Church. And they held the spiritual sword inside their own hands, while they started giving the material sword to the emperors. This was perceived as a way of the pope’s approval and blessing of the state. In other words, the kingdoms started to take their legitimacy from the church. As a result of this, the kings were forced to recognize the authority of the pope and submit to his wishes and orders. 

Moreover, Christianity, which stands on the distinction between the soul and body, stated that the divine power representing the soul is superior to the earthly power representing the body, just like the soul is superior to the body. And this naturally revealed the belief that the church was actually superior to the state and put the state under the church’s order.  All of these show that the church did not only have the keys to the heavens but also held the earthly power. And all of these gave rise to the dominance of theocracy.

Dawn of Secular State

As it can be understood from the short explanations made so far; theocracy is nothing more than a form of totalitarianism wearing the cloak of religion. As a matter of fact, it was much easier for the leaders, who grounded their legitimacy and legality on a divine source and put themselves under a sacred and untouchable armor, to exploit and dominate their communities. In other words, in theocratic regimes, the rulers made religion a very useful tool in order to cover up their cruelty and injustice and to avoid responsibility. Because the power and authority derived from religion are far beyond material power and also the state power. Although it is possible to force the people into certain actions with material force; it is not possible to convince them and dominate their conscience. This can only be achieved with religion. 

The fundamental reason for the Western world rightfully opposing theocracy instead of embracing a secular and laical state structure is the painful experiences they had throughout centuries. Indeed, there is no way for this political regime, where there are no transparency and control mechanisms, rulers do not answer to anybody, and dogmas rule instead of reason and science, can neither provide justice nor protect people’s fundamental rights and freedoms. For this reason, the fight against theocracy is justified. It should not be forgotten that this fight is not against religion but against the church. 

However, this secular state is reactive because of the fact that it emerged as a result of an uprising. Therefore, the balance could not be maintained here just like in all movements of reaction. Extremism at one point gave birth to another, and religion was pushed to be removed from the political and even public fields altogether. Some countries perceived secularism as anti-religious and the political elites turned to a totalitarian perception in order to establish a secular regime and exerted serious pressure on their communities. Thus, this time the freedom of religion and conscience was threatened in the name of secularism; human rights were violated and the feelings and thoughts of the members of the society were ignored. 

Is Islamic Theocracy Possible?

In the first place, it should be stated that it is wrong to judge that theology has a similar understanding based on only religion and the relevance with God. On the contrary, theocracy emerged when the true religious tradition was receded and the revelation sustained a pause. 

Islamic principles do not make way for theocracy by no means. For once, it is impossible for any head of state to act in the name of Allah, claim holiness, and avoid responsibility in Islam. Abu Bakr strongly objected being called “caliph of Allah”. If some sultans used this name in the later periods and aimed to justify all their actions with this name; this is undoubtedly an expression of a deviation from Islamic principles.

Islam did not make anyone superior to another including the rulers and religious functionaries. There is no privilege and immunity for any individual or group in Islam. On the contrary, since all citizens are equal before the law; everyone is questioned for their actions, taken into account and punished when they are found guilty. In Islamic history, it is possible to encounter many events in which heads of state appeared before the judge with an ordinary citizen and lost the case.

There is no absolute obedience to any person and no other coterie in Islam except Allah (SWT) and His Messenger (PBUH). Obedience is required only in what is good (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 91, Number 363) Because no ruler in Islam, including the head of state, is innocent. They can also make errors and mistakes, and they can resort to cruelty and injustice. They can attach priority to their own interests before the people’s affairs. In all these cases they lose their right to be obeyed.

Aside from obedience, the people who saw that their rulers deviated from rights and justice were advised not to remain silent and fulfill their responsibilities according to the circumstances. This responsibility is fulfilled sometimes with advice, sometimes with warning and injunction, sometimes with civil disobedience, sometimes with opposition and resistance. Because the rulers are required to be treated with “emr-i bi’l-ma’ruf nehy-i ani’l-munker” which is clearly stated in the Quran. In fact, our Prophet (PBUH) considered the greatest jihad is telling the truth alongside the cruel sultan. (Al-Tirmidhi, fiten 13) 

According to Islam, rulership is not a sacred right that is in the hands of a certain dynasty. On the contrary, rulers are determined on the basis of election, council and bay’ah (homage). Political participation is essential in Islam. Therefore, the head of state receives his legitimacy not from God but from the people. He rules with the authority of the people in the name of the people, not in the name of God. In cases where he loses his competency and abandons the law, he is dismissed by the committee called ahl al-hall wal-aqd which is formed by the prominent ones among the people. 

In Islam, there is no church or clergy as in Christianity, which had privileged rights and claims on material authority as well as spiritual authority. Scholars are civilians. They cannot intervene in the government. When they take a public duty in the state like other citizens, their rights and responsibilities are limited only to the duty they assume. They have the authority of judicial opinion. But the judicial opinion only binds the interpreter of Islamic law. There is no obligation of others to take action according to this judicial opinion. 

The theocratic system is a kind of dictation regime. Therefore, freedoms cannot be mentioned in a place where theocracy exists. However, the most important objective of sending the prophets is to make the people free and independent, and prevent them from being slaves. Indeed, there can be no genuine religiosity in a place where people cannot freely use their will and preferences as free individuals. One should avoid being the slave of all kinds of tyrants and dictators in order to be a servant of Allah (SWT). According to Islam, Allah is the only entity that a human can salute and submit to.

In addition to all these, it is a fact that the most fundamental principles such as committee, justice, rule of law, and merit which are put forth by Islam about rulership will be violated in a theocracy-dominated state. It is unthinkable for a leader who claims to rule in the name of God would value the ideas of others and adhere strictly to the rules of law. Similarly, in such a state, public duties will not be given to the competent, but to those who obey unconditionally. After all, there will be nothing left off justice.

It may be argued by some that the application of Islamic law will limit freedoms, cause certain rights violations, and thus result in a theocracy. However, this is not true. As we have already mentioned, the provisions of Islam regarding public law are very limited and these are universal and human principles in general. The detailed provisions on this matter are left to the judicial opinion. 

In addition, Islamic provisions are only applicable to Muslims. Non-Muslim citizens live according to their own beliefs and laws and are judged accordingly. Indeed, this is clearly stated in the Medina Constitution. Likewise, it is a historical fact that minorities are granted freedom of religion and conscience in Islamic states. The reason why Muslims are held responsible according to Islamic law is not the demands and pressures of the state and the rulers in this direction, but the demands and desires of Muslims in the direction of living according to the religion they believe. Being a Muslim is completely left to the independent choices of individuals. At the point of converting into the religion, such compulsion like the church asserts is out of the question. The people who are forced to convert into a religion without their consent will only become a factious and not a Muslim. 

Consequently, theocracy is by no means a form of government that conforms to the fundamental principles of Islam. If religion becomes a means of oppression, it will be the religion that will suffer first and foremost. From this point of view, it can be understood how the political Islamists, who aim to make the people religious with the state apparatus they have seized, are in the wrong way. Some states that emerged with the claim of Islamic governance, the more they approach theocracy in terms of their management style, the more they will be away from Islam.

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Professor Yuksel Cayiroglu is a scholar focusing on Islamic Law and Religous Studies.

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