Online College Courses for Credit

Religious States

Religious States

Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson will offer information on religious states.

See More
Fast, Free College Credit

Developing Effective Teams

Let's Ride
*No strings attached. This college course is 100% free and is worth 1 semester credit.

29 Sophia partners guarantee credit transfer.

311 Institutions have accepted or given pre-approval for credit transfer.

* The American Council on Education's College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE Credit®) has evaluated and recommended college credit for 27 of Sophia’s online courses. Many different colleges and universities consider ACE CREDIT recommendations in determining the applicability to their course and degree programs.


Video Transcription

Download PDF

Hello. Welcome to religious states. Today we're going to talk about countries that have religion as the foundation of their civil law. And we're also going to mention countries that have a clear distinction between civil law and the life of civil affairs and religious life.

We can start with the key term, theocracy. It's a form of government in which God is the civil ruler, and official policy is governed by immediate divine guidance, or by officials who are regarded as being divinely guided. The word theocracy comes from two Greek words, theos meaning God, and krateo meaning to rule.

From the perspective of the theocratic government then, God himself is recognized as the head of the state. Hence the term theocracy, rule from God or rule of God. The idea of a holy ruler can be traced back to quite a long time. But we can see it in civilizations of ancient Egypt, for example, where the ruler was understood to be divine, and thus worshipped as a God, as a God or the incarnation of a God.

Theocracy was also the rule of the Byzantine Empire, beginning with the first Christian Emperor, Constantine, in the 4th century of the common era. The emperor was God's representative on earth, overseeing all civil and ecclesiastical affairs. His rule was considered to be supreme and ultimate. And today, many see the role of the Pope in a similar light, as a theocratic ruler directly under God and divine justice.

In the 16th century, and other times as well, but in the 16th century, this idea of Supreme rule was challenged by Protestant voices. Supreme religious rule was challenged by Protestant voices in the north of Europe and in England. For example, the Church of England, under Henry VIII in the 16th century, challenged this and broke with the Papacy of Rome.

And this began the formal separation of church and state. However, many countries today are still governed by the rule of theocracy. For example, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Oman, and Iran, they can be characterized as theocracies because they follow a code of law that is based on religion and its mandates. In the countries we just mentioned, there is an adherence to Islamic law, or Sharia.

Sharia constitutes the official basis for state law in these countries. Sharia law can generally be sourced to, firstly, the belief in the truth of the Quran, and also to tribal customs that, in a sense, precede Islam. It can also be sourced to the habitual beliefs, and practices, and actions of the Prophet Muhammad, or the Sunnah, and also the Hadith, the traditions and the sayings of Mohammad.

The received wisdom is applied in different ways by the different countries, but in nearly all cases, any civil authority given to the state is beholden to the religious hand of authority. So in a theocracy, then, as it's understood and applied today, it may have a hierarchy of administrative government identical with the religious hierarchy, or it may have two arms. But the state is generally, in most cases, subordinate to the religious hand of authority.

There are many countries with large Muslim populations, like Turkey for example, that have clearly opted for a separation of religious affairs in state or civil issues. In other words, these countries can be described a secular in spite of the religious makeup of its population. Other kinds of secularism include countries with strong religious histories, but with populations that are generally either atheistic or non-practicing.

France is an example where the strong separation of church and state, called Laicite, to the point where we said, or as we said earlier, where most people, or the majority of the population, are non-practicing. China is another example which has a rich history of religiosity, particularly during the Han Dynasty in the 3rd century AD of the common era. At that time, Confucianism was followed as a state religion and ideology. Today however, most people are considered non-practicing.

So let's summarize. Theocracy is a form of government by religious authority. Previous civilizations and cultures that function under theocratic rule include certain civilizations of ancient Egypt, Byzantine culture under the Holy Emperor, and the Papacy of Rome, which continues today as a theocracy. Other modern religious states include some Muslim countries, and we mentioned Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Oman, and Iran.

In the context of theocracy, we also introduced the notion of separation of church and state. And we mentioned countries like Turkey with large Muslim populations, but generally characterized as secular. And we also mentioned France and China as countries rich with religious culture and history yet, for the most part, are secular or non-religious.

The key terms, again, are Sharia. In Islam, it's the religious code of ethics, and moral conduct, and reforms the law of the state to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the country. And theocracy, government by religious authority. Take care. See you next time.

Terms to Know

In Islam, the religious code of ethics and moral conduct that informs the law of the state, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the country


Government by religious leaders and/or according to religious principles.