Theocracy: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:02 Definition
  • 1:26 Ancient Egypt
  • 1:53 Islamic Republic of Iran
  • 2:57 Religious People vs. Theocracy
  • 4:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

Throughout history, governments have relied on various ideologies to structure bureaucracy. In this lesson, we explore theocracy, a system of government in which the country's religious institutions are closely intertwined with the state.


In the United States, millions of people live by two sets of laws:

  1. Nonsecular laws preached to them by their religious leaders
  2. The local, secular laws dictated by the American government

Sure, some of these laws overlap (in no religion or state is it okay to steal your neighbor's car), but there are certainly differences. Catholics, for example, won't eat meat on Fridays in the four weeks before Easter, but if you tried to turn yourself in to the local police for eating meat on a Friday in April, the police officers would be rather confused.

However, throughout history, in many areas, and even in one prominent Middle Eastern country today, religious codes and the laws of the state have been one and the same, in a political system known as theocracy. In a theocracy, God (or gods, depending on the religion) is recognized as the sole head of the government. The laws dictated by God in the corresponding religion are the laws of the land, period. Due to this, in many cases, the religious and state hierarchies often overlap or are simply the same. Theocratic governments will often rely on an individual as the earthly head of the religion, like a stand-in for God, whom is the true head of both the state and religion.

In order to better understand theocracy and the forms it can take, let's explore two examples in history - one ancient and one recent.

Ancient Egypt, 3000 B.C. - 300 B.C.

Ancient Egypt is perhaps the best example of an ancient theocracy. In ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh was not just God's representative on Earth, but believed to be a God himself. The Pharaoh's closest advisor was often also a high priest in the ancient Egyptian polytheistic religion. Furthermore, as Pharaoh was a God himself, what Pharaoh said was consequently a dictate from the Gods and therefore law.

Ancient Egyptian Theocratic Structure

Islamic Republic of Iran, 1979 A.D. - Present

The modern Islamic Republic of Iran became a theocracy, dominated by the laws and clerics of the Shi'a sect of Islam, in December 1979. According to the laws set in place by the 1979 Iranian constitution, God is recognized as the sole head of both state and religion in Iran, and he is embodied by his representative on Earth, the Ayatollah. Iran has had two Ayatollahs, and they were both selected by the Assembly of Experts. The first, a formerly exiled cleric, Ruhollah Khomeini, ruled from 1979-1989, while the second, Ali Khamenei, ruled from 1989 to the present day.

The machinations of the Iranian government are incredibly complex, and some officials, such as The President and the Assembly of Experts, are directly elected by the people. However, what makes Iran's government a theocracy is that the Ayatollah and the second most powerful body, the Guardian Council, are unelected and answerable only to God.

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