Aren’t Muslim countries theocracies?

Someone asked this question in comments recently. The short answer is “no.”


In a theocracy the government is run by the clergy:

noun, plural the·oc·ra·cies.

a form of government in which God or a deity is recognized as the supreme civil ruler, the God’s or deity’s laws being interpreted by the ecclesiastical authorities.

a system of government by priests claiming a divine commission.

a commonwealth or state under such a form or system of government.


Iran is the Exception

Iran is a Shia country we can reasonably describe as a theocracy. You’d be hard-pressed to find another.

Not even Saudi Arabia is a theocracy. A royal family is not a priestly family by any stretch of the imagination.

Not even the Khilafah, the classic form of governance in Islam, is a theocracy. The Ulema, or body of Islamic jurists and scholars, provide the check and balance against the ruler’s power. They do not run the country.

Mix and Mingle

People from Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa interacted with each other long before Islam, or even Christianity, came on the scene. Both sides conquered each other’s lands and shared ideas at various times.

In more recent centuries, some European countries colonized much of the world, including most Muslim-majority countries. Though all except for Palestine have since gained formal independence, we can still see strong European influence.

Many legal systems in Muslim-majority countries are primarily European. Though often some local customary law and Islamic law are be mixed in to varying degrees.

Here are some examples mixed systems where European law plays a role:

  • Pakistan – English
  • Indonesia – Roman-Dutch
  • Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia – French
  • Libya – French and Italian
  • Somalia – English and Italian

Turkey is an officially secular country and the “Father of Modern Turkey” was heavily influenced by aggressive French secularism known as Laïcité. Tunisia also adopted a secular constitution after the Arab Spring. Both countries have factions of secularists and “Islamists” who vie for power and attempt to compromise–but neither comes close to being a “theocracy.”

Iraq under Saddam Hussein was also secular, as was Libya under Muammar Gaddafi. This did not win them favorable coverage in the West, but their rule was secular, not theocratic.

Sharia in Action

Many people might be surprised to learn that Israel and India both have active Shariah courts. This is a legacy of Ottoman rule when religious groups each had their own courts for family law.

People have mixed and mingled for thousands of years and Muslim-majority states reflect this reality.

Father of Secularism

Many people might also be surprised to know the “Father of Secularism,” or “separation of church and state” was a Muslim. Known in the West as Averroes, his full name was Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd.

Today we’re subjected to many crude caricatures of one another. Reality is far more complex and interesting. 🙂