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Developing Theocracies

In direct contrast with western ideas of secular governance, the Middle East and Central Asia are comprised of Theocracies, intent on being governed by Islamic law and jurisprudence and theological governance based on Quranic principles. Two examples of such governments are the Islamic Republic of Iran (Farsi – جمهورى اسلامى ايران) and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (Pashto – د أفغانستان إسلامي جمهوريت). This analysis is an inquiry into the style of governance codified in the respective constitutions of these two Islamic Republics and the flow and allocation of power resting in the relationship between the polity, the government, the mosques and Allah.

Both constitutions begin with similar phrases, Afghanistan’s states: “In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful” (Afghanistan’s Constitution of 2004), and Iran’s states similarly, “In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful.” (Iran (Islamic Republic of)’s Constitution of 1979 with Amendments through 1989) Both phrases, although translated differently in English, are in fact taken directly from the same opening phrase of the first surah of the Qur’an and is a phrase that is subsequently repeated throughout (Gohari, M. J, 1). This sets the stage for the religious foundation and tone of these political documents.

After quoting their holy book, various principles are put forth that will give us an insight into the mindset of government leaders, legislators, judges and others when considering laws and issues of governance. These principles are key to understanding the politics of these two countries. Afghanistan’s states a belief in: God (Allah), adhering to him through “the Holy Religion of Islam”, recognition of “the sacrifices, historical struggles, jihad, and just resistance” of the peoples of Afghanistan, and an “[observation] of the United Nations Charter as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (Afghanistan’s Constitution of 2004). This direct reference to the United Nations, a foreign entity, is in stark contrast with Iran’s constitution, and is a codified reflection of Afghanistan’s western and foreign influences.

On the other hand, the Iranian constitution, after the Quranic phrase and a brief explanation of the purpose of the Iranian revolution and the ideological underpinnings of the document, states six fundamental principles that are the basis for the Islamic Republic. Those six principles are:

“1) the One God (as stated in the phrase “There is no god except Allah”), His exclusive sovereignty and the right to legislate, and the necessity of submission to His commands; 2) Divine revelation and its fundamental role in setting forth the laws; 3) the return to God in the Hereafter, and the constructive role of this belief in the course of man’s ascent towards God; 4) the justice of God in creation and legislation; 5) continuous leadership (imamah) and perpetual guidance, and its fundamental role in ensuring the uninterrupted process of the revolution of Islam; 6) the exalted dignity and value of man, and his freedom coupled with responsibility before God” (Iran (Islamic Republic of)’s Constitution of 1979 with Amendments through 1989).

These principles are founded upon what the constitution calls “wilayat al-faqih” which in both Arabic and Persian is the job of a Shia Islamic Jurist, who’s role oversees the interpretation of the Shari ‘a. In the explanation of the purposes of the constitution stated in the opening pages of the document, this curious section is found:

“Our nation, in the course of its revolutionary developments, has cleansed itself of the dust and impurities that accumulated during the taghuti past and purged itself of foreign ideological influences, returning to authentic intellectual standpoints and world-view of Islam. It now intends to establish an ideal and model society on the basis of Islamic norms. The mission of the Constitution is to realize the ideological objectives of the movement and to create conditions conducive to the development of man in accordance with the noble and universal values of Islam…In particular, in the development of international relations, the Constitution will strive with other Islamic and popular movements to prepare the way for the formation of a single world community (in accordance with the Qur’anic verse “This your community is a single community, and I am your Lord, so worship Me” [21:92])” (Iran (Islamic Republic of)’s Constitution of 1979 with Amendments through 1989).

Such a goal, as outlined in the opening pages, gives us proper insight into the theological beliefs of the Iranian government and its’ ultimate end goal regarding all foreign policy decisions. As we compare that with the reference to the United Nations and its’ documents in the Afghanistan constitution, we see a striking divergence in the perceived purposes of having a theocratic government.

In analyzing the two government’s structures, we also see stark contrasts, the role of God (Allah) and the mosques is diminished in Afghanistan and is similar to other countries of the region such as Turkey whose official state religion is Islam, but they allow for certain religious freedoms and limited participation in governance for minority religions. However, the Afghanistan constitution does state. “No law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam” (Afghanistan’s Constitution of 2004), making it the central theology and set of principles guiding the government. Whereas in Iran, the most powerful portions of the government remain in the hands of religious leaders and the role of Allah and Islam is central.

In Afghanistan, the system of governance is much like that of the United States. Their constitution provides for a democratic presidential system, comprised of an executive branch, a bi-cameral legislature, and a judicial branch. The president is elected to a five-year term, and selects his vice-president and cabinet ministers. He has the power to propose legislation to the national assembly (legislature). Legislators are elected to five-year terms and four-year terms in the upper and lower houses, respectively. The Supreme Court is comprised of nine judges who are experts in both law and Islamic jurisprudence (). The citizenry elects both representatives and the president, and although Islam is the state religion, there is no specific body comprised of religious leaders serving as a central government power (Afghan Government, Institute for the Study of War).

The system stands in contrasts with its’ Iranian counterpart, which is centered on a group whose responsibility is to keep all governmental activities in line with Islamic jurisprudence and one supreme leader. The Guardian Council is comprised of six theologians selected by the Supreme leader and six jurists selected by the judiciary. This council is by far the most influential as they approve all bills passed by parliament and must review all candidates for parliament, for president and the Assembly of Experts. These three positions heretofore mentioned, after candidates are vetted and approved by the Guardian Council, are directly elected by the people. The president, with parliament’s approval selects the cabinet, and the Assembly of Experts selects the supreme leader, who is the most powerful man in the government. The supreme leader heads the armed forces, the head of the judiciary (who ensures Islamic Law is enforced) and the Expediency Council (advisory body for the legislature). Through this complicated system (as outlined in Figure 1 below), all checks are not for the sake of restricting the actions of government but rather to facilitate the issuance and enforcement of the Shari ‘a (Guide: How Iran is ruled, BBC News).

Chart that shows elected and unelected institutions in Iran

Figure 1 (Guide: How Iran is ruled, BBC News)

In summation, though both claim to be Islamic Republics, Afghanistan reflects a nation with simply one state religion in the modern sense, whereas Iran has built into its’ system a way to ensure that Islamic law is passed and enforced. Iran has a larger vision based on the goal a single world religion, the basis for such a goal being found in the Qur’an, and this goal drives foreign policy while Afghanistan cedes some of its’ ideological founding to outside western influence. Such insights help us understand the theological underpinnings of these Theocratic Republics.



“Iran (Islamic Republic of)’s Constitution of 1979 with Amendments through 1989.” Constitution Project- Iranian Constitution, The Constitution Project, 1989,

“Afghan Government.” Institute for the Study of War, ISW, 2007,

“Afghanistan’s Constitution of 2004.” Constitution Project – Afghanistan’s Constitution, The Constitution Project, 2004,

Gohari, M. J. The Quran. Oxford, Quran Institute, 2007.

“Guide: How Iran is ruled.” BBC News, BBC, 9 June 2009, Accessed 23 Apr. 2017.

Roskin, Michael G. Countries and concepts. 12th ed., Upper Saddle River, NJ, Prentice Hall, 2006




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