A theocracy is a form of government in which the ultimate leader is a supreme deity (or group thereof), who rules either directly as a god in human form or indirectly through earthly servants (typically the clergy) who rule in the deity's stead. The laws of a theocracy are based on religious laws and precepts, and the government serves its deity rather than the citizenry. As a result, theocracies are often oppressive in function, with strict rules and harsh punishments for rule-breakers.
Many nations and people groups throughout history have existed under a theocratic government, including many early civilizations. For example, ancient Egypt was a theocracy in which the pharaoh was believed to be the offspring of the sun god, Ra. In Japan, the emperor was revered as the offspring of the sun goddess. Tibet, Israel, and China were all once theocracies as well. Today, only a handful of theocracies remain. The most recent theocracy to adopt a different form of government is Sudan, whose Islamic theocracy was replaced in 2019 by a (struggling) democracy.
Theocracies stand in contrast to other forms of government such as democracies, in which the power belongs to the people; as well as monarchies, in which a single human person rules; and oligarchies, which are ruled by a small group of people (typically wealthy elites) but which lacks a spiritual component.
This Middle Eastern country recently fell back into a theocratic government with the resurgence of the Taliban, a conservative religious regime whose laws are heavily based upon Islamic Sharia law. The Taliban operate under an extremely strict interpretation of their holy scriptures and teachings, and have outlawed everything from movie theaters and keeping pets to shaving one's beard or allowing a woman to have a job.
This oil-rich country includes some democratic elements, but its constitution declares that all of its laws and regulations must be based around the principles and guidelines of Islam. Moreover, clergy in Iran have tremendous power, with many religious rulers occupying the majority of the country's most powerful governmental positions, from the heads of the military to the court system—in fact, the religious Guardian Council even has the power to veto laws or ban political candidates.
One of the few African theocracies, Mauritania has seen a steady stream of coups and one-party rulers since obtaining its independence in 1960. While today Mauritania's government is slowly inching toward becoming a democracy—it hold elections, many of which have more than one party, though the results are often questioned—the country's laws are still deeply steeped in Muslim theology. For example, atheism is illegal and punishable by death.
The Muslim nation of Saudi Arabia operates under an unusual governmental system: The country is an absolute monarchy, a one-party state in which elections are banned and the government is led by a prime minister who is also the king. However, it is also a theocracy thanks to a 1992 royal decree stating that both king and country must comply with Sharia Law and that the Quran and Sunnah (Muslim holy books and teachings) would be the country's constitution. Saudi Arabia is a controlling environment, with "religious police" who patrol the streets enforcing rules such as dress codes and the segregation of women (who have very few rights) and men.
The world's sole remaining Christian theocracy, Vatican City is the global headquarters of the Catholic church. It is ruled by the pope, who is technically an absolute monarch, and every government official—as well as the overwhelming majority of Vatican City's general population—is a member of the clergy. The laws of Vatican City address not only the affairs of the intertwined Vatican City/Holy See sovereign state, but also the canon law of the Catholic Church.
Located just across the Red Sea from Africa on the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is a dedicated theocracy whose constitution enshrines Islamic Sharia law as the foundation of all the country's laws and regulations. The country has seen significant political and social turmoil over the past two decades, but its theocracy has remained.
There are currently 6 countries that use a theocratic government in the modern world; Afghanistan, Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Vatican City, and Yemen.