The Church’s Sovereignty

Question No. 9

What is the difference between religious State in church’s view in Mediaeval Ages and in Islamic Republic of Iran and Shiite thought in the modern age?

There are major differences between “Theocracy” – called erroneously the church’s sovereignty – and Islamic government or Islamic Republic. To clarify this point, the following points are mentioned:

First: In the prevailing Christian thought, religion is essentially separated from government and politics, because:

a. Christianity lacks a religious law and coherent and comprehensive instructions on human’s political and social life, and the Christian teachings on social relations go no more than some moral instructions.

b. Some of the Bible’s teachings throughout history have propagandized the idea of separation of religion and politics. It is stated in the Bible that Jesus Christ said to Pilatus: “My kingdom is not of this world…”1 He also said to Herodians: “Give Caesar's property back to Caesar; give God what belongs to God.”2

Accordingly, the seed of the secularist idea of separation of religion and politics can be said to have its roots in the popular Christian thought. By Christianity, of course, we mean the Church religion, not the true teachings of the prophet Jesus (PBUH). The Church thus has essentially no claims – as it did not in the past – with regard to government and administration of social affairs on the basis of revelation and religious law. The Church’s authority and jurisdiction in some of the social affairs (such as education, judgment, and the like) does neither mean church’s sovereignty in all political and social elements, nor religious interference in such affairs. Government has always been in the hands of the kings. Here, the king’s sovereignty was called the God’s sovereignty over people (“Theocracy”), since they believed that the king obtains his legitimacy from God and is held accountable just to Him.

Therefore, God’s sovereignty over people (theocracy) in western thought has never meant the sovereignty of religion and divine laws, while the Islamic government is a completely religious government whose origin, goals, laws and the qualifications of its rulers and agents as well as the social relations therein are deeply rooted in religion. Here, religion is the founder of a special civilization and society, unlike Christian society which was the inheritor of the Roman civilization, having no choice other than accepting that civilization and accommodating itself to it.3

Second: In the mediaeval theocracy, the dominant motto was: “the ruler is accountable only to God, not to people”. This God has neither assigned any requirements for the king nor issued any agenda for his government. James I, the king of the Britain – one of the theorists of this idea – has been quoted to say that the kings are the aspirating images of God on the earth. Just as it is profane and atheistic to argue what God can do and what He should not do, it is also profane and atheistic for the subjects to argue what the king can say or do and what he can not do. Why? For not only the kings are the vicegerents of God on the earth and sit on the God’s throne, but also they have even been called gods by God Himself”.4

Such a mentality would cause the “power” not to be controlled by religious institutions nor by social and civil ones. Consequently, it would lead to the corruption of the government and abuse of power.

As Luther points out, “no Christian can oppose a ruler – whether good or bad – rather he should submit to any unjust ruler. Anyone who resists, will be cursed”.5 Altogether, the principles governing this doctrine are as follows:

1. The monarchy has been established by God, and the monarch gets his sovereignty from God;

2. Monarchy is hereditary and this ancestral right is bequeathed to the son by his father;

3. The monarch is only accountable to God, not to his own subjects;

4. Resisting the monarch and his ordinances is considered to be a sin.6

In Islam, however, the situation is quite different. In Islamic government, the ruler is accountable to God and the society as well. Besides, the Holy Quran does not regard criticizing the corrupt powers as a cause for heresy; rather, it regards this as a religious obligation and says: “Do not obey the commands of the unjust leader, who spreads corruption in the earth and does not reform [the people’s affairs]”.7 The relation of State-nation in Islam is based on mutual rights; but in western theocracy, the king has the “right” over the people, and people have “duties” before the king.

Third: In the period of the mediaeval feudalism, the Church was one of the most important feudalist centers and owned many estates.8 Secularity and luxury had dominated the Church and living in palaces actually culminated in abolishment of the spiritual teachings of the church. This grave phenomenon led the church to accompany those who owned wealth and power, justify the corrupt governments, distancing itself from “justice and fighting oppression” – which is the dominant spirit of divine religions.

In Islamic society, one of the most important qualifications of the religious and state leaders is their liberality and freedom from worldly desires. The Infallible religious leaders’ way of life – such as Imam Ali (as) – is one of the most prominent examples of this quality throughout history. Similarly, Imam Khomeini’s simple and unworldly way of life, while he was at the apogee of the power, is also one salient example of this.

Ernest Cardinale, the Christian priest and the minister of education in revolutionary government of Nicaragua (Sandenists) writes [in his memories]:

After the Nicaragua’s revolution, we were severely under economic siege, and sugar cane – the most important income source for our country – was not bought from us. We were in a very difficult and vague situation. In a journey to Iran, I went to Iranian leader. I passed through circuitous lanes of Jamaran. The leader’s house was in quite simplicity and austerity. The person who had shaken the east and the west was an old man with simple clothes in a humble room. He simply said: “we are beside the combatants against oppressors”. This was a morale support to which nothing is comparable.

Continuing my journey, I went to Pope’s abode in Vatican. That was a galleried palace and magnificent abode, with Pope having expensive and dressy clothes who said with a scathing and bitter tone: “If you want to have the Church’s support, you mustn’t have anything to do with politics, and mustn’t struggle with US”.

I replied: “You must be my leader, but you are not! My leader is Imam Khomeini who lives in quite simplicity and really follows Jesus Christ; he is the enemy of US. If Jesus was here, he would behave like Imam Khomeini”.9

Islam and the State

What was stated shows that there is essentially nothing in Christianity called “theocratical state”, and the western and Christian “theocracy” never means “theocratical state”; in Islam, however, the case is quite different, because:

a. “Religion” and “politics” are deeply and closely linked to one another;

b. Islam has special agenda in all domains related to the State. The following are the most important ones:

1. Defining the ruler’s qualifications;

2. Regulating the domestic and foreign policy;

3. Defining the mutual rights and obligations of the society and the State;

4. Regulating the mechanism of power control and preventing corruption;

5. Enforcing and increasing public participation;

6. Stating the basis for [the State’s] legitimacy;

7. Expressing the ways of creating, preserving and exercising the power.10

  • 1. Gospel of John 19:36.
  • 2. Gospel of Luke 20:25.
  • 3. For further information, see Sayyid Ahmad Rahnamaie, Gharb shinasi, Imam Khomeini Educational and Research Institute, 1st ed. 1379; H.A.R. Gibb, Religion, Politics and Islam, tr. Mahdi Qayeni.
  • 4. Muhammad Ismail Khodadadi, Mabani ilm-e siyasat, p.54, Qom: Yaqut publication, 1st ed. 1380.
  • 5. Ali Abdul-razzaq, al-islam va usul al-hukm, p.103 quoted from Muhammad Soroush, Din va dolat dar andishiy-e Islami, p.139, The Office for Islamic Propagation of Qom Seminary, 1st ed., 1378.
  • 6. See: Abd al-Rahman Alim, Bunya hay-e ilm-e siyasat, p.168, Tehran, Ney Publications, 2nd ed. 1375.
  • 7. The Qur’an, Shu’ara (26), 151-2.
  • 8. Safar b. Abd al-Rahman al-havali, al-Ilmaniya; Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, iv, The Age of Faith, ch. 27; Dr. Ali Reza Rahimi Boroujerdi, Seyr-e tahavul-e tafakkur-e jadid dar urupa.
  • 9. Payam-e zan Periodical, 5th year, no. 1 (Farvardin 75).
  • 10. For further information, see Muhammad Hassan Qadrdan Qaramaleki, Secularism dar masihiyat va Islam; Falsafay-e siyasat, Imam Khomeini Educational and Research Institute; Imam Khomeini, Wilayat-e Faqih, Institution for Compilation and Publication of Imam Khomeini’s works.