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Suleiman the Magnificent, the longest-reigning sultan of the Ottoman Empire

Sultan (/ˈsʌltən/; Arabic: سلطان sulṭān, pronounced [sʊlˈtˤɑːn, solˈtˤɑːn]) is a position with several historical meanings. Originally, it was an Arabic abstract noun meaning "strength", "authority", "rulership", derived from the verbal noun سلطة sulṭah, meaning "authority" or "power". Later, it came to be used as the title of certain rulers who claimed almost full sovereignty (i.e., not having dependence on any higher ruler) without claiming the overall caliphate, or to refer to a powerful governor of a province within the caliphate. The adjectival form of the word is "sultanic",[1] and the state and territories ruled by a sultan, as well as his office, are referred to as a sultanate (سلطنة salṭanah).[2][3]

The term is distinct from king (ملك malik), though both refer to a sovereign ruler. The use of "sultan" is restricted to Muslim countries, where the title carries religious significance,[4][5] contrasting the more secular king, which is used in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries.

Brunei, Malaysia and Oman are the only independent countries which retain the title "sultan" for their monarchs. In recent years, the title has been gradually replaced by "king" by contemporary hereditary rulers who wish to emphasize their secular authority under the rule of law. A notable example is Morocco, whose monarch changed his title from sultan to king in 1957.

History of the term[edit]

The word derives from the Arabic and Semitic root salaṭa "to be hard, strong". The noun sulṭān initially designated a kind of moral authority or spiritual power (as opposed to political power), and it is used in this sense several times in the Qur'an.[6]

In the early Muslim world, ultimate power and authority was theoretically held by the caliph, who was considered the leader of the caliphate. The increasing political fragmentation of the Muslim world after the 8th century, however, challenged this consensus. Local governors with administrative authority held the title of amīr (أمير, traditionally "commander" or "emir", later also "prince") and were appointed by the caliph, but in the 9th century some of these became de facto independent rulers who founded their own dynasties, such as the Aghlabids and Tulunids.[7] Towards the late 10th century, the term "sultan" begins to be used to denote an individual ruler with practically sovereign authority,[8] although the early evolution of the term is complicated and difficult to establish.[6]

The first major figure to clearly grant himself this title was the Ghaznavid ruler Mahmud (r. 998–1030 CE) who controlled an empire over present-day Afghanistan and the surrounding region.[8][6] Soon after, the Great Seljuks adopted this title after defeating the Ghaznavid Empire and taking control of an even larger territory which included Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid caliphs. The early Seljuk leader Tughril Bey was the first leader to adopt the epithet "sultan" on his coinage.[6] While the Seljuks acknowledged the caliphs in Baghdad formally as the universal leader of the Muslim community, their own political power clearly overshadowed the latter. This led to various Muslim scholars – notably Al-Juwayni and Al-Ghazali – attempting to develop theoretical justifications for the political authority of the Seljuk sultans within the framework of the formal supreme authority of the recognized caliphs. In general, the theories maintained that all legitimate authority derived from the caliph, but that it was delegated to sovereign rulers whom the caliph recognized. Al-Ghazali, for example, argued that while the caliph was the guarantor of Islamic law (shari'a), coercive power was required to enforce the law in practice and the leader who exercised that power directly was the sultan.[9][8]

The position of sultan continued to grow in importance during the period of the Crusades, when leaders who held the title of "sultan" (such as Salah ad-Din and the Ayyubid dynasty) led the confrontation against the Crusader states in the Levant.[6] Views about the office of the sultan further developed during the crisis that followed the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, which eliminated the remnants of Abbasid political power. Henceforth, the surviving descendants of the Abbasid caliphs lived in Cairo under the protection of the Mamluks and were still nominally recognized by the latter. However, from this time on they effectively had no authority and were not universally recognized across the Sunni Muslim world.[9] As protectors of the line of the Abbasid caliphs, the Mamluks recognized themselves as sultans and the Muslim scholar Khalil al-Zahiri argued that only they could hold that title.[6] Nonetheless, in practice, many Muslim rulers of this period were now using the title as well. Mongol rulers (who had since converted to Islam) and other Turkish rulers were among those who did so.[6]

The position of sultan and caliph began to blend together in the 16th century when the Ottoman Empire conquered the Mamluk Empire and became the indisputable leading Sunni Muslim power across most of the Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Europe. The 16th-century Ottoman scholar and jurist, Ebüssuûd Mehmet Efendi, recognized the Ottoman sultan (Suleiman the Magnificent at the time) as the caliph and universal leader of all Muslims.[9] This conflation of sultan and caliph became more clearly emphasized in the 19th century during the Ottoman Empire's territorial decline, when Ottoman authorities sought to cast the sultan as the leader of the entire Muslim community in the face of European (Christian) colonial expansion.[10] As part of this narrative, it was claimed that when Sultan Selim I captured Cairo in 1517, the last descendant of the Abbasids in Cairo formally passed on the position of caliph to him.[10] This combination thus elevated the sultan's religious or spiritual authority, in addition to his formal political authority.[9][10]

During this later period, the title of sultan was still used outside the Ottoman Empire as well, as with the examples of the Somali aristocrats, Malay nobles and the sultans of Morocco (such as the Alaouite dynasty founded in the 17th century).[6] It was, however, not used as a sovereign title by Shi'a Muslim rulers. The Safavid dynasty of Iran, who controlled the largest Shi'a Muslim state of this era, mainly used the Persian title Shah, a tradition which continued under subsequent dynasties. The term sultan, by contrast, was mainly given to provincial governors within their realm.[6]

Feminine forms[edit]

A feminine form of sultan, used by Westerners, is Sultana or Sultanah and this title has been used legally for some (not all) Muslim women monarchs and sultan's mothers and chief consorts. However, Turkish and Ottoman Turkish also uses sultan for imperial lady, as Turkish grammar uses the same words for both women and men (such as Hurrem Sultan and Sultan Suleiman Han (Suleiman the Magnificent)). The female leaders in Muslim history are correctly known as "sultanas". However, the wife of the sultan in the Sultanate of Sulu is styled as the "panguian" while the sultan's chief wife in many sultanates of Indonesia and Malaysia are known as "permaisuri", "Tunku Ampuan", "Raja Perempuan", or "Tengku Ampuan". The queen consort in Brunei especially is known as Raja Isteri with the title of Pengiran Anak suffixed, should the queen consort also be a royal princess.

Compound ruler titles[edit]

Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV attended by a eunuch and two pages.

These are generally secondary titles, either lofty 'poetry' or with a message, e.g.:

  • Mani SultanManney Sultan (meaning the "Pearl of Rulers" or "Honoured Monarch") – a subsidiary title, part of the full style of the Maharaja of Travancore
  • Sultan of Sultans – the sultanic equivalent of the style King of Kings
  • Certain secondary titles have a devout Islamic connotation; e.g., Sultan ul-Mujahidin as champion of jihad (to strive and to struggle in the name of Allah).
  • Sultanic Highness – a rare, hybrid western-Islamic honorific style exclusively used by the son, daughter-in-law and daughters of Sultan Hussein Kamel of Egypt (a British protectorate since 1914), who bore it with their primary titles of Prince (Amir; Turkish: Prens) or Princess, after 11 October 1917. They enjoyed these titles for life, even after the Royal Rescript regulating the styles and titles of the Royal House following Egypt's independence in 1922, when the sons and daughters of the newly styled king (malik Misr, considered a promotion) were granted the title Sahib(at) us-Sumuw al-Malaki, or Royal Highness.
  • Sultan-ul-Qaum – a title meaning King of the Nation, given to 18th-century Sikh leader Jassa Singh Ahluwalia by his supporters

Princely and aristocratic titles[edit]

The valide sultan (sultana mother) of the Ottoman Empire

By the beginning of the 16th century, the title sultan was carried by both men and women of the Ottoman dynasty and was replacing other titles by which prominent members of the imperial family had been known (notably khatun for women and bey for men). This usage underlines the Ottoman conception of sovereign power as family prerogative.

Western tradition knows the Ottoman ruler as "sultan", but Ottomans themselves used "padişah" (emperor) or "hünkar" to refer to their ruler. The emperor's formal title consisted of "sultan" together with "khan" (for example, Sultan Suleiman Khan). In formal address, the sultan's children were also entitled "sultan", with imperial princes (Şehzade) carrying the title before their given name, and imperial princesses carrying it after. For example: Şehzade Sultan Mehmed and Mihrimah Sultan, son and daughter of Suleiman the Magnificent. Like imperial princesses, the living mother and main consort of the reigning sultan also carried the title after their given names, for example: Hafsa Sultan, Suleiman's mother and first valide sultan, and Hürrem Sultan, Suleiman's chief consort and first haseki sultan. The evolving usage of this title reflected power shifts among imperial women, especially between the Sultanate of Women, as the position of main consort eroded over the course of the 17th century, with the main consort losing the title of "sultan", which was replaced by "kadin", a title related to the earlier "khatun". Henceforth, the mother of the reigning sultan was the only person of non imperial blood to carry the title "sultan".[11]

In Kazakh Khanate a Sultan was a lord from the ruling dynasty (a direct descendants of Genghis Khan) elected by clans, i.e. a kind of prince. The best of sultans was elected as khan by people at Kurultai.[citation needed]

Military rank[edit]

In a number of post-caliphal states under Mongol or Turkic rule, there was a feudal type of military hierarchy. These administrations were often decimal (mainly in larger empires), using originally princely titles such as khan, malik, amir as mere rank denominations.

In the Persian empire, the rank of sultan was roughly equivalent to that of a modern-day captain in the West; socially in the fifth-rank class, styled 'Ali Jah.

Former sultans and sultanates[edit]

Sultanates in the Balkans, Anatolia and Central Asia[edit]


West Asia and North Africa[edit]

Tuman bay II, last of the Mamluk Sultans.
Sultan Abd al-Hafid of Morocco.

Horn of Africa[edit]

Portrait of Mohamoud Ali Shire, the 20th Sultan of the Somali Sultanate of Warsangali.

Southeast Africa and Indian Ocean[edit]


Apparently derived from the Arabic malik, this was the alternative native style of the sultans of the Kilwa Sultanate in Tanganyika (presently the continental part of Tanzania).

Swahili Coast[edit]

The eighth Sultan of Zanzibar, Ali bin Hamud. Photograph taken between 1902 and 1911.
  • Sultanate of Zanzibar: two incumbents (from the Omani dynasty) since the de facto separation from Oman in 1806, the last assumed the title Sultan in 1861 at the formal separation under British auspices;[citation needed] since 1964 union with Tanganyika (part of Tanzania)

Mfalume is the (Ki)Swahili title of various native Muslim rulers, generally rendered in Arabic and in western languages as Sultan:


This was the native ruler's title in the Tanzanian state of Uhehe.

West and Central Africa[edit]

  • In Cameroon:
    • Bamoun (Bamun, 17th century, founded uniting 17 chieftaincies) 1918 becomes a sultanate, but in 1923 re-divided into the 17 original chieftaincies.
    • Bibemi, founded in 1770 - initially styled lamido
    • Mandara Sultanate, since 1715 (replacing Wandala kingdom); 1902 Part of Cameroon
    • Rey Bouba Sultanate founded 1804
  • in the Central African Republic:
    • Bangassou created c. 1878; 14 June 1890 under Congo Free State protectorate, 1894 under French protectorate; 1917 Sultanate suppressed by the French.
    • Dar al-Kuti - French protectorate since December 12, 1897
    • Rafai c. 1875 Sultanate, April 8, 1892, under Congo Free State protectorate, March 31, 1909, under French protectorate; 1939 Sultanate suppressed
    • Zemio c. 1872 established; December 11, 1894, under Congo Free State protectorate, April 12, 1909, under French protectorate; 1923 Sultanate suppressed
  • in Chad:
  • in Niger: Arabic alternative title of the following autochthonous rulers:
  • in Nigeria most monarchies previously had native titles, but when most in the north converted to Islam, Muslim titles were adopted, such as emir and sometimes sultan.

South Asia[edit]

Southeast and East Asia[edit]

Hamengkubuwono X, the incumbent Sultan of Yogyakarta
Pakubuwono XII, last undisputed Susuhunan of Surakarta
Sultan Saifuddin of Tidore
Mohammed Mahakuttah Abdullah Kiram, last recognised Sultan of Sulu

In Indonesia (formerly in the Dutch East Indies):

In Malaysia:

In Brunei:

In China:

  • Dali, Yunnan, capital of the short-lived Panthay Rebellion
    • Furthermore, the Qa´id Jami al-Muslimin (Leader of the Community of Muslims) of Pingnan Guo ("Pacified South State", a major Islamic rebellious polity in western Yunnan province) is usually referred to in foreign sources as Sultan.
  • Ili Sultanate [zh]

In the Philippines:

In Thailand:

Current sultans[edit]

Sultans of sovereign states

Sultans in Federal Monarchies

Sultan with power within Republic

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "sultan". Dictionary.com. Archived from the original on 2023-02-08. Retrieved 2023-02-08.
  2. ^ "Sultanate". Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary. Archived from the original on 2022-06-22. Retrieved 2022-06-22.
  3. ^ "Sultanate". Britannica Dictionary. Archived from the original on 2022-06-22. Retrieved 2022-06-22.
  4. ^ Montgomery, James Edward (2004). ʻAbbasid Studies: Occasional Papers of the School of ʻAbbasid Studies, Cambridge, 6–10 July 2002. Peeters Publishers. p. 83. ISBN 978-90-429-1433-9. Archived from the original on 27 January 2024. Retrieved 16 January 2018.
  5. ^ Riad Aziz Kassis (1999). The Book of Proverbs and Arabic Proverbial Works. Brill. p. 65. ISBN 90-04-11305-3. Archived from the original on 2024-01-27. Retrieved 2018-01-16.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Kramers, J.H.; Bosworth, C.E.; Schumann, O.; Kane, Ousmane (2012). "Sulṭān". In Bearman, P.; Bianquis, Th.; Bosworth, C.E.; van Donzel, E.; Heinrichs, W.P. (eds.). Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill.
  7. ^ Duri, A.A. (2012). "Amīr". In Bearman, P.; Bianquis, Th.; Bosworth, C.E.; van Donzel, E.; Heinrichs, W.P. (eds.). Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill.
  8. ^ a b c Esposito, John L., ed. (2003). "Sultan". The Islamic World: Past and Present. Oxford University Press.
  9. ^ a b c d Turan, Ebru (2009). "Sultan". In Esposito, John L. (ed.). The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford University Press.
  10. ^ a b c Finkel, Caroline (2012). Osman's Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire 1300–1923. John Murray Press. ISBN 978-1848547858.
  11. ^ Peirce, Leslie P. (1993). The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-507673-7.
  12. ^ Mardūḵ, 'A. (December 15, 1988). "BĀNA". Encyclopaedia Iranica.