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What is a Sultan?

A Sultan is a noble title with historical significance in Muslim regions, denoting a sovereign ruler of great power and authority. Often associated with the Ottoman Empire, Sultans have ruled empires, kingdoms, and territories with a blend of political acumen and cultural patronage. Curious about how Sultans shaped history and their modern relevance? Dive deeper into the legacy of these fascinating rulers.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

A sultan is a secular ruler, usually in an Islamic country. The name came into use as the nation of Islam far extended its territories and relied on secure governance in far away provinces and countries. The sultan, as ruler, was initially inferior to the ruling caliph, but generally governed with almost absolute authority in a particular area.

Unlike the caliph, the title sultan did not denote that the sultan was head of the Islamic religion. Caliphs were first chosen as the successors to Muhammad, and not only headed the Islamic people but the religion of Islam. This would quickly become a point of contention between groups of Islam, when the Shi’a groups declared the caliph had to be a blood descendent of Muhammad. Disagreement when the Umayyad family took the caliphate lead to the Shi’a/Sunni schism.

A sultan is a secular ruler in an Islamic country.
A sultan is a secular ruler in an Islamic country.

Using the term sultan, instead of caliph, was one way to separate the political from the religious. It was an inoffensive term that did not evoke old battle lines that had been drawn around the issue of the head of the state also leading the religion. Though the sultan should be strongly moral and an upright person, his interest in guiding the religious thoughts of the people was minimal, and he normally deferred to the religious leaders in his country.

"Sultan" is a common term for rulers in Malaysia.
"Sultan" is a common term for rulers in Malaysia.

The great sultans arose during the Ottoman Empire. Rulers of this Turkish land were normally designated as sultan. Other rulers in countries, who did not wish to challenge the authority of the caliphate, like those in Egypt, styled themselves sultans. In fact, during the apex of Ottoman Empire control, caliphs actually specifically used the term sultan to describe rulers of the country.

Unlike sultans, caliphs are considered to be the religious heirs of Muhammed.
Unlike sultans, caliphs are considered to be the religious heirs of Muhammed.

Today there are sultans still, with greater or lesser power depending on their area of rule. The term sultan is a common one for rulers in Malaysia, Brunei, and Oman. It remains a title of authority for primarily Muslim leaders, and is not commonly used outside of the Muslim world. Many leaders of countries, who would formerly have been called sultans, now refer to themselves as king.

An interesting point in the use of the word sultan is its earliest usage. When first used, sultan often meant wife of a ruler, not the ruler himself. So the term, though it translates as authority or strength, usually meant lesser authority or strength. The term sultana, which has been used to describe the wife of a sultan, is a great misunderstanding of what sultan means, and primarily a Western corruption. From a feminist standpoint, the fascinating aspect of designating ruler’s wives as sultans suggests the greater power women held in the early Islamic community. To be considered strong or an authority was truly the province of women married to rulers. In a way, they led too, though they did so under the authority of their husbands and subject to their husband's rule.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the definition of a Sultan?

A Sultan is a noble title with several historical meanings. Originally, it was an Arabic abstract noun meaning "strength", "authority", or "rulership", derived from the verbal noun سلطة sulṭah, meaning "authority" or "power". Later, it came to be used as the title of certain Muslim rulers who claimed almost full sovereignty in practical terms, without claiming the overall caliphate, or it can also mean a powerful governor of a province within the caliphate.

How does a Sultan come to power?

A Sultan typically comes to power through hereditary succession within a royal family, although the specific rules of succession can vary greatly between different sultanates. In some cases, a Sultan may also come to power through appointment by a higher authority, such as a caliph or emperor, or through military conquest. The process of succession often involves intricate court politics and can be influenced by factors such as lineage, merit, and the support of key stakeholders.

What regions of the world have historically been ruled by Sultans?

Historically, Sultans have ruled in various regions, particularly in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. The title has been prominent in countries such as the Ottoman Empire (which covered modern-day Turkey, parts of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa), the Mughal Empire in India, and in many other states and sultanates throughout the Islamic world. The influence of Sultans has been significant in shaping the political and cultural landscapes of these regions.

Are there any Sultans in power today?

Yes, there are still Sultans in power today, although their roles and powers vary significantly. For example, the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, is one of the world's longest-reigning and wealthiest monarchs, with full executive authority. Oman's Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said is another contemporary example, serving as the hereditary leader of his country. These modern-day Sultans often combine traditional roles with constitutional duties in their respective nations.

What is the difference between a Sultan and other royal titles like King or Emperor?

The title of Sultan is specific to Islamic cultures and carries religious connotations, as many Sultans claimed religious authority in addition to political power. In contrast, the title of King is more widespread and not specific to any particular religion or culture. An Emperor typically rules an empire, which is a large group of diverse states or territories, often greater in scope than a kingdom. The distinctions between these titles can also reflect historical, cultural, and geographical contexts.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent CulturalWorld contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent CulturalWorld contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon253864

What characteristics are followed to choose a sultan?

bear78

@ddljohn-- I don't know where it originated exactly. But I have seen "sultan" in the holy Qur'an. It has a meaning like "empowered person." Since the Qur'an was written in the local Arabic used in the Middle East, sultan must have been a word that the Arabs already knew and used. I assume that's where it originated.

Does this help?

ddljohn

Since this term has been used in many different regions of the world, do we know what the source is? What does it mean literally?

ysmina

For the Ottomans, many of the descriptions of Sultans in other lands didn't really apply.

The Ottoman Sultans were not secular and they were also the caliphate of the Islamic world until the fall of the empire.

The Sultan had full authority over the entire empire. I heard an old Turkish saying during my visits to Turkey, translated as: "The word of the Sultan is law."

The wives of the Sultan who bore children from him were also called "Sultan" and had different titles depending on their status. For example, the wife which bore the first son was called "Haseki Sultan."

The mother of the Sultan shared the title too, she was called "Valide Sultan," meaning "Mother Sultan."

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    • A sultan is a secular ruler in an Islamic country.
      By: Csák István
      A sultan is a secular ruler in an Islamic country.
    • "Sultan" is a common term for rulers in Malaysia.
      By: Iryna Volina
      "Sultan" is a common term for rulers in Malaysia.
    • Unlike sultans, caliphs are considered to be the religious heirs of Muhammed.
      By: Eray
      Unlike sultans, caliphs are considered to be the religious heirs of Muhammed.