Sultan (سلطان) is an Islamic title, with several historical meanings. Originally it was an Arabic language abstract noun meaning "strength", "authority", or "rulership", derived from the Arabic masdar 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 (i.e., the lack of dependence on any higher ruler), without claiming the overall Caliphate, or it was used to refer to a powerful governor of a province within the caliphate. It then developed some further meanings in certain contexts.
The dynasty and lands ruled by a Sultan are called a Sultanate (Arabic: سلطنة).
Muslim ruler under the terms of shariah
The title carries moral weight and religious authority, as the ruler's role was defined in the Qur'an
. The Sultan however is not a religious teacher himself. Of course in constitutional monarchies, the sultanship can be reduced to a more limited role.
The first to carry the title of 'Sultan' was the Turkmen chief Mahmud of Ghazni
). Later, 'Sultan' became the usual title of rulers of Seljuk
Turks and Ayyubid
rulers in Egypt
. In the later stages Sultan was used mostly for the wives of the emperor. The religious validation of the title was illustrated by the fact that the shadow Caliph
bestowed the title "Sultan" on Murad I
, the third ruler of the emerging Ottoman Empire in 1383
; its earlier sovereigns had been (protocollary 'mere') Beys
At later stages, lesser rulers assumed the style "sultan", as was the case for the earlier leaders of today's royal family of Morocco
. Today, only the Sultan of Oman
, the Sultan of Brunei
(both sovereign nations), the Sultans of Johor
(within the constitutive states of the federation) in Malaysia
, and the titular sultans of Sulu and Maguindanao in the southern Philippines
and Java (Indonesia)
regions still use the title. The sultan's domain is properly called a sultanate
. A feminine form, used by Westerners, is sultana
or sultanah; the very styling misconstrues the roles of wives of sultans. In a similar usage, the wife of a German Field-Marshal might be styled Feldmarschallin
(in French, similar constructions of the type madame la maréchalle
are quite common).
Among those modern hereditary rulers who wish to emphasize their secular authority under the rule of law
, the term is gradually being replaced by 'king' (i.e. Malik
Compound ruler titles
These are generally secondary titles, either lofty 'poetry' or with a message; e.g.:
- Mani Sultan = Manney Sultan, meaning 'the Pearl or rulers', or less poetically Honoured Monarch, was a subsidiary title, part of the full style of the Maharaja of Travancore
- Sultan of Sultans is the 'sultanic equivalent' of King of Kings
- Certain secondary titles have a devout Islamic connotation, e.g. Sultan ul-Mujahidin as champion of jihad bis saif (holy war to establish Islamic rule)
- Sultanic Highness was a rare, hybrid western-Islamic honorific style, exclusively used by the son, daughter-in-law and daughters of Sultan Husain Kamil of Egypt (a British protectorate since 1914), who bore it with their primary titles of Prince (Arabic Amir, Turkish Prens) or Princess, after 11 October 1917. They enjoyed these for life, even after the Royal Rescript regulating the styles and titles of the Royal House after the Egyptian Independence in 1922, when the sons and daughters of the newly styled King (Arabic Misr al-Malik, considered a promotion) were granted the style Sahib(at) us-Sumuw al-Malik, or Royal Highness).
Former Sultans and Sultanates
Middle East and Central Asia
- Audhali, Fadhli, Haushabi, Kathiri, Lahej, Lower Aulaqi, Lower Yafa, Mahra, Qu'aiti, Subeihi, Upper Aulaqi, Upper Yafa and the Wahidi sultanates
This was the authentic style, commonly rendered as sultan, of the Islamic monarchs of the ruling house of Oman, in both its realms:
- Oman Sultan of Oman, on the southern coast of the Arabian peninsula, still an independent sultanate, since 1784, two years before the imamate lost temporal power in 1786 (assumed the formal style of Sultan in 1861)
- Sultanate of Zanzibar two incumbents (from the Omani dynasty) since the de facto separation from Oman in 1806, the last assumed the style Sultan in 1861 at the formal separation under British auspices; since 1964 union with Tanganyika part of Tanzania)
Horn of Africa
- Adal Sultanate, in northwestern Somalia, southern Djibouti, and the Somali, Oromia, and Afar regions of Ethiopia
- the Afar -, Awsa - or Aussa Sultanate, in northeastern Ethiopia
- Harar Sultanate, in eastern Ethiopia
- Ifat Sultanate, in eastern Ethiopia
- Majeerteen Sultanates, in northern Somalia
- Marehan Sultanate, in northern Somalia
- Shewa Sultanate in central Ethiopia
- Warsangali Sultanates, in northern Somalia
East Africa and Indian Ocean
This was the alternative native style (apparently derived from Malik
, the Arabic
word for King) of the Sultans of the Kilwa Sultanate
, in Tanganyika
(presently the continental part of Tanzania)
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
- in Cameroon:
- Bamoun (Bamun, 17th cent. founded uniting 17 chieftancies) 1918 becomes a Sultanate, but in 1923 re-divided into the 17 original chieftancies.
- Bibemi 1770 founded- Rulers first style Lamido to ...., then Sultan
- Mandara Sultanate since 1715 (replacing Wandala kingdom); 1902 Part of Cameroon
- Rey Bouba Sultanate founded 1804
- in the Central African Republic:
- Bangassou created ca.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 ca.1875 Sultanate, 8 April 8, 1892 under Congo Free State protectorate, March 31 1909 under French protectorate; 1939 Sultanate suppressed
- Zemio ca.1872 established; December 11 1894 under Congo Free State protectorate, April 12 1909 under French protectorate; 1923 Sultanate suppressed
- in Niger: Arabic alternative title of the following autochthonous rulers:
- in Nigeria most monarchies has a native title; when most in the north converted to Islam, Muslim titles were generally adopted, such as Emir- Sultan has been used in
In the Maldives:
Southeast and East Asia
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
In Indonesia (formerly in the Dutch East Indies):
Princely and aristocratic titles
In the Ottoman dynastic system, male descendants of the ruling Padishah (in the West also known as Great Sultan), enjoyed a style including Sultan, so this normally Monarchic title is used equivalent to a western prince of the blood: Daulatlu Najabatlu Shahzada Sultan (given name) Hazretleri Effendi; for the Heir Apparent however, the style was Daulatlu Najabatlu Vali Ahad-i-Sultanat (given name) Effendi Hazlatlari, i.e. Crown Prince of the sultanate.
- The sons of Imperial Princesses, excluded from the Ottoman imperial succession, were only styled Sultanzada (given name) Bey-Effendi, i.e. Son of a Prince[ss] of the dynasty.
In certain Muslim states, Sultan was also an aristocratic title, as in the Tartar Astrakhan Khanate
The Sultan Valide was the title reserved for the mother of the ruling sultan.
In a number of post-caliphal states under Mongol
rule, there was a feudal type of military hierarchy, often decimal (mainly in larger empires), using originally princely titles (Khan
) as mere rank denominations.
In the Persian empire, the rank of Sultan was roughly equivalent to a western Captain, socially in the fifth rank class, styled 'Ali Jah
Use in Western popular culture
The term Sultan is also used in modern pop vernacular to describe someone who has reached the peak of their profession, the elite of their class.
Other Islamic titles
Sources and references