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Sultan ( ) is an Islamic title, with several historical meanings. Originally it was an Arabic language abstract noun meaning "strength", "authority", or "rulership", derived from the masdar سلطة , 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 ( ).

Muslim ruler under the terms of shariah (king/Prince)

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, and 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 (ruled 998 - 1030 CE). Later, "sultan" became the usual title of rulers of Seljuk and Ottoman Turks and Ayyubid and Mamlukmarker rulers in Egyptmarker. The religious validation of the title was illustrated by the fact that the shadow Caliph in Cairomarker bestowed the title "Sultan" on Murad I, the third ruler of the emerging Ottoman Empire in 1383; its earlier sovereigns had been beys or emirs, a lower rank in the orders of protocol.

At later stages, lesser rulers assumed the title "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 Johormarker, Kedahmarker, Kelantanmarker, Pahangmarker, Perakmarker, Selangormarker and Terengganumarker (within the constitutive states of the federation) in Malaysiamarker, and the titular sultans of Sulu , Maguindanao , and Lanao Provinces in the southern Philippinesmarker and Java marker 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). The rare female leaders in Muslim history are correctly known as "sultanas". In the Sultanate of Sulu, the wife of the Sultan is styled as the "Panguian", not "sultana".

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 in Arabic).

Compound ruler titles

These are generally secondary titles, either lofty 'poetry' or with a message; e.g.:
  • Mani Sultan = Manney Sultan, meaning 'the Pearl of 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 Egyptmarker (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 title Sahib(at) us-Sumuw al-Malik, or Royal Highness).

Former Sultans and Sultanates

Near East and Central Asia

Arab World

:Audhali, Fadhli, Haushabi, Kathiri, Lahej, Lower Aulaqi, Lower Yafa, Mahra, Qu'aiti, Subeihi, Upper Aulaqi, Upper Yafa and the Wahidi sultanates

Horn of Africa

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).

Swahili sultan

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

  • in Cameroonmarker:
    • 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 Republicmarker:
    • Bangassoumarker created ca.1878; 14 June 1890 under Congo Free Statemarker protectorate, 1894 under French protectorate; 1917 Sultanate suppressed by the French.
    • Dar al-Kuti - French protectorate since December 12, 1897
    • Rafaimarker ca.1875 Sultanate, 8 April 8, 1892 under Congo Free State protectorate, March 31 1909 under French protectorate; 1939 Sultanate suppressed
    • Zemiomarker ca.1872 established; December 11 1894 under Congo Free State protectorate, April 12 1909 under French protectorate; 1923 Sultanate suppressed
  • in Nigermarker: Arabic alternative title of the following autochthonous rulers:
  • in Nigeriamarker most monarchies previously had native titles but when most in the north converted to Islam, Muslim titles were generally adopted such as Emir- Sultan has been used

Southern Asia

In Indiamarker:

In the Maldivesmarker:

Southeast and East Asia

In Bruneimarker:

In Chinamarker: 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 Indonesiamarker (formerly in the Dutch East Indiesmarker):

  • In the Riau archipelago: sultanate of Lingga-Riau by secession in 1818 under the expelled sultan of Johoremarker (on Malaya) Sultan Abdul Rahman Muadzam Syah ibni al-Marhum Sultan Mahmud

Contemporary sovereign sultanates

Princely and aristocratic titles

The Sultan Valide or "Mother Sultan".
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.

Military rank

In a number of post-caliphal states under Mongol or Turkic rule, there was a feudal type of military hierarchy, often decimal (mainly in larger empires), using originally princely titles (Khan, Malik, Amir) 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

See also

Other Ruling titles

Sources and references

  1. In the Byzantine Empire and the traditional spheres of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, a comparable unity of church and state in the person of the ruler is termed Caesaropapism. The last Western ruler with comparable authority was Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia.

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