What’s a sultan?

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The title of sultan was used in Islamic countries for lay rulers with near-absolute authority. Unlike the caliph, the sultan was not the head of the Islamic religion. The term sultan separated the political from the religious. The Ottoman Empire had great sultans, and today, the title is still used in some Muslim countries. The earliest use of sultan referred to the wife of a ruler, not the ruler himself.

A sultan is a lay ruler, usually in an Islamic country. The name came into use when the nation of Islam greatly extended its territories and relied on secure rule in distant provinces and countries. The sultan, as ruler, was initially inferior to the reigning caliph, but generally ruled with near-absolute authority in any given area.

Unlike the caliph, the title sultan did not indicate that the sultan was the head of the Islamic religion. Caliphs were first chosen as Muhammad’s successors and they not only led the Islamic people but also the religion of Islam. This would quickly become a point of contention between Islamist groups, as Shia groups declared that the caliph must be a blood descendant of Muhammad. The disagreement when the Umayyad family took over the caliphate led to the Shia/Sunni schism.

Using the term sultan instead of caliph was a way of separating the political from the religious. It was an inoffensive term that did not evoke old battle lines that had been drawn around the question of the head of state who also leads the religion. Although the sultan must have been a highly moral and upright person, his interest in guiding the people’s religious thoughts was minimal and he usually referred to the religious leaders of his country.

The great sultans arose during the Ottoman Empire. The rulers of this Turkish land were normally styled as sultan. Other rulers in countries who did not want to challenge the authority of the caliphate, such as those in Egypt, called themselves sultans. Indeed, during the height of the Ottoman Empire’s control, caliphs specifically used the term sultan to describe the country’s rulers.

Today there are still sultans, with more or less power depending on their area of ​​government. The term sultan is common for rulers in Malaysia, Brunei and Oman. It remains a title of authority for primarily Muslim leaders and is not commonly used outside the Muslim world. Many leaders of countries, who previously would have been called sultans, now call themselves kings.

An interesting point in the use of the word sultan is its earliest use. When first used, sultan often meant the wife of a ruler, not the ruler himself. Thus the term, while translating as authority or force, usually meant lesser authority or force. The term sultana, which has been used to describe a sultan’s wife, is a major misunderstanding of what sultan means, and primarily a Western corruption. From a feminist point of view, the glamorous aspect of designating the wives of rulers as sultans suggests the greater power women held in the early Islamic community. To be regarded as strong or an authority was indeed the job of women married to rulers. In a sense, they also drove, although they did so under the authority of their husbands and under their rule.

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