views updated May 08 2018


SULTAN. Sultan, which originally meant 'power' or 'authority', evolved by the tenth century to its present meaning of the holder of that authority, such as a ruler, lord, or monarch. The most spectacular sultans of history were those of the Ottoman dynasty, who ruled most of the territory of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as large parts of eastern Europe, from 1300 to 1923.

Origins of the term are somewhat obscure. Probably Akkadian, and Syriac, the word appears in Arabic in the Koran with the meaning of empowering of someone over another, and connoting magical or moral authority such as possessed by prophets, or by Satan. In early Islamic societies, "sultan" came to convey political power, and was often applied to lesser rulers who shared power with the caliphs, who were presumed to be the religious head of the community, and, at least until around 1000 C.E., to be descended from the Prophet Muhammad. The hadith, or stories of the prophet, generally employ the word "sultan" for governmental or political power, but occasionally for the power of God. As governance became more complicated in early Islamic societies, and disputes emerged about the rightful leaders of the Muslim community, the term became an honorific, or personal title, most consistently, although not exclusively, applied to rulers of Turkic or Persian stock, and Central Asian origins. Ibn Khaldun, writing just as the Turkic dynasties began to populate and usurp power in much of the Arab and Persian lands, noted with disdain their appropriation of honorifics such as "sultan." Such was also true, by his account and others, of the Barmakids, an extremely powerful Persian family under the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (786809). Most contemporary sources point to Mahmud of Ghazna (9981030) as the first independent sovereign to be called a sultan by the Abbasid caliphs. Whether or not the caliph conferred the title, it appears certain that after the fall of the Abbasid dynasty in 1258, "sultan" had acquired the meaning of independent sovereign. Thus the Mamluks, a slave elite of Turkish, Circassian, and Georgian origins, who ruled Egypt from 12501517, were so labeled. All such independent dynasties were champions of Sunni Islam, and it is no coincidence that a revitalized Muslim orthodoxy emerged in the eastern Mediterranean in response to the threat, first of all, of the sectarian ShiNAites, but also of the crusaders, whose ventures in the Levant began in 1096. Sunnism was reinvigorated by the Seljuk kingdoms of Turkey and Iraq, between 1051 and 1300. Muslim theorists had by that time evolved a philosophy of rule that designated the Mamluks and their rivals, including the Ottomans, as sultans, the "Shadows of God on Earth," or the "Caliphs of God on Earth," in matters of government.


The Seljuksafter 1071 there were two centers of overlapping power, one in Baghdad, and the other in Konya and Alanyacreated a courtly style and manner of governance that was Central Asian and Muslim in flavor but influenced by the Byzantines, and was adopted by the later Ottoman Empire. Of the Ottoman sultans prior to 1453, Bayezid II (14811512) is said to have requested the title of sultan from the titular caliph in Cairo. Mehmed II (also known as Fatih, 'conqueror', of Istanbul, 14511481), adopted the title sultan as his own. Nonetheless the preferred term continued to be padishah, Persian for supreme sovereign, and sultan generally topped an increasingly long list of titles in official documents.

By the time of the death of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1566, the Ottomans had conquered Egypt and the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina, subdued and colonized Hungary, and threatened the walls of Vienna. Ottoman sultans recast their legitimacy in canonical Islamic terms, as promoters and defenders of Islamic law (shariNAa), and created an immense religious hierarchy run by the grand mufti (Turk., Şeyhülislâm ), as he came to be known in Europe. In Turkish, Suleiman acquired the epithet "Law-Giver" precisely because of his consolidation of the imperial offices and law codes. By the time of the conquest of Baghdad by Murad IV (ruled 16231640), the Ottoman sultan styled himself "the most glorious Padishah who is the Defender of the faith, whose Majesty is a great as that of Solomon, who is the substitute of God in the world, and who has justified the maxim that 'An equitable Sultan is the shadow of God on earth' . . . the supporter of Islamism and Musulmans, the exterminator of heresies and of the polytheists, the Sovereign of the two Orients and the two Occidents, the servant of the two Holy Cities, the Treasure of Mankind and the apple of the age, who is protected by the Supreme Being whose divine assistance men implore, and favoured by the most High and propitious God" (quoted in J. C. Hurewitz, The Middle East and North Africa in World Politics, 2nd ed, vol. 1, p. 25).

Suleiman's long reign (15201566) roughly coincided with that of the Habsburg emperor Charles V (ruled 15191556), as well as that of Francis I (ruled 15151547), and Henry VIII (ruled 15091547), and contemporaries equated the terms sultan and emperor as imperial rivals. In this period, lasting impressions of real Ottoman Turkish (Muslim) power were embedded in the European psyche, as well as imaginative, largely fictive representations of imperial institutions such as the harem. "Sultan" thus came to represent absolute power in its most exoticized version, especially in Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1660).

Suleiman's age became the idealized gold standard for subsequent eras, often referred to as the "classical age" of the empire. In later reigns, the striking change was the withdrawal of the sultan into palace precincts, with weekly highly ritualized journeys to Friday prayers. The "sultanic" presence became iconographic and theatrical, as his deputy, the grand vizier, took his place in public spaces, such as on the battlefield, and as head of the Imperial Council (Divan). While that is characteristic of the seventeenth century, in the eighteenth, another change occurred, with the reassertion of power by sultans such as Ahmed III (17031730) and Selim III (17891807), both of whom, it should be noted, were removed from their thrones by widespread resistance to their attempts at invigorated leadership and reform. Eighteenth-century Europe, especially France, made of the sultan the worst exemplar of the despotic, in the debates on the excesses of the Bourbon monarchy. Creative productions such as Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio, or Montesquieu's Persian Letters, cemented the image and continue to exert their influence even in contemporary histories of the empire.

See also Ottoman Empire ; Vizier .


Inalcik, Halil. The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age, 13001600. London, 1973.

Kinross, Patrick, Lord. The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire. London, 1977. Still the best of the histories organized by reigns.

Kramers, J. H. "Sultān." In Encyclopaedia of Islam. CD-Rom edition. Vol. 9, pp. 849851. Leiden, 1999.

Kunt, Metin, and Christine Woodhead, eds. Süleyman the Magnificent and His Age: The Ottoman Empire in the Early Modern World. London, 1995. A superb collection of studies on Suleiman's era.

Spandounes, Theodore. On the Origin of the Ottoman Emperors. Translated and edited by Donald M. Nicol. New York, 1997. From a 1538 text.

Virginia H. Aksan


views updated May 29 2018


Title implying political power; a king or sovereign, especially of a Muslim state.

The title of sultan came to prominence around 1000 c.e., after the political position of the caliphate (office of the leader of Islam) had eroded around the time of the establishment of the Seljuk sultanate. TurkoIranian dynasts used the title as an equivalent of the Eurasian steppe title khan. Later, it was used generally in Islamic lands by many states large and small. In some cases, for example, in Persia (now Iran), from 1500 on, the term was further devalued to denote a governor, not even a petty ruler.

In the Ottoman Empire, sultan, along with padishah and khan, was one of the titles of the sovereign (for example, Sultan Süleyman Khan), as well as the other members of the ruling family. The ruler's sons and grandsons, who served as governors and thus shared political power in the steppe manner, were all styled sultan. In the case of the female members of the ruling house, the title followed the personal name of the main designationfor example, Hürrem Sultan, valide sultan (dowager queen), khasseki sultan (favorite consort), or Mihrimah Sultan, who was a princess. The sultanate of the Ottoman Empire was abolished in 1922, just before the Republic of Turkey was founded.

i. metin kunt


views updated Jun 11 2018

sul·tan / ˈsəltn/ • n. a Muslim sovereign. ∎  (the Sultan) hist. the sultan of Turkey.DERIVATIVES: sul·tan·ate / -ˌāt/ n.


views updated May 11 2018

sultan Muslim sovereign XVI; despot, tyrant XVII; sweet-scented annual, Centaurea moschata and C. suaveolens. — F. sultan or medL. sultānus — Arab. sulṭān power, dominion, ruler, king.
So sultana sultan's wife XVI; mistress, concubine XVIII; purple gallinule XIX; (s. raisin) small seedless raisin. — It., fem. of sultano sultan. Hence sultanate (-ATE1) XIX.


views updated May 21 2018

sultan a Muslim sovereign; the Sultan was the title given to the sultan of Turkey. The word is recorded in English from the mid 16th century, and comes (via French or medieval Latin) from Arabic sulṭān ‘power, ruler’.