Dyarchy . The word sultan appears in the Qur’an, but only in the meaning “authority” or “proof,” never as the tide of a person. During the early centuries of Muslim rule, the ruler— because he possessed “authority” and sovereignty—was occasionally called the sultan, but the conversion of the word into a title of office for a supreme ruler dates to its use by the Saljuk Turkish sultans, who in the period 1055–1152 dominated the Muslim East, including Baghdad, which was then still the Muslim metropolis. By using the title sultan the Saljuks recognized the theoretically superior authority of the khalifah but exercised all the real power for themselves. Therefore, the Saljuk period introduced to Muslim politics the concept of dyarchy (a government with two rulers): the khalifah was the higher, spiritual head of the Muslims with control over creed, while the sultan was the lesser, political ruler, with the actual power and executive authority. Although it might seem that this state of affairs somewhat parallels the rivalry between Pope and Holy Roman Emperor that was going on at the same time in western Europe, the two situations were actually completely different, for the khalifahs not only lacked any true executive authority except right around Baghdad but also had little spiritual authority outside the capital because, unlike the popes, they were not heads of an ecclesiastical hierarchy. From 1152 to 1258, the Abbasid khalifahs briefly restored their temporal authority in southern Iraq, but they failed to rise above the level of local princes.
Sultanates . Meanwhile, use of the tide sultan for the effective sovereign head of a Muslim state spread widely. In Egypt and Syria the Ayyubid (1171–1250) and Mamluk (1250–1517) rulers were called sultans throughout their history. Likewise, the rulers of the large Muslim kingdom in India were called the sultans of Delhi (1211–1556). Beginning in the thirteenth century, the Muslim rulers in Southeast Asia were usually known as sultans as well, and during the same century the best known of all sultanates, that of the Ottoman Turks (circa 1299–1922), was founded in Turkey. After the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258, only the Mamluks and the sultans of Delhi continued to pay lip service to the shadow Abbasid khilafah in Cairo (1261–1543), which seems to have become increasingly irrelevant. Thus, there was no real balance of power between khilafah and sultanate; rather, sultans simply supplanted khalifahs as the real rulers. Nevertheless, ever since the time of the Saljuk “dyarchy,” some Muslims have imagined political arrangements in which spiritual and political powers have been separated according to the model of sultanate and khilafah.
Regional Powers . The various sultanates before 1500 differed from the early khilafah in several significant ways. Until 740 the early khalifahs enjoyed dominion over all Muslims and even after that continued to aspire to such a universal rule. None of the sultans ever had enough power or territory even to imagine such a universal rule. Because Islam was constantly expanding, such a rule would have had a wider geographical spread than territories controlled by the early khalifahs. Also, the early Muslims were only a minority of the subjects of the khilafah, but after 1000 most Muslim sultanates ruled over Muslim majority populations. Muslims expected their sultans to rule justly. The articulate, educated class of ulama’ (religious scholars) was fully in place by the year 1000, and as the ulama came to have power over education and as the law that the ulama studied and interpreted tended to become more fixed, the freedom and power of the ruler was limited. The weakness and instability of the sultanates and their inability to create governmental institutions undermined their attempts to establish hereditary rule as well. Although some ruling families lasted more than two centuries, most did not. In some cases, such as in the Mamluk sultanate of Egypt and Syria, few sultans were succeeded by their sons; instead unrelated military leaders came to power.
Antony Black, The History of Islamic Political Thought: From the Prophet to the Present (New York: Routledge, 2001).
J. H. Kramers, O. Schumann, and Ousmane Kane, “Sultan,” revised by C. E. Bosworth, in Encyclopedia of Islam, CD-ROM version (Leiden: Brill, 1999).
Emil Tyan, Sultanate et califat (Paris: Recueil Sirey, 1956).