Sultanates: Modern

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Sultan is a Near-Eastern term that connotes a variant form of Muslim governors emerging out of the Ottoman, Umayyad, and Abbasid practices of ruleship, power, and authority over Muslim societies. Sultanate implies a Muslim polity precluding the caliphal states. The Islamic political doctrine lays emphasis on the umma, whose internal organization was secured and defined by a common acceptance of and submission to the shari˓a and the temporary head of the community, the caliph or the sultan, who are religious leaders, representatives of the communities, and sometimes referred to as the successors of the Prophet, (khalifat rasul Allah), or commanders of the faithful (amir al-mu˒minin), but subordinate to the law.

Muslims believe in the divine origins of government. Authority emanates from God and the shari˓a established the principles or roots of religion (usul al-din). Islamic law is immutable. The Islamic political theory assumes absence of legislative powers by humans and the state, but the state and rulers are expected to carry out the law. To disobey a law is to infringe on a rule of the social order. As such, it is an act of religious disobedience, a sin (fisq), involving a religious penalty. Consequently, the Islamic theory of government views man as khalifat rasul Allah and produced idealistic forms of government based on lineage illustrative of Max Weber's sultanism, which refers to Middle Eastern Muslim rulers who dominate their society through the establishment and development of administrations and military forces as purely personal instruments of the sultans. Sultanates are, therefore, geographical and political units that characterize Muslim power embodied in patronage, nepotism and cronyism. Nevertheless, not all regimes headed by a sultan were in fact "sultanism" in Weber's definition. Other scholarship refutes this view especially in the case of the Ottoman Empire, which had a political system that was much more bureaucratic, based on objective rules rather than being rapacious and despotic. Ottoman historian Halil Inalcik applied sultanism to the Ottoman Empire without ascribing negative connotations, thus minimizing its anti-Islamic tinge.

Nineteenth to twenty-first century sultanates in Islamic communities are construed as polities based on personal rulership, where loyalty to the ruler is motivated not by embodying an ideology, or charismatic qualities, but by a mixture of fear and rewards to collaborators. Sultans exercise power at their own discretion and are unencumbered by rules, usually subverting bureaucratic administration by arbitrary personal decrees. Those who administer sultanates are chosen by the ruler, and may include family members, friends, or individuals who submit themselves to the ruler. Some sultanates are modern, but are nevertheless characterized by the weakness of their legal legitimacy.

Twentieth-century examples of Muslim sultanates include the sultanate of Oman located on the southeastern Arabian Peninsula. Ruled on Ibadhi principles by the Al-Busaidi dynasty, the Ibadhis initially believed that the umma had priority over the ruler and could function without the superior authority because people could themselves apply the shari˓a. The Yarubi dynasty changed this with succession based on preference for members of current ruling families over claims of outsiders. The sultanate emerged in 1791 when Ahmad b. Sa˓id al-Busa˓idi seized control of Muscat from his brother Imam Said b. Ahmad and informally recognized a single ruling family, assuming the title of sayyid or sultan.

In 1840, Sayyid Sa˓id b. Sultan b. Sa˓id al-Busa˓idi (1791–1856) acceded to the throne after the death of his father, Sayyid Sultan b. Ahmad. He moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar and established the sultanate of Zanzibar, which ruled the towns and settlements along the eastern coast of Africa through the nineteenth century. From the close of the seventeenth century, Zanzibar and its territories formed part of the Oman sultanate, then a powerful maritime regime. Sayyid Sa˓id's death in 1856 led to a succession dispute between his sons and division of the sultanate between the Muscat branch and the African dominions. European influences weakened the sultanate of Zanzibar, which became a British protectorate in 1890. In 1898 the minor Sayyid ˓Ali II ruled under a British regent.

During the late nineteenth century, the sultanate of Zanzibar experienced severe racial tensions between the predominantly African population, Arab landowners, and Indian trading interests, which eventually escalated into open conflict. Reforms followed thereafter, including preparations to terminate the British protectorate when the sultanate became an independent constitutional monarchy. In 1964, the African populations revolted against Sultan Jamshid b. ˓Abdullah (b. 1929) and led Zanzibar to join mainland Tanganyika to form the Republic of Tanzania, thus ending one of Africa's Muslim sultanates. While Sultan Jamshid was deposed the Oman branch has continued with Sultan Qaboos b. Sa id (b. 1940) as the head. Other petty sultanates in the eastern coast of Africa include the Pate sultanate founded by Nabhani Arabs around 1205. Around 1858 former rulers of Pate founded the sultanate of Witu, which became a German protectorate in 1885 and a British protectorate in 1890.

The Sokoto sultanate is a West African Islamic empire established by a Fulani cleric named ˓Uthman dan Fodio (1754–1817). By 1812 his jihads had conquered most Hausa states of northern Nigeria. As the territory of the sultanate extended, it was divided in 1817 into the emirate of Gwandu and the sultanate of Sokoto, each being overlord to a number of tributary emirates. The sultan of Sokoto remained over-lord of the empire. Dan Fodio was succeeded by his son Muhammad Bello (1781–1837). In 1885 the empire was conquered by the British but the sultans survived through indirect rule. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries subjects of the sultanate held important portfolios in Nigeria including the first premier of Northern Nigeria, Ahmadu Bello, and Shehu Shagari (b. 1925), the first executive president of Nigeria (1979–1983). In 2002, the sultan of Sokoto was Muhammad Maccibo ibn Abubakar (b. 1948).

The sultanate of Brunei is located on the northern coast of the island of Borneo, in eastern Asia. Its people are Malay with Chinese and Indian minorities and a variety of indigenous communities such as the Dayaks, Iban, and Kelabit. Chinese annals of the sixth and seventh centuries indicate early Islamic influences, as evidenced by Jawi, a script derived from Arabic that had been in use as the written language before 1370. The late fourteenth century saw a widespread conversion to Islam in Brunei as Sultan Muhammad Shah, formerly Awang Alak Betatar, embraced Islam and became the first Muslim ruler around 1371. Islam spread rapidly when Sharif ˓Ali from Ta˒if, a descendant of the Prophet's grandson Husayn, became sultan (Seri Sultan Berkat) succeeding his father-in-law, Sultan Ahmad. From the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries Brunei was a powerful state ruling over the northern part of Borneo and the adjacent chain of islands. Its power declined when it became a British protectorate in 1888 and a British dependency in 1905. In 1959, Sultan ˓Umar ˓Ali Saifuddin III, who had nominal authority, promulgated the first constitution. In 1963 Brunei declined to join the Federation of Malaysia. In October 1967, Sultan ˓Umar ˓Ali Saifuddin Sa˓adul Khairi Waddin abdicated in favor of his eldest son, Sultan Haji Hassanatul Bolkiah Mu˓izzidin Waddaulah (b. 1946), who was coronated in August 1968. In 1979, a treaty was signed with the British, and Brunei became an independent sovereign state in January 1984. In 1991 Sultan Bolkiah introduced an ideology called Malay Muslim Monarchy that represented the monarchy as a defender of Islam.

See alsoCaliphate ; Monarchy ; Succession .


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Hassan Mwakimako