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SULTAN. The Arabic word sultan is used to denote power, might, and authority, or the possessor of such power, a ruler. In the Qur’an it refers to divinely vouchsafed authority or a divine mandate, usually in the context of prophecy (7.71, 23.45). In later hadith literature, it is often used to denote worldly power or the possessor of governmental authority (Ibn Hanbal 6.128-129, 452; 3.404; and Ibn Majah, 2766-2768).

The term first appears as the official title of a ruler under the Seljuks of Baghdad (1055-1157), under whom governmental power and coercive force were monopolized by the sultan and his agent the vizier (wazir), while authority remained vested in the `Abbasid caliph as imam of the Muslim community. The lack of articulation between loci of power and authority led to the composition of treatises that theoretically defined the roles of sultan and imam. Al-Mawardi (d. 1058), a jurist from Baghdad and author of one of the most influential treatises, emphasized the authority of the caliph over the sultan in order to strengthen the former’s hand against the military commanders who held power behind the throne. His views were opposed by the theologian al-Juwayni (d. 1085), a protege of the Seljuk vizier Nizam al-hulk (d. 1o92), who implied that a sultan or an amir was even more necessary than the caliph. The duties of al-Juwayni’s amir mirrored those of the Seljuk sultan: prosecuting jihad, appointing officials and judges, and maintaining a standing army. To aid in these tasks, a vizier could be appointed to administer the state bureaucracy and raise revenues for the army. Many of al-Juwayni’s ideas were endorsed by his student al-Ghazali (d. IIII), who conceived of the sultanate as a bridge between religion (din) and the state (dawlah). Since public policy in Islam is based on the shari `ah, temporal power owes its legitimacy to the fact that it preserves religion. Because maintaining God’s laws demands a powerful executive, the sultan-as upholder of the shari`ah-is as necessary as the caliph himself. The ideal Islamic state is thus a triangle of complementarity, in which the caliph guarantees the shari `ah, the sultan preserves it, and the `ulama’ (religious scholars) interpret it.

In subsequent centuries, various combinations of alMawardi’s, al-Juwayni’s, and al-Ghazali’s theories of the sultanate were used as ideological justifications for authoritarian regimes. The Ottomans (c. 1324-1924) combined al-Juwayni’s and al-Ghazali’s models to justify their claims of universal legitimacy in the absence of the `Abbasid caliph. The Sa’dian and `Alawi sharifs of Morocco (1510-) drew more heavily on the writings of alMawardi and conceived of their state as a sultanate and imamate combined. Consequently, they were not averse to appropriating caliphal titles, such as amir al-mu’minin (commander of the believers), which remains an official designation of the king of Morocco today. [See Amir alMu’minin; Morocco.]

Since the king of Morocco no longer holds the official title of sultan, the only meaningful heirs to the Seljuk heritage in the modern world are the rulers of Oman and Brunei and the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong of Malaysia. The Omani example is the closest to the classical model. Since Oman has no constitution, absolute power is vested in the sultan, who retains executive, legislative, judicial, and military authority. The country is governed through eight national councils and a council of ministers, headed by a prime minister who is appointed by the sultan himself. The shad `ah, as interpreted by the Ibadi school of the Khariji sect, serves as the basis of sultanic authority. [See Ibadi Dynasty; Oman.] Malaysia, by contrast, is a fully constitutional sultanate headed by the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong. Elected from among the rulers of the nine peninsular Malay states, he serves a term of five years, after which the electors select a successor from among themselves. The main responsibilities of the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong are to symbolize the unity of the Federation, to safeguard the position of Malays in Malaysian society, and to act as head of the Islamic religion for his own state as well as Melaka, Penang, the Federal Territory, Sabah, and Sarawak. Although he may appoint a prime minister at his own discretion, he can act only with the advice of a cabinet drawn from the majority party in parliament. Most of the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong’s official duties are commensurate with those of constitutional monarchs in Europe.


Allen, Calvin H., Jr. Oman: The Modernization of the Sultanate. Boulder, 1987. Introduction to the development of modern Oman, particularly good for the general reader.

Hallaq, Wael B. “Caliphs, Jurists, and the Saljuqs in the Political Thought of Juwayni.” Muslim World 74 (January 1984): 26-41. Detailed examination of Juwayni’s treatise on the state.

Lambton, Ann K. S. State and Government in Medieval Islam. Oxford, 1981. The best overall introduction to classical Islamic political theory, stressing the contributions of jurists.

Suffian, Tun Mohamed, et al., eds. The Constitution of Malaysia: Its Development; 1957-1977. Kuala Lumpur, 1978. Critical study of the separation of powers in the Malaysian constitution.

Waterbury, John. The Commander of the Faithful: The Moroccan Political Elite; a Study in Segmented Politics. New York, 1970. The standard work on Islamic political theory and the modern Moroccan state.

Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/sultan/

  • writerPosted On: August 21, 2017
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