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A sultan (سلطان) is an Islamic monarch ruling under the terms of shariah. The title carries moral weight and religious authority, as the ruler's role was defined in the Quran. The sultan however was not a religious teacher himself. In the Byzantine Empire and the traditional spheres of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, a comparable unity of church and state in the person of the ruler is termed Caesaropapism. The last Western ruler with comparable authority was Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia.

The first to carry the title of 'Sultan' was the Turkmen chief Mahmud of Ghaznavid (ruled 998 - 1030). Later, 'Sultan' became the usual title of rulers of Seljuk and Ottoman Turks and Ayyubid and Mamluk rulers in Egypt. The spiritual validation of the title was well illustrated by the fact that it was the shadow caliph in Cairo that bestowed the title "sultan" on Murad I, the third ruler of the Ottoman Empire in 1383. The earlier leaders had been beys.

At later stages, lesser rulers assumed the styling "sultan", as was the case for the earlier leaders of today's royal family of Morocco. Today, only the Sultan of Oman, the Sultan of Brunei, and some titular sultans in the southern Philippines and in the former Malay States (Malaysia) still use the title. The sultan's domain is properly called a sultanate. A feminine form, used by Westerners, is sultana; the very styling misconstrues the roles of wives of sultans. In a similar usage, the wife of a German Field-Marshal might be styled Feldmarschallin.

Among those modern heriditary rulers who wish to emphasize their secular authority under the rule of law, the term is gradually being replaced by 'king'.

See also: Bey, Caliph, Emir, Khan and Shah.

Former Sultans and Sultanates

Contemporary Sultans