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Caliphate vs. Sultanate — What's the Difference?

By Urooj Arif & Maham Liaqat — Updated on May 6, 2024
A caliphate is a form of Islamic government led by a caliph, who is considered a political and religious successor to the prophet Muhammad, whereas a sultanate is ruled by a sultan, primarily as a political leader with less religious connotation.
Caliphate vs. Sultanate — What's the Difference?

Difference Between Caliphate and Sultanate


Key Differences

A caliphate is a type of Islamic state under the leadership of a caliph, who is viewed as the successor to the Prophet Muhammad and is responsible for both religious and political governance. Whereas a sultanate is led by a sultan, whose role is more secular, focusing on political authority with minimal religious leadership.
In a caliphate, the caliph is considered the leader of the entire Muslim community (ummah), symbolizing unity in both spiritual and temporal matters. Whereas in a sultanate, the sultan may govern a multi-ethnic or multi-religious state, without embodying religious authority over all Muslims.
The caliphate historically aimed to implement Sharia law comprehensively, reflecting its role in religious guidance as well as governance. On the other hand, sultanates might use Sharia law as a basis for legal matters but often incorporate various administrative practices that are not strictly religious.
Caliphates often claim legitimacy based on direct succession from the Prophet, either through bloodline or through tribal connections, emphasizing a theocratic ideal. Whereas sultanates typically establish their legitimacy through military prowess, hereditary succession, or diplomatic skills, focusing on secular governance.
The last widely recognized caliphate was the Ottoman Empire, which ended in the early 20th century. Sultanates, however, have been more durable and varied in form, with some still existing today, such as in Oman.

Comparison Chart

Leadership Role

Religious and political leader
Primarily political leader


Both spiritual and temporal over Muslims
Secular, with limited religious connotation

Law and Governance

Sharia law central to governance
May use Sharia law, mixed with other legal systems

Legitimacy Basis

Succession from Prophet Muhammad
Military prowess, hereditary, or diplomatic skills

Historical Duration

Ended in the early 20th century (last major: Ottoman Empire)
Some still exist today, e.g., Sultanate of

Compare with Definitions


A form of Islamic government led by a caliph.
The Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties were prominent periods of the caliphate.


A state or country governed by a sultan.
The Sultanate of Oman is known for its unique history and governance.


The collective term for the Muslim community under a caliph.
The caliphate sought to unite all Muslims under a single political entity.


The office or dignity of a sultan.
His ascendancy to the sultanate brought stability to the region.


A state under the leadership of an Islamic steward known as a caliph.
The Ottoman caliphate was considered the most powerful in the history of caliphates.


A form of monarchy in Islamic countries governed by a sultan.
The sultanate differed from other forms of governance due to its emphasis on military strength.


The jurisdiction or government of a caliph.
The caliphate at its zenith expanded over three continents.


The territory under the rule of a sultan.
The Delhi Sultanate played a crucial role in the history of India.


The office, term, or rank of a caliph.
During his caliphate, the caliph implemented several reforms to strengthen the economy.


The period during which a sultan rules.
The sultanate was marked by significant architectural advancements.


A caliphate or khilāfah (Arabic: خِلَافَة, Arabic pronunciation: [xi'laːfah]) is an institution or public office governing a territory under Islamic rule. The person who holds this office carries the title of caliph (; Arabic: خَلِيفَة Arabic pronunciation: [xæ'liː'fæh], pronunciation ) and is considered a politico-religious successor to the Islamic prophet Muhammad and a leader of the entire Muslim world (Ummah).


The office, power, or reign of a sultan.


The office or jurisdiction of a caliph. The last caliphate was held by Ottoman Turkish sultans until it was abolished by Kemal Atatürk in 1924.


A country ruled by a sultan.


A unified Islamic government for the Muslim world, ruled by a caliph.


A sovereign or vassal princely state—usually Muslim—where the ruler is styled sultan.


The office, dignity, or government of a caliph or of the caliphs.


The office or position of sultan.


The territorial jurisdiction of a caliph


The rule or dominion of a sultan; sultanship.


The office of a caliph


Country or territory ruled by a sultan

Common Curiosities

What distinguishes a caliphate from a sultanate?

A caliphate combines religious and political authority under a caliph, while a sultanate is a monarchy led by a sultan with primarily political authority.

How does the governance in a caliphate differ from that in a sultanate?

Governance in a caliphate is deeply intertwined with Islamic law and religious doctrine, whereas sultanates may employ a blend of Islamic and secular laws.

What role does a sultan play in a sultanate?

A sultan typically holds supreme authority, especially in political and military domains, but does not necessarily have religious leadership.

What is the significance of Sharia law in a caliphate?

In a caliphate, Sharia law is central, governing all aspects of life and ensuring the caliph's decisions align with Islamic teachings.

Who can be a caliph?

A caliph is usually seen as a successor to the Prophet Muhammad, often claimed by virtue of religious or familial lineage.

How do the succession rules differ between caliphates and sultanates?

Succession in caliphates often involves religious and hereditary principles, while sultanates typically follow hereditary succession.

Can a sultan also be a caliph?

Historically, some sultans have also claimed the title of caliph, but these roles are generally separate with different responsibilities.

Has there been overlap between sultanates and caliphates in history?

Yes, particularly during the Ottoman Empire, which was both a sultanate and a caliphate at different times.

Are there modern examples of either form of government?

Sultanates like Oman exist today, but traditional caliphates have largely ceased to exist, although some groups claim to revive the concept.

How does international recognition of these entities differ?

Modern sultanates are recognized as part of the international community of nations, whereas modern claims to a caliphate often lack official recognition and can be controversial.

What impact did caliphates and sultanates have on cultural developments?

Both forms of government significantly influenced the cultural, scientific, and architectural developments within their regions.

Why did the classical caliphate decline?

The classical caliphate declined due to internal strife, military defeats, and the rise of local powers such as sultanates.

Can a sultanate adopt elements of a caliphate?

While uncommon, a sultanate could theoretically incorporate elements of religious leadership, but this would be an exception to the typical structure.

What challenges do sultanates face today?

Modern sultanates navigate issues of modernization, economic diversification, and political reform while maintaining traditional governance.

What is the global legacy of caliphates?

Caliphates have left a lasting impact on global Islamic culture, law, and religious practices.

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Author Spotlight

Written by
Urooj Arif
Urooj is a skilled content writer at Ask Difference, known for her exceptional ability to simplify complex topics into engaging and informative content. With a passion for research and a flair for clear, concise writing, she consistently delivers articles that resonate with our diverse audience.
Co-written by
Maham Liaqat

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