Upon the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517 which led to the defeat of the Memluk Sultanate, the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mutawakkil III was captured and sent to Constantinople where he surrendered to Sultan Selim I who supposedly acquired the title of Caliph.

However history shows that until the 18th Century, Ottomans rarely used the title of Caliph and preferred to use titles such as “Sultan” , “Padisah” , “Hakan” , etc.. ; even though the title of Caliph enjoys huge spiritual and political importance among Muslims and was held by the most important Muslim rulers in history including the Rashiduns themselves.

What explains this Ottoman abandonment of the title of Caliph?

  • 1
    Can you let us know where you have looked already? Thank you. Wikipedia seems to imply that the Ottomans saw no practical use for the title. Commented Mar 9 at 7:57
  • 1
    The caliph title was reserved for descendants of the prophet. If you weren't in line, you could become a sultan or anything else but not caliph.
    – Jos
    Commented Mar 9 at 9:25
  • @TomasBy by no way I am an expert in Islamic history, but I thought it meant electing a Caliph among the multiple descendents of Muhammad. Similarly as some european kingdoms did chose a king, but only between the members of the higher nobility.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Mar 9 at 11:03
  • 1
    – Tomas By
    Commented Mar 9 at 11:10
  • 2
    Looked into this a bit, and ... are you sure it isn't modern western historians who prefer that title for them, rather than the Ottomans themselves?
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Mar 9 at 20:39

1 Answer 1


Well, the word or title, "Caliph" literally means, "Heir"....more specifically, the "Heir" to Muhammad's legacy. For the majority of Muslims worldwide, Abu Bakr, was the First and True Heir or "Caliph"-(and the First Leader of the Muslim "Umma" or worldwide diaspora-community of Muslims).

During the Medieval period-(centuries before the emergence of The Ottoman Empire), the Islamic Caliphate was almost exclusively Arab in terms of its heritage; the Caliphs, whether in Iraq, Syria, Egypt or Spain, were almost always of an ethnic Arabian background. However, as the Ottoman Empire began to emerge on the global stage around 1300, the already weakened Middle Eastern Caliphate, would be replaced by the Ottoman Sultan, who was not the official "Caliph"/"Heir" to Muhammad's legacy.

The Turks are not ethnically Arab, nor are they ethnically Semitic; their ethno-racial origins began in the land of Turkestan-(located in Northwest China).

While self-identifying as Muslim since the Middle Ages, the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks conquered Arabic speaking Muslim lands and were able to do what none of the earlier Arabian Caliphates were able to do...The Ottomans centralized their imperial Sultanate into one Capital City for nearly 500 consecutive years. The Ottomans conquered the centuries old Greco-Byzantine Christian Capital of Constantinople and in doing so, were able to establish a unitary and united Islamic Empire to the West of Muslim Persia. By centralizing Ottoman Turkish rule within The Capital City of Constantinople and essentially consolidating much of the Islamic world, the Ottomans effectively introduced a more updated type of Islamic Emperorship-Sultanate that was uniquely....Turkic and distinguishable from earlier Arabian Caliphates-("heirdoms").

The non-semitic, non-Arabian Ottoman Turks, had no genealogical affiliation or connection with the older Arabian Caliphates, nor did the Ottomans necessarily have any sentimentality for the earlier Arabian Caliphates; so in a way, there was no need for the Ottoman Sultans to identify themselves as "Caliphs".

Beginning in 1453, with The Fall of Constantinople, the Ottoman Empire began the second wave of Islamic geopolitical influence-(along with the non-Semitic Safavid Persian and Mogul Dynasties to the East of Constantinople). The Arabian Caliphate had ended......the Ottoman Sultanate....had begun.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.