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For other uses, see Sheikh (disambiguation).
"Sheikha" redirects here. For the villages in Iran, see Sheikha, Iran.
Not to be confused with Sikh.

Part of a series on Islam
Usul al-fiqh

(The Roots of Jurisprudence)

Scholarly titles

Sheikh (pronounced /ˈʃk/ or /ˈʃk/ ; Arabic: شيخšayḫ, mostly pronounced [ʃeːx], plural شيوخ šuyūḫ)—also spelled Sheik or Shaikh or Shekh, or transliterated as Shaykh—is an honorific in the Arabic language that literally means "elder" and carries the meaning "leader and/or governor". It is commonly used to designate the front man of a tribe who got this title after his father, or an Islamic scholar who got this title after graduating from the basic Islamic school. Sheikha is the female equivalent of the term. A sheikh who is wise is called ḥakīm adjective (wise) حكيم‎, ḥākim noun (governor) حاكم‎, yaḥkum verb (govern) يحكم‎; and can govern. The scholar sheikh here can govern but cannot lead directly because the leader is the imam which is based upon the Qur'an and authentic Sunnah; on the other hand the family sheikh can always lead but cannot govern unless he is wise. Although the title generally refers to a male, a very small number of female sheikhs have also existed.

It also refers generally to a man over forty[1] years of age. While even a new Muslim can be called a sheikh if he is diligent in seeking the knowledge of Islam based upon the Qur'an and authentic Sunnah, he can be referred to as such by those he teaches. Usually, a person is known as a sheikh when he has completed his undergraduate university studies in Islamic studies and is trained in giving lectures.[1] The word sheikh under this meaning is a synonym of Alim, plural Ulama (a learned person in Islam, a scholar),[2] Mawlawi, Mawlānā, Muhaddith, Faqīh, Qadi, Mufti, Hadhrat or Hafiz.

Etymology and meaning

The word in Arabic stems from a triliteral root connected with age and aging: ش-ي-خ, shīn-yā'-khā'. The term literally means a man of old age, and it is used in that sense of all men in Qur'anic Arabic. Later it came to be a title meaning leader, elder, or noble, especially in the Arabian Peninsula, where shaikh became a traditional title of a Bedouin tribal leader in recent centuries. Due to the cultural impact of Arab civilization, and especially through the spread of Islam, the word has gained currency as a religious term or general honorific in many other parts of the world as well, notably in Muslim cultures in Africa and Asia.

While the title can be used religiously by Muslims to designate a learned person, as an Arabic word it is essentially independent of religion. It is notably used by Druze for their religious men, but also by Arab Christians for elder men of stature. Its usage and meaning is similar to the Latin senex meaning "old [man]", from which the Latin (and English) "senator" is derived. Accordingly, the Arabic term for most legislative bodies termed Senate (e.g. the United States Senate) is majlis al-shuyūkh, literally meaning "Council of Senators."

Regional usage

The title is sometimes more informally used with regard to people who have a certain financial or political influence, but especially in relation to royalty and other nobility.

The term is also often used by Muslims to address learned men of various Islamic sciences, such as faqihs, muftis, and muhaddiths, and more generally to convey respect for religious authorities.

Arabian Peninsula

In the Arabian Peninsula, the title is used for men of stature, whether they are managers in high posts, wealthy business owners, or local rulers. For example, it was the term used in the West to refer to the leaders of Kuwait's ruling al-Sabah dynasty, even though the monarchic style was actually Hakim (Arabic 'ruler') until June 19, 1961, when Kuwait joined the Arab League, and the title Emir was adopted. The same applied to Bahrain and Qatar. The term is used by almost every male member of all the Gulf royal houses with the exception of Saudi Arabia and Oman.


During the Almohad dynasty, the Caliph was also counciled by a body of Shaykhs, representing all the different tribes under their rules, including Berbers, Arabs, Bedouins and Andalusians, they were also responsible for mobilizing their kinsmen in the event of war.[3]

Horn of Africa

Main articles: Somali aristocratic and court titles and Ethiopian aristocratic and court titles

In the Muslim parts of the Horn of Africa, Sheikh is often used as a noble title. In Somali society, it is reserved as an honorific for senior Muslim leaders and clerics (wadaad), and is often abbreviated to "Sh".[4] Famous local Sheikhs include Abdirahman bin Isma'il al-Jabarti, an early Muslim leader in northern Somalia; Abadir Umar Ar-Rida, the patron saint of Harar; Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti, Sheikh of the riwaq in Cairo who recorded the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt; Abd Al-Rahman bin Ahmad al-Zayla'i, scholar who played a crucial role in the spread of the Qadiriyyah movement in Somalia and East Africa; Shaykh Sufi, 19th century scholar, poet, reformist and astrologist; Abdallah al-Qutbi, polemicist, theologian and philosopher best known for his five-part Al-Majmu'at al-mubaraka ("The Blessed Collection"); and Muhammad Al-Sumaalee, teacher in the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca who influenced many of the prominent Islamic scholars of today.[5]


In Lebanon, the title and its equivalent female form (shaykha) are commonly used when addressing members of the traditional noble Christian feudal families such as, in chronological order of the Maronite families who first had this title bestowed upon them: El-Hachem (Hashemite) of Akoura who are initially known as "souyyad" the plural form of Sayyid (since 1523, ruled the current Jbeil casa and the north till the Sir El Donnieh region), El-Khazen (since 1545, ruled the Kiserwan area) and El Daher of Zgharta. The term sheikh is known to have been bestowed upon the families who battled with the Emir Fakhr al-Din in the historical battle of Anjar. Note that the term is not used for the seven traditional Beiruti families, but primarily for the above-mentioned three families. The other families that have this term (such as El-Dahdah, Gemayel, El-Khoury, El-Daher (Akkar), Tarabay and Harb of Tannourine.....) did not rule any territory in previous ages. Instead, they were high-ranking employees or makhatir or secretaries (kouttab) (such as Al-Hobeich (since 1567) of Ghazir) in the Ottoman Empire, or political 'allies' of the rulers at that time, which provided them a certain financial status and extensive land ownership.

Some cheikhs were also considered as the political representatives and allies of the Ottoman Empire. Their prestigious titles allowed them also to own large pieces of lands in the areas they governed. However, it was notable that ordinary people did not have the right to land ownership and therefore economical autonomy, while many worked in the large lands of the Sheikhs.

South Asia

Main article: Sheikh (caste)

In Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and other parts of South Asia, the title Sheikh signifies Arab descent and is associated with the upper class of society. The Muslims of the Middle East and Central Asia have historically traveled to South Asia as Sufis during the Islamic Sultanates and Mughal Empire and settled permanently with Sheikh status. In India, the majority of people with the surname are the local brahmins, rajput, or gujjar communities who used the title of Sheikh after conversion to Islam. In Delhi it was used by the Persian Magi descendants who migrate from Persia because of Safavid persecution in 16th century.

For women

A daughter or wife of a sheikh is sometimes called shaykhah (Arabic: شيخة‎). Currently, the term shaykhah is commonly used for females of rich families, especially ruling families, in Arab countries. A shaykhah is also the female version of a sheikh. The term is used by almost every female member of all the Gulf royal houses with the exception of Saudi Arabia and Oman.

See also



  • Shaikh Siddiqui
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