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Sheikh (pronounced or ; Arabic: شيخšayḫ , mostly pronounced , plural شيوخ šuyūḫ )—also transliterated Sheik, Shaik, Shayk, Shaykh, Shaikh, Cheikh, and Shekh— is an honorific title in the Arabic language. It commonly designates the ruler of a tribe, who inherited the title from his father. "Sheikh" is given to a royal male at birth, whereas the related title "Sheikha" is given to a royal female at birth. "Sheikh" also often serves as a title for prominent Islamic leaders or clerics.


  • Etymology and meaning 1
  • Sufi term 2
  • Regional usage 3
    • Arabian Peninsula 3.1
    • Lebanon 3.2
    • Maghreb 3.3
    • Horn of Africa 3.4
    • West Africa 3.5
    • South Asia 3.6
    • Southeast Asia 3.7
  • For women 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • External links 7

Etymology and meaning

Kurdish Sheikhs, 1895.

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 vast power, and nobility, and it is used strictly for the royal families of the middle east. The title carries the meaning leader, elder, or noble, especially in the Arabian Peninsula within the Tribes of Arabia, 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."

Sufi term

In Islamic Sufism, the word 'Shaikh' is used to represent a wali who initiates a particular tariqa which leads to Muhammad although many saints have this title added before their names out of respect from their followers. One prominent example is Shaikh Abdul Qadir Jilani who initiated the Qadiriyya order which relies strongly upon adherence to the fundamentals of Islam.[1]

Regional usage

Arabian Peninsula

Sheikh Juma Al Maktoum (left) and Sheikh Saeed bin Maktoum Al Maktoum (right) of the Maktoum family.

In the Arabian Peninsula, the title is used for royalty, such as kings, princes, and princesses. For example, it was the term used in the West to refer to the leaders of Kuwait's ruling al-Sabah dynasty, The same applies to all the Gulf countries. The term is used by almost every male and female (Sheikha) member of all the Gulf royal houses.


In Lebanon, the title is 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 Aaqoura who are initially known as "souyyad" for the muslims -being the origin and family of the muslim prophet, Muhammad-(since 1523, ruled the current Jbeil casa and the north till the Sir El Donnieh region), El-Khazen (since 1545, ruled the Kesrwan 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 (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. The noble term "Sheikh" is also used for noble muslim families as well such as the Shiite "Hmadeh" for one example.


In the Maghreb, during the Almohad dynasty, the Caliph was also counciled by a body of Shaykhs. They represented all the different tribes under their rules, including Berbers, Arabs, Bedouins and Andalusians, and were also responsible for mobilizing their kinsmen in the event of war.[2]

Horn of Africa

Somali Sheikh Muhammad Dahir Roble reading a Muslim sermon.

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".[3] 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.[4]

West Africa

Senegalese Sheikh Tidiane Gaye giving an Islamic lecture in Louga.

In West Africa, sheikh is a common title for Muslim scholars and leaders. Among Islamic communities in Senegal, Niger and Gambia, among other areas, the title is usually spelled as Cheikh.

South Asia

In Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and other parts of South Asia, the title Sheikh signifies Arab descent. After the advent of Islam in South Asia, some high caste (Brahmins, Rajputs and Khatris) tribes also converted to Islam and adopted the title. 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 Punjab, Pakistan the Hindu Brahmins, Kshatriya, Bhanushali Kataria (Also known as Katarmal), Thakur, Rana, Rathores, Bhattis, Chauhans, and other Rajput elite class converted by different Ismaili Pirs to Islam. Ismaili Pirs gave the new converts of Punjab the hereditary title of Shaikh as well as the Muslims who immigrated from Arabia and settled in Punjab who previously were Sayyid after their conversion to Ismailism had to change their cast due to a belief in Ismailism that Imam is the only Sayyid. So for centuries Shaikhs have enjoyed respect from both Muslims and Hindus. Majority of Ismaili Sheikhs later accepted Sunni Islam. Ismaili Sheikhs of Punjab are the least known of the Ismaili's unlike their counterpart in Sindh and Gujrat, the khoja Ismaili community.

Distinguished Sindhi Shaikhs include Imtiaz Shaikh, MPA Shikarpur and Special Advisor to PM and Former Provincial Minister and Bureaucrat, Sindh; Shaikh Ayaz, Sindhi poet of Pakistan; Najmudddin Shaikh, Former Foreign Secretary, Pakistan; Ghulam Shabir Shaikh, Former IGP Sindh, Pakistan; Dr. Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, Federal Finance Minister, Pakistan; Muhammad Ayub Shaikh, Chairman Employees' Old Age Benefits Institution], Pakistan; Maqbool Shaikh, Former Provincial Minister for Food and Health, Sindh; Faraz Shaikh, Chairman Sindh Naujawan Shaikh Ittehad, Sindh; Faryaz Nisar Shaikh, Vice Chairman Sindh Naujawan Shaikh Ittehad, Sindh; Imam Bux Shaikh, Former General Secretary Peoples Students Federation Karachi, Former General Secretary Peoples Engineers Forum Sindh, Famous Student Leader of Pakistan.Altaf Shaikh Sindhi writer and traveler.

Southeast Asia

Tomb of Sheikh Abdul Hamid of Abulung in West Martapura, South Kalimantan, Indonesia.

In Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia, Sheikhs are respected by local Muslims. Well wishers often pay pilgrimages to their tombs, such as at Sheikh Abdul Hamid's mausoleum in West Martapura, South Kalimantan.

For women

Historically, female scholars in Islam were referred to as shaykhah (Arabic: شيخة‎) (alt. shaykhat). Notable shaykha include the 10th century Shaykhah Fakhr-un-Nisa Shuhdah[5] and 18th century scholar Al-Shaykha Fatima al-Fudayliyya.[6]

A daughter or wife or mother of a sheikh is also called a shaykhah. Currently, the term shaykhah is commonly used for women of ruling families, in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf with the exception of Oman.

See also


  1. ^ Muslim communities of grace: the Sufi brotherhoods in Islamic religious life pg 94, Abun-Nasr, Jamil M. Columbia University Press. (2007). ISBN 978-0-231-14330-1.
  2. ^ Africa from the twelfth to the sixteenth century by Djibril Tamsir Niane
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^

External links

  • The dictionary definition of sheik at Wiktionary
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