Part of a series on Islam
Usul al-fiqh

(The Roots of Jurisprudence)

Scholarly titles
  • Mujtahid (scholar of Islamic law with comprehensive understanding of the texts and reality)
  • Marja (authority)
  • Alim (scholar; pl. Ulema)
  • Mufti (cleric)
  • Mufassir (interpreter)
  • Qadi (judge)
  • Faqīh (professional counselor/jurist)
  • Muhaddith (narrator)
  • Mullah (scholar; pl. Ulema)
  • Imam (Sunni and Shia)
  • Mawlawi (scholar; pl. Ulema)
  • Sheikh (elderly person, respected person, also sometimes scholar; pl. Ulema)
  • Mujaddid (renewer)
  • Hafiz
  • Hujja
  • Hakim
  • Amir al-Mu'minin in reg. hadith
  • Maulana (scholar; pl. Ulema)
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Not to be confused with sikh

Sheikh (pronounced play /ˈʃk/ sheek or /ˈʃk/ shayk; Arabic: شيخšayḫ, mostly pronounced [ʃeːx], plural شيوخ šuyūḫ) — also spelled Sheik or Shaikh, 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, although these do not exist in the Arabic world. 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 can not 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 can not govern unless he is wise. Although the title generally refers to a male, a very small number of female sheikhs have also existed.[citation needed]

It also refers generally to a man over forty[1] or fifty[2] 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, pl. Ulama (a learned person in Islam, a scholar),[3] Mawlawi, Mawlānā, Muhaddith, Faqīh, Qadi, Mufti, Hadhrat or Hafiz.


Etymology and meaning

The classical image of a 'sheikh': Sheikh Sattam de Haddadin of Palmyra, by Russian painter Alexandr Evgenievich Yacovleff.

The word in Arabic stems from a triliteral root connected with age and ageing: 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."

As a secular honorific

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

In the Arabian Peninsula region

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.

In the Maghreb region

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.[4]


In the Turkish language, the form Şeyh is used. Means religious leader of a tariqah branch.


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 of Akoura (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 Douaihy 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.....) did not rule any territory in previous ages. Instead, they were high-ranking employees or makhatir or secretaries (kouttab) (such as 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.[citation needed]

Indeed, the title (sheikh) is common within the Druze Community as well and is mainly used when addressing members of traditional Druze feudal families ("Iqtaaiyin") such as Imad which played historically an important role during the Ottoman-regime and the conflict of 1860 in Mount Lebanon Chouf District. In The "Gharb Region" of Mount Lebanon, families such Talhouk and Abd El Malek were a cornerstone of the Ottoman control strategy during the 16th, 17th until the 19th century.

South Asia

In Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and other parts of South Asia, the title Sheikh signifies Arab descent and comes under high caste of society but majority 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. The Muslims of the Middle East and Central Asia have historically, travelled to South Asia as Sufis during the Islamic Sultanates and Mughal Empire and settled permanently and assumed Shaikh status.


In Pakistan the title is used for a caste (Community) well reputed and respected, mainly involved in business. Many of the popular personalities in Pakistan have been Sheikhs. The title Sheikh signifies Arab descent and comes under high caste of society. People who are Khawaja are Syeds by family. The Muslims of the Middle East and Central Asia have historically, travelled to South Asia as Sufis during the Islamic Sultanates and Mughal Empire and settled permanently and assumed Shaikh status. Shaikhs were originally very closely linked to all the Royal families of the world, even with the westerners. They were the masterminds behind all successful businesses and political parties globally. The shaikhs were wealthy from their modest work and high intellectual. Shaikhs most lived a luxurious life well known for their open hearted spending.

Religious usage

The term is 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.

The term is and/or was also used in certain Islamic parts of Africa, as in imperial Ethiopia by the hereditary Muslim rulers of Bela Shangul, and by certain Muslim notables of Wollo, Tigray and Eritrea.

For women

A daughter or wife of a shaykh is sometimes called shaykhah (Arabic: شيخة‎). Currently, the term shaykhah is commonly used for females of rich families, especially ruling families, in Arab countries.


In Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, "Sheikh" is a common surname among Muslims, and generally indicates Arab ancestry.

See also



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Look at other dictionaries:

  • sheikh — sheikh; sheikh·dom; sheikh·ly; …   English syllables

  • sheikh — (also shaykh or sheik) ► NOUN 1) an Arab leader, especially the chief or head of a tribe, family, or village. 2) a leader in a Muslim community or organization. DERIVATIVES sheikhdom noun. ORIGIN Arabic, old man, sheikh …   English terms dictionary

  • sheikh — sheik [ʃeık US ʃi:k] n [Date: 1500 1600; : Arabic; Origin: shaykh] 1.) an Arab ruler or prince 2.) a Muslim religious leader or teacher …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • sheikh — pronounced shayk or sheek, is the preferred spelling of the word for an Arab chief or leader …   Modern English usage

  • Sheikh —    The Arabic origin of the word sheikh is simply old man. In Kurdistan, however, sheikhs are holy men, recipients of popular devotion that at times borders on worship and leaders of sufi orders. Traditionally, they enjoyed wide respect and thus… …   Historical Dictionary of the Kurds

  • sheikh — I or shaykh Among Arabic speaking tribes, especially Bedouin, the male head of the family, as well as of each successively larger social unit making up the tribal structure. The sheikh is generally assisted by an informal tribal council of male… …   Universalium

  • sheikh — Sheik Sheik, n. [Ar. sheikh, shaykh, a venerable old man, a chief, fr. sh[=a]kha to grow or be old.] The head of an Arab family, or of a clan or a tribe; also, the chief magistrate of an Arab village. The name is also applied to Mohammedan… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • sheikh — [[t]ʃe͟ɪk, AM ʃi͟ːk[/t]] sheikhs also sheik, shaikh N TITLE; N COUNT A sheikh is a male Arab chief or ruler. ...Sheikh Khalifa. ...the sheik s role in global oil affairs …   English dictionary

  • Sheikh — Der Scheich (auch Schaich, Sheikh, Shaikh, Shaykh, Schech; arabisch ‏شيخ‎, DMG šaiḫ „Ältester“, „Greis“) ist ursprünglich das Stammesoberhaupt bei den arabischen Beduinen. Der Begriff wird heute häufig als Titel für führende Persönlichkeiten des… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • sheikh — noun Sheikh is used after these nouns: ↑oil …   Collocations dictionary

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