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Sheikh, also rendered as Sheik, Shaykh, Shaikh, Cheikh, Šeih, Šejh and other variants (Arabic: , shaykh; pl. shuyūkh), is a word or honorific term in the Arabic language that literally means "elder." It is commonly used to designate an elder of a tribe, a revered wise man, or an Islamic scholar. Although the title generally refers to a male person, a very small number of female sheikhs have also existed in history.

It also refers to a man over 40 or 50 years old generally. Whilst even a new Muslim can be called a sheikh if he is diligent in seeking the knowledge of Islam based upon the Quran and authentic Sunnah, he can be referred to as such to those he can teach. And usually a person is known as a sheikh when they have completed their undergraduate university studies in Islamic studies and are trained in giving lectures.. The word sheikh under this meaning is a synonym of Alim, pl. Ulema, (a learned person in Islam, a scholar), Mawlawi, Mawlana, Muhaddith, Faqih, Qadi, Mufti, Hadhrat or Hafiz.

Etymology and meaning

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 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 eg. the US Senate is majlis al-shuyukh, meaning the Senators' Council.

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 Gulf region

In the Persian Gulfmarker States 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 Kuwaitmarker'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 Bahrainmarker and Qatarmarker. The term is used by almost every male member of all the Gulf royal houses with the exception of Saudi Arabiamarker.

In Lebanon

In Lebanonmarker, 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 (since 1523, ruled the current Jbeilmarker casa and the north till the Sir El Donnieh region), El-Khazen (since 1545, ruled the Kiserwan area) and El Daher of Zghartamarker. 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 Beirutimarker families, but primarily for the above-mentioned three families. The other families that have this term (such as El-Dahdah, Gemayel, El-Khoury.....)are second and third degree sheikhs, because unlike the above mentioned three families, they did not rule any territory in previous ages. Instead, they were high-ranking employees or secretaries (kouttab) (such as Hobeich (since 1567) of Ghazir) in the Ottoman Empire, or political 'allies' of the rulers of the time, which provided them a certain financial status.

In South Asia

In Afghanistanmarker, Pakistanmarker, and other parts of South Asia, the title Shaikh signifies Arab descent. Muslim technocrats, bureaucrats, soldiers, traders, scientists, architects, teachers, theologians and Sufis flocked from the rest of the Muslim world to the Islamic Sultanate in South Asia. The Shaikh of South Asia claims putative descent from these immigrants from the Middle East although, a majority of them are native tribes of South Asia which used the title of Sheikh after conversion to Islam.

Many Rajput clans in South Asia had converted to Islam during the early 12th century and were given the honorary title of Shaikh (elder of the tribe) by their Arab rulers. Since conversion Rajput clans have remained loyal to their faith. Rajputs were converted to Islam by the Muslim Sufis missionaries of the famed Chistiya, Qadriya orders and many others.Some conversions also took place for political reasons. The Delhi Sultanate and later Mughal dynasty encouraged the martial Rajput clans to convert to Islam. Conversions to Islam continued into the 19th century period of the British Raj.

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. In Sufism tariqah (orders), it is often used as an honorific for an elder Sufi who has been authorized by the order to teach, initiate and guide aspiring murids & dervishes, as such, he is also known as, in Arabic, as a formal Murshid (lit: Guide).

The term is and/or was also used in certain Islamic parts of Africa, as in imperial Ethiopiamarker by the hereditary Muslim rulers of Bela Shangul, and by certain Muslim notables of Wollomarker, Tigraymarker and Eritreamarker.

For women

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


In South Asia, such as Pakistanmarker, Bangladeshmarker and Indiamarker, "Sheikh" is a common surname among direct descendants of the royal Mughul Empire, or more generally, it signifies Arab or Persian ancestry. Although there are countless individuals who share the surname, most are considered to have been from royalty; most specifically Mughul Empire.

References and notes

  1. The Islamic Dictionary online, 'Sheikh'
  2. About the Sheikh
  3. The Islamic Dicationary online, 'Alim'

See also


  • Shaikh Siddiqui
  • History of El Douaihy
  • History of the Maronites and Lebanon
  • "History of Lebanon" by Kamal Salibi

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