Sheikh[1] (pronounced /ʃk/ SHAYK or /ʃk/ SHEEK;[2] Arabic: شيخ shaykh [ʃajx], mostly pronounced [ʃeːx], plural شيوخ shuyūkh [ʃuju:x])—also transliterated sheekh, sheyikh, shaykh, shayk, shekh, shaik and Shaikh, shak—is an honorific title in the Arabic language. It commonly designates a chief of a tribe or a royal family member in Arabian countries, in some countries it is also given to those of great knowledge in religious affairs as a surname by a prestige religious leader from a chain of Sufi scholars. It is also commonly used to refer to a Muslim religious scholar.[3] It is also used as an honorary title by people claiming to be descended from Hasan ibn Ali and Husayn ibn Ali both patrilineal and matrilineal who are grandsons of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The term is literally translated to "Elder" (is also translated to "Lord/Master" in a monarchical context). The word 'sheikh' is mentioned in the 23rd verse of Surah Al-Qasas in the Quran.

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 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.

Sufi term

In Sufism, the word sheikh is used to represent a spiritual guide 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. A couple of prominent examples are Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani, who initiated the Qadiriyya order, and Sheikh Ahmad al-Tijani, who initiated the Tijaniyyah Sufi order.[4]

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 chiefs of tribes. This also includes royalty in most of Eastern Arabia, where the royal families were traditionally considered tribal chiefs. For example, it is used by the UAE Al-Nahyan dynasty and Al Maktoum dynasty, who are considered the chiefs of the Bani Yas tribe, and by Kuwait's Al Sabah dynasty and Bahrain's Al Khalifa dynasty of the Bani Utbah tribal confederation. The term is used by almost every male and female (Sheikha) member of the royal houses of the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait. The title is not used by members of Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, where the title "Prince" (Arabic: أمير, romanized: ʾAmīr) is used instead.

The title is also used to refer to religious leaders for both Sunni and Shia Muslims. For example, the Saudi Arabian family Al ash-Sheikh (literally House of the Sheikh) is named after the religious leader and eponymous founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.


In Mount Lebanon, the title had the same princely and royal connotation as in the Arabian peninsula until the Ottoman invasion in 1516, since it represented an indigenous autonomous "sui iuris" ruler or tribal chief.[5] Examples of some ancient families that hold the title of "sui iuris" sheikh is the Al-Chemor family, ruling since 1211 CE in Koura and Zgharta until 1747 CE[1][6][7] and the Boudib Family (descendants of the Hashemite Family) who were Ehdenian rulers of Jebbeh since 1471 CE until 1759 CE. Descendants of this royal family now live in Miziara, Mexico and Nigeria.[8] Even the Abu Harmoush family heads, which ruled the Chouf region until the Battle of Ain Dara in 1711 CE, were "sui iuris" sheikhs. After the Ottoman rule and the implementation of the Iltizam system, the title gained a noble instead of royal connotation, since it was bestowed by a higher authority; in this case the Ottoman appointed Emir, who was nothing more than a mültezim or tax collector for the empire.[9] Some very influential Maronite families, who had the title bestowed upon them, are (in chronological order): El Hachem of Akoura (descendants of the Hashemite Family, since 1523), El-Khazen (since 1545), Hubaysh of Kisrawan and Douaihy of Zgharta. Other families who are nowadays addressed or known as "sheikhs" were not traditionally rulers of provinces, but instead they were high-ranking officials at the service of the Emir at that time.


In the Maghreb, during the Almohad dynasty, the caliph was also counseled by a body of sheikhs. They represented all the different tribes under their rules, including Arabs, (Bedouins), Andalusians and Berbers and were also responsible for mobilizing their kinsmen in the event of war.[10]

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".[11] Famous local sheikhs include Ishaaq bin Ahmed, an early Muslim scholar and Islamic preacher, Abdirahman bin Isma'il al-Jabarti, an early Muslim leader in Somaliland; 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; Sheikh 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.[12]

South Asia

In the cosmopolitan hub of the South Asian sub-continent, it is not just an ethnic title but also often an occupational title[13][14] attributed to Muslim trading families. After the advent of Islam in South Asia, many pagan Hindu clans from different castes converted to Islam and adopted the title.[15] In the Punjab region, Ismaili Pirs gave some converts, as well as Muslims who emigrated from Central Asia, especially after the barbaric Mongol conquests , the hereditary title of Ismaili Shaikhs.[16]

Southeast Asia

In Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia, sheikhs are respected by local Muslims. In Indonesia, the term is usually spelled "syech", and this is usually attributed to elderly ulama. Higher knowledgeable people of Islamic studies in Indonesia are usually referred to as "ustad" or "kyai".


From the perspective of Iran, the word or title of sheikh possesses diverse meanings, among individuals who are aged and wise, it has been an honorific title used for elders and learned scholars, such as: Sheikh al-Rayees Abu Ali Sina, Sheikh Mufid, Sheikh Morteza Ansari. In the past, Islamic scholars who were the Islamic prophet Muhammad's descendants, were called Sayyid/Seyyed instead of sheikh.[17]

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[18] and 18th-century scholar Al-Shaykha Fatima al-Fudayliyya.[19] In 1957, Indonesian education activist Rahmah el Yunusiyah was awarded the title of syeikah by the faculty of Al-Azhar University, the first time the university had granted the title to a woman.[20]

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 Arabian Peninsula.[21]

See also


  1. National News Agency - Ministry of Information Lebanese Republic, 2014
  2. "sheikh". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  3. "Sheikh Community, Islam Religion, Middel East".
  4. Abun-Nasr, Jamil M. (2007). Muslim Communities of Grace: The Sufi Brotherhoods in Islamic Religious Life. Columbia University Press. p. 94. ISBN 978-0-231-14330-1.
  5. A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered, 2001, Kamal Salibi
  6. Book Al-Sheikh Al-Chemor Al-Hakum Al-Akoura Al-Hakum Al-Zawyia, Ignatios Tannous Al-Khoury, Beirut, 1948, pg.123
  7. "Tārīkh al-ṭāʼifah al-Mārūnīyah (Microform, 1890)". [].
  8. El - Doaihi. A glimpse into the History of Ehden The Most Legendary Ehdenian Battles (2000BC - 1976).
  9. Lebanon's Predicament, 1987, Samir Khalaf
  10. Niane, Djibril Tamsir; Africa, Unesco International Scientific Committee for the Drafting of a General History of (1 January 1984). Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century. UNESCO. ISBN 9789231017100. Retrieved 19 February 2017 via Google Books.
  11. IFLA Committee on Cataloguing, IFLA International Office for UBC., IFLA International Programme for UBC., IFLA UBCIM Programme (1987). International cataloguing: quarterly bulletin of the IFLA Committee on Cataloguing, Volume 11. The Committee. p. 24.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  12. "Scholars Biographies - 15th Century - Shaykh Muhammad ibn 'Abdullaah as-Sumaalee". Fatwa-Online. Archived from the original on 15 September 2012. Retrieved 26 August 2012.
  13. "Pakistan a country study p149". 1975.
  14. Robinson, Rowena (20 February 2004). Sociology of religion p90. ISBN 9780761997818.
  15. Khanam, Azra (30 August 2013). Muslim backward classes: a sociological perspective. ISBN 9788132118077.
  16. Kaw, Mushtaq A. (January 2010). Central Asia in Retrospect and prospect p406. ISBN 9789380009322.
  17. Who/what is Sheikh? Retrieved 28 Oct 2018
  18. "Shaykhah Shuhdah, Fakhr-un-Nisa". Haq Islam. 21 April 2013. Retrieved 9 February 2015.
  19. Siddiqi, Muhammad Zubayr (1993). "Hadith Literature Its origin, development and special features: Women Scholars of Hadith". The Islamic Texts Society Cambridge: 117–123. Retrieved 23 February 2015.
  20. Salim HS, Hairus (2012). "Indonesian Muslims and cultural networks". In Lindsay, Jennifer; Sutedja-LIem, M. H. T. (eds.). Heirs to world culture : Being Indonesian, 1950-1965. Leiden, NLD: Brill. p. 83. ISBN 978-90-04-25351-3. OCLC 958572352. Archived from the original on 2022-07-03. Retrieved 2022-07-01.
  21. Sultan Qaboos Encyclopedia of Arab Names. Sultan Qaboos University. 1985. Retrieved 14 May 2021.
  • The dictionary definition of sheik at Wiktionary
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