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Sheikh (pronounced /ˈʃk/ SHEEK or /ˈʃk/ SHAYK; Arabic: شيخšayḫ, mostly pronounced [ʃeːx], plural شيوخ šuyūḫ; Hebrew: הַשַּׁיךְ Standard ha-shäyk)—also spelled Sheik, Shayk, Shaikh or Shekh, or transliterated as Shaykh—is an honorific in the Arabic language that is used strictly for royalty. The title is commonly used to designate the leaders, and princes of Middle Eastern countries. The title is often used also with the same significance in various Jewish cultures, particularly among Judaeo-Arabic speakers. 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 male members of the royal family are designated with the title "Sheikh" at birth. A "Sheikh" basically means Prince in english. The females are designated the title "Sheikha" at birth as well.

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[edit]

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 is to be used strictly for arab royalty. The title started off to differentiate between the citizens, and the royals. The title came to be a title meaning leader in the Arabian Peninsula, where Sheiikh became a traditional title of a Bedouin tribal leader in the past. 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.[citation needed]

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."[citation needed]

Regional usage[edit]

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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Arabian Peninsula[edit]

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 Kings, Princes, and Princesses. The title was is mostly used in the West to refer to the leaders of Kuwait's ruling family. When Kuwait joined the Arab League, and the title Emir was adopted. The same applied to Bahrain and Qatar. The term is used for every male and female whom are members of one of the arab royal families.

In 2014, Oumaya Naji al-Jabara became the first woman in Iraq to be granted such a title when she was posthumously given the title of Sheikha after bring killed by a sniper from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. [3]


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-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, Nassar) 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 sheikhs 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.


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]

Horn of Africa[edit]

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".[5] 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.[6]

South Asia[edit]

Main article: Sheikh (caste)

In Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, 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 Delhi it was used by the Persian Magi descendants, who migrate from Persia because of Safavid persecution in the 16th century.

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.

Southeast Asia[edit]

Tomb from 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[edit]

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[edit]