The title was given to those followers of Islam and scholars of the Qur'an who acquired deep knowledge of its principles including Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Malik ibn Anas, al-Nawawi, and al-Shafi‘i. The title was also given to those who had knowledge of different views of prominent scholars and thus may carry over the laws extracted from the text unto others. It was also given to people of age, wise in Islam and reputable among peers.
Hafiz al-Sakhawi wrote that since the 8th century this title was given to great numbers of people, even without due merit, neither age nor wisdom, who governed Islamic affairs in larger communities or simply were qadis in towns.
Later it became a prestigious position in the Caliphate state of the Ottoman Empire, that governed religious affairs of the state. The Ottomans had a strict hierarchy of ulama, with the Sheikh ul-Islam holding the highest rank. A Sheikh ul-Islam was chosen by a royal warrant amongst the qadis of important cities. The Sheikh ul-Islam had the power to confirm new sultans, but once the sultan was affirmed, it was the sultan who retained a higher authority than the Sheik ul-Islam. The Sheikh ul-Islam issued fatwas, which were written interpretations of the Quran that had authority over the community. The Sheikh ul-Islam represented the law of shariah and in the 16th century its importance rose which led to increased power. Sultan Murad appointed a Sufi, Yayha, as his Sheikh ul-Islam during this time which lead to violent disapproval. The objection to this appointment made obvious the amount of power the Sheikh ul-Islam had, since people were afraid he would alter the traditions and norms they were living under by issuing new fatwas.
After the National Assembly of Turkey was established in 1920, this office was in the Shar’iyya wa Awqaf Ministry until 1924, when the Ministry was abolished due to separation of religion from state, the office was replaced by the Presidency of Religious Affairs. As the successor entity to the office of the Sheikh al-Islam, the Presidency of Religious Affairs is the most authoritative entity in Turkey in relation to Sunni Islam.
In Thailand, the Shaykh al-Islām is called Chularatchamontri (Thai: จุฬาราชมนตรี). Pursuant to the Islamic Organ Administration Act, BE 2540 (1997), Chularatchamontri is appointed by the King upon advice of the Prime Minister. He has the authority to administer all Islamic affairs in the Nation and to provide advice on Islamic affairs to government agencies. Chularatchamontri vacates his office upon death, resignation and removal by the King upon advice of the Prime Minister.
- Sheikh (Sufism)
- Grand Mufti
- Hujjat al-Islam
- List of Sheikh-ul-Islams of the Ottoman Empire
- Foundations of the Sunnah, by Ahmad ibn Hanbal, pg 51-173
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