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What is an Emir?

A leader of a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia might be called "emir."
The term "emir" is most often used in the Middle East.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 16 April 2014
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Emir initially meant commander or leader and was used in the Middle East and North Africa, in primarily Arabic nations, to refer to commanders in the military. The term is taken from the Arabic word amr which is a verb that can be defined as to command. The French first adopted the term from the Arabic language, and from there, the English began to use the term in the late 16th century. The word admiral is a corruption of emir.

Throughout Arabic history, what constitutes an emir has changed. Though emirs were first the heads or commanders of armies, some of the smaller Arabic countries began to use the term to mean leader. This term differs from caliph, thought by some Islamic groups to be the head of all the Arabic nations, and also the head of the Islamic religion.

Additionally a prince may be called an emir, as can the leader of a pilgrimage to Mecca, emir hadj. The title may be given to older members of the community and sometimes to religious leaders or it may refer to a member of the Arab nobility. It was a title applied occasionally to Muhammad the prophet.

There are currently a few countries where rulers are called by this term. In Kuwait, formerly rulers were called sheikhs, but they are now more aptly titled emirs, and any country ruled by an emir is called an emirate. Qatar also designates their leaders as emirs.

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The United Arab Emirates is an independent federation of seven emirates, with an emir leading each emirate. Though the government also has a president, each of the emirs acts as leader of his own emirate. A Federal National Council made up of representatives from each emirate acts to accept or reject new laws and to create or amend present laws, functioning as an essential balance to the leadership of the president.

The term is not used consistently or in the same manner throughout the Arabic world at present. While leaders of Kuwait may be emirs, the name can also be used as a first name. Emir or Amir are both common Arabic names. Some Slavic countries also make use of the word for a name, Emira, which means princess, and may be used as a first name for girls.

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