What is a Sheikh?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Sheikh or sheik is an Arabic word, used before the birth of Islam, to designate elderly male members of a tribe as those deserving respect. It’s comparable to the term Elder in the English language, especially when an Elder’s title conveys not only a person of a certain age and maturity, but also someone who may make political decisions about a group of people in a specific venue. The sheikh in the past and in current times is not only respected, but may have the specific task of guiding and protecting a group of people, settling disputes, being a religious leader, and helping to administer the law. The sheikh’s wife is usually called the sheikah. Especially in Bedouin nomadic tribes, the sheikh is ruler of a tribe, and as such, administers the law, makes deals with other tribes, and works for the prosperity of his people.

Prior to the development of mechanized transportation, the organization or leadership of a trade caravan often fell upon an Arab clan or family's sheikhs.
Prior to the development of mechanized transportation, the organization or leadership of a trade caravan often fell upon an Arab clan or family's sheikhs.

Despite an overt association with Islam, it’s a mistake to think all sheikhs are Muslims. It’s also a common mistake to view all Arabs as Islamic. There are Christian sheikhs, especially in places like Lebanon, who have some local authority to protect their people. They are somewhat comparable to the Middle Ages concept of the lord who protects and sees to the well being of his people (plenty of lords did not abuse the feudal system). A good sheikh listens to the people and successful fulfillment of his job means that the people are protected and prosperous. This system is hardly democratic, yet is usually much more fair than that which existed in feudal times.

Despite being closely identified with Islam, all sheikhs are not Muslim.
Despite being closely identified with Islam, all sheikhs are not Muslim.

In modern times, sheikh may be more an honorary term. Elder, more prosperous members of a people may be looked up to as sheikhs. Their experience, wealth, and wisdom mean they are important members of a community, and should be consulted on matters of importance. People may seek out this type of sheikh for advice. Further, virtually all older men in a community may be considered sheikhs.

Sometimes the sheikh is less of a leader of a community in the political sense but more a religious scholar. Elder Sufis who take orders are called sheikhs and are teachers and instructors. Leaders in the sciences may be honored by being called sheikhs.

The Western world’s definition of sheikh limited this term to refer to Kuwait’s leaders. This is an oversight, and in actuality incorrect since it is in much greater use in the Arabic world. Kuwaiti leaders are not called sheikhs anymore, incidentally, but are now termed emirs.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


The Moorish Science Temple of America, the first Islamic organization in the United States, uses the word Sheik and Sheikess to refer to its heads. This is since 1928.

@simrin-- But not all sheikhs have to be leaders of some sort right?

I know of an Egyptian Islamic scholar who is called Sheikh Ali. He is a "mufti" meaning that he studies Islam and Islamic law. He's not really a leader who claims to be an authority. I think they call him Sheikh in the way we use "Sir" or "Lord" because he is being honored for his work.

But if I'm wrong, please correct me. I'd like to learn the most correct interpretation of sheikh.


@anamur-- That's really interesting. Thanks for sharing.

I think sheikhs have been very important for US troops and USAID personnel in Afghanistan as well. As far as I know from news reports, when Americans are trying to start a new project in a community, they first go to see the sheikhs. Because they can't do much without their approval and support.

If a sheikh lends support, then basically everyone in that tribe will follow and will help to make things happen. But if a sheikh doesn't approve, nothing will get done.

So sheikhs are clearly not just problem-solvers, they're leaders in all sense of the word. It's hard for us to understand I think because in the west we often differentiate between political and religious leaders. But it appears to me that a sheikh is a leader in all areas of life.

Places like Afghanistan cannot move forward or bring about change without the efforts of sheikhs, that's for sure.


I really like that this article has pointed out generalizations that are often made about this term. I personally think that when it comes to socio-political and religious structures, it all varies from country to country and even area to area. Even if common terms are used to describe them, it would be wrong to think that they're all exactly the same.

I know that sheikhs and the sheikh system exists in many places in and around the Middle East region as I'm from there. Often times, there are different words used for them but it's not something that's specific to Arabs or Muslims like the article said.

For example, in Eastern Turkey the sheikh system exists even though Turks are not Arab. And despite the country changing, this system has a very strong hold in the East and continues.

Each "tribe," for the lack of a better word, has a sheikh and will follow the orders of the sheikh in various in-community and in-family issues. And it's not just a matter of respect either. The sheikhs are often the most wealthy and powerful. So really people have no choice but to follow their orders although mostly it is done out of love and respect for the sheikh rather than fear.

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