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Portrait of a 'Sheikh': The Sheikh Sattam de Haddadin of Palmyra , drawn by the Russian painter Alexander Evgenjewitsch Jakowlew around 1931.

The word sheikh ( Arabic شيخ Schaich , DMG šaiḫ , plural Schuyūch  /شيوخ / šuyūḫ or Maschāyich  /مشايخ / mašāyiḫ ) is an Arabic honorary title that has been used for men of rank and name since pre-Islamic times. It is used, often in the sense of “spiritual leader”, in both secular and religious contexts. However, a certain age is also a prerequisite for holding the title. Ibn Manzūr in his Arabic lexicon Lisān al ‑ ʿArab defined the sheikh as someone "whose age has advanced and whose hair has turned white."

As a secular title

In pre-Islamic Arab tribal society, “sheikh” referred to the head of a tribe or clan. Later it was also used for the heads of other groups, such as guilds or the men's associations of the Futuwwa , or for the head of a place, the Sheikh al-Balad ( šaiḫ al-balad ). The term was also used on a political level. For example, among the Hafsids the vizier was referred to as the "Sheikh of the Almohads " ( šaiḫ al-muwaḥḥidīn ) because the Hafsids regarded themselves as heirs of the Almohads. Ibn Battuta reports that in his time the residents of Mogadishu dubbed their sultan as sheik. The Ottomans used the title Sheikh al-Balad in the 18th century for the most powerful bey in Cairo .

In the Caliphate of Sokoto , when one spoke of the "Sheikh", the founder of the state Usman dan Fodio (d. 1817) was usually meant. Even today there are various domains in the Gulf region whose heads are dubbed Sheikhs.

As a religious title

The sheikh title is also used in various religious contexts. For example, the first two caliphs, Abū Bakr and Umar ibn al-Chattab, were often referred to as “the two sheikhs” ( aš-šaiḫāni ). The same expression was also used for the authors of the two most important collections of hadith , al-Buchari and Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj . The Syrian Nizāriten , known in Europe under the name of Assassins , called their head Raschid ad-Din Sinan as Sheikh al-Jabal ("the old man from the mountain"). In the Ottoman Empire, the Mufti of Istanbul, who was at the top of the state's religious hierarchy, was called Sheikh al-Islam . The term is used in a similar function in Egypt today . Here the title Sheikh al-Azhar denotes the head of the Azhar , a religious scientific institution to which the al-Azhar University, the Academy for Islamic Studies and the al-Azhar Mosque belong and which is thus the most important religious authority in the state .

In Sufism

Sheikh of the Rifāʿī -Derwish, unknown Greek painter, 1809

The sheikh concept has become particularly important in Sufik . He denotes the spiritual master who leads man on the mystical path ( Tarīqa ). In Sufi terminology, the opposite of the sheikh is the murīd (literally "the one who wills"). This describes the one who has the will to tread the path of knowledge under the guidance of a sheikh. The right way of dealing with the sheikh of the Murīd is one of the most important rules of Sufik. To be successful in his endeavors, the murid must submit wholly to the authority of his sheikh. To justify this doctrine, the Sufi handbooks mostly refer to the Koranic story about Moses and the servant of God ( Sura 18 : 60–82), who is identified with al-Chidr in Islamic tradition . In the Persian language area, the term Pīr , which in principle is synonymous, is often used for the Sufi sheikh .

The institution of the sheikh still exists in many Sufi orders today. The Sheikhs, for example, make up the religious elite within the Senegalese order of Muridiyya . Only those who have gathered adepts can call themselves sheiks here. Around 1970 there were around 300 to 400 sheikhs in the Muridiyya. Many of them worked as entrepreneurs in agriculture with their adepts. Sufi Sheikhs no longer function so strongly as spiritual guides in many places, but rather as mediators of baraka and “divine energy” ( faiḍ ).

From an early age there was a tendency in the Sufi order to develop a spiritual hierarchy. The head of the order was then referred to as Sheikh at-Tarīqa . In Egypt at the beginning of the 19th century, Muhammad Ali Pasha introduced the office of “Sheikh of the Sheikhs” ( šaiḫ aš-šuyūḫ ), who was responsible for overseeing all Sufi orders, as part of his policy of centralization . In this way, Muhammad Ali hoped to have better control over the orders.

With Alawites and Yazidis

The religious dignitaries of the Alawites are also referred to as “sheikhs” ( mašāyiḫ ) . With the Alawites, however, you can only become a sheik if you come from a family of sheiks, have undergone initiation and have perfected your religious training with a sheik for several months. An important task of the sheikhs, who are mostly knowledgeable in astrology, is to choose favorable dates for the beginning of the harvest, marriages and sales. They are also responsible for the maintenance of the Alawi Ziyāra shrines and ensure that the customs of their community are observed. Finally, they are responsible for regulating marriages, divorce and inheritance matters. Conversely, they not only enjoy a high reputation, but also a considerable income in the form of the zakat they receive .

The Yazidis , which could be the product of a Sufi orders, the'Adawīya, the sheiks in addition to the Pirs and murids form one of the three Erbkasten . Unlike the Pīrs, who trace their origins back to before ʿAdī ibn Musāfir (d. 1163), the Sheikhs believe that both the Pīrs and Sheikhs were first created by Sheikh ichAdī. It is incumbent on all Yezidi men and women to choose a sheikh and a pīr. The sheikhs' caste, however, is at the highest level. The core and area of ​​origin of the Yazidis, in which most of the sheikhs live and where their Lalish sanctuary is located, is named after them Shaikhan ("land of the sheikhs"). The sheikhs receive a kind of alms payment from the murids. Failure to make this payment can result in exclusion from the community. Internally , the class of Sheikhs is divided into three endogamous subgroups, the Shamsānīs (descendants of Ēzdīna Mīr), the Ādanīs (descendants of Sheikh Hesen) and the Qatanīs (descendants of Sheikh Adīs brothers).

Use in the German-speaking area

According to the etymological dictionary of Pfeifer established itself in the German speaking Sheikh for 'Arab tribal prince, potentate, ruler' since the 17th century through travel literature initially different letter Schich , Schegh , Shaykh , Shaykh . A pejoratively transferred use for 'bad soldier' ​​developed in the soldier's language in the 20th century, afterwards also in general for 'unpleasant guy'. A sheikh or a person who has become wealthy in the oriental region through the extraction of oil is also known colloquially as an oil sheikh . Correspondinga sheikdom is often referred to as a territory with a sheikh as head.


  • Arthur F. Buehler: Sufi Heirs of the Prophet. The Indian Naqshbandiyya and the Rise of the Mediating Sufi Shaykh. University of South Carolina Press, Columbia 1998.
  • Caesar E. Farah: Rules Governing the ayḫ-Muršid's Conduct in Numen 21/2 (1974) 81-96.
  • E. Geoffroy : Article Sh ay kh in The Encyclopaedia of Islam. New Edition , Volume IX, pp. 397a-398a.
  • Andrew Shyrock: Article Shaykh in John L. Esposito (ed.): The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. 6 volumes. Oxford 2009, Volume V, pp. 132a-133b.

Web links

Wiktionary: Sheikh  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. See Chaumont, p. 397a.
  2. See Chaumont, p. 397b.
  3. See M. Winter: Art. Sh ay kh al-Balad in The Encyclopaedia of Islam. New Edition Vol. IX, p. 398b.
  4. See Murray Last: The Sokoto Caliphate . Longman, London, 1967. p. 46.
  5. Scheich in , accessed on May 4, 2013
  6. See Chaumont, p. 397b.
  7. Cf. Patrick Franke: Encounter with Khidr. Source studies on the imaginary in traditional Islam. Steiner, Beirut / Stuttgart 2000, pp. 233-237.
  8. See Donal B. Cruise O'Brien: The Mourides of Senegal. The political and economic organization of an Islamic brotherhood. Clarendon Press, Oxford 1971, pp. 101-121, 199-230.
  9. See Buehler: Sufi Heirs of the Prophet , pp. 168–189.
  10. See Chaumont, p. 397b.
  11. Cf. Laila Prager: The 'community of the house'. Religion, marriage strategies and transnational identity of Turkish Alawi / Nusairi migrants in Germany. Münster 2010, pp. 51–64.
  12. See Eszter Spät: The Yezidis. Saqi Books, London, 2005. p. 43.
  13. See Eszter Spät: The Yezidis. Saqi Books, London, 2005. p. 20.
  14. See Eszter Spät: The Yezidis. Saqi Books, London, 2005. p. 47.
  15. See Philip G. Kreyenbroek: Yezidism - Its Background, Observances and and Textual Tradition. Edwin Mellen, Lewiston NY 1995, p. 38.
  16. ^ Sheikh Etymological Dictionary of German, online at DWDS , accessed on May 5, 2013
  17. Ölscheich in, accessed on May 4, 2013
  18. ^ Sheikdom in, accessed on May 4, 2013