The word in Arabic stems from a triliteral root connected with age and aging: ش-ي-خ, shīn-yā'-khā'. The term literally means a man of vast power, and nobility, and it is used strictly for the royal families of the Middle East. The title carries the meaning leader, elder, or noble, especially in the Arabian Peninsula within the Tribes of Arabia, where shaikh became a traditional title of a Bedouin tribal leader in recent centuries. 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.
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."
In Islamic Sufism, the word Shaikh is used to represent a wali who initiates a particular tariqa which leads to Muhammad although many saints have this title added before their names out of respect from their followers. One prominent example is Shaikh Abdul Qadir Jilani who initiated the Qadiriyya order which relies strongly upon adherence to the fundamentals of Islam.
In the Arabian Peninsula, the title is used for royalty, such as kings, princes, and princesses. For example, it was the term used in the West to refer to the leaders of Kuwait's ruling Al-Sabah dynasty, and in UAE Al-Nahyan dynasty. The same applies to all the Gulf countries. The term is used by almost every male and female (Sheikha) member of all the Gulf royal houses.
In Lebanon, the title is 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 Hachem of Akoura who ruled the current Jbeil casa (from Al Doniyeh to Byblos) since 1523, El-Khazen (since 1545, ruled the Kesrwan area), and El Daher 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 Cheikh Moussa, El-Dahdah, Gemayel, Nassar, El-Khoury, El-Daher, and Harb, etc.) did not rule any territory in previous ages. Instead, they were high-ranking employees 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.
In the Maghreb, during the Almohad dynasty, the caliph was also counseled by a body of shaykhs. They represented all the different tribes under their rules, including Arabs, (Bedouins), Andalusians and Berbers and were also responsible for mobilizing their kinsmen in the event of war.
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". 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.
In West Africa, sheikh is a common title for Muslim scholars and leaders. Among Islamic communities in Senegal, Niger and Gambia, among other areas, the title is usually spelled as Cheikh.
In Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and other parts of South Asia, the title Sheikh signifies Arab descent.People of Quresh tribe who migrated to South Asia and later adopted meat business are also called sheikh, Qassab or Qureshi . 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 Punjab, Pakistan the Hindu Brahmins, Kshatriya, Bhanushali Kataria (Also known as Katarmal), Thakur, Rana, Rathores, Bhattis, Chauhans, and other Rajput elite class converted by different Ismaili Pirs to Islam. Ismaili Pirs gave the new converts of Punjab the hereditary title of Shaikh as well as the Muslims who immigrated from Arabia and settled in Punjab
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.Altaf Shaikh Sindhi writer and traveler.
In Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia, Sheikhs are respected by local Muslims. Religious preachers or teachers in Indonesia are usually referred to as "Ustad" or "Kyiayi"
Historically, female scholars in Islam were referred to as shaykhah (Arabic: شيخة) (alt. shaykhat). Notable shaykha include the 10th-century Shaykhah Fakhr-un-Nisa Shuhdah and 18th-century scholar Al-Shaykha Fatima al-Fudayliyya.
A daughter or wife or mother of a sheikh is also called a shaykhah. Currently, the term shaykhah is commonly used for women of ruling families, in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf with the exception of Oman.