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SHAYKH AL ISLAM. Connected with Islamic religious figures, the title Shaykh al-Islam assumed a more precise and formal meaning during the Ottoman period. The title emerged initially in Khurasan in the latter part of the tenth century; it then spread east to India and Muslim areas of China and west into the Middle East. Apparently it was used early both as an honorific title, for ranking Sfifis among others, and to denote formal office; it has been argued, for example, that, in Khurasan by the eleventh century, it denoted individuals holding key offices within the local educational system (Bulliet, 1972, p. 61). The functions connected to the title appear to have varied, however, from region to region in the pre-Ottoman period. Generally speaking, it seems to have connoted religious preeminence and, specifically, training in the Islamic religious law, the shadah.

In the Ottoman system, the Shaykh al-Islam (Tk., §eyhfilislam) was the chief mufti, or jurisconsult, and head of the state hierarchy of `ulamd’. The development of the office and the influence wielded by several of its later occupants, particularly Ali Efendi (1501-1525) and Mehmet Ebiissu’fid Efendi (1545-1574) must be seen in their historical context, and, specifically, in the desire of the Ottoman sultans to establish authority over the religious establishment. The appointment of the Shaykh al-Islam allowed the Ottoman state to wrest control over the educational system, until then a key source of influence for the religious elite.

As a mufti, the holder of the office was chiefly responsible for issuing fatwds (Tk., fetwd) or written legal opinions based on Islamic legal tradition. Although these were nonbinding, they carried the considerable moral and, in many instances, political weight of the office from which they were issued. The fatwds of the Shaykh al-Islam related not only to legal and religious issues but to questions of state policy as well; both Ali Efendi and Mehmet Ebiissu’fid, for example, issued closely read opinions on the waging of war against rivals of the empire. The Shaykh al-Islam also often served as a key adviser to the sultan’s court on important political affairs, and, on a number of occasions, holders of the office issued opinions or adopted positions contrary to those of the sultans. It has also been argued that sitting office holders frequently moderated more militant and arbitrary positions on the part of other religious figures and the court. Only later, by the early seventeenth century does the office appear to have lost much of its independence and authority.

By the nineteenth century, the position of the Shaykh al-Islam, like that of other ranking religious officials of the Ottoman system, increasingly fell victim to a series of secularizing and reformist policies. The creation of new legal and educational institutions meant the steady erosion of the Shaykh al-Islam’s influence. In November 1922, the office, along with all remaining institutions of the Ottoman sultanate, was abolished by the new Turkish nationalist regime under Mustafa Kemal Atatfirk (1881-1938).

[See also Ottoman Empire.]


Bulliet, Richard W. “The Shaikh al-Islam and the Evolution of Islamic Society.” Studia Islamica 35 (1972): 53-67.

Kramers, J. H. “Shaikh al-Islam.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. 7, pp. 275-279. Leiden, 1913-.

Pixley, Michael M. “The Development and Role of the 5Seyhnlislam in Early Ottoman History.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 96 (1976) 89-96.

Zilfi, Madeline C. “Shaykh al-Islam.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade, vol. 13, pp. 229-230. New York, 1987.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/shaykh-al-islam/

  • writerPosted On: August 5, 2017
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