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SHAYKH. The Arabic term shaykh is an honorific title given since pre-Islamic times to men of distinction.

Its meaning embraces several concepts expressed by the English words “leader,” “patriarch,” “notable,” “elder,” “chief,” and “counselor.” Throughout the Muslim era the term shaykh al-din (“leader of the faith”) has been applied to men who possess scriptural learning. Heads of religious orders are called shaykhs, as are Sufi adepts, Qur’anic scholars, jurists, and those who preach and lead prayers in the mosques. Muslim scholars have paid close attention to the careers of prominent religious shaykhs; the intellectual and genealogical pedigrees of these learned men have been accumulating in biographical dictionaries (known as tarajim or tabdgat) for centuries. One would hardly suspect, given the immense weight of this clerical literature, that the majority of shaykhs, both now and in the past, have not been religious functionaries. Instead, they have belonged to a more secular and, historically speaking, much older political elite consisting of clan leaders, village headmen, and tribal chiefs.

The shaykh al-din is associated with a metropolitan culture of great antiquity and richness, whereas the tribal shaykh has long been associated with the agricultural and pastoral hinterland and particularly with remote areas beyond state control. The contrast is overdrawn. Shaykhs have always been caught up in the political economy of urban society-at times, they have taxed and controlled the trade of cities-and the most powerful shaykhs keep residences in both town and country. The base of the shaykh’s power, however, has traditionally been in the countryside, where most tribespeople and peasants have lived even into modern times. The shaykh’s influence in outlying regions, which cannot always be easily controlled from the urban center, makes him an important resource to the state. Historically, the most influential shaykhs have acted as middlemen between governed and ungoverned space, and it is their relationship to the latter that has distinguished them over time as a recognizable political type.

The Arab philosopher of history Ibn Khaldfin (133214o6) argued that tribal shaykhs, because they do not possess “royal authority,” are unable to coerce their followers or compel their allegiance. In the absence of “governmental and educational laws,” shaykhs can only exercise a “restraining influence,” and this they can accomplish only insofar as they are venerated and respected by fellow tribesmen. Such respect is seldom won on the basis of a shaykh’s piety or erudition. Indeed, until recent decades, most tribal shaykhs were illiterate, and their understanding of Islam was rarely orthodox. A shaykh’s reputation depends instead on four important characteristics: his ability to resolve disputes, which requires a detailed knowledge of customary law (`urf or `awdyid), a legal system that is often at odds with Islamic law; his ability to dispense hospitality on a grand scale and to offer gifts and financial support to followers; his ability to lead in times of raiding and warfare; and his ability to deal with state governments in ways that advance his own interests while preserving, as much as possible, the autonomy of the tribespeople he represents.

Since tribal shaykhs do not control the military and administrative apparatus of the state, their capacity to dominate tribal affairs is often attributed to personal charisma. They are commonly (and somewhat romantically) depicted as eloquent, shrewd, persuasive, brave, and wise. Among tribespeople, the title is not inherited by right-ideally, anyone can attain or fall from that rank-and the urge to portray shaykhs as “first among equals” is especially strong in the West. This egalitarian view, though popular, is exaggerated. In many tribes, the shaykhdom has remained in the same family for centuries. Such concentrations of power and influence are not based on charisma alone. Until the establishment of modern nation-states in the twentieth century, tribal shaykhs were able to impose protection taxes (known as khawa, or “brotherhood”) on peasant communities; they extracted escort fees from caravans that passed through their territories; and in settled areas, they frequently owned sizeable tracts of land. These financial resources gave the shaykhs’ families a distinct political advantage over ordinary tribesmen. Moreover, shaykhs exercised this advantage in the contested zones between urban centers. By playing regional governments against each other, shaykhs could generate a reliable flow of stipends from rulers who competed for their loyalty.

In the modern era, as domains of state control have grown to encompass tribal areas, the status of these families has changed. Many of the most powerful shaykhs have been successfully incorporated by national regimes. In Jordan, for instance, tribal leaders sit in legislative assemblies, serve as government ministers, and control the upper ranks of the military. Throughout the Arab world, shaykhs have preserved their role as judges of tribal law, which, although many countries have officially delegitimized it, continues to be practiced in both urban and rural settings. Shaykhs have fared best, however, on the Arabian Peninsula, where they found themselves in possession of vast oil reserves. The emirates and kingdoms of the Gulf region are ruled today by families who in the nineteenth century were known simply as tribal shaykhs. In Yemen, where government control of the hinterland is comparatively weak, shaykhs take an active part in foreign and domestic affairs of state, and their political power has at times rivaled that of the central government.

It is now common for both Middle Eastern and Western intellectuals to identify shaykhs with parochialism and reactionary politics. The conservative social and economic agendas of the Gulf states, for example, are often ascribed to the “traditional mentality” of their ruling shaykhs. Given the value nationalist ideology sets on progress, unity, and allegiance, it was perhaps inevitable that shaykhs would assume the place they now occupy in the political imagination of the region. Long before nationalism arrived, tribal shaykhs were associated with “backward” domains, fratricidal politics, and resistance to the laws of God and the state. This view, so obviously colored by the attitudes of the urban elite, has been slow to change. The shaykhly families themselves, however, have proven remarkably adaptable. Despite confident predictions that they will soon disappear, the shaykhs and the tribes they lead remain prominent features of the political landscape of the Middle East and North Africa.

[See also `Asabiyah; Haddrah; Tribe.]


Dresch, Paul. Tribes, Government, and History in Yemen. Oxford, 1989. Study of Yemeni politics and the role shaykhs have played in it, from the time of the first Zaydi imams to the early decades of the republican era.

Fernea, Robert A. Shaykh and Effendi: Changing Patterns of Authority among the El Shabana of Southern Iraq. Cambridge, Mass., 1970. Analysis of changing interactions between shaykhs and government officials during periods of Ottoman, British, and Iraqi administration.

Ibn Khaldfin. The Muqaddimah. Princeton, 1969. Franz Rosenthal’s translation of Ibn Khaldfin’s classic, edited and abridged by N. J. Dawood. The best English version of the Arabic original, completed in 1377 CE, includes a brilliant analysis of tribes and their relationship to the state in North Africa.

Lancaster, William. The Rwala Bedouin Today. Cambridge, 1981. Contains several chapters examining the adaptations bedouin shaykhs have made to the policies of the nation-states that, since the 19zos, have steadily grown up around them.

Lavie, Smadar. The Poetics of Military Occupation: Mzeina Allegories of Bedouin Identity under Israeli and Egyptian Rule. Berkeley, 19go. Engaging account of the strategies members of a Sinai tribe, shaykhs included, use to maintain their own sense of autonomy and bedouin identity.

Musil, Alois. The Manners and Customs of the Rwala Bedoiuns. New York, 1928. Widely considered to be the best ethnography ever written on bedouin life; includes extensive treatment of shaykhs and their status among the North Arabian tribes.

Shryock, Andrew J. “The Rise of Nasir al-Nims: A Tribal Commentary on Being and Becoming a Shaykh.” journal of Anthropological Research 46.2 (Summer 19go): 153-176. Analysis of the social and political conditions that give rise to the types of shaykhly authority common among Middle Eastern tribespeople.


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

  • writerPosted On: August 5, 2017
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