Sharīf (Arabic: شريف, 'noble', 'highborn'), also spelled shareef or sherif, feminine sharīfa (شريفة), plural ashrāf (أشراف), shurafāʾ (شرفاء), or (in the Maghreb) shurfāʾ, is a title used to designate a person descended, or claiming to be descended, from the family of the Islamic prophet Muhammad (c. 570 CE – 632 CE). It may be used in three senses:
The precise usage of the term has varied both historically and geographically. Today, descent from Muhammad through his daughter Fatima (either Hasanid or Husaynid) is more commonly designated by the term sayyid.
The word derives from the Arabic root sh–r–f, which expresses meanings related to honor, nobility, and prominence. It has no etymological connection with the English term sheriff, which comes from the Old English word scīrgerefa, meaning "shire-reeve", the local reeve (enforcement agent) of the king in the shire (county).
Precise usage of the term has varied both historically and geographically. Often, the terms sharīf and sayyid were used interchangeably, while in other contexts they referred to Hasanid vs. Husaynid descent (especially in the Hejaz, where the Sharifate of Mecca was restricted to persons of Hasanid descent). In still other contexts, they both referred to some form of Hashimite descent, but were linked to a different and specific social status.
In most places the term has functioned as a mark of nobility (both the Abbasids and the Fatimids were at one time holder of the caliphate), except in South Asia, where the meaning of the term has expanded to include all Muslims of foreign descent. Thus, in the caste system among South Asian Muslims, the term ashrāf designates not only Muslims of Arab descent (sayyids or purported descendants of Ali and Fatima, and shaykhs, which include all those who claim descent from the Quraysh or from one of Muhammad's companions), but also Muslims of Pasthun (Pathans) or Turko-Mongol (Mughals) descent.
Over time, people who were not of Hashimite descent were sometimes also granted the title sharīf as a general mark of nobility. The result of this has been that the term sayyid has become a more common designation for those claiming descent from the prophet today. As such, Sayyid (or one of its many alternative spellings, like Sayyed or Syed) has also become a common proper name.