A Shaikh, Sheikh or shaykh (Arabic: شيخ shaykh; pl. شيوخ shuyūkh), of Sufism is a Sufi who is authorized to teach, initiate and guide aspiring dervishes in the Islamic faith. He has laid all his worldly desires to rest thru the one intense desire for knowing the love of God his beloved. The sheik is vital to the path of the novice Sufi, for the sheik has himself travelled the path of mysticism. Viewed as the spiritual master, the sheik forms a formal allegiance (bay'a) to the disciple of Sufism and authorizes the disciple's travels and helps the disciple along the mystical path.[1] Islamic tradition focuses on the importance of chains and legitimization. In Sufism, sheiks are connected by a continuous spiritual chain (isnad, sanad, silsila). This chain links every previous Sufi sheik, and eventually can be traced back to the Successors, and in later times to the Prophet himself. As Sufism grew, influential shayks began to acquire spiritual centers and waypoints known as khanqah, ribat, and zaouia.[2] Sheikhs duplicate the Prophetic realities, and are also expected to perform and act as an intermediary between the Creator and the created, since the sheikh has arrived close to God through his meditations and spiritual travels. There are several types of such sheikh.

The legitimacy of the sheik is based on the unbroken chain of authors or other sheiks. The shorter the chain the more authoritative the person becomes.[3] Teaching-sheiks provided their disciples with religious instruction as well as theology. During this time student travelled and interacted with different teacher-sheiks. Sufi sheiks flourished throughout the Islamic world more than any other type of personal authority because their mediatory skills were required for the smooth functioning of an agrarian-nomadic economy with a decentralized form of government.[4]

The Directing-sheik

With the advent of institutionalized Sufism in the ninth century came the changed relationship between disciple and sheik. This came at a time in the Islamic world when other institutions were spreading to an ever far-reaching Islamic world, and were facing a collapsing caliphal empire. The sheik became a more authoritative figure, and become synonymous with prophetic traits as well as a totally functional leader. The sheik took on a new role as a permanent and known teacher, not a teaching-guide to a group of disciples. The sheik had permanent residence in a lodge and surrounded himself with his students. The disciples would live with the sheik and would follow the sheiks rules and prescribed behaviors. The lodge became an integral part of the Muslim community, as it maintained land holdings and also supported economic activities in cities. The directing-sheik became an authority for those seeking training and a strengthening of their moral and intellectual character. The shift from teaching-sheik to directing-sheik brought about an unprecedented focus on decorum (adab). Directing-sheiks core characteristic was set within the Sufi context of training others to approach God more closely and intimately.[5] Overall the experience of learning the mystical path of Sufism underneath the guise of the directing-sheik was much more intense than that of the teacher-sheik.


The importance of lineage in Sufism is exhibited by one such example as the Khirka. Khirka literally meaning, "Rough cloak, scapular, coarse gown". The cloak acts as an initiation process in Sufism in which the sheik puts his khirka on the disciple, or known as "Investiture with the Cloak".[6] This acts as the manifestation of blessings being transmitted from sheik to disciple. The act is reminiscent of when the Muhammad placed a cloak over Ali. This process solidifies the sheik-disciple relationship and creates an allegiance. After this process the disciple is able to join the Sufi order and continue studying underneath the sheik.[7]


Silsila is used in Sufism to describe the continuous spiritual chain that links Sufi orders and sheiks in a lineage relating back to the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions.[8]

Necessary qualifications of a sheik

The basic requirements for a person to be a Sufi sheik are as follows.[9]

See also



  1. ^ Buehler, Arthur (1998). Sufi Heirs of the Prophet. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press. pp. 1–2.
  2. ^ Buehler, Arthur (1998). Sufi Heirs of the Prophet. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press. pp. 3–4.
  3. ^ Buehler, Arthur (1998). Sufi Heirs of the Prophet. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press.
  4. ^ Knysh, Alexander. "Irfan revisited: Khomeini and the Legacy of Islamic Mystical Philosophy". Middle East Journal.
  5. ^ Buehler, Arthur (1998). Sufi Heirs of the Prophet. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press.
  6. ^ Brown, Jonathan. Hadith Muhammad's Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World. Oxford. p. 188.
  7. ^ Michon. > "Ḵh̲irḳa". Brill. Retrieved April 1, 2011.
  8. ^ Trimingham, J.L. "Silsila". Brill Online. Retrieved April 2, 2011.
  9. ^ "Tariqa Notes - sheik Nuh Ha Mim Keller". Masud.co.uk. Retrieved May 28, 2007.