Sheikh or sheik is an Arabic word, used before the birth of Islam, to designate elderly male members of a tribe as those deserving respect. It’s comparable to the term Elder in the English language, especially when an Elder’s title conveys not only a person of a certain age and maturity, but also someone who may make political decisions about a group of people in a specific venue. The sheikh in the past and in current times is not only respected, but may have the specific task of guiding and protecting a group of people, settling disputes, being a religious leader, and helping to administer the law. The sheikh’s wife is usually called the sheikah. Especially in Bedouin nomadic tribes, the sheikh is ruler of a tribe, and as such, administers the law, makes deals with other tribes, and works for the prosperity of his people.
Despite an overt association with Islam, it’s a mistake to think all sheikhs are Muslims. It’s also a common mistake to view all Arabs as Islamic. There are Christian sheikhs, especially in places like Lebanon, who have some local authority to protect their people. They are somewhat comparable to the Middle Ages concept of the lord who protects and sees to the well being of his people (plenty of lords did not abuse the feudal system). A good sheikh listens to the people and successful fulfillment of his job means that the people are protected and prosperous. This system is hardly democratic, yet is usually much more fair than that which existed in feudal times.
In modern times, sheikh may be more an honorary term. Elder, more prosperous members of a people may be looked up to as sheikhs. Their experience, wealth, and wisdom mean they are important members of a community, and should be consulted on matters of importance. People may seek out this type of sheikh for advice. Further, virtually all older men in a community may be considered sheikhs.
Sometimes the sheikh is less of a leader of a community in the political sense but more a religious scholar. Elder Sufis who take orders are called sheikhs and are teachers and instructors. Leaders in the sciences may be honored by being called sheikhs.
The Western world’s definition of sheikh limited this term to refer to Kuwait’s leaders. This is an oversight, and in actuality incorrect since it is in much greater use in the Arabic world. Kuwaiti leaders are not called sheikhs anymore, incidentally, but are now termed emirs.