Middle Eastern Titles: A Glossary

Middle Eastern and central Asian countries use a variety of honorific titles. What do they mean, and what are the differences among them? Here’s a short guide.

Ayatollah: From the Arabic ayat Allah, meaning “sign of God,” a high-ranking Twelver Shiite religious authority. In Iran, it refers to the nation’s political and religious leader. Generally not used by Shiites in Arab countries or in India.

Emir: Also Amir. Leader or commander. Amir-ul Momineen means “commander of the faithful.” In the 10th century, the amirs were Turkish army officers who seized power in Iraq, Iran, and central Asia. Emir can also be used as the Arabic equivalent of “prince.”

Imam: Shiite Muslims use imam for Muhammad’s descendants, whom they believe to be the true rulers of Islam. For Sunni Muslims, imam means “prayer leader.”

Mufti: A Muslim scholar who interprets Islamic law. Only a mufti can issue a fatwa, a formal ruling on a matter of Islamic law.

Mullah: The definition can vary regionally. For Afghanistan, Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban defines it as the traditional prayer leader at a local mosque.

Shah: Formerly the title for Iran’s hereditary monarch. A title for the Persian emperor was shah-en-shah, or “king of kings.”

Sheikh: An elder or religious leader; a wise person.

In addition, news organizations often refer to Muslim leaders as clerics, which is an English word for “members of the clergy.” Click here for a glossary of Islam, or click here for a discussion of the meaning of the word “Arab.”

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Explainer thanks The Battle for God and Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong; Taliban by Ahmed Rashid; Dictionary.com; Encarta Online; the Encyclopaedia of the Orient; and the Islamic glossaries provided by Michigan State University, the University of Southern California, Al-Islam.com, Al-Islam.org, and Islam.com.