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Sharīf

By:
Sinan Antoon, Bassam S. A. Haddad
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Sharīf

The meanings of the Arabic word sharīf (pl., ashrāf, shurafāʿ ) include “noble,” “honorable,” “distinguished” “highborn,” and “highbred.” A sharīf is a man who claims descent from prominent ancestors, usually the prophet Muḥammad.

Although the Qurʿān and most of the Prophet 's sayings emphasize the equality of all believers and allot distinction only on the basis of devoutness and adherence to religion, there are instances in which the lineage of the Prophet is given preference. The influence of Shīʿī views and increased veneration for the Prophet and his family over time made membership in the house of Muḥammad a sign of particular eminence; thus, tracing one 's ancestry to ahl al-bayt (people of the house [of Muḥammad]) is a necessary requirement for being a sharīf. In other contexts, sharīf also means a person of importance and high social status, or a free man as opposed to a slave.

Throughout the Muslim world the sharīfs wore turbans, usually green and white, to distinguish them from others. They were to be revered and respected. They were not subject to the same religious stipulations that apply to other Muslims because their sins will be forgiven by God. In earlier periods a religious official, the naqīb al-ashrāf, was responsible for ascertaining the legal validity of the sharīfs ’ lineage, monitoring their conduct, reminding them of their obligations, and keeping them from doing anything that might injure their prestige.

There is an association and similarity between the sharīf and the sayyid, which also denotes a free man, lord, or master. The sayyid is revered as a saint, especially after his death, when his tomb is likely to become a place of pilgrimage. His blessing confers good fortune, and he acts as an intermediary in popular disputes.

Countless families of sharīfs and sayyids can be found throughout the Muslim world. Several of these families were major rulers at different periods. The sharīfs ruled in Mecca and the Hejaz from the tenth century until 1924, when sharīf Ḥusayn, who had proclaimed the Arab revolt against the Ottomans in 1916 and become king of the Hejaz, was defeated by Ibn Saʿūd. The Hashemites, descendants of Meccan sharīfs, rule Jordan and ruled Iraq until 1958. King Ḥasan II comes from a sharīf dynasty that has ruled Morocco since the seventeenth century. This genealogical tradition has also survived strongly in western Arabia and the Ḥaḍramawt in Yemen. Other such families exercise local influence throughout the Arab and broader Muslim world. Sharīfs usually occupy high social status, but they are not necessarily wealthy.

See also AHL AL-BAYT and SAYYID.

Bibliography

  • Al-munjid fī al-lughah wa-al-aʿlām. Beirut, 1992.
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