Are there any differences among the words King, Sultan, Shah and Sheikh? This article juxtaposes all three side by side.

There are words, phrases, terms and terminologies that, even if, we come across often, care little to find out what they really signify. We take their meanings for granted either because they are too familiar or because they are not important in every day life and therefore not worth taking the extra trouble of knowing them better. Like fairy tales, we read or hear them and then give a go-by. How familiarity and close proximity to a thing can kill man’s natural inquisitiveness or curiosity, I shall illustrate by an example.

Nearly thirty-five years ago, I had visited Taj Mahal, a great wonder of the world then and now, drawing people from world over. We went by Taj Express from Delhi directly to Agra and were shown around in an excellent air-conditioned coach. Outside was very hot. There were some American travellers with us. During the course of the tour, I casually asked a local person as to how many times he has seen Taj Mahal from close quarters since he lived nearby. I was taken aback by his reply: ‘Oh! Taj Mahal, it is so near to my house (gharka najdik me to hai). Kabhi bhi dekh lenge (any time I can see); usme badi bat kya hai (what is the big deal?).’ This condition of things prevails almost every where and with all tiers of people from the illiterate to the literate to the highly educated.

taj mahal black and white King, Sultan, Shah and Sheikh

It so happened one day, a friend asked me a simple question. The question was: what do the words king, sheikh, shah and sultan denote? Are there differences among them or they mean the same in different languages?  I gave an answer based on what I read in history books decades ago. But the answer was very unsatisfactory. For Sultan, I could not go beyond the names Razia Sultana (1236-1240 CE) and Tippu Sultan (1782-1799 CE). Shah meant Shah Jahan (1628-1658 CE), Bahadur Shah Zafar (1837-1858 CE) or the Shah of Iran (1941-1979 CE) whose photograph I had seen in The Times of India in late 1970s. For the Sheikh it was the popular image of a rich Arab who has many wives and has a very lucrative oil business, one who visits India, stays in Taj, Oberoi or any such 7 star hotels. Performance for king was much better in comparison. This lack of something which is so familiar to us from childhood quickened in me a desire for knowing more about these words. The present article is a short presentation of that effort.


King: This royal title comes from the Germanic Kuningaz that means ‘son of the people’. It refers to the male ruler of an independent state such as King George VI who inherits his position by right of birth or a titular head of a nation such as the Emperor Hirohito of Japan.  Other titles for king are Emperor, Sovereign Prince, etc. Emperor is considered the higher monarchical title and sovereign kings are ranked higher than the vassal kings. The kings of Bulgaria have the title Emperor. A queen is a king’s consort or  female equivalent of a king. Elizabeth II of United Kingdom is both queen and a monarch. The word queen comes from the Germanic kwoeniz or kwenon, ‘wife’. The realm of both a king and a queen is termed as kingdom.

king George King, Sultan, Shah and Sheikh



A king is a monarch who is born and brought up in a royal family and trained for taking up future duties of his kingdom. Indian equivalent of king is Raaja and that of queen is raanee. Malika is an Arabic queen.

A title very akin to King is King of Kings. It is the equivalent of Emperor. The title of ‘king of kings’ (sar sarrani) was first used by Tukulti-Ninurta I of Assyria (1243 – 1207 BCE). The Persian title of ‘king of kings’ is Shahan Shah. Emperors of Russia are called tsars. In Judaism, ‘king of kings’ refers to God and in Islam the title is exclusively for Allah. In Vedic Hinduism, it is OM. The emperors of Ethiopia had the title ‘king of kings’. In the Hellenic world, Caesarion had the title “king of kings”. The Mali Emperors’ title for “king of kings” is Mansa. The equivalent terms among the Hindu rulers of India are samraat,  raajadhiraaja, chakravarti, mahaaraaja, etc.

Sultan is a noble title and a name for Mohammedan rulers or monarchs. It derives from the Aramaic word shalit (ruler, leader), the Arabic salute and the Akkadian shalatu. The term came to use after the Caliph delegated power to govern portions of his caliphate which had become too big for him to rule directly. These people over time became independent rulers and called themselves ‘sultans’. The first major ruler to use the title was Ibn Tulun in 868 CE. Thus, the word sultan means power, might, strength, reign, rule, etc. and a person holding that title has absolute political authority but no religious authority.

razia sultan King, Sultan, Shah and Sheikh


Sultans owed religious allegiance to the Caliph. The dynasty and the lands ruled by a sultan are called a sultanate. A female sultan was called a sultana. There is no specific word for a sultan’s wife. Sultana may also denote a lady of a sultan’s harem, a king’s mistress, a concubine or a courtesan.

The term sultan is closely associated with the Seljuq (1016-1153 CE) and the Ottoman (1299-1923 CE) empires. The first Seljuq ruler to be named Sultan was Alp Arslan (1063-1072 CE) and the first Ottoman ruler to claim the title was Murad I (1362-1389 CE). By the beginning of 16th century, members of Ottoman dynasty have used the sultan title. But Ottomans themselves used ‘padisah’ or ‘hunkar’ to refer to their rulers.

Emperor’s formal title read like Sultan Suleiman Khan. Sultan’s children were also entitled to use the title ‘sultan’. Sultan title could be used either as prefix or suffix to names. At different periods of history, this title was used in Islamic states across Asia, Africa and Europe. Sultans head many modern Islamic nations: Brunei, Oman, Malayasia. In India too we had Sultans and Sultanates such as the Delhi Sultanate, the Sultanate of Mysore and Tipu Sultan, the Bengal Sultanate, the Deccan Sultanates. Sultan of Sultans is the equivalent of King of Kings. More recently Sultan is used as synonym for kings.

Shah is a Persian word for king, for he who rules and is used as a title for the kings, emperors and lords of Persia. The symbol of Persian Shah was Lion and Sun. This royal title is not to be confused with the common place Indian surname shah which derives from the Sanskrit word saadhoo meaning a gentleman.

The Persian word Shah was first used by the Achaemenid rulers (c.550-330 BCE) of the First Persian Empire nearly a 1000 years before the advent of Islam. They used the full title Sahe Sahan, King of Kings or Shahanshah (Xsayathiya Xsayathiyanam) and not its corruption Shah. The Persian word xsayathiya comes from the Sanskrit word kshatra from which is derived the word kshatriya (the Hindu warrior caste of India).

Shah title was adapted by the Muslim rulers of Shirvan (Shahs of Shirvan or Shirvanshah), the Delhi and the Bengal Sultanates, in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Georgia. In Iran, the Shah title was used to mean Shahanshah, i.e. King of Kings or Emperor of the Persian Empire through out its history from the Achaemenid dynasty to rulers of succeeding dynasties up to the Pahlavi dynasty which was removed in the Iranian revolution of 1979. While the Ottoman Sultans never styled themselves as Shah, their male offspring received the title of Shahzade which means offspring of the Shah. The word shah is an imprecise rendering of shahanshah. The term, meaning title for the King of Persia, was first recorded in English in 1564 with the spelling ‘shaw’.

Shah King, Sultan, Shah and Sheikh

With the rise of the Shi’ite Safavid theocratic  dynasty in Persia (1501-1722 CE) and the Sunni Mogul dynasty in India (1526-1858 CE), Shah came to refer to Muslim rulers. A Safavid Shah had political as well as religious authority. He was thought to be chosen by God. Shah meaning ‘king’ or ’emperor’ was restricted to India and Persia. In the modern context, Shah is to be understood just as a title and denotes the ruler of a specific area.  The last Shah of Iran was Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi who styled his wife Shahbanu (Empress), a Persian term using the word shah and the Persian suffix ‘banu’ (lady).

 A prince or princess in the kingdom of a Shah was called shahzada or shahzadeh which is derived from the term shah using the Persian patronymic suffix zadeh or zada, “born from” or “descendant of”. This title was used by the princes of the Mughal Empire in India. In Oudh (Ayodhya), only the sons of the sovereign Shah Bahadur were, by birth, styled “Shahzada Mirza Bahadur.”

Sheikh, Sheik, Shaikh or Shaykh: It is a name that is found throughout the Muslim world and is a pre-Islamic Arabic title of respect. Its strict Arabic meaning is a venerable man of old age. In the Middle East, this title is often held by royalty. A girl’s young man is also called a sheik. In slang, it refers to an ideal film hero. A Hindu convert to Islam is also called sheik. The term sheikh can have the following meanings:

  1. A man, especially an elderly man, respected for his piety or religious learning such as the ulamas (Muslim theologians). The title has been made applicable to anyone, regardless of age, who has memorized the whole of Qur’ān;
  1. A male leader, in particular the head of religious order, head of college, chief or head of an Arab family, tribe or village (an Arab chief);

sheikh zayed King, Sultan, Shah and Sheikh

The most important title associated with Sheik is Shaykh ul-Islam (leader of Islam). It was conferred on muftis (individuals well-grounded in Islamic law), ulamas (doctors of Muslim religion and law) and mystics. In the Ottoman Turkey, this title was bestowed only on the mufti of Istanbul who was equal in rank to the prime minister (grand vizier). A person holding this title controlled religion, law, justice and education. He had the power to issue binding Fatwaas (Islamic legal pronouncements). After Turkey became a republic, this extremely powerful institution was completely abolished in 1924.

By Dr. Sachidanand  Das

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