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What is the difference between an Emir and a Sultan? Are they both Sheik?

For instance, OALD defines:

Emir: the title given to some Muslim rulers

Emirate: an area of land that is ruled over by an emir

Sultan: the title given to Muslim rulers in some countries

Sultanate: an area of land that is ruled over by a sultan

While OAAD defines (there is no entry for Sheik on OALD, why?):

1 an Arab prince or leader; the head of an Arab family, town, etc. / 2 a leader in a Muslim community or organization

Could we say that "Emperor":"King"="Emir":"Sultan"?

share|improve this question
Well, I can copy out the OED’s entries for all three, which are much better than what you have given here, but these are all from the 1989 OED2: they haven’t been updated for the OED3 yet. Would that be of any help? – tchrist May 19 '12 at 0:11
I don't think this is really about English. Sheik, emir and sultan are all borrowed words which are used in an adopted context. – simchona May 19 '12 at 0:12
@LewisCarroll All of the words are borrowed, and their definition depends on the Muslim or Arabic concepts of nobility--not English. – simchona May 19 '12 at 0:16
Perhaps this should be moved to history.se? – T.E.D. May 19 '12 at 0:18
@simchona No, their definitions in English do not depend on their origins. This is known as an etymological fallacy. – tchrist May 19 '12 at 0:38
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Entries from the OED provided below.

Note carefully the years that these words entered English:

  • For example, emirate is extremely recent.

  • You missed the eldest of terms, caliph, such as the exceedingly famous Caliphate of Córdova, which ruled Iberia and northern Africa between 929–1031.

  • There is apparently no attested word ∗sheik(h)dom.

These are all taken from the online OED, and haven’t been updated since the second edition.

caliph | calif n. 1393

The title given in Muslim countries to the chief civil and religious ruler, as successor of Muhammad.

caliphate n. 1614

    • a. The rank, dignity, or office of caliph.
    • b. The reign or term of office of a caliph
  1. The dominion of a caliph.

sultan n. 1555

    • a. The sovereign or chief ruler of a Muslim country; spec. (Hist.) the sovereign of Turkey. Also formerly, a prince or king's son, a high officer.

    • b. Taken as a type of magnificence; also attrib.

    • c. Used with allusion to an Eastern ruler's harem; also attrib.
  1. An absolute ruler; gen. a despot, tyrant.

sultanate n. 1822

  1. A state or country subject to a sultan; the territory ruled over by a sultan.

  2. The office or power of a sultan.

sheikh n. 1577

    • a. The chief of an Arab family or tribe; the headman of an Arabian village; an Arab chief; †an Eastern governor, prince, king. Now also used among Arabs as a general title of respect.
    • b. (Chiefly in spelling sheik.) A type of a strong, romantic lover; a lady-killer. [After The Sheik, a novel by E. M. Hull (1919), and its cinematic adaptation The Sheikh, 1921, starring Rudolph Valentino.]
    • a. The head of a Muslim religious order or community; a great religious doctor or preacher; now esp. a saint having a local cultus.
    • b. Sheikh-ul-Islam (properly Sheikhu 'l Islam) : the supreme authority in matters relating to religion and sacred law; in Turkey, the mufti. Hence Sheikh-ul-Islamate.
  1. In India, one of a dissenting sect of Muslims; a general term for Hindu converts to Islam. (Usually shekh, shaikh.)

emir n. 1625

  1. A Saracen or Arab prince, or governor of a province; a military commander.
  2. A title of honour borne by the descendants of the prophet Muhammad.

emirate n. 1863

The jurisdiction or government of an emir.

share|improve this answer
Great answer! +1 and accepted. – user21032 May 19 '12 at 0:43
@LewisCarroll Thank you. Although a great many questions here in ESL&U could be justly closed as “general reference” if only the OED weren’t behind a paywall, alas it indeed is so. None of the free available dictionaries holds a candle to it, and so I find myself copying its entries into answers here quite a bit for people who have no subscription. Note that most universities and many libraries do have a subscription, which means that even today better research can often be done at the library than at home. – tchrist May 19 '12 at 0:46
@tchrist: except some library subscriptions also allow remote access from home. – J.R. May 19 '12 at 1:37
Thought it was EL&U, though it does sometimes look like it is 'ESL&U'. – Kris May 19 '12 at 5:56

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