Many of us use the word Shaikh between many of the youth. So the question is: when is it correct to use the term for a person?
First: It is upon the Muslims to beware of exaggeration in praise for it is established that the Prophet sallahu alayhi wa salam said:
المدح هو الذبح
Praise is slaughter
[Reported in Ibn Abi Shaybah (6/206) from Ibn Umar]
And He saallahu alayhi wa salam said:
من كان مادحًا أخاه فليقل: أحسبه كذلك، والله حسيبه
Whoever among you has to praise his brother should say, ‘I think that he is so and so…”
[al-Bukhari no. 2662 and Muslim no. 3000 from Abu Bakrah]
Secondly: The word Shaikh is used for two meanings: old in age. The evidence is the statement of Allah, the Exalted:
قَالَتَا لا نَسْقِي حَتَّى يُصْدِرَ الرِّعَاءُ وَأَبُونَا شَيْخٌ كَبِيرٌ
They said: “We cannot water (our flocks) until the shepherds take (their flocks). And our father is a very old man.”
It is also used for narrators who are not weak, but are not relied upon. adh-Dhahabi said in the introduction to al-Mizeen: I do not face any problems by the mention of one who is called Shaikh, for this and its likes indicates the absence of absolute weakness. Sometimes Ibn Qattan used this wording Shaikh for the one who is not from the people of knowledge nor its students. Even if he is a companion of narrations that are agreed upon. Talib ibn Hajr said in Bayan al-wahm wal-Ihaam: He is a person who is not a proficient student of knowledge. He is only a person who it is agreed upon narrating Hadith from him. Ahmad ibn Hanbal said about Zakariyya in Mandhoor: Shaikh, lenient. As is in Tarteeb al-Madaarik of Qaadi al-‘Iyyad. In that same source, it is recorded from Ibn Abi Hatim, his statement on Uthman ibn Hakam: Shaikh, he is not proficient.
So it is possible to conclude from this and say: the word Shaikh is the last level of praise and the first level of criticism. As for using the word Shaikh for a leader of a people, then this is not well-known among the earlier Scholars. The word sayyid (سيّد) is only well-known for the right of the one who leads a people. As the Prophet sallahu alayhi wa salam said:
من سيّدكم يا بني سلمة
Who is your master, Banu Salama?
الجد بن قيس غير أنا نبخله
‘Judd ibn Qays, although we think that he is a miser.
He said sallahu alayhi wa salam:
وأي داء أدوأ من البخل؟! سيدكم عمرو بن الجموح
What illness is worse than miserliness? Your master is ‘Amr ibn al-Jamuh.
[Adab ul-Mufrad pg. 111 and it is in Saheeh Musnad no. 226]
It comes in another Hadith:
لُدِغَ سيِّدُ ذلك الحيِّ، فَسَعَوْا له بكل شيء، لا ينْفَعُه شيء، فقال بعضهم: لو أتيتُم هؤلاءِ الرَّهطِ الذين نزلوا بكم، لعلَّ عندهم بعضُ شيء؟ فأتَوْهم، فقالوا: يا أيها الرَّهط! إن سَيِّدَنا لُدِغَ، وسَعَيْنا له بكل شيء، لا ينفعه شيء، فهل عند أحد منكم من شيء؟ فقال بعضهم: إني والله لأرْقي
The chief of that tribe was then bitten by a snake (or stung by a scorpion) and they tried their best to cure him but in vain. Some of them said (to the others), “Nothing has benefited him, will you go to the people who resided here at night, it may be that some of them might possess something (as treatment),” They went to the group of the companions (of the Prophet (ﷺ) ) and said, “Our chief has been bitten by a snake (or stung by a scorpion) and we have tried everything but he has not benefited. Have you got anything (useful)?” One of them replied, “Yes, by Allah! I can recite a Ruqya…”
[al-Bukhari no. 2276]
And it has come in the Sunnah the word (عرفاء) the plural of (عريف) used for what is called nowadays the Mashaaikh of tribes”
Faisal Ibn Abdul Qaadir Ibn Hassan