Abu-Bekr, the first successor to Mahomet, who died in A.D. 632, had been his faithful follower for many years.
Upon taking the new title, Caliph, or “successor,” he relinquished his former title, “The Faithful.” This latter title was then taken by Omar, the man appointed to succeed him, who announced himself to be “Commander of the Faithful,” or Amir-al-muninin.
The title, “Commander,” or Amir became increasingly popular after that. The Caliph himself was Amir-al-Umara, “Ruler of Rulers”; the minister of finance became Amir-al-Ahgal, and finally there came Amir-alAlam, “Commander of Banners,” and Amir-al-Han, “Commander of Caravans to Mecca.”
Christian writers of the period naturally assumed that Amir-al was a single word, amiral. Later English writers then assumed that this word beginning with “am” was just another queer foreign way of spelling Latin words that began with “adm.” But, though they now changed the spelling of the Moslem expression to admiral, they retained the original meaning, ruler, or prince, or commander.
Italy, France, and Spain, however, began to follow the Saracen lead with a “Commander of the Sea” (Amir-al-Bahr). England also, not to be outdone, appointed such an officer for the British fleet in the late fourteenth century, and gave him the title Admiral.
Thus when we say “Admiral Smith,” we are using an Arabic expression which, if the literal meaning were observed, would be “Commander of the Smith,” Amir-al-Smith.