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SAINTHOOD. The words “saint” and “sainthood” are used cross-culturally to describe persons of exceptional spiritual merit and the status attained by such persons. These terms are originally derived from Christian experience; it must not be assumed that all features of Christian sainthood are reproduced in Islam. Some similarities and differences are noted below.

The approximate equivalent in Arabic to “saint” is wali (pl., awhyd’); wildyah or waldyah may be translated as “sainthood.” The literal meaning of wali is “friend,” “helper,” or “patron.” There is no passage in the Qur’an that explicitly recognizes saints or sanctions the institution of sainthood. In fact, the message of the Qur’an regarding wall is quite different. It repeatedly emphasizes that God and God alone is the wali of the believers and that there is no wali or helper but him (3.68, 2.107, 2.120, 9.116, 18.26, and many other verses). Humankind is sternly warned against taking “friends” or seeking aid from any but God (6.14, 42.9), as have the wrongdoers who take each other as friends (45-19, 8.73) and those who are the awhyd’ of Satan instead of God (16.63, 4.76, 7.30). In addition, the Qur’an disallows intercession (shafa`ah) by any but God (2.48, 7448); there is neither wali nor shafi` (intercessor) except him (6.51).

Nevertheless, those who read wall as “saint” have found support in the scriptures. The revelation mentions that the believers may be “friends” to one another (5-55, 9.71), and some Sufi exegetes have interpreted verse 62 of the tenth surah of the Qur’an–“As for the friends (awhyd’) of God, no fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve”-as referring to a class of persons selected by God for special favor, possessing esoteric knowledge, or even guarded from committing major sins. Sufi exegesis has sometimes seized on qualifying phrases in verses banning intercession-for instance, “There is no intercessor except by His permission” (10.3)-to suggest that there are indeed some granted special favor by God who may intercede on behalf of others. The Sufis also point to a number of hadiths that describe the qualities and privileges of awliya.

Sainthood in Islam is informal. Saints become saints by acclamation; there is no process of canonization and no constituted body to apply it, as in Catholicism. Consequently, there are many types of saints. Popular saints are the focus of local cults emerging from a stratum of pre-Islamic religion. These saints are associated with simple shrines or even natural objects such as springs or trees, and their veneration involves a variety of folk practices. A large number of such saints are found in North Africa, where they are known as murdbit (“he who watches [through the night over his soul]”; Fr., marabout). A host of popular saints was once venerated by the Arab population of Palestine, and similar figures are still a focus of folk religious life in present-day Lebanon. In Morocco, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, and Anatolia some saints were formerly shared by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worshipers, but as political events and social developments have separated these religious groups, ecumenical saint-worship has declined.

Sufism has served in the past to absorb local customs and culture and to bring non-Islamic and peasant populations into the fold of Islam. Thus the majority of popular saints are also Sufi saints. The tombs of such saints often serve as the focal point of the Sufi lodges (khdnaqdh, ribdt, zdwiyah, or tekke) in which members of the fraternities reside or meet and Sufi ceremonies are performed. The anniversary of the birth or death of the saint (mawlid) may involve a more elaborate festival featuring songs and processions. Some Sufi shaykhs, unlike Christian saints, are acclaimed as saints while still living; these may be called on to dispense advice and mediate disputes. Sufi sainthood, in any case, has fulfilled and continues to fulfill an important social function, as saintly authority sometimes remains in one family through generations, and tribal and other social structures are reinforced through allegiance to particular saints.

Another category of saints is the past saints of Sufi legend. Most of these are not identified with tombs; their memorials are contained instead in brief tales of their wise sayings, virtues, and miracles related in the biographical anecdotes that comprise an important part of Sufi literature. (Some contemporary saints have been the subjects of more lengthy biographies.) A significant number of popular, Sufi, and legendary saints are women. Muslim women, it seems, have found it easier to gain spiritual fame outside of mainstream Islam.

Finally, Sufi mystical speculation presents an elaborate hierarchy of saints. These awhyd’ comprise a divinely elected class, according to some accounts numbering several hundred. Their existence is said to be as necessary as that of the prophets, the chief of them being the “pole” (qutb) around which the very universe revolves.

The mainstream Twelver Shi’is do not speak of saints, since the spiritual rank of wilayah is already occupied by their imams who, much like the Sufi saints, are God’s elect, sustain the existence of the world, worked miracles in their lifetime, and continue to intercede for their followers with God. Iranian Shiism, however, does allow for a kind of lesser sainthood and absorption of local pilgrimage sites and folk practices by attaching these to relatives of the imams. There are many such imamzadah (“related to the imams”) shrines in Iran, some rather rudimentary and doubtful but nevertheless still active. A large and elaborate shrine has lately been constructed over the remains of Ayatollah Khomeini near the Bihisht-i Zahra cemetery outside Tehran and is already a favorite place of pilgrimage. Khomeini has certainly become a “saint” in a practical, if not theological, sense; his charisma far outweighs that of any other deceased member of the religious hierarchy, and he may well become the only true Shil’i saint apart from the imams and imdmzddahs.

The chief function of the Islamic saints, similar to that of the Christian saints, is to intercede with God on behalf of those who appeal to them. The power the saints are granted to facilitate the affairs of their devotees and smooth their way to God is called barakah or “blessing.” The tombs of the saints-or, during their lives, their residences-are the object of pilgrimage (ziydrah) by those who hope to obtain this barakah. Barakah is often thought to be transferred by physical touch from the tomb or person of the saint to the petitioner. Some popular saints are noted for dispensing particular kinds of favors: for instance, a female saint may be expert in granting children to the women who specially visit her or otherwise settling domestic matters. Allegiance to saints, saint pilgrimage, and seeking of barakah have lessened with modern times, particularly with the decline of Sufism; these practices, however, do survive, particularly among urban poor and rural populations.

Some Muslims have been opposed to sainthood as being un-Islamic in both conception and practice; the Qur’anic texts referred to above enter into this controversy. Seeking intercession, belief in miracles, and pilgrimage to saints’ tombs have been particularly disapproved; the dangers in these are thought to be violation of monotheism and setting up others as equal to the Prophet. An effort was made by the theologians to admit sainthood while protecting the position of the prophets by distinguishing the full-blown miracles (mu’jizat) of the former from the mere “charismata” (kardmat) of the latter. Some written creeds even listed belief in the awliyd’ as an article of faith. Nevertheless, sainthood and saint-worship were frequent targets of the orthodox `ulama’ Ibn Taymiyah (d. 1328) was perhaps the most prominent critic of sainthood. He vigorously condemned the visiting of tombs and other popular practices as corruption of the true religion. Ibn Taymiyah has influenced many Islamic thinkers to seek a return to pure, “original” Islam, and they have also followed him in condemning sainthood. The present Saudi regime upholds Wahhabism, a movement originating in the Arabian Peninsula in the eighteenth century that also traces its spiritual descent to Ibn Taymiyah. The government and religious hierarchy of Saudi Arabia thus seek to suppress any manifestation of saintworship; this is particularly significant since the Saudis have great religious influence in the Muslim world. A second type of criticism of sainthood is exclusively modern. This trend of thought sees saint-worship as a prime manifestation of the irrationality and obscurantism which has weakened the Muslim world. The Egyptian reformer Muhammad Rashid Rida (d. 1935) was one of those who expressed this opinion. The revered Pakistani thinker Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) and other subcontinental modernists have also considered the numerous local saints (called pirs, “elders”) as founts of superstition and upholders of the feudal system and have thus called for the elimination of “pirism.”

Saints and their shrines have often been centers of political power. Within the context of the modern nationstate, governments have tried either to suppress or to coopt saintly institutions. The secularizing measures of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1920& included suppression of the Turkish shrines and devaluing of saintly personality. In Pakistan various regimes have combined programs tending to strike at the economic and spiritual authority of living pirs with a conspicuous effort to make the state the overseer of the shrines and to patronize ceremonies associated with them. The pirs have responded to this by competing in the political systemfor instance by influencing or putting up candidates and have thus managed to maintain some independence and defend their interests. The Egyptian government has lately found it useful to patronize the saints and protect pilgrims and festivals in order to counter the Islamists who, in true fundamentalist fashion, abhor saintworship; armed soldiers can be seen around some shrines at festival times. It seems that devotion to the saints is considered a politically safe diversion for the urbanizing masses.


Ansari, Sarah F. D. Sufi Saints and State Power: The Pirs of Sind, 1843-1947. Cambridge, 1992. Describes the functioning of the pit system in a modern political context and in the face of colonialism. Biegmann, Nicolaas. Egypt: Moulids, Saints, Sufis. The Hague, 1990. A hundred color photographs, accompanied by text, convey the flavor of popular and Sufi saint worship.

Canaan, Taufik. Mohammedan Saints and Sanctuaries in Palestine (1927). Jerusalem, 1979. Detailed description of popular shrines and folk practices in former Palestine.

Denny, Frederick Mathewson. ” `God’s Friends’: The Sanctity of Persons in Islam.” In Sainthood: Its Manifestations in World Religions, edited by Richard Kieckhefer and George D. Bond, pp. 6997. Berkeley, 1988. Treats the notion of sanctity throughout Islam, rather than confining it to saints.

Farid al-Din `Attar. Tazkirat al-awliyd (Memorials of the Saints). Selections translated by A. J. Arberry as Muslim Saints and Mystics. Chicago, 1966. The Persian mystical poet `Attar’s (d. c.1230) classic compilation of biographical notices of the saints.

Gellner, Ernest. Saints of the Atlas. Chicago, 1969. Specialized work, of particular interest to anthropologists and sociologists. Describes the social functioning of sainthood and barakah in the context of Berber settlements in Morocco; based on fieldwork done in the 1950s and 1960s.

Gilsenan, Michael. Saint and Sufi in Modern Egypt: An Essay in the Sociology of Religion. Oxford, 1973. Lively, imaginative, and readable account of modern Sufism and its underlying themes, written by a prominent anthropologist.

Goldziher, Ignacz. “The Veneration of Saints in Islam.” In his Muslim Studies, vol. 2, pp. 255-341. Translated by S. M. Stern. London, 1971. Classic essay that presents sainthood, including veneration of the Prophet, as an accretion to original Islam. Many interesting popular practices are detailed, but the material (first published in 1890 in German) is now dated.

Lings, Martin. A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century: Shaykh Ahmad al-`Alawi, His Spiritual Heritage and Legacy. 3d ed. Cambridge, 1993 Personal account of an Algerian Safi master and saint active in the first half of the twentieth century.

Memon, Muhammad Umar. Ibn Taymiya’s Struggle against Popular Religion. The Hague and Paris, 1976. Includes an annotated translation of one of Ibn Taymiyah’s polemics against sainthood.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/sainthood/

  • writerPosted On: July 22, 2017
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