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Saints and Sainthood

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Saints and Sainthood

    Originating in Christianity, the term saint typically describes an individual with exceptional spiritual qualities and miraculous powers. The Arabic term closest in meaning is wali, meaning “friend,” “patron,” or “helper”. The word walayah refers to sainthood. The Qur'an does not explicitly recognize saints or sainthood, but emphasizes that God is the wali of believers and that there is no wali but God.

    Most Muslims do not believe in saints. Some view the idea of sainthood as violating the concept of monotheism, a central tenet of Islam. Others consider saint worship a sign of ignorance and superstition. Most of those who do believe in a form of sainthood are Sufis. Unlike Catholicism, Sufism has no specific process through which awliya (plural of wali) achieve their status. Awliya may be male or female, and some even achieve walayah during their lifetime.

    Sufis point to several passages of the Qur'an to support their belief in saints. A line in surah 10 states, “As for the friends of God, no fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve.” Some believe that this statement indicates the existence of a special class of people selected by God for favor and divine knowledge. Other passages in the Qur'an provoke similar interpretations from those who believe in saints.

    Islamic awliya fall into different classes. One consists of popular saints associated with simple shrines or even natural objects, such as springs or trees. Some of these awliya have their roots in pre-Islamic religions, which were absorbed into Muslim culture. North African Muslims revere many such figures, referring to them as murabit, meaning “he who watches over his soul through the night.” Another class of saints consists of Sufis recognized as awliya during their lifetime because of their exceptional piety and good deeds. Sufis make pilgrimages to their tombs and homes, gathering in these places to perform ceremonies and to make major decisions. They also hold birthday celebrations for these saints, sometimes taking part in songs and processions. A third class of saints consists of legendary awliya of the past. Sufis commemorate them in tales of their sayings, virtues, and miracles.

    Saints play many roles for Sufis. Allegiance to a certain wali reinforces tribal alliances, and believers petition those still living to dispense advice and to help settle disputes. Sufis also travel to the tombs of saints to seek God's favor. They believe that saints can bestow barakah (blessing), which is transferred through the physical touch of the tomb, an artifact, or the person from whom the help is sought. Like Christians, Sufis regard some saints as specialists in certain areas. For example, they may petition a particular saint for family harmony and another for success in business.

    Sunni Muslims generally do not believe in saints, but Shi'is frequently elevate their imams to walayah. Imams fulfill many of the same roles as saints, acting as God's helpers, working miracles during their lifetime, and interceding for their followers with God. Iranian Shi'is have a kind of sainthood, visiting many local pilgrimage sites dedicated to imams and their family members. Outside of Tehran, there is a large and elaborate shrine to the Ayatollah Khomeini that has become an important place of pilgrimage. See also Barakah; Khomeini, Ruhollah al-Musavi; Sufism.

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