Walī (Arabic: ولي, plural ʾawliyāʾ أولياء) is an Arabic word of which the literal meanings include "custodian," "protector," "helper," and "friend." In the vernacular, it is most commonly used by Muslims to indicate an Islamic saint, otherwise referred to by the more literal "friend of God." In the traditional Islamic understanding of saints, the saint is portrayed as someone "marked by [special] divine favor ... [and] holiness," and who is specifically "chosen by God and endowed with exceptional gifts, such as the ability to work miracles." The codified articulation of the doctrine of saints was put forth by Islamic scholars very early on in Muslim history, with the early Muslim thinkers interpreting particular verses of the Quran and various hadith to constitute "documentary evidence" of their existence.
As the Islamic mystical trend of Sufism was beginning to rapidly spread at around the same time as the first Muslim hagiographies were written, many of the figures who later came to be regarded as the major saints in orthodox Sunni Islam were the early Sufi mystics, like Hasan of Basra (d. 728), Farqad Sabakhi (d. 729), Rabi'a al-'Adawiyya (d. 801), Maruf Karkhi (d. 815), and Junayd of Baghdad (d. 910). From the twelfth to the fourteenth century, "the general veneration of saints, among both people and sovereigns, reached its definitive form with the organization of Sufism ... into orders or brotherhoods." In general Islamic piety of the period, the saint was understood to be "a contemplative whose state of spiritual perfection ... [found] permanent expression in the teaching bequeathed to his disciples." In many prominent Sunni Islamic creeds of the time, such as the famous Creed of Tahawi (ca. 900), a belief in the existence and miracles of saints is presented as "a requirement" for being an orthodox Muslim believer.
Aside from the Sufis, the preeminent saints in traditional Islamic piety are the Companions of Muhammad, their Successors, and the third generation after the Prophet, often called "the Successors of the Successors". Additionally, the prophets of Islam are also believed to technically be saints by definition, yet they are rarely referred to as such, in order to prevent any confusion from arising between the veneration of them and that of ordinary saints; as the prophets are exalted by Muslims as the greatest of all humanity, it is general Sunni Islamic belief that a single prophet is greater than all of the regular saints put together. In short, it is believed that "every prophet is a saint, but not every saint is a prophet."
Although there are many similarities between the traditional Islamic and apostolic Christian conception of saints, there are also important differences. For example, Islam has no process of canonization, with saints being declared by popular acclaim and unanimous consensus rather than through a congregation for the causes of saints. In this sense, the Islamic veneration of saints is far more akin to Christian veneration in the early centuries of Christianity, when saints were honored through popular acclaim rather than by official ecclesiastical declaration. Another important difference is that the vast majority of the saints venerated in the Islamic world have in some way or form been affiliated with the aforementioned mystical trend of Sufism, while in Christianity, it is only specific saints who are understood to have fallen within the ambit of "Christian mysticism" proper, such as Gregory of Nyssa, the Desert Fathers, Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard of Bingen, Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory Palamas, and others.
In the modern world, the traditional Sunni and Shia idea of saints has been challenged by the movements of Salafism, Wahhabism, and Islamic modernism, whose influence has "formed a front against the veneration and theory of saints," in a a manner similar to the reaction of the Protestant Reformation against similar practices in the Catholic Church. As it has been noted by scholars, the development of these movements have indirectly led to a trend amongst some mainstream Muslims to also resist "acknowledging the existence of Muslim saints altogether or ... [to view] their presence and veneration as unacceptable deviations." Despite the presence, however, of these opposing streams of thought, the classical doctrine of saint-veneration continues to thrive in many parts of the Islamic world today, playing a vital role in the daily piety of vast portions of Muslim countries like Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey, Senegal, Iraq, Iran, Algeria, Tunisia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Morocco, as well as in countries with substantive Islamic populations like India, China, Russia, and the Balkans.
Regarding the rendering of the Arabic walī by the English "saint," prominent scholars such as Gibril Haddad have regarded this as an appropriate translation, with Haddad describing the aversion of some Muslims towards the use of "saint" for walī as "a specious objection ... for [this is] - like 'Religion' (din), 'Believer' (mu'min), 'prayer' (salat), etc. – [a] generic term for holiness and holy persons while there is no confusion, for Muslims, over their specific referents in Islam, namely: the reality of iman with Godwariness and those who possess those qualities." In Persian, which became the second most influential and widely-spoken language in the Islamic world after Arabic, the general title for a saint or a spiritual master became pīr (Persian: پیر, literally "old [person]," "elder"). Although the ramifications of this phrase include the connotations of "saint," it is most often used to specifically signify a spiritual guide of some type.
Amongst Indian Muslims, the title peer baba (पीर बाबा) is commonly used in Hindi to refer to Sufi masters or similarly honored saints. Additionally, saints are also sometimes referred to in the Persian or Urdu vernacular with "Hazrat," an honorific having the connotations of "His Holiness" as applied to some of the higher types of Christian clergy. Both pīr and hazrat are often translated into English as "saint" and could also be interpreted in the manner of an "elder" in Eastern Christianity. In Islamic mysticism, a pīr's role is to guide and instruct his disciples on the mystical path. Hence, the key difference between the use of wali and pīr is that the former does not imply a saint who is also a spiritual master with disciples, whilst the latter directly does so through its connotations of "elder." Additionally, other words that also often have the same connotations as pīr, and hence are also sometimes translated as "saint" in English, include murshid (Arabic: مرشد, meaning "guide" or "teacher"), sheikh and sarkar (Persian word meaning "master").
As it has been noted by some modern scholars, the Quran does not explicitly outline a doctrine or theory of saints. In the Quran, the adjective walī is applied to God, in the sense of Him being the "friend" of all believers (2:257). However, particular Quranic verses were interpreted by early Islamic scholars to refer to a special group of holy people. These included 10:62: "Surely God's friends (awliyāa l-lahi): no fear shall be on them, neither shall they sorrow," and 5:54, which refers to God's love for those who love Him. Additionally, some scholars interpreted 4:69, "Whosoever obeys God and the Messenger, they are with those unto whom God hath shown favor: the prophets and the ṣidīqīna and the martyrs and the righteous. The best of company are they," to carry a reference to holy people who were not prophets and were ranked below the latter. The word ṣidīqīna in this verse literally connotes "the truthful ones" or "the just ones," and was often interpreted by the early Islamic thinkers in the sense of "saints," with many modern translators, such as Marmaduke Pickthall, rendering it as "saints" in their interpretations of the scripture. Furthermore, the Quran referred to the miracles of saintly people who were not prophets like Khidr (18:65-82), the disciples of Jesus (5:111-115), and the People of the Cave (18:7-26), amongst many others, which also led many early scholars to deduce that a group of venerable people must exist who occupy a rank below the prophets but are nevertheless exalted by God. The references in the corpus of hadith literature to bona fide saints like the pre-Islamic Jurayj̲ (seemingly an Arabic form of the Greek Grēgorios), whose narrative resembles a similar episode from the life of Gregory Thaumaturgus, only lent further credence to this early understanding of saints.
Collected stories about the "lives or vitae of the saints," like the Golden Legend in medieval Roman Catholic Europe, began to be compiled "and transmitted at an early stage" by many regular Muslim scholars, including Ibn Abi al-Dunya (d. 894), who wrote a work entitled Kitāb al-Awliyāʾ (Lives of the Saints) in the ninth-century, which constitutes "the earliest [complete] compilation on the theme of God’s friends." Prior to Ibn Abi al-Dunya's work, the stories of the saints were transmitted through oral tradition; but after the composition of his work, many Islamic scholars began writing down the widely circulated accounts, with later scholars like Abū Nuʿaym al-Iṣfahānī (d. 948) making extensive use of Ibn Abi al-Dunya's work in his own Ḥilyat al-awliyāʾ (The Adornment of the Saints). It is, moreover, evident from the Kitāb al-Kas̲h̲f wa ’l-bayān of the early Baghdadi Sufi mystic Abu Sa'id al-Kharraz (d. 899) that a cohesive understanding of the Muslim saints was already in existence, with al-Kharraz spending ample space distinguishing between the virtues and miracles (karāmāt) of the prophets and the saints. The genre of hagiography (manāḳib) only became more popular with the passage of time, with numerous prominent Islamic thinkers of the medieval period devoting large works to collecting stories of various saints or to focusing upon "the marvelous aspects of the life, the miracles or at least the prodigies of a [specific] Ṣūfī or of a saint believed to have been endowed with miraculous powers."
In the late ninth-century, important thinkers in Sunni Islam officially articulated the previously-oral doctrine of an entire hierarchy of saints, with the first written account of this hierarchy coming from the pen of al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi (d. 907-912). With the general consensus of Islamic scholars of the period accepting that the ulema were responsible for maintaining the "exoteric" part of Islamic orthodoxy, including the disciplines of law and jurisprudence, while the saints were responsible for articulating the religion's deepest mystical truths, later prominent mystics like Ibn Arabi (d. 1240) only further reinforced this idea of a saintly hierarchy, and the notion of "types" of saints became a mainstay of Sunni mystical thought, with such types including the ṣiddīqūn ("the truthful ones") and the abdāl ("the substitute-saints"), amongst others. It should be noted, however, that many of these concepts appear in writing far before al-Tirmidhi and Ibn Arabi; the idea of the abdāl, for example, appears as early as the Musnad of Ibn Hanbal (d. 855), where the word signifies a group of major saints "whose number would remain constant, one always being replaced by some other on his death." It is, in fact, reported that Ibn Hanbal explicitly identified his contemporary, the mystic Maruf Karkhi (d. 815-20), as one of the abdal, saying: "He is one of the substitute-saints, and his supplication is answered."
From the twelfth to the fourteenth century, "the general veneration of saints, among both people and sovereigns, reached its definitive form with the organization of Sufism—the mysticism of Islam—into orders or brotherhoods." In general Islamic piety of the period, the saint was understood to be "a contemplative whose state of spiritual perfection ... [found] permanent expression in the teaching bequeathed to his disciples." It was by virtue of his spiritual wisdom that the saint was accorded veneration in medieval Islam, "and it is this which ... [effected] his 'canonization,' and not some ecclesiastical institution" as in Christianity. In fact, the latter point represents one of the crucial differences between the Islamic and Christian veneration of saints, for saints are venerated by unanimous consensus or popular acclaim in Islam, in a manner akin to all those Christian saints who began to be venerated prior to the institution of canonization. In fact, belief in the existence of saints became such an important part of medieval Islam that many of the most important creeds articulated during the time period, like the famous Creed of Tahawi, explicitly declared it a requirement for being an "orthodox" Muslim to believe in the existence and veneration of saints and in the traditional narratives of their lives and miracles. Hence, we find that even medieval critics of the widespread practice of venerating the tombs of saints like Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328) never denied the existence of saints as such, with the Hanbali jurist stating: "The miracles of saints are absolutely true and correct, by the acceptance of all Muslim scholars. And the Qur'an has pointed to it in different places, and the sayings of the Prophet have mentioned it, and whoever denies the miraculous power of saints are only people who are innovators and their followers." In the words of one contemporary academic, practically all Muslims of that era believed that "the lives of saints and their miracles were incontestable."
In the modern world, the idea of saints has been challenged by the movements of Salafism and Wahhabism, whose influence has "formed a front against the veneration and theory of saints." For the adherents of Wahhabism, for example, the practice of venerating saints appears as an "abomination," for they see in this a form of idolatry. It is for this reason that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which adheres to the Wahhabi creed, "destroyed the tombs of saints wherever ... able" during its expansion in the Arabian Peninsula from the eighteenth-century onwards. As it has been noted by scholars, the development of these movements have indirectly led to a trend amongst some mainstream Muslims to also resist "acknowledging the existence of Muslim saints altogether or ... [to view] their presence and veneration as unacceptable deviations." At the same time, the movement of Islamic Modernism has also opposed the traditional veneration of saints, for many proponents of this ideology regard the practice as "being both un-Islamic and backwards ... rather than the integral part of Islam which they were for over a millennium." Despite the presence, however, of these opposing streams of thought, the classical doctrine of saint-veneration continues to thrive in many parts of the Islamic world today, playing a vital part in the daily piety of vast portions of Muslim countries like Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey, Senegal, Iraq, Iran, Algeria, Tunisia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Morocco, as well as in countries with substantive Islamic populations like India, China, Russia, and the Balkans.
The general definition of the Muslim saint in classical texts is that he represents a "[friend of God] marked by [special] divine favor ... [and] holiness," being specifically "chosen by God and endowed with exceptional gifts, such as the ability to work miracles." Moreover, the saint is also portrayed in traditional hagiographies as one who "in some way ... acquires his Friend’s, i.e. God’s, good qualities, and therefore he possesses particular authority, forces, capacities and abilities." Amongst classical scholars, Qushayri (d. 1073) defined the saint as someone "whose obedience attains permanence without interference of sin; whom God preserves and guards, in permanent fashion, from the failures of sin through the power of acts of obedience." Elsewhere, the same author quoted an older tradition in order to convey his understanding of the purpose of saints, which states: "The saints of God are those who, when they are seen, God is remembered." Meanwhile, al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi (d. 869), the most significant ninth-century expositor of the doctrine, posited six common attributes of true saints (not necessarily applicable to all, according to the author, but nevertheless indicative of a significant portion of them), which are: (1) when people see him, they are automatically reminded of God; (2) anyone who advances towards him in a hostile way is destroyed; (3) he possesses the gift of clairvoyance (firāsa); (4) he receives divine inspiration (ilhām), to be strictly distinguished from revelation proper (waḥy), with the latter being something only the prophets receive; (5) he can work miracles (karāmāt) by the leave of God, which may differ from saint to saint, but may include marvels such as walking on water (al-mas̲h̲y ʿalā ’l-māʾ) and shortening space and time (ṭayy al-arḍ); and (6) he associates with Khidr. Al-Tirmidhi states, furthermore, that although the saint is not sinless like the prophets, he or she can nevertheless be "preserved from sin" (maḥfūz) by the grace of God. The contemporary Muslim scholar Martin Lings described the Islamic saints as "the great incarnations of the Islamic ideal.... spiritual giants with which almost every generation was blessed," adding that many "non-Muslims who have made an objective study of comparative religion are unanimous in their judgment that no religion has produced saints greater than the saints of Islam."
Types and heirarchy
Saints were envisaged to be of different "types" in classical Islamic tradition. Aside from their earthly differences as regard their temporal duty (i.e. jurist, hadith scholar, judge, traditionist, historian, ascetic, poet), saints were also distinguished cosmologically as regards their celestial function or standing. This is another point of difference between the Islamic and Christian doctrine of saints, for Christian tradition has rarely ever considered the latter type of distinction with regard to its saints, who are distinguished "celestially" only in the fourfold sense of "Servant of God," "Blessed," "Venerable," and "Saint" during the process of canonization. In Islam, however, the saints are represented in traditional texts as serving separate celestial functions, in a manner similar to the angels, and this is closely linked to the idea of a celestial hierarchy in which the various types of saints play different roles. A fundamental distinction was described in the ninth-century by al-Tirmidhi in his Sīrat al-awliyāʾ (Lives of the Saints), who distinguished between two principal varieties of saints: the walī ḥaḳḳ Allāh, on the one hand, and the walī Allāh on the other. According to the author, "the [spiritual] ascent of the walī ḥaḳḳ Allāh must stop at the end of the created cosmos ... he can attain God’s proximity, but not God Himself; he is only admitted to God’s proximity (muḳarrab). It is the walī Allāh who reaches God. Ascent beyond God’s throne means to traverse consciously the realms of light of the Divine Names.... When the walī Allāh has traversed all the realms of the Divine Names, i.e. has come to know God in His names as completely as possible, he is then extinguished in God’s essence. His soul, his ego, is eliminated and ... when he acts, it is God Who acts through him. And so the state of extinction means at the same time the highest degree of activity in this world."
Although the doctrine of the hierarchy of saints is already found in written sources as early as the eighth-century, it was al-Tirmidhi who gave it its first systematic articulation. According to the author, forty major saints, whom he refers to by the various names of ṣiddīḳīn, abdāl, umanāʾ, and nuṣaḥāʾ, were appointed after the death of Muhammad to perpetuate the knowledge of the divine mysteries vouchsafed to them by the prophet. These forty saints, al-Tirmidhi stated, would be replaced in each generation after their earthly death; and, according to him, "the fact that they exist is a guarantee for the continuing existence of the world." Among these forty, al-Tirmidhi specified that seven of them were especially blessed. Despite their exalted nature, however, al-Tirmidhi emphasized that these forty saints occupied a rank below the prophets. Later important works which detailed the hierarchy of saints were composed by the mystic ʿAmmār al-Bidlīsī (d. between 1194 and 1207), the spiritual teacher of Najmuddin Kubra (d. 1220), and by Ruzbihan Baqli (d. 1209), who evidently knew of "a highly developed hierarchy of God’s friends." The differences in terminology between the various celestial hierarchies presented by these authors were reconciled by later scholars through their belief that the earlier mystics had highlighted particular parts and different aspects of a single, cohesive hierarchy of saints.
- List of Sufi saints
- List of Sufis
- Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani
- Wali Sanga
- The Verse of Wilayah
- Hans Wehr, p. 1289
- John Renard, Friends of God: Islamic Images of Piety, Commitment, and Servanthood (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008); Idem., Tales of God Friends: Islamic Hagiography in Translation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), et passim.
- Radtke, B., Lory, P., Zarcone, Th., DeWeese, D., Gaborieau, M., F.M. Denny, Françoise Aubin, J.O. Hunwick and N. Mchugh, “Walī”, in: Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, Edited by: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs.
- Robert S. Kramer; Richard A. Lobban Jr.; Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban (2013). Historical Dictionary of the Sudan. Historical Dictionaries of Africa (4 ed.). Lanham, Maryland, USA: Scarecrow Press, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield. p. 361. ISBN 978-0-8108-6180-0. Retrieved 2 May 2015.
QUBBA. The Arabic name for the tomb of a holy man... A qubba is usually erected over the grave of a holy man identified variously as wali (saint), faki, or shaykh since, according to folk Islam, this is where his baraka [blessings] is believed to be strongest...
- Radtke, B., “Saint”, in: Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān, General Editor: Jane Dammen McAuliffe, Georgetown University, Washington DC.
- J. van Ess, Theologie und Gesellschaft im 2. und 3. Jahrhundert Hidschra. Eine Geschichte des religiösen Denkens im frühen Islam, II (Berlin-New York, 1992), pp. 89-90
- B. Radtke and J. O’Kane, The Concept of Sainthood in Early Islamic Mysticism (London, 1996), pp. 109-110
- B. Radtke, Drei Schriften des Theosophen von Tirmid̲, ii (Beirut-Stuttgart, 1996), pp. 68-69
- Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam: Language and Meaning (Bloomington: World Wisdom, 2009), p. 99
- Jonathan A.C. Brown, "Faithful Dissenters: Sunni Skepticism about the Miracles of Saints," Journal of Sufi Studies 1 (2012), p. 123
- Christopher Taylor, In the Vicinity of the Righteous (Leiden: Brill, 1999), pp. 5-6
- Martin Lings, What is Sufism? (Lahore: Suhail Academy, 2005; first imp. 1983, second imp. 1999), pp. 36-37, 45, 102, etc.
- See Al-Ṭaḥāwī, Al-ʿAqīdah aṭ-Ṭaḥāwiyya XCVIII-IX
- Reza Shah-Kazemi, "The Metaphysics of Interfaith Dialogue," in Paths to the Heart: Sufism and the Christian East, ed. James Cutsinger (Bloomington: World Wisdom, 2002), p. 167
- Christopher Taylor, In the Vicinity of the Righteous (Leiden: Brill, 1999), pp. 5-6
- Newby, Gordon (2002). A Concise Encyclopedia of Islam (1st ed.). Oxford: One World. p. 173. ISBN 1-85168-295-3.
- Buk̲h̲ārī. Saḥīḥ al-ʿamal fi ’l-ṣalāt, Bāb 7, Maẓālim, Bāb 35
- Muslim (Cairo 1283), v, 277
- Maḳdisī, al-Badʾ wa ’l-taʾrīk̲h̲, ed. Huart, Ar. text 135
- Samarḳandī, Tanbīh, ed. Cairo 1309, 221
- Migne, Patrologia graeca, xlvi, 901 ff
- Acta martyrum et sanctorum, ed. Bedjan, vi, 101 ff.
- See Horovitz, J., “Ḏj̲urayd̲j̲”, in: Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, Edited by: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs.
- Pellat, Ch., “Manāḳib”, in: Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, Edited by: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs.
- Christopher Melchert, The Ḥanābila and the Early Sufis, Arabica, T. 48, Fasc. 3 (Brill, 2001), p. 356
- Gibril F. Haddad, The Four Imams and Their Schools (London: Muslim Academic Trust, 2007), p. 387
- Ibn Taymiyyah, al-Mukhtasar al-Fatawa al-Masriyya, 1980, p. 603
- Josef W. Meri, The Cult of Saints among Muslims and Jews in Medieval Syria (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 68
- Juan Eduardo Campo, Encyclopedia of Islam (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009), p. 600
- Ibn `Abidin, Rasa'il, 2:277
- Abū’l-Qāsim al-Qushayrī, Laṭā'if al-Isharat bi-Tafsīr al-Qur'ān, tr. Zahra Sands (Louisville: Fons Vitae; Amaan: Royal Aal-al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, 2015), p. 79
- Martin Lings, Return to the Spirit (Lahore: Suhail Academy, 2005), p. 20
- Martin Lings, Mecca: From Before Genesis Until Now (London: Archetype, 2004), p. 1
- B. Radtke and J. O’Kane, The Concept of Sainthood in Early Islamic Mysticism (London, 1996), pp. 124-125
- Martin Lings, "Proofs of Islam," Ilm Magazine, Volume 10, Number 1, December 1985, pp. 3-8