Doubting Sanctity: Why Saints Matter in Islam

Doubting Sanctity: Why Saints Matter in Islam on

Muizz  Rafique

Oh, when the saints go marching in
Oh, when the saints go marching in
Lord, I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in

We all know the words to this song, first popularized by Louis Armstrong’s 1938 recording and likely played by our high school band. Originally an American gospel hymn, it even inspired the name of the New Orleans Saints football team. However, as with most things sacred, its devotional significance waned with increased popularity. In fact, most do not associate the song with religion. It is no longer a prayer to God that we be counted among the pious; rather, it is a team rallying cry, a fight song.  

Unfortunately, many Muslims have also turned religion into a mere rallying cry; divorcing it from all things miraculous. This was highlighted to me in a modest exchange with a few young Muslims in New York City after a lecture given by a visiting scholar from Syria, which the audience praised as deeply impactful. However, several people were discernibly troubled when he referred to a great Muslim of the past as a “saint.” One person commented, “Saints are a Christian phenomenon; Muslims don’t believe in saints, right?”

The comment, turned question, first caught me off guard.  But I probably should not have been surprised. After all, I, too, might have reacted similarly in the not so distant past. It is true that the term is typically associated with Christianity, and Catholicism more specifically.  Catholics refer to their great scholars and thinkers of the past, like Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine with this honorific designation. Catholics and some Christians celebrate All Saints’ Day to commemorate saints, both known and unknown. Muslims, on the other hand, seldom use the term. In fact, the first entry in the dictionary for “saint” limits the term to “a person who is officially recognized by the Christian church as being very holy because of the way he or she lived.”1 The next definition is far more inclusive: “a person who is very good, kind, or patient.” But do Christians have a monopoly on saints?

I would argue that no such monopoly exists.  Muslims traditionally use the Arabic term “wali” (pl: awliya’), short for wali Allah (friend of God), to describe a saint or holy person. The verb waliya (from the same trilateral root, w-l-y) means to be near, to be close, to follow, and to be friend. In other words, a saint in the Muslim tradition is someone who is close to God.

Sometimes, saints can be a proof for the existence of God Himself, the means by which people believe; just as the presence of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was such a proof for his companions. The celebrated Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazzālī (d. 1111), himself known by the honorific title “The Proof of Islam” (Hujjat al-Islam), said that faith can sometimes come about by “witnessing the state of a pious person and receiving the emanation of their light as a result of their companionship and presence."2  

The proof of the pious has always been instrumental in the spread of Islam. The fall of Baghdad in 1258 at the hands of the Mongol Tartars is considered one of the most devastating events in Muslim history. But just as Muslims were threatened to be wiped out of existence, their religion began to capture the heart of the savage Tartars.3 Slowly, one by one, the ruling princes who inherited power after Genghis Khan’s death began to embrace the faith of the conquered. Prince Tuqluq Timur Khan (d. 1363) is said to have owed his conversion to Islam to a saint from Bukhara by the name of Shaykh Jamal al-Din. Historian T.W. Arnold describes the encounter:

This Shaykh in company with a number of travelers had unwittingly trespassed on the game-preserves of the prince, who ordered them to be bound hand and foot and brought before him. In reply to his angry question, how they had dared interfere with his hunting, the Shaykh pleaded that they were strangers and were quite unaware that they were trespassing on forbidden ground. Learning that they were Persians, the prince said that a dog was worth more than a Persian. ‘Yes,’ replied the Shaykh, ‘if we had not the true faith, we should indeed be worse than the dogs.’ Struck with his reply, Khan ordered this bold Persian to be brought before him on his return from hunting, and taking him aside asked him to explain what he meant by these words and what was ‘faith.’ The Shaykh then set before him the glorious doctrines of Islam with such fervor and zeal that the heart of the Khan that before had been hard as a stone was melted like wax, and so terrible a picture did the holy man draw of the state of unbelief, that the prince was convinced of the blindness of his own errors.4

Shaykh Abu al-Hasan Ali Nadwi further comments on the encounter that, "[it] is thus certain that a word uttered by Jamal al-Din in all sincerity was the ultimate cause of the conversion of Tuqluq Timur and of the spread of Islam in his realm, a feat that could perhaps not have been accomplished by a thousand speeches or the might of arms.” 5

As modern people, we may be skeptical of such stories. Maybe it’s because we are taught to question any hierarchy or because we’ve unconsciously embraced scientism. But if you reflect upon the special people God has placed in your own life and who have positively influenced you, sometimes merely with a smile, it is not difficult to believe. Indeed, Muslims believe that the mere company of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, even for a moment, raised the rank of an ordinary believer to the status of sahabi (companion). The company of a sahabi raised an ordinary believer to the status of a tabi’i (successor). The company of a tabi’i raised an ordinary believer to the status of tabi’ tabi’i (successor of a successor), and so on until this very day.

Imam Zaid Shakir often relates a saying from his teacher, Shaykh Mustafa Turkmani, who said: “One person who possesses a spiritual station can influence one thousand people; but one thousand people, without such a state, cannot affect even one person.”

In fact, the possibility of sainthood, and the miracles of saints specifically, is so integral to Muslim belief that the most authoritative treatises of theology insist on their affirmation. The great 10th century jurist and theologian Imam Abu Ja’far Ahmad al-Tahawi (d. 933) states in the widely accepted al-Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah (The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi): “We believe in the miracles of the saints (awliya’) as conveyed and verified by trustworthy narrators.” 6 The 17th Century Egyptian Scholar Imam Ibrahim al-Laqqani (d. 1631) says in his famous didactic poem on theology, Jawharat al-Tawhid (The Jewel of Divine Oneness): “And affirm the miracles of the saints (awliya’). As for whoever negates them, reject his words.” 7

So not only are saints integral to faith, but theologians have always insisted on belief in their verified miracles. This is despite both pre-modern and modern scholars expressing skepticism about the uncritical belief in certain miracles attributed to the pious.8 Indeed, one should be critical of these stories if they are shown to be spurious. One of my teachers told me that the concern is not so much about the belief in the miracles of a specific person; rather, it lies in our inability to accept saintly miracles as a rational proposition or possibility.

A karamah (miracle) of a saint is defined by the scholars as khariq al-ʿādah (a breaking of the natural course of events). By affirming the miracles of saints, we affirm that the natural laws we take as a given, such as gravity, fire burning wood, the need for sleep and food, and the sun rising from the east, are created by God, and that God can will for them to be broken and has ultimate power to do so. In other words, by affirming the miracle, we are affirming the complete sovereignty of God.  

The Egyptian jurist and sage, Ibn ʿAṭaʾ Allah (d. 1309) wrote, “[d]isbelieving in the miracle of a saint is disbelieving (jaḥd) in the capacity of God, the Almighty (qudrat al-qadir).” Similarly, for Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri (d. 1072), insisting on God’s complete control over creation and His ability to interrupt the habitual course of nature was an affirmation of God’s power.9

Of course, an interruption of natural law is not a prerequisite for sainthood, nor is it even proof of divine favor. In fact, the Sufis themselves often say, “The greatest miracle is moral rectitude.” Thus, there is recognition that the ultimate miracle is uprightness day after day, in spite of one’s self. One of my teachers once described another as a saint simply because he worked at one masjid for over thirty years, and that was was sufficient proof for his sainthood; anyone who has worked with one Muslim community for that long is a very special person, to say the least.

There is no doubt that hierarchies exist. We read in the Qu’ran about three groups of people, (1) the People of the Right (ashab al-yamin), (2) the People of the Left (ashab al-shimal) and (3) the People in the Lead (al-sabiqun).10 The first two categories are relatively straightforward. The People of the Right are the righteous of the Children of Adam who will receive their book of deeds by their right hands, and who will enter Paradise. The People of the Left are the evil among the Children of Adam who will receive their book of deeds by their left hand, and who will enter the Fire.

As for the third group, al-Sabiqun, those are the people whom Allah has brought close (al-muqarrabun). Allah tells us that most of them will be among the earliest believers, while only a few would be among the later generations. Why would Allah choose to single this group out? Who were these people? And where did they live? Personally, these verses weigh heavily upon my heart. Allah told us about these people, but I have always felt that I had never met a person from this group. I always yearned to meet someone from this third group, to sit in the presence of a living saint.

I heard accounts of incredible people and miraculous events from teachers who travelled to distant lands and far off places, to sit and learn with people they described as saints, but my modern mind was programmed to doubt these stories. So I tried to make those same journeys, to meet those same people. By the grace of God, I was able to do so, and those meetings confirmed for me that even if few in number, God will always place people on earth who strive to achieve their greatest human potential.

However, these same miraculous people taught me that the one who has a clean heart will realize that the station (maqam) of every person is a station of possibilities. Every human being has the potential for sainthood (wilayah), no matter when or where they live. Saints are not limited to holy cities or remote villages. The true believer is optimistic, positive, and will see the potential for beauty in all human beings, regardless of their faith. A dear friend and teacher once shared with me a faith-principle that captured this reality, which was related to him by his teachers:

نعتقد أن كل شخص هو سيدنا الخضر وأن كل ليلةٍ هي ليلة القدر

“We believe that every person is our master al-Khidr, and every night is the Night of Power.”

In other words, we do not know the reality of every human being we meet and we do not know the reality of every moment. That seemingly ordinary person on the street could be a saint and even the most seemingly ordinary moment could be one of acceptance. The reality is that even as our master ‘Umar (may God be pleased with him) was on his way to kill the Prophet of God ﷺ, it had already been decreed that he would be one of the greatest believers who would ever live!

God knows who is righteous, and only God knows who is counted amongst His saints. “And none knows the soldiers of your Lord except Him.” (Qu’ran 74:31).  But let us not limit God’s ability to create miraculous people.

So why do saints matter? Because believers affirm the miraculous. Believers affirm what is possible. Believers also need role models in faith. Saints matter because all human beings need to be reminded that in the midst of so much difficulty, temptation, and evil that the world presents, there will always be those individuals who realize the greatest human potential — to know God.

1. See
2. Imam al-Ghazzali further states, “A Bedouin once came to the Prophet (peace be upon him) denying and disavowing him, but when his eyes fell upon his radiant aspect (may God increase its dignity and nobility) he saw in it the light of Prophethood and exclaimed, “By God! This is not the face of a liar!” He then implored the Prophet (peace be upon him) to explain Islam to him and immediately embraced it.” This quote from Imam al-Ghazzali is cited prior to the Table of Contents in “The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi (al-Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah)” by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, published by Zaytuna Institute (2007).
3. Saviours of the Islamic Spirit, Shaykh Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali Nadwi; tr. Abdur-Rahman ibn Yusuf Mangera, p. 254, White Thread Press (2015).
4. Id.
5. Id at p. 266.
6. The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi (Al Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah), p. 78, Translated, Introduced and Annotated by Hamza Yusuf, Zaytuna Institute (2007).
7. The Jewel of Divine Oneness (Jawharat al-Tawhid) by Ibrahim Al-Laqqani, tr. by Haroon Hanif, available at
8. See Faithful Dissenters: Sunni Skepticism about the Miracles of Saints, by Jonathan AC Brown, Georgetown University, in the Journal of Sufi Studies 1 (2012) 123-168, available at
9. These quotations and their citations can be found in Dr. Jonathan Brown’s article, Faithful Dissenters: Sunni Skepticism about the Miracles of Saints, cited above.

By Muizz Rafique , 19 Oct 2016

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