Do Muslims Believe in Saints?

by John Green

Believing in saints has become one of the most controversial doctrines in the Islamic world today. For some Muslims, revering saints is an integral part of Islamic belief and practice, while others believe that an Islamic saint is nothing less than idolatry. What has made this more than an internal religious conflict is what Muslim critics of sainthood believe they must do in order to keep Islam pure.

Friends of God

As the "Encyclopaedia of Islam" observes, the tradition of venerating saints in Islam derives from references in the Quran to God's friends, who can serve as the helpers or protectors of the Muslim faithful. For those who do not believe in saints, the friends of God are merely obedient Muslims, not individuals with any divine qualities. However, for many Muslims, a saint is something more. The Arabic word for friend, "wali," refers to someone who draws near, and in this case, drawing near to God imbues a person with divine qualities.

Intercession and Miracles

Although Muslim sainthood at first was simply involved the veneration of a person for their special piety, the idea of a saint in Islam grew in ways that came to resemble sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church. One defining trait of a saint became the power to perform miracles, and saints can also have a special power to intercede with God on their behalf. For example, in a 2009 article for the Sri Lanka Guardian, author and activist Saybhan Samat attributed the country's economic and political success to the possible intercession of Abdullah ibn Khafif, an esteemed saint who in his lifetime was so holy that a rampaging elephant stopped its killing spree to give him a ride.

Imams and the Hierarchy of Saints

In contrast to the process in the Roman Catholic Church, recognition of someone as a saint in Islam does not require formal decisions by a central institution. Instead, sainthood is a quality recognized informally by the Muslim community. Although Islam lacks a single authority such as a pope, the writings of Islamic scholars can provide authoritative explanations of the concept. For example, the first major theorist of sainthood, al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi, set forth the doctrine of a cosmic hierarchy of saints. The mystical Sufi branch of Islam saints has a wide array of traditions regarding the divine qualities of the friends of God, and in Shiite Islam the religious leaders known as imams commonly occupy the role of saints or friends of God.

Relics and Tombs

Specific practices associated with veneration of saints can vary among different traditions and regions, but one tradition that has become widespread is the veneration of saints through their relics and at their tombs. For those who believe that the veneration of saints is shirk, or idolatry, these artifacts are forbidden, and many have been destroyed by Muslims from more conservative branches of Islam, such as Wahhabism in Sunni Islam. The destruction of ancient tombs, including shrines recognized as protected UNESCO cultural heritage sites, has provoked international condemnation, including by the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, who has argued that it could be a war crime.

About the Author

John Green is an attorney who has been writing on legal, business and media matters for more than 20 years. He has also taught law school and business courses in entrepreneurship, business enterprise, tax and ethics. Green received his J.D. from Yale Law School and his Ph.D. in religion from Duke.

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