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Clarke Lynda, Gabbay Alyssa
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


Sainthood (approximate Arabic equivalent: wilāyah or, less frequently, walāyah) is a thriving, albeit controversial, concept in Islam. As in other religions, certain men and women are recognized to belong to a special class of holy beings, typically known as “friends” (awlῑyāʿ, singular walī) of God. As such, these individuals enjoy intimacy with the divine and can intercede with God on behalf of supplicants. Their powers increase after death, and their tombs normally become pilgrimage sites. Often their deeds or sayings are recorded in hagiologies that play an important role in preserving the saint 's legend for posterity. Saint-worship, portrayed by some as a reaction to the formal rationalism and abstract monotheism of “official” Islam, has for centuries been criticized as un-Islamic and has endured many efforts to eliminate it.

Origins of Sainthood.

Although there is no passage in the Qurʿān that explicitly recognizes saints or sanctions sainthood (see “Controversy Surrounding Sainthood,” below), the concept of a class of holy beings appeared in Islam 's first centuries. Treatises began to emerge at least as early as the ninth century; these set forth basic principles on sainthood and contained sayings of mystics such as Ibrāhīm ibn Adham, an eighth-century prince in Balkh (in present-day northern Afghanistan) who renounced his fortune to embrace asceticism. The writings of al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī (d. ca. 905–912) represent the most complete elaboration on themes such as the different classes of friends of God, the nature of the saint 's journey to God, and the distinction between saints and prophets, until the appearance of Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1240). The latter especially expounded upon the notion of a hierarchy of hundreds of saints headed by the quṭb saint, the “axis” around which the entire world revolves. A quṭb exists in every age, though his identity may not be known; he reflects God 's qualities and mediates between the human and divine worlds. Some have seen evidence of pre-Islamic Iranian, Hellenistic, and Shīʿī elements in the concept of the quṭb, just as Jewish and Christian influences have been detected in the entire notion of Islamic sainthood.

Visitation (ziyārah) of saints ’ graves, one of the defining activities of the Muslim cult of saints, likewise appears to have begun at least as early as the ninth century. Not, apparently, until the early thirteenth century, however, was ziyārah transformed into an organized group activity associated with specific days. This development seems to have coincided with the wide spread of ṭarīqah (religious brotherhood, “order”) Sufism and some believe it contributed significantly to that movement 's growth. Ṭarīqah Sufism oversaw the systematization of saint-worship, including the establishment of Ṣūfi lodges (Persian khānqāh or khānagāh, Arabic ribāṭ, North African Arabic zāwiyah, Turkish tekke [from Persian takyah])—often around a living saintly elder (pir) or the tomb of one who had died—and the observance of “saints ’ days” (mawālid) with ritual chanting, dancing, and colorful processions. The formalization of the saint-disciple relationship was an important element of this systematization. The Indian saint Niẓām al-Dīn Awliyāʿ (d. 1325), for example, known for his gentleness and erudition, attracted a wide following of disciples, including well-known poets and princes. The spread of the Ṣūfī brotherhoods also provided for the incorporation of non-Muslim shrines, beliefs, and practices into Islam. Such absorption gave rise to a wide variety of Muslim saints, some of whom are associated with simple shrines or even natural objects such as springs or trees, and whose veneration involves a variety of folk practices. Jurists, martyrs, holy warriors, and others are also sometimes described as friends of God.

Aspects of Sainthood.

Sainthood in Islam is informal. Saints become saints by acclamation; there is no process of canonization as there is in Catholicism. Characteristics by which saints are commonly recognized include exceptional piety and the ability to speak through divine inspiration. Working miracles (karāmāt) based on action (ʿamal) and knowledge (ʿilm) is another sign of sainthood. The former may involve curing diseases, walking on water, subduing wild animals, and controlling spirits. The latter involves great mystical insight (baṣīrah); it may include the ability to read thoughts and foretell the future. Some saints are able to detect if food comes from an unlawful source.

Saints ’ power is known as their barakah, which can be loosely translated as “divine blessing,” a kind of aura with which they are imbued and which can be transferred to petitioners through touch. A saint 's barakah inheres in his or her tomb after he or she dies; it is for this reason that saints ’ tombs become the objects of pilgrimage. The high value placed on a saint 's barakah may cause disputes to arise over where he or she is or will be buried. Sometimes these arguments are resolved only by a miracle: the Algerian saint Muḥammad Ibn ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Azharī (d. 1784), for example, became known as the “man of two tombs” after two locales claimed to have possession of his body. A saint may also transfer his or her barakah, often orally, to a designated successor see BARAKAH.

Women play a prominent role in saint worship. A significant number of popular, Ṣūfī, and legendary saints are female; perhaps the most famous of these is ābiʿah al-ʿAdawīyah, an eighth-century mystic and celibate to whom are attributed many miracles. Women also tend to be more regular visitors of saints ’ shrines—particularly to seek help for matters relating to marriage, fertility, or childbirth—and to be more open about their use of magic.

The Role of the Saint in Society.

The significance of the saint in Muslim communities, particularly during premodern times, cannot be overstated. Living saints may act as doctors, psychiatrists, and spiritual counselors to their adherents. Sometimes they become the de facto leaders of their communities, defending them against oppressors and guiding them through dangerous times. A lodge or shrine may be an important gathering place for a town or village; residents may regularly attend ceremonies there. Saintly authority sometimes remains in one family through generations, and tribal and other social structures are reinforced through allegiance to particular saints.

The social authority held by saints has often taken on a political coloring. Caliphs and ministers sometimes strove to associate with Ṣūfī orders in order to ingratiate themselves with the masses; conversely, leaders of brotherhoods acted as advisers to political figures. During Islam 's Later Middle Period (ca. 1250–1500), many Ṣūfī orders transformed into sociopolitical movements that occasionally took control of the state. For instance, the Ṣafavid dynasty in Iran, which came to power in 1501, originated centuries earlier as a Ṣūfī order. It has been argued that the prominence of the concepts of quṭb and mahdī and their identification with Ṣūfī leaders supported such groups ’ quests for sovereignty, for followers often believed that these figures were destined to hold temporal as well as spiritual power. Such engagements have continued well into the modern era; for example, brotherhoods have played significant roles in the politics of Sudan.

The governments of modern nation-states have tried to suppress or co-opt saintly institutions. The secularizing measures of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the 1920s included the suppression of the Turkish shrines and the devaluation of saintly personality. Various Pakistani regimes have attempted to strike at the economic and spiritual authority of living pirs and to make the state the overseer of the shrines and to patronize ceremonies associated with them.

The social and political influence of saints has diminished with modern times, particularly with the decline of Sufism. Yet some practices such as shrine visitations continue to thrive, especially among urban poor and rural populations.

Controversy Surrounding Sainthood.

Some Muslims have opposed sainthood as un-Islamic in conception and practice; the message of the Qurʿān regarding walī (which can mean helper or patron as well as friend) is often drawn upon to support their arguments. The Qurʿān repeatedly emphasizes that God alone is the walī of the believers (e.g., 3:68, 2:107, 2:120, 9:116, 18:26). People are 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 awlῑyāʿ of Satan instead of God (16:63, 4:76, 7:30). In addition, the Qurʿān forbids intercession (shafāʿah) by any but God (2:48, 74:48); he is the only walī or shafīʿ (intercessor; 6:51). Orthodox ʿulamāʿ have thus deplored acts such as seeking intercession, belief in miracles, and pilgrimage to saints ’ tombs; these are thought to violate monotheism by creating intermediaries between the believer and God as well as by setting up others as equal to the Prophet.

Ibn Taymīyah (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 Taymīyah has influenced many Islamic thinkers to seek a return to pure, “original” Islam, and they have followed him in condemning sainthood. The present Saudi regime upholds Wahhābism, a movement that originated in the Arabian Peninsula in the eighteenth century and also traces its spiritual descent to Ibn Taymīyah. The government and religious hierarchy of Saudi Arabia thus seek to suppress saint-worship; this is particularly significant because the Saudis have great religious influence in the Muslim world.

A second type of criticism of sainthood is exclusively modern. The Egyptian reformer Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā (d. 1935) and others hold that saint-worship is a prime manifestation of the irrationality and obscurantism that has weakened the Muslim world. The revered Pakistani thinker Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) and other modernists of the subcontinent have also considered the numerous local saints (or pirs) as founts of superstition and upholders of the feudal system and have called for the elimination of   “pirism.”

Believers in the concept of sainthood have marshaled many arguments to counter these criticisms. For example, those who read walī 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 Ṣūfī exegetes have interpreted verse 10:62 of the Qurʿān—“As for the friends (awlῑyāʿ) 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. Ṣūfī exegesis has sometimes seized on qualifying phrases in verses banning intercession to suggest that there are indeed some granted special favor by God who may intercede on behalf of others. The Ṣūfīs also point to several ḥadīths that describe the qualities and privileges of awlīyāʿ. And theologians have made efforts to admit sainthood while protecting the position of the prophets by distinguishing the full-blown miracles (muʿjizāt) of the prophets from the mere “charismata” (karāmāt) of the saints. Some written creeds even listed belief in the awlῑyāʿ as an article of faith.

In recent years, support for those who maintain an Islamic foundation for saint veneration has come from a different quarter. Western scholars of Islam have begun to challenge the widespread notion of saint-worship as a syncretistic practice largely rooted in “folk” or “popular” religion and exhibiting pagan or other influences, noting that, for example, members of the intellectual elite produced early writings on Islamic sainthood. (The scholar Peter Brown articulated similar refutations of the so-called “two-tiered model” in studies of Christian saint-worship; see his excellent The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, Chicago, 1981.) Notwithstanding these arguments, it is clear that saint-worship exhibits a greater diversity in its practices than does “orthodox” Islam. Some disciples pay homage to supernatural creatures or to saints of non-Muslim origin. In Morocco, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, and Anatolia some saints were formerly shared by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worshipers, but as political and social developments have separated these religious groups, ecumenical saint-worship has declined.

Sainthood In Twelver Shiism.

In mainstream Twelver Shiism, the spiritual rank of sainthood is occupied by imams who, much like the Ṣūfī 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 shrines of such imāmzādahs (offspring of imams) in Iran, some rather rudimentary and doubtful but nevertheless still active see IMāMZāDAH]. An elaborate shrine constructed over the remains of Ayatollah Khomeini near the Bihisht-i Zahrā (the paradise of Zahrā) cemetery outside Tehran is a favorite place of pilgrimage. Khomeini has certainly become a “saint” in a practical, if not a theological, sense; his charisma far outweighs that of any other deceased member of the religious hierarchy, and he may well become the only true Shīʿī saint apart from the imams and imāmzādahs.



Primary Sources

  • ʿAṭṭār, Farīd al-Dīn. Muslim Saints and Mystics. Translated by A. J. Arberry. London, 1990. English translation of Tazkirat al-awliyāʿ (Memorials of the Saints). The Persian mystical poet ʿAṭṭār’s (d. ca. 1230) classic compilation of saints’ biographies.
  • Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī, Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī. The Concept of Sainthood in Early Islamic Mysticism: Two Works by al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī. Translated by Bernd Radtke and John O ’Kane. Richmond, U.K., 1996. English translations of Badʿ shaʿn Abī ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī (The Beginning of the Affairs of Abī ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī) and Kitāb sīrat al-awliyāʿ (The Life of the Friends of God). Contains the famous mystic 's (d. ca. 905–912) autobiography and one of his works presenting an early theory of Islamic sainthood. The translators ’ introduction concisely describes the state of scholarship of Muslim sainthood.
  • Ibn-i Munawwar, Muḥammad [ Ibn al-Munavvar, Muḥammad; Ebn-e Monavvar, Moḥammad]. The Secrets of God 's Mystical Oneness. Translated by John O ’Kane. Costa Mesa, Calif., 1992. English translation of Asrār al-Tawḥῑd. A classic of Ṣūfī hagiography, this is a rich collection of anecdotes about Shaykh Abū Saʿid ibn Abī al-Khayr (d. 1049), one of the best known and most engaging of Islamic saints.
  • Moayyad, Heshmat, and Franklin Lewis, trans. The Colossal Elephant and His Spiritual Feats: Shaykh Ahmad-e Jām: The Life and Legend of a Popular Sufi Saint of 12th Century Iran. Costa Mesa, Calif., 2004. English translation of Maqāmāt-i Zhandah Pīl, 2d ed., 1967. Collection of miracle stories about a medieval saint; also contains two treatises, one by the saint himself and the other by his son. Illuminating source of information about popular Sufism in medieval Iran.
  • Niẓām al-Dīn Awliyāʿ. Nizam ad-din Awliya: Morals for the Heart. Translated by Bruce B. Lawrence. New York, 1992. English translation of Favāʿid al-fuʿād. Conversations of the beloved Indian saint (d. 1325) as recorded by one of his disciples. Offers insight into the goings-on of a medieval khānaqāh and the nature of the saint-disciple relationship.

Secondary Sources

  • Ansari, Sarah F. D.Sufi Saints and State Power: The Pirs of Sind, 1843-1947. Cambridge and New York, 1992. Describes the functioning of the pir system in a modern political context and in the face of colonialism.
  • Biegman, Nicolaas H.Egypt: Moulids, Saints, Sufis. The Hague, London, and New York, 1990. A hundred color photographs, accompanied by text, convey the flavor of popular and Ṣūfī saint worship.
  • Chodkiewicz, Michel. Seal of the Saints: Prophethood and Sainthood in the Doctrine of Ibn ʿArabī. Translated by Liadain Sherrard. Cambridge, 1993. Ibn al-ʿArabī 's (d. 1240) doctrines regarding sainthood as explained in his classical manuals. A valuable resource, especially on the theoretical aspects of Islamic sainthood.
  • Cornell, Vincent J.Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism. Austin, 1998. Comprehensive discussion of the relationship of sainthood and authority in premodern Morocco. Among other things, it complicates earlier characterizations of the murābiṭ (French, marabout), or rural saint, and refutes the widespread notion of Moroccan sainthood as a chiefly rural phenomenon associated with heterodoxy.
  • Denny, Frederick Mathewson. “ ‘God 's Friends ’: The Sanctity of Persons in Islam.” In Sainthood: Its Manifestations in World Religions, edited by Richard D. Kieckhefer and George D. Bond, pp. 69-97. Berkeley, Calif., 1988. Treats the notion of sanctity throughout Islam, rather than confining it to saints.
  • Ernst, Carl W.Ruzbihan Baqli: Mysticism and the Rhetoric of Sainthood in Persian Sufism. Richmond, U.K., 1996. Describes the structure of mystical experience in the life of a twelfth-century Persian Ṣūfī.
  • Gellner, Ernest. Saints of the Atlas. London and 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. Many of his assertions have since been challenged, particularly his characterization of a dichotomy between an urban Islamic orthodoxy (represented by legists) and a rural heterodoxy (represented by saints).
  • 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, Ignácz. “On the Veneration of Saints in Islam.” In his Muslim Studies, vol. 2, pp. 255–341. Edited by S. M. Stern and translated from the German by C. R. Barber and 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 described, but the material (first published in 1890 in German) is now dated.
  • Hoffman, Valerie J.Sufism, Mystics, and Saints in Modern Egypt. Columbia, S.C., 1995. Engaging account of Ṣūfī activities in contemporary Egypt; based on the author 's fieldwork from 1987 to 1989. Provides a thorough discussion of the concept of Islamic sainthood; demonstrates that Sufism remains vital in Egypt.
  • Homerin, Th. Emil. From Arab Poet to Muslim Saint: Ibn al-Fāriḍ, His Verse, and His Shrine. Columbia, S.C., 1994. Sheds light on how the process of sanctification can occur by charting the journey of a well-known mystical poet, ʿUmar Ibn al-Fāriḍ (d. 1235). A second edition was published in 2001.
  • Karamustafa, Ahmet T.God 's Unruly Friends: Dervish Groups in the Islamic Later Middle Period, 1200-1550. Salt Lake City, Utah, 1994. Offers accounts of antinomian groups of wandering dervishes that gathered around charismatic leaders in many parts of the Muslim world. Their often shocking behavior constituted a critique of the existing social order.
  • Keddie, Nikki R., ed.Scholars, Saints, and Sufis: Muslim Religious Institutions in the Middle East Since 1500. Berkeley, 1972. Treats a wide variety of aspects of Muslim saint-worship.
  • Kugle, Scott Alan. Sufis and Saints ’ Bodies: Mysticism, Cor-poreality, and Sacred Power in Islam. Chapel Hill, N.C., 2007. Entertaining and highly readable study of saints ’ bodies as loci of spiritual power; aimed at a general audience.
  • Lewis, I. M.Saints and Somalis: Popular Islam in a Clan-Based Society. Lawrenceville, N.J., 1998. Details the roles of saints in Somali society, including the parallels between Ṣūfī saint veneration and the pre-Islamic cult of ancestors in Somalia.
  • Lings, Martin. A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century: Shaikh Aḥmad al-ʿAlawī: His Spiritual Heritage and Legacy. 3d ed.Cambridge, 1993. Personal account of an Algerian Ṣūfī master and saint active in the first half of the twentieth century.
  • Massignon, Louis. The Passion of al-Hallāj: Mystic and Martyr of Islam. Translated and edited by Herbert Mason. Princeton, 1994. Abridgement of Massignon 's magisterial study of Hallāj (d. 922), the early mystic and teacher executed for heresy in Baghdad.
  • Memon, Muhammad Umar. Ibn Taymīya 's Struggle against Popular Religion. The Hague and Paris, 1976. Includes an annotated translation of one of Ibn Taymīyah 's polemics against sainthood.
  • Meri, Josef W.The Cult of Saints Among Muslims and Jews in Medieval Syria. Oxford, 2002. Documents the shared saint-worship practices of Muslims and Jews in the Near East from the eleventh to the sixteenth century.
  • O ’Fahey, R. S.Enigmatic Saint: Ahmad Ibn Idris and the Idrisi Tradition. Evanston, Ill., 1990. The life and influence of the Moroccan teacher Aḥmad ibn Idrīs (d. 1837), a key figure in the neo-Ṣūfī reform movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
  • Suvorova, Anna. Muslim Saints of South Asia: The Eleventh to Fifteenth Centuries. London, 2004. Concise, well-informed introduction to the “uncontrolled bloom” of South Asian saint-worship, including the manner in which it unites people of different ethnic and religious communities.
  • Taylor, Christopher S.In the Vicinity of the Righteous: Ziyāra and the Veneration of Muslim Saints in Late Medieval Egypt. Leiden and Boston, 1999. Explores grave-visitation as an important expression of Muslim piety. Particularly valuable for its elucidation of the early development of an Islamic cult of saints.
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