Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Is there such a thing as a Muslim saint?

In addition to sages and prophets, widespread Muslim tradition holds in high regard other individuals singled out for particularly intimate relationships with God. They are called Friends of God (awliya, pronounced awleeYAH: singular wali) and are generally analogous to what Christians and others mean when they refer to “saints.” A major difference is that Friends of God are popularly acclaimed as such rather than formally declared by an institutional procedure. Muslims from Muhammad’s own generation are among the earliest individuals called Friends of God, some so designated because of their devotion to the Prophet. Subsequent generations of Muslims have acclaimed Friends of God virtually everywhere right on down to modern times, with the notable exception of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. There and in a few other places, modern reformers have sought to purge Islamic practice of devotional customs judged to be inauthentic expressions of Islam and distortions of core teachings. They have argued that beseeching Friends of God for miracles is simply unnecessary, since no human being can mediate between the individual believer and his or her God. Virtually everywhere else, from Morocco’s marabouts to Indonesia’s distinctive wali songo (Nine Friends of God), devotion to holy persons has been an important element in the spiritual life of hundreds of millions.


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