From virtue to apocalypse: The understanding of sainthood in a medieval Sufi order

From virtue to apocalypse: The understanding of sainthood in a medieval Sufi order

By Richard J. A. McGregor

Studies in Religion / Sciences Religieuses, Vol.30:2 (2001)

Abstract: Although the concept of sanctity is well-established in the Islamic tradition, it was not among the theologians that it was considered and debated. This task was taken up by the mystics. The period from the 10th to the 14th century saw both dramatic innovations and subtle arguments advanced. This article will explore this debate by focussing on its development within one Sufi order. A significant development soon becomes apparent, one which begins with a conception of sainthood as an ideal spiritual virtue, but escalates to assertions of a final ultimate saint who marks the end of time. The conceptual shift among these mystical thinkers moves from concern with the spiritual stations of the aspirant to arguments over the identity of an apocalyptic “seal” of sainthood.

Introduction: The idea of sainthood in the Islamic tradition is not a simple one. As was the case for most Judaism and the Eastern Christian churches, the nature of sanctity rarely had an authoritative or theological basis. As Peter Brown has noted, in the classical and medieval periods it was only the Western Christian Church that fully engaged and appropriated the phenomenon of the veneration of saints. In Islam, by contrast, the concept of sainthood was never taken up as a proper theological category; these discussions were left to the mystical tradition, which in the ninth century C.E. (third century A.H.) began systematically to elaborate on walâya. Note should be made, however, that this concept in the Shi’ite system is more elaborate (Landolt 1987: 319). This term itself, as opposed to the Christian Arab qudsiyya, has a variety of meanings, sainthood/sanctity being only one. The semantic field for the term walâya includes notions of proximity, authority and friendship.

It was not generally the task of the theologians or the doctors of law to debate the details of sainthood. In their various writings saintly men and women are recognized, but sainthood is not taken up as an independent category. Instead, the status and powers attributable to a walî are discussed in relation to the concept of prophecy. It was in the shadow of the science of prophetology that all later speculations on the nature of sainthood would be made.

The history of the development of mystical thought in Islam is a long one. From the early centuries following the establishment of the religion, minds open to the concerns of the spirit began to teach and write. These thinkers included judges, poets, ascetics and theologians, some of the most noteworthy being Hasan al-Basrî (d. 110/728), Ja`far al-Sâdiq (d. 145/765), al-Muhâsibî (d. 243/857), Abû Yazîd al-Bistâmî (d. 261/875), Sahl al-Tustarî (d. 283/896) and Abû al-Qâsim al-Junayd (d. 297/909). From this early tradition various forms of mystical speculation and teaching arose, ranging from ecstatic pronunciations to mystical exegesis to moral introspection (Sells 1996: 75, 171, 212). It was from this intellectual base that the Islamic mystical tradition, in the sixth/12th century, moved to take on a new form: that of the Sufi orders (turuq, sing. tarîqa). The medieval period, while it was not without independent mystical thinkers, marked the rise and rapid growth of confraternities that would dominate the production of mystical literature and become the context in which claims for and discussions of sainthood would be carried out. In the following pages I will discuss the development of the understanding of walâya within one Sufi order, that of the Shâdhiliyya.

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