Are there Muslim saints?

muslim saintsAre there saints in the Muslim tradition?

Reader John Hoh sent us a note regarding a photo caption accompanying this Associated Press article. It describes snipers killing 20 people in Baghdad who were on their way to commemorate Imam Moussa Kadhim at his golden-domed shrine.

Here is a link to the photo, and this is the caption:

An Iraqi mother along with her children mourn the death of her son Wisam Ali, 13, who was killed on the way to the Imam Moussa Kadhim shrine, for the annual commemoration of the saint’s death, at a hospital, in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday Aug. 20, 2006.

In using the word saint, the caption leaves a lot of questions unanswered. First, Imam Moussa Kadhim is a saint to whom? To the world? Muslims? Shiite Muslims? The article provides a bit more context:

Still, the day’s main ceremonies went off peacefully at the golden-domed shrine to Imam Moussa Kadhim, one of 12 Shiite Muslim saints.

As typical with stories involving Islam, spelling becomes an issue. As best I can tell, with the assistance of Google, we are talking about the Imam Musa Kadhim referenced here on Wikipedia.

Musa was indeed one of the 12 Imams and is revered by Shiite Muslims, but does that make him a saint? In the generic sense, if there is one, I guess he is a revered as a saint, but as explained here, it’s not quite the same in Islam as it is in Christianity.

In the Protestant tradition, anyone who displays the qualities of a good follower of the faith can be considered a saint. While it’s fine to consider one’s grandmother a saint, in that generic sense, one would have difficulty tagging John Calvin or John Knox with the title.

In the same sense it is wrong to tag a Muslim Imam with the term in a journalistic setting because there are more accurate ways to refer to him and it places him in a category that doesn’t even officially exist in Islam.

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  • Jerry

    A very good friend who’s spent time comparing terms from various religions has linked “saint” with the Hindu term “mahapurush” and the Arabic term “wali”
    (WaliAllah) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wali which is used in Sufism. It means “friend of God” which is close enough to “Saint” for me.

    So while it’s true that Wali is not used in exoteric Islam, it is used in Sufism.

  • Jenn

    I believe that a better definition of “saint” in the Protestant tradition is “one saved by Jesus Christ” rather than “a good follower of the faith.”

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JENN:

    Of course, there is no one Protestant definition of anything. Each tradition and anti-tradition can have whatever it wants. And so forth and so on.

    There also are multiple Islams. That’s kind of the idea we keep exploring at this blog. Can the press do more to explain to its readers the CONTENT of the multiple Islams?

  • Robert

    A very clunky bit of googling reveals that the Arabic for saint is probably this word pronounced ‘haram’: وَلِيّ

    Or this one, pronounced ‘qadis’: قِدِّيس

    Googling both of these words returns, among others, Islamic pages. Suggesting that the Arabic word for a Christian holy person is the same as the Arabic word for a Muslim holy person.

    ‘Saint,’ then, would be a perfectly good translation. It does not address the ambiguities between the Islamic and Christian understandings of what sainthood is, but then the English word ‘saint’ does not address the ambiguities among the Orthodox, Catholic, and manifold Protestant understandings of sanctity.

  • MJBubba

    Daniel P.

    Please see Mollie Z.’s midnight post that brought up the subject of the different views between Shia and Sunni Islam regarding saints. Also, see Mollie for the Protestant view of who is a saint. I believe Jenn described the “orthodox” Protestant view as I learned it from Luther’s Catechism, and I have heard this view echoed by conservative Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and Anglicans.

  • Pingback: Eunomia · Well, There Are Saints And Then There Are Saints

  • Bill C.

    In some places in the Middle East it is not particularly uncommon for Muslims to venerate Christian saints and vice versa (in a popular rather than formally doctrinal sense). So the ambiguity of who or what a saint is runs deeper than simply the language.

  • dpulliam

    Whether or not it is appropriate to refer to a Shiite Imam as a saint is clearly up for debate. I personally don’t think it’s appropriate because not all Muslims would recognize them as such (unless, as the text in the AP article did, but failed to do in the photo caption, you state that it is a Shiite saint). The very ambiguity of the term thanks to translation issues and theological issues makes it a tricky word to use in a news article, let alone a photo caption. There are more precise ways to describe the historical figure and while you’re at it, if you have space, educate the reader with some basic Middle Eastern history.

  • Chip

    Master P posted:

    I personally don’t think it’s appropriate because not all Muslims would recognize them as such (unless, as the text in the AP article did, but failed to do in the photo caption, you state that it is a Shiite saint).

    Following your reasoning it would not be appropriate to refer to Ignatius of Loyola as a saint because not all Christians would recognize him as such . . .

  • dpulliam

    Good point Chip, but refusing to call Ignatius of Loyola a saint would be like a Republican refusing to call Clinton “president” because they disagreed with his politics.

    There is a process for becoming a saint and if a person goes through it, they have every right to receive the title. If a formalized process does not exist in a religion, which it doesn’t in Islam, conferring that special status upon them is fine if everyone generally agrees, but that is not the case with Imam Musa Kadhim.

  • http://www.prochoros.blogspot.com Douglas Ian

    Following your reasoning it would not be appropriate to refer to Ignatius of Loyola as a saint because not all Christians would recognize him as such . . .

    No, I don’t think so. But, following this model, it might be more precise to refer to Ignatius of Loyola as a “Roman Catholic saint” rather than using a broader designation like “Christian saint” -which might be read as implying that ALL Christians accord him the same kind of honor. Of course, conversationally, non-Roman Catholics might also simply opt to use the term “saint” out of a sense of charity in cases like this.

  • http://www.siena.org Sherry Weddell

    Robert, this is the arabic word for haram: حرم which can mean holy or forbidden. The word you found via google is something very different.

    Also Qadi is the generic word for religious scholar/teacher in Islam. Some Qadis in certain movements are revered as saints by their followers but it isn’t a generic name for saint.

    the term “saint” is a common idea/term among Shia Muslims as well as among a number of much smaller movements within Islam. I don’t believe that there is any common agreement about who is a saint in the global Muslim community – much like the global Christian community.

    Sherry Weddell

  • Roberto Rivera

    I don’t believe that there is any common agreement about who is a saint in the global Muslim community – much like the global Christian community.

    Indeed, part of the impetus behind Salafism, a.k.a., Wahhabism, was to purge Islam of what Salafists regarded as un-Islamic innovations, such as the veneration of certain “saint-like” figures and shrines devoted to these figures.


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