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Walaya (Sainthood)

by Fethullah Gülen on . Posted in Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism-2

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Literally meaning a person, a community, or a country that is under the direction and rule of another, walaya (sainthood) denotes annihilation with respect to carnal selfhood and egoism in favor of awareness of being under the dominion of the All-Living, Self-Subsistent One and of the need to acquire nearness to the Necessarily Existent Being. Travelers on the way to God who has attained this level, having given themselves up to the direction of God, are favored with self-possession, and live in nearness to God. The first step in sainthood is indicated in the verse (2:257): God is He Who loves, guards and directs those who believe; He has led them out of all kinds of (intellectual, spiritual, social, economic and political) darkness into the light, and keeps them firm therein; and also in Know well that the confidants (saintly servants) of God-there will be no reason for them to fear (both in this world and the next, for they shall always find My help and support with them), nor shall they grieve (10:62).

One who has been favored with sainthood is called a waliyy (saint). Waliyy is one of the Names of God Almighty. A saint on whom this Name is placed and who has become a polished mirror in which this Name is reflected is considered as having been favored with "self-annihilation in God" and "subsistence with Him." Nevertheless, this favor can never make a saint indifferent to the master of the creatures, upon him be peace and the blessings of God. On the contrary, whatever rank a person has attained on the way to God, one of the most blessed and illuminating sources for the confidants of God, the Truth, is the person of Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, who is the sun of Prophethood and the pure source of truth; he is the one they should follow strictly. Moreover, he is the first among those sources that are the means of guidance attainment of sainthood for people. In several verses, the Qur'an stresses exactly this point, bringing our attention to that source of enlightenment and that mine of truth. For example (3:31): (O Messenger,) say (to them): "If you indeed love God, then follow me, so that God may love you and forgive you your sins."

This truth is expressed in a colorful language in Gulshan al-Raz by Mahmud Shabstari:[1]

The Prophet is like the sun, and the saint is like the moon
facing the sun, which says: "I have a special time with God."
A saint can only find a way to so that God may love you,
which is the meeting room with Him,
Through If you indeed love God, follow me.

As the moon receives its light entirely from the sun, so a saint is enlightened by following the Prophet, by becoming like him a polished mirror in which the Divine light is reflected. It can even be said that not only the saints that came after Prophet Muhammad, but also all the previous Prophets received their light from him, who is the sun of Prophethood, upon him be peace and blessings:

He is the sun of virtues and the others are
the stars that diffuse light for people at night.
All the miracles the blessed Messengers worked
were because his light reached them. (Busiri)

The word waliyy (saint) is used as an agent or as a past participle. It denotes, in the first case, one who resists sins and regularly fulfills the duties of worship and obedience with patience, while in the second case, it denotes one who has been favored with God's help and protection. Both of these meanings are in accord with the covenant made between God and His servants, which is mentioned in the following hadith qudsi:[2]

God Almighty declares: "Whoever shows hostility to My saintly servant, I will surely wage war on him. My servant cannot get near to Me with something more lovable to Me than fulfilling the things I have made incumbent on him. Then, My servant gets nearer and nearer to Me until I love him by fulfilling the supererogatory acts of worship. When I love him, I become his ears with which he hears, his eyes with which he sees, his hands with which he grasps, and his feet on which he walks. (His hearing, seeing, grasping, and walking take place in accordance with my will and commandments.) If he asks Me for something, I surely grant it to him, and if he seeks refuge from (something), I surely take him under My protection.[3]

The saintly scholars have always dwelt upon two important dimensions of sainthood and consider them as two parts of a single unit:

  • An initiate's scrupulous observance of God's commandments, and in return,
  • God's taking him/her under His special care and protection.

Such care and protection manifest themselves as sinlessness in a Prophet, and protection against sins in a saint. Sinlessness and protection from sins are different from one another, but that is not our subject matter here.

A saint is surely a noble, blessed one, and can be favored with working of wonders.[4] However, the working of wonders is not a condition of sainthood. It is a disputed matter whether a saint knows or should know of being a saint. After all, a saint is surely an object or recipient of some special favors of God.

Ibrahim Adham[5] defines sainthood with its dimensions and the favors it receives as renunciation of the world (not in respect to earning a living, but rather with respect to loving it from the heart), turning to God with all one's being, and continuously expecting His turning to oneself.

According to Yahya ibn Mu'adh,[6] sainthood is enduring every hardship and difficulty on the way to attaining friendship with God.

Sainthood, in the words of Bayazid al-Bistami, is not to allow any desire to be known by others, despite one's deep and continuous worship and obedience to God and one's extraordinary care in fulfilling other duties of servanthood. According to Abu Sa'id al-Kharraz, God opens the door slightly to one qualified for sainthood by enabling regular mention of Him and recitation of His Names. When the initiate begins to take pleasure in mentioning Him or in the recitation of His Names, the One Mentioned leads him or her by the hand to the summit of nearness to Him. Then, He clothes him or her in the bejeweled robe of His close friendship according to the degree of the person's loyalty and faithfulness. In this position, the initiate feels Him only, thinks of Him only, keeps His company only, and holds back from everybody else other than Him, because of his or her duties to Him. Whomever God especially favors, they tremble with fear lest it lead to their perdition. While it is a requirement of a Prophet's mission that he publicizes his Prophethood and the miracles associated with it as a manifestation of this special, sacred favor, it required among the courtesies of sainthood that a saint keeps both himself and God's special favors towards him concealed. Concerning this, Muhy al-Din ibn al-'Arabi[7] writes:

It is compulsory for God's friends to conceal the wonders they work;
So do not ridicule yourself, nor become disgraced, by publicizing them.
However, the Messengers are obliged to publicize their miracles,
For they are connected with the coming of the Revelation.

The wonders we mention are those that can be witnessed by others or worked through the agency of the external senses and organs, such as mind-reading, giving information about things that are hidden or invisible, and crossing great distances or achieving many things in a relatively short time. Far from desiring them, saints of great stature have felt seriously uncomfortable even with the wonders that have proceeded from them unintentionally.

There is another kind of wonder related to the religious life which is not visible. Comprehension of the spirit of religion, attainment of good morals, strict observance of both the rights of God and the rights of the creatures, practicing what one has learned of religion and being blessed with its consequences, certainty in knowledge of God, sincerity and purity of intention in religious deeds and services, reaching the degree of acting as if seeing God when worshipping God in daily life, and similar attainments are wonders of this kind. Such Divine favors, which the common people cannot see and therefore attach no value to are the greatest values of the things that the distinguished servants of God should always pursue. Even if we should avoid publicizing such actions, seeking them out is tantamount to seeking out the Truth. The heirs to the greater sainthood-the sainthood of the Prophet's Companions, which is marked by meticulous observance of religion and self-dedication to serving it-have long been counted among the heroes of this attainment.

O God! Make us of those of Your servants who pursue sincerity, and whom You have favored with sincerity and purity of intention, and who have achieved piety and abstinence from all forbidden things big or small, and whom You have made near to You, and who love and are loved by You. Amen.


[1] Sa'd al-Din Mahmud Shabistari (1250-1320) is one of the most celebrated authors of Persian Sufism. Because of his gift for expressing the Sufi spiritual vision with extraordinary clarity, his Gulshan-i Raz ("Secret Rose Garden") rapidly became one of the most popular works of Persian Sufi poetry. (Trans.)
[2] A hadith qudsi is a saying of the Messenger, the meaning of which is inspired directly by God. (Trans.)
[3] Al-Bukhari, "Riqaq," 38.
[4] Any extraordinary act or achievement with which a Prophet is favored outside the known "laws of nature" is called a miracle, while a wonder is an action performed by a saint. A saint's wonder worked by following the Prophet can only be an imitation or copy of a Prophet's miracle. (Trans.)
[5] Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn Adham, born in Balkh of pure Arab descent. He renounced his kingdom in Balkh and wandered westwards to live a life of complete asceticism, earning his bread in Syria by honest manual toil until his death in 782. (Trans.)
[6] Abu Zakariya' Yahya ibn Mu'adh al-Razi, a disciple of Ibn Karram, left his native town of Rayy and lived for a time in Balkh, afterwards proceeding to Nishapur where he died in 871. A certain number of poems are attributed to him. (Trans.)
[7] Muhiy al-Din ibn al-'Arabi (1165-1240): One of the great and most famous Sufi masters. His doctrine of the Transcendental Unity of Being, which most have mistaken for monism and pantheism, made him the target of unending polemics. He wrote many books, the most famous of which are Fusus al-Hikam and Al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya. (Trans.)