Sainthood (wilayah) and Nearness (qurb).
by Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks
Sufism has often been criticized for "excessive" veneration of the saints. The focus of this critique are the many practices, or as some would say, abuses associated with visiting the shrines of the saints rather than the station of sainthood as such. In all fairness, some scholars in our Shafite legacy have also declared some of these practices either munkar or makruh. Others developed a more nuanced opinion. Imam Ramli for example holds the position that should a man throw himself onto the grave of a saint, and he is clearly motivated by a spiritual condition (hal) or the man is overwhelmed by an emotion, this act of his is neither munkar, makruh nor, least of all, "shirk". His condition, the Imam says, is like the situation of Sayyidna Bilal who rubbed his face on the grave of the Nabi, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, upon his return from Syria. Bilal was in Syria when the Nabi, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, passed away. The implication here is that the practice of throwing oneself onto a grave becomes an abuse (munkar) if people ritualize it. But even here the ruling of "shirk" is absent. The new development that has recently appeared in reformist circles in general - not only Wahabism - is to declare these practices "acts of shirk". This view betrays a basic confusion between the concepts of "act" and of " belief". The truth is "acts" can never become "shirk" unless they are accompanied by a polytheistic mindset. Even then the "act" as such is not "shirk" - the "belief" or "mental orientation" is. The "act" is called "shirk" figuratively. It is simply flawed to call any "act" that looks like a bow or a prostration "shirk". If this was true, Bilal is also a mushrik. The angels in bowing or prostrating before Nabi Adam and the brothers of Nabi Yusuf in performing sujud, as the Quran says, before him will have to be similarly judged. The purpose of this article however is not to deal exhaustively with the controversial issues. I want to focus on the core subject of sainthood. Why is the station of sainthood so sought after? What is a saint and do they perform miracles? Can someone know that he or she is a saint? People also often ask, " We hear that the saints are divided into different categories and that they form some sort of heirarchy, is this true?"
Let us first look at some of the traditions and verses on the subject.
Imam ‘Abdul Karim al-Qushayri narrates a tradition from ‘Aisha, may Allah be pleased with her, that the Nabi, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, said, "Allah says, The one who hurts a waliyy has deemed it legal to make war against Me. And there is nothing better for the slave as a means of coming closer to Me than performing the compulsory deeds. And the slave never ceases to grow closer to Me by nawafil until I love him. And I seldom waver in doing something like I waver to draw the soul of My believing slave; because he dislikes death and I dislike to harm and there is no escape from death." In another version of this hadith narrated by Imam Nawawi Abu Hurayrah, may Allah be pleased with him said, the Messenger of Allah, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, said " Verily Allah has said, the one who hurts my waliyy I have declared war against him. And there is nothing better for the slave as a means of coming closer to Me than performing the compulsory deeds. And the slave never ceases to grow closer to Me by nawafil until I love him. And when I love him I am his hearing that he hears by and the sight that he sees by, and his hand that grips with, and his legs that he walks on. If he asks Me I will give and if he seeks My refuge I will give him refuge."
Both Ibn Hibban and Nisaai narrates that the Nabi, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him said, " There is a group of the slaves of Allah that even the Prophets and martyrs will envy," Then someone said," Who are these people perhaps we can love them." And he said, "They are a people who love each other through the light of Allah not through wealth or family ties. Their faces are filled with nur (light) and they are on pulpits of light, neither do they fear when the people fear nor do they grieve when the people grieve." Then the Nabi, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, recited the verse, " Verily the ‘awliya of Allah do not fear nor do they grieve." [Yunus, v. 62]
‘Awliya in the verse is the plural of waliyy. This word is used in two broad senses. In ordinary Arabic waliyy means friend, associate, ally. In this sense every Muslim is a waliyy of Allah because he believes in Allah and associates himself with His din. For purposes of adopting the correct attitude towards Muslims in general Imam Ahmad Zarruq recommends we understand the traditions quoted above in this sense also. We should keep in mind that Allah declares war against one who harms or hurts a waliyy. This should be enough deterrence for us to avoid developing a negative attitude and act negatively towards other Muslims. Waliy however also has a more specific meaning. In this second usage the term waliyy refers to;
Continuing our discussion from the previous article a relevant and important quote is Imam Qushairi’s clear ruling on the subject, " And both these descriptions are obligatory (waajib) for a waliy to be a waliy in the first place: It is obligatory for him to comprehensively observe the rights of Allah, the Most High, both in depth and breadth, and the protection of Allah in all circumstances good or bad." And further on in his seminal essay on Sainthood in his "Risalah" he says, "And anyone against whom the law (shar’) has an objection is deluded and deceived"
One of the important points in these quotations is the utter and complete respect shown to the shari’ah. Authentic tasawwuf has everything to do with the shari’ah. Insinuations to the contrary one sometimes hear coming from the ignorant or earlier orientalist opinions that Sufism teaches one to "transcend" the law are simply mistaken and uninformed. There is no tasawwuf without the shari’ah. One of the great features of Islam is that the shari’ah and thorough observance and knowledge of the shari’ah is the means to enter the Divine Presence. The salah, for example, we should see as the Divinely ordained key and instrument through which we "travel" to His Presence. The Nabi, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, is reported to have said, "The salah is the mi’raj of the Muslim". We should note the very important comparison the Nabi, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, is making here. Lets think through this point for minute. The salah is the great spiritual journey of a Muslim. Compared in this hadith to the great journey of the Nabi as he travelled from the Haram in Makkah to the Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem up to regions of nearness and intimacy to Allah where even angels cannot go. This journey of the Nabi prefigures the eternal quest of the travelers on the road of tasawwuf and in terms of this hadith should be the quest of every Muslim. Naturally ordinary men and women like ourselves cannot travel to Allah both physically and spiritually as the Nabi did. The point is that the salah is a gift from Allah and his Nabi to every Muslim and is the means to achieve that unique and blessed nearness and intimacy with Allah, the Most High, similar to what the Nabi experienced on that night.
Similar remarks can be made of the entire shari’ah. In a hadith quoted in a previous essay the Nabi, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, reported that Allah, the Most High, said, " There is nothing better (as a means) for my slave to come closer to me than continuous observance of all I have made obligatory (ma iftaradtu ‘alayhi) on him". One quick point I want to make here is we have to remember that salah, fasting, haj, and zakah are not the only obligations (faraid) in Islam. Some of the other very important obligations in Islam, are for example, correct behaviour towards one’s wife, children and neighbours; justice and fairness in one’s business dealings; justice and fairness if we hold the reigns of power in a country; bravery on the battlefield against the enemies of Islam; purity of mind and the absence of jealousy, envy, hatred, arrogance and insincerity and so forth. The shari’ah deals with all of these matters in great detail. The basic principle in all of this is, there is no way that Allah will admit us into His Presence nor allow us to enjoy the great peace of intimacy with Him unless and until we fully respect and continuously struggle to perfect and realize His sharia’ah in our lives. The earlier ‘ulama even went to extent of including, in addition to the obligations (fards), all the sunnah’s of the Nabi and even all the aadaab of the shari’ah. Listen to this story of one of the foremost Imams of our din.
Abu Yazid al-Bistami once went to see someone described as a waliy by his acquaintances and students. When he arrived at the "waliy’s" masjid he sat down and waited for him to finish-up and leave. As this man left the masjid he spat, not outside the masjid but inside. Ba Yazid got up and left without greeting him. Naturally this caused a stir since Ba Yazid was a particularly prominent visitor, well known in the Muslim world at the time for both his spiritual status and his scholarship. People feverishly enquired why he did this obvious public snubbing of the man. Then Ba Yazid said, "This man cannot be trusted with a single adab of the aadaab of the shari’ah, so how can he be trusted with the secrets of Allah? ".
The saint (waliy) is at once close (qarib) to Allah, the Most High, and drawn near (muqarrab). He comes closer to Allah through his own efforts in observing the shari’ah, and Allah, the Most High, in turn, assists, protects and draws the saint close to Him. Abu Hurairah, may Allah be satisfied wit him, narrates that the Messenger, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, said, Allah says, " I am with the thought of my slave, if he remembers Me by himself, I remember him by Myself, and if he remembers Me in a group I remember him in a better group (than his), and if he comes close to Me the length of an out-stretched hand I draw close to him the length of a fore-arm, and if he draws close to me the length of a fore-arm I draw near to him the length an arm, and if he comes to me walking I come to him like a wind", in another narration " I am with him if he remembers Me".
This hadith is full of meaning. There is great encouragement here for people who want to enter the path of inner knowledge and closeness to Allah. " I am with the thought of my slave" and in the other narration " I am with him if he remembers Me" implies two basic and important adaab. Firstly, when we perform our ‘ibadah we ought to do so with the utmost purity of thought (husn dhann) and good faith towards Allah. Indeed purity of thought itself is an ‘ibadah. Pure thought towards Allah (husn dhann) also implies complete acceptance of His Will. The aspirant has to work hard to remove all traces of sublimated anger towards Him. Allah gives to others and He withholds from us. Dissatisfaction with the Will of Allah and indeed seething anger towards Him is the essence of envy. And secondly, since we are sitting in the Presence of Allah and He is with us, we have to observe the adab of maximum concentration on Him. If this is difficult or we cannot focus and concentrate with our whole being on Allah during our ‘ibadah we are required either to train ourselves or seek out someone who can train us to achieve that. The station of nearness (qurb) and the station of sainthood (wilayah) are inextricably connected. Both of which should be the desire and objective of every Muslim. According to this tradition, Allah comes to us "faster" and with greater ‘vigour" than we to Him.
The elevated status of the awliyah is alluded to in the tradition known as the hadith al-awliyah. Allah takes them into His care and assists them. The one who loves the awliyah loves Allah. And conversely the one who injures them, "…Allah declares war against him" [Cited by Bukhari from Abu Hurairah] and in another version of this tradition Allah says, "… he (the person who commits the injury) has declared it halal for him to make war against Me" [Cited by Imam Ahmad and Imam Qushairi from ‘Aishah]. The versions of this hadith cited by Tabarani differ mainly in the wording. Tabarani’s narrations also include some very interesting additions not mentioned by the other narrators. A thorough analysis of these texts will have to be left for another time and place. Here we need to comment on some of the points raised by this tradition.
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