Behind the Holy Man: Exploring the Intricacies of Sainthood

The readings on sainthood from this week typify an important lesson I’m learning this semester: nothing is quite as simple as it appears. Any reductionist reading of a saint as a holy personality, or of possession as an simply evil spirit invasion (which Bilu’s essay opposes), fails to evoke all nuances and complexities that come along with the experience. Meri’s chapter on “the Friends of God” seeks to establish the historical context of saints in the medieval Middle East, but I think the author effectively portrays the difficult affair it was of defining precisely who qualifies as a saint–perhaps reminiscent of the difficulty contemporary believers faced at that time of identifies saints from frauds.

To begin, Muslims like Ibn Taymiya exhibited a certain criticism of those who performed miracles and demonstrated outward signs of holiness. Such skepticism was necessary when dealing with characters like the muwallah, eccentric personalities who blended healing, charisma, and extreme (and often denigrated) acts of asceticism like soiling and nudity. Despite acting contrary to key Muslim teachings on purity, muwallah often garnered large crowds of everyday supporters who viewed him as a holy man on a higher plane of connection with God. There is an ambiguity in perception, a fine line between insanity and authenticity, that Meri avoids for the sake of objectivity here: do these men qualify in the same category as more widely-accepted saints?

Adding another layer to this fascination dynamic of (dis)qualification of saints is the politics behind sainthoods. There existed an aura of danger associated with the muwallah because they challenged the Islamic orthodoxy in their extreme practices, yet at the same time exerted real influence because of the great crowds of devotees. Even beyond these unique cases, saints in general were highly politicized and also faced danger for revealing their ablity to perform miracles (karamat), which only prophets were allowed to do. At the same time, Meri reports that “through their charisma saints attracted rulers, who sought their supplication and blessings.” In other words, political rulers were actually relying on saints to legitimate their power–putting this holy characters into an incredibly important position of privilege. Such privilege thus allowed them to speak out against the “corruption and moral laxity” of the kings without being threatened with death or exile (88). The political prestige enjoyed by saints can further be seen in the desperate jockeying of believers to possess relics of the saint after his death; because these objects transferred baraka (God’s grace and blessing), rulers and other people contended with each other in the struggle to receive some of that blessing. These example show that, not only did the saint’s favor on earth did not remain spiritual or divine domain, but, precisely because of his holiness, he benefited from temporal, earthly rewards like fame and the devotion of disciples.

I have one final consideration on the topic of the complexities of sainthood: one author within this chapter named Goldzhier attributed the existence of sainthoods to an attempt of Muslims to assuage polytheistic needs. That author contended that these intermediaries with God evoked pre-Islamic worship of many gods, and that saint veneration fulfilled this engrained need of expression. Inevitably I thought back to our previous reading by Fred Astren, on how Jews and Muslims reclaimed pre-monotheistic practices like offering food to souls at gravesites in order to fit into the newly-forming structures of the respective faiths. Instituting sainthoods fits into that narrative of reclamation and repudiation of paganistic origins–yet, as these authors show, a clear divorce from predecessors is never possible.

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