Who and What are the Awliyaa of Allah [Saints]? by Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad


Sheikh Aamadu Bamba [d. 1927]
[The purpose of this article is not to disparage the legitimate wali [ولي], plural; awliyaa [اولياء] of Allah whomever they may be. This writing is a defense of the awliyaa of Allah [friends of Allah, or saints] and to clarify what a wali is and what wilaaya [ولاية] of Allah means based upon textual evidence [the Quran and the Sunna], the statements of our scholars, and the recognized standards of tawheed [monotheism] upon which the religion of Islam is based].

The first question is; is there a such a thing as a wali of Allah or a Saint? Do we have saints in Islam? The answer is yes, there is such a thing as awliyaa [friends] of Allah, based upon the verse; “Now surely the friends [awliyaa] of Allah– they shall have no fear nor shall they grieve. Those who believe, and are god-fearing”.[1] So who and what are the awliyaa [plural of wali] of Allah, who are the saints, and why is it important for people to know about them? Firstly, it is not incumbent for a Muslim to know all the recognized awliyaa of Allah or saints. It is not a requirement of religion. Your knowing them, knowing their names, and their history will not by itself bring you closer to Allah, raise you in degrees, or secure for you a place in paradise.

Faith and knowledge are what raises people in degrees; “Allah will raise those who have believed among you and those who were given knowledge, by degrees. And Allah is Acquainted with what you do”.[2] Knowing the awliyaa of Allah can be a means to expand your understanding of islamic history and broadening your options in how you pursue knowledge of the religion, and knowledge of suluk [inner character]. Knowing and understanding who are the awliyaa of Allah is a tool of the many tools available to a Muslim in pursuing his or her path to Allah, which is a path that each of us must take. “Verily, this is an admonition, therefore whosoever will, let him take a Path to His Lord![3]

We all have our shuyookh, our teachers, our imams, or our elders who we take from or have taken knowledge and examples from. If you are a murid [seeker]on the Sufi path, then it is very likely that there will be those regarded as awliyaa in your chain. The reason that some people follow a particular school of fiqh or take a particular tariqa or Sufi path is to help them in their journey to Allah and an understanding of Islam. The problem occurs for some when they take their madhhab, or their Sufi path as an end goal in itself, and not simply as a means to an end. The confusion sets in when a person believes that his sheikh, or his chosen wali or saint has knowledge and spiritual gifts that exceed that of the Prophet ﷺ, or they come to believe that Islam alone is not enough for them. One of the things that I have heard said to me by some of the followers of these paths isay and that you hear more and more from impressionable new Muslims who decide on a Sufi path, is that Islam is not enough for them; they need something more than Islam. This underscores the potential danger and of being lead astray, by the promise that there is something greater than Islam to aspire to.

Belief in awliyaa

What is incumbent upon the Muslim, is to believe in Allah and His Messenger ﷺ, to obey Allah and His Messenger, to establish the prayer, pay his or her zakat, observe the month of Ramadan, and make pilgrimage to Mecca if and when they are able. Knowing and learning from the learned and righteous awliyaa of Allah, that which will help in seeking Allah, is what benefits a Muslim, not simply knowing of them. Still we should keep in mind that the best example for the believing Muslim is the Messenger of Allah ﷺ. “Certainly you have in the Messenger of Allah an excellent exemplar for him who hopes in Allah and the latter day and remembers Allah much”.[4] The highest, most authentic form of religious knowledge is the Book of Allah, and the authentic ahaadeeth [traditions] of the Prophet ﷺ.

Although knowing awliyaa is not incumbent upon the Muslim, the belief that there are such persons who are the awliyaa of Allah is a requirement of deen simply because the Quran affirms it.  Furthermore, seeking and acquiring knowledge of religion is incumbent on us based upon the hadith; “Seeking knowledge [of religion] is mandatory upon every Muslim”. With respect to that, there is no doubt that amongst the awliyaa of Allah were scholars of Islam and individuals in whom Allah has preserved the knowledge of religion, and placed examples of how to obey Allah and His Messenger, how to understand and practice the principles and injunctions of the Quran in detail, how to follow the Sunna, and how to persevere when tested in our faith. Thus knowing and attaching to the awliyaa can be a great source of benefit. Just like knowing and attaching oneself to the Salaf of our ummah has benefit, or knowing and attaching yourself to your teacher has benefit, or knowing and attaching yourself to your parents could be a benefit.

Those who came before and have preceded us in faith and the believing people preceding us is faith, is part of the generational continuity of Islam.  As Muslims, we are required to take a certain disposition regarding those who preceded us in faith; “O our Lord, forgive us and and forgive those who preceded us faith, and make not any rancor in our hearts towards those who believe”.[5] Therefore, we take a disposition of love, respect, and fraternity and the absence of rancor with those who have came before us in this religion. We take the approach of having husnul thann [good assumption] or [حسن الظن] as far as they are concerned. This good assumption is due for all Muslims, not just those regarded as awliyaa. Which is why the Prophet ﷺ said; “Do not revile the dead for they have already went to face what they put forth”. However, with respect with those who change the religion, those who insert detestable innovation, set themselves up as idols to be worshipped, obeyed, or venerated above Allah sub’haanahu wa ta’ala, we tend not to be as generous with them.

The connection that most people have with a wali of Allah is the result of their taking a spiritual [Sufi] path. Outside of the community of Sufism, not a whole lot is said concerning the awliyaa of Allah. Within each Sufi tariqa, there are personalities who are considered to be awliyaa of Allah. Usually the one who founded that particular Sufi order was himself considered a wali of Allah as in the case of Sheikh Ahmad al-Badawi [d. 1276 C.E.] who was the founder of the Badaawi order, or Ibrahim ad-Dasuqi [d. 1296] the founder of the Dasuqi order, or Abu Hasan al-Shaadhili, the founder of the Shaadhiliyya order, and the famous wali of Allah Junayd al-Baghdaadi [d. 910 C.E.] Some of the awliyaa were very strict in following the sharia, others, not so much.

What is it that makes a person a wali of Allah?

All of the aforementioned were considered to be awliyaa of Allah. All of them were scholars of Islam who possessed great insight about the religion, about Allah sub’haanahu wa ta’ala and the path to become close to Allah. They all were high examples of piety, steadfastness and taqwa, but how, and why were some considered awliyaa of Allah and others were not?   The answer is more than anything else, the appearance of karamaat [miracles]. The appearance of karamaat in most cases is a condition for conference of the title wali of Allah. When such persons would die, their students and the people who knew them would remember their lives, their piety, their teachings, their benefit to others, their sacrifices for the religion, and most notably, their miracles, or miracles attributed to them, and confer upon them the title wali of Allah or saint.

The miracles, called karamaat would be what put them over the top in obtaining recognition as a wali of Allah. Sometimes the people of knowledge in that time or region would come to that unanimous conclusion. More recently there was Sheikh Aamadu Bamba [d. 1927], who is becoming particularly popular these days and considered by many to be a wali of Allah. My father Sheikh Abdulkarim, first told me about him about 30 years ago. He was the founder of the spiritual city of Tuba in Senegal. He himself was a disciple of the Qaadiriyya order founded by the great scholar and mystic, sheikh Abdul-Qaadir al-Jailaani [d. 1166 C.E.], and many miracles are attributed to him. Such as, while in chains on a boat, he broke his chains and prayed upon the water without sinking. Many other miracles are attributed to ones whom I have mentioned and to other awliyaa of Allah from amongst the companions of the Prophet ﷺ down to our present age.

Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali places awliyaa into two categories. The first are those who become awliyaa of Allah by dutiful performance of the faraa’id [incumbent acts]. This includes the five prayers, zakat, observance of Ramadan, the Hajj, kindness to neighbors, fulfilling our social responsibilities to our family, our brethren, the poor, the wayfarer, and everything else that would constitute that which Allah has made incumbent upon His servants. In fact, there are no better paths to Allah except by what Allah has commanded and deemed praiseworthy. Umar ibn al-Khattaab said; “the best of deeds is to perform what Allah has made incumbent, respecting away from what Allah has made prohibited, sincere intention about what Allah be He Exalted, has in store”. In this sense, anyone who does what Allah commands, avoids what Allah says to avoids, and fulfills the rights of others as Allah has prescribed and the rights over himself and the rest of creation as prescribed by our religion is a wali of Allah.

This is why ibn Taymiyah said that; “Anyone who believes in Allah and has taqwa is a wali of Allah”. Based upon the evidence, this is correct. “Allah is the guardian of those who believe. He brings them out of the darkness into the light;”.  This is also why we should not overstate the status [maqaam] of the awliyaa of Allah over what is mentioned in the Quran and authenticated in the Sunna of the Prophet ﷺ. Amongst this first category are perhaps millions upon millions of believers who have come and gone, and have fulfilled their obligations to Allah and gained the status of wilaaya with Allah.

Most of these awliyaa of Allah we will never know about, and not even know their names. Abu al-Farj Ibn Jawzi [d. 1201 C.E.], in his well-known book, Sifatul Safwa [صفة الصفوة] tells the story of unknown, unnamed, righteous people and their examples. He calls them maj’huloon [unknowns].  He demonstrates by their mention that amongst the pure-minded and righteous are these who are famous, such as the companions of the Prophet ﷺ, and the Taabi’een, those who are well known, such as our early scholars, those who are hardly known and those who are not known at all, even their names.

The second category of awliyaa are those who by performing the extra, supplemental duties, the nawaafil [نوافل] they become closer to Allah. This is based upon the statement of Allah; “And My servant continues to draw nearer to Me with supererogatory (nawaafil) prayers so that I shall love him. When I love him, I shall be his hearing with which he shall hear, his sight with which he shall see, his hands with which he shall hold, and his feet with which he shall walk. And if he asks (something) of Me, I shall surely give it to him, and if he takes refuge in Me, I shall certainly grant him it”.[6]  This is the classical and correct description of a wali of Allah. When people talk about the well-known and famous awliyaa of islamic history, they are usually referring to people of this category, except that they add to that, the attribution of miracles to them.

A person does not become a wali of Allah except by the means that are explained in our sacred texts i.e. the Quran and the Sunna. Each well known wali of Allah has their own history of struggle, or leaning, of faith and of action. No two is exactly alike. If we do not use the Quran and the Sunna to understand what a wali of Allah is, then anyone can declare himself or anyone else to be a wali of Allah and use that distinction to reign over the ignorant like lords. Such as we see today. This amongst other reasons is why we have to look at the Kitaab and the Sunnah regarding what is a wali of Allah, and what it takes to become close to Allah. After all, we are Muslim, and Allah has not revealed any other religion for us except Islam.

That being the case, we are bound by law to look at matters from the view of the Quran and the Sunna and not make up religion or religious practices. The Prophet ﷺ said, “anyone who introduces in this affair (religion) of ours that which is not [originally] from it, then it is rejected”.[7] Scholars of Islam paid special attention to not allowing the awliyaa of Allah to become some sort of elite, protected class of people who reign over other people. Because that’s not what wilaaya is all about. Wilaaya is not a public thing; it is a personal thing. According to the Quran, the qualities of a wali of Allah are two; faith and taqwa [piety]; Those who believe, and are god-fearing. The Prophet ﷺ when asked about who is a wali of Allah said; “They are whom when they are seen, [people] are reminded of Allah”.

Walking on water does not make a person a wali of Allah. Flying or floating in the air does not make a person a wali of Allah. Walking through walls, telling your fortune, self-transport to far away lands, claiming knowledge of the unseen [ghaib], or accurately surmising what someone had for breakfast that morning does not make a person a wali of Allah. If that was the case, then demons, who claim the same abilities and possess some of them, would be awliyaa of Allah. The famous magician David Copperfield walked on water and you could get a local soothsayer or Tarot card reader can tell your fortune. Magic is prohibited in Islam, as well as getting your horoscope read, and none of these things makes a person a wali of Allah. Neither does being a descendant of the Prophet ﷺ make a person a wali of Allah. A wali of Allah is first and foremost exactly what Allah has described in the Quran; “those who believe and have taqwa”.  Anything above that should be subject to scrutiny and proofs because there is a fine line between miracles and magic. Some of the Sufi’s that are floating around today practice magic, advocate the use of magic spells and openly proclaim that magic is permissible to achieve one’s objectives. Many brothers, and sisters have found themselves caught up in this.

Performing a miracle or a supernatural action does not make one a wali of Allah. However, awliyaa of Allah are recorded as having performed actions that are regarded as miracles. These miracles are divided into two categories; mu’jizaat [miracles], and karamaat [blessed feats].  Miracles for Prophets are called mu’jizaat, and for the righteous and the awliyaa, they are called karamaat. Sheikh Bin Baz (RA) explained this issue succinctly by saying that what is regarded as a karaama is when Allah sub’haanahu wa ta’ala renders His assistance to save someone from his enemy, or lifts off a burden from them or extracts them from a bad situation in a way where it is not normal, or in some way defies physical laws. This happens by the grace of Allah and sometimes it happens in full view of witnesses. Such events are called karamaat and yes karamaat of the awliyaa is something real and factual according to the consensus of our scholars.

It is important to understand just who are the awliyaa of Allah and something about their history and teachings because to take an adversarial position to a wali of Allah without just cause is considered a sin based upon the Qudsi hadith where Allah says; “Whoever shows hostility to My wali, then I have declared war upon him”.[8]  Since hostility towards the awliyaa is considered a sin, love and religious fraternity with the awliyaa is a virtue. Here is where a lot of people become confused. Loving the awliyaa is a virtue but so is loving a Muslim. Loving the awliyaa does not mean elevating them above what Allah has granted them, and it does not mean deifying them, worshipping them, worshipping through them, or ascribing to them unique powers to grant you superior status with Allah.

A lot of people misunderstand what it means by loving the awliyaa. It’s not a matter of a metered comparative love where people are tested by the degree how much they love a certain wali of Allah over another, or over another Muslim. For example, you can’t test a person and ask him; “who do you love more? Sheikh Abdul-Qaadir al-Jaylaani [d. 1166 C.E.], or the black woman who used to sweep the masjid during the time of the Prophet ﷺ?  Or test a person and ask; “who is preferable? Ibn Ataa Allah, or Hasan al-Basri? Or ask them; who do you love more? Ahmad ibn Ajiba [d. 1809], or Moinuddeen Chisti [d. 1230 C.E.]? Such associative comparisons are nonsensical and totally out of sync with what is meant by love for the awliyaa of Allah.

This is how people get tricked up into sheikh jousting and find themselves defending this or that sheikh or wali of Allah or cutting off relationships because you feel that someone is not showing enough reverence for your chosen wali of Allah [because there are tens of thousands of them]. This is madness. Some of the Arabs tried to get the Prophet ﷺ to specify his love and affinity for one tribe over the other but he wouldn’t.

Sufism is a legitimate pursuit and many of the great scholars of Islam following a Sufi past. However, Sufism has great trial in it as well because it is so varied, and some of its branched ideology goes directly into shirk [polytheism]. We live in a time where we are pressured to be politically correct in everything, even in holding on to our faith. To accept anything and everything regardless of what our scripture says about it. I get it, but I don’t subscribe to it. I believe that we should follow the Quran and the Sunna to the best of our ability and that Islam by itself, is enough for us as a religion.

The fact is that we are Muslims. We love what Allah loves and we hate what Allah hates or tells us to hate. We love those who love Allah, who support Allah, who support our religion and religious principles, who are just, who are kind, who are patient, who are benevolent, and who are merciful to others, and we hate those who hate Allah, who slaughter the innocent, those who are unjust, those who murder, and spread fitnah amongst the earth. We don’t get into who they are specifically, that’s not our job. Nor it is our job to be judge and jury over people by person unless we are real judges and real juries in courts of law. We leave the righteous in the hands of Allah; He will give them their due, and we leave the wicked in the hands of Allah, He will give them their due. In the meantime, we love Allah more than anyone else, and our greatest enemy is the devil, and we ask Allah to make us from amongst the rightly guided. This is how it goes beloveds. We are all just passing through this world; we don’t want to get stuck on personality, except the personality of the Last Prophet of Allah, Muhammad ibn Abdullah ﷺ, Rasoolullaah. We’re stuck on him, we love him, our hearts are attached to him ﷺ.

Unfortunately, we hear more and more these days about people who claim that their sheikh or their teacher is a wali of Allah or that they are following, or a disciple of a wali of Allah, which is fine, but now there is competition. As more and more people are gaining and even competing for disciples based upon their alleged close connection [wilaaya] to Allah, people have the right and obligation to know just who and what is the wali of Allah. Some people are selling choice seating on the Day of Judgment by following this or that sheikh, and this is wrong. This is completely wrong. Reported claims of some awliyaa border on the outrageous. Such as the ability to self-transport themselves every Friday to either Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina or Masjid al-Aqsa to perform salaatul Jum’ah,[9] or the claimed permission granted to them to commit fornication, lie, steal and kill based upon their alleged closeness to Allah.

One common exaggeration about the awliyaa of Allah is that they are infallible. For example, Abdul al-Wahhaab al-Sha’raani [1565 C.E.], who incidentally was a Shaafi’ee jurist from Egypt as well as a Sufi said that; “Of the more splendid miracles of the awliyaa is their divinely granted success to be in a constant state of obedience to Allah where they enjoy total protection is’mah [عصمة] from committing acts of disobedience [to Allah] or doing anything contrary [to the religion].[10] The idea that a wali of Allah is infallible is a widespread notion. Even questioning their infallibility makes some wali lovers go ballistic. Unfortunately, wali’ism [new word, meaning loving and accepting anything from awliyaa without question] is a new fad that is on the rise.  Muslims of today have no idea what they are getting into when they embark on blind discipleship of so-called awliyaa of Allah that takes them outside of the boundaries of scripture. Many are attracted to the mystique and novelty of wali’ism but end up committing shirk.

Superfluous sheikh veneration has become an industry in many parts of the world and has now come nearly full throttle to the United States. Some people erect shrines in their homes and plaster their walls with pictures of individuals claiming that he is a wali of Allah. Some people travel hundreds or thousands of miles just to see or touch a so-called wali of Allah or someone associated with him; to kiss his hand, or be in his presence, to benefit from his touch. Some of them argue and fuss with each other on behalf of their sheikh who claims to be a wali of Allah, or the disciple of a wali of Allah. This is not only incompatible to the principles of our religion which promotes individual striving and accountability before Allah, not accountability through the sheikh, it is incompatible with American culture and the culture of the convert to Islam. We were never really that good at sheikh veneration, and I doubt if we ever will be.

Imam Luqman Ahmad

Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad, a Philadelphia native, is a writer, a researcher, and an Imam at the Toledo Masjid al-Islam i Ohio. He is a former executive committee member of the North America Imams Federation (NAIF),  He is also and the author of the new book, “Double Edged Slavery “, a critical and authoritative look at the condition of African American and convert Muslims in the United States, and the book: “The Devil’s Deception of the Modern Day Salafi Sect “, a look at the ideological underpinning of modern Salafist extremism. He blogs at imamluqman.wordpress.com, and can be reached at imamabulaith@yahoo.com.

[1] Quran, 10:62-63

[2] Quran, 58:11.

[3] Quran, 73:19.

[4] Quran, 33:21.

[5] Quran, 59:10.

[6] Collected by Bukhaari.

[7] Collected by Bukhaari.

[8] Collected by Bukhaari.

[9] تقديس الأشخاص في فكر الصوفي، محمد احمد لوح، [Sanctification of Personalities in Sufi Thought] , by Muhammad Ahmad Lawh, p. 417.

[10] Sanctification of Personalities in Sufi Thought] , by Muhammad Ahmad Lawh, p. 221.

One response to “Who and What are the Awliyaa of Allah [Saints]? by Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad”

  1. Sayed Abdul-aHadi Avatar
    Sayed Abdul-aHadi

    I always get benefit from your writings. May Allah reward you greatly.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: