From Prophethood (Nubowwa) to Sainthood (Wilaya)

Prof. Abdulaziz Sachedina
Professor of Religious Studies
University of Virginia

This lecture is an historical and phenomenological analysis of the evolution of the concept of sainthood within Islam. It is clear that originally Mohammed was not seen as a mystical teacher. His human aspect was emphasized, and any distinction between Mohammed and other human beings is denied except in the area of divine revelation. The primary purpose of divine revelation is the religious law, and not the revelation of divine secrets or the ability to predict the future. The prophet’s role is one of a religious authority. Thus, originally the veneration for the prophet was based on his being a paradigm for the right way to live in accordance with the will of God. However, Mohammed’s role as a mediator who can intercede to God on behalf of sinners does appear twice in the Koran. This made it possible for the development of a more mystical view of Mohammed, and for the eventual evolution of the veneration of saints to whom supernatural powers were ascribed, which is actually totally negated by the Koran. This evolution was based on the Koranic concept of the wilaya, the friend of God. The wilaya served the purpose of being a more accessible religious figure than the prophet. There is also in the Koran an account of a mystical experience of Mohammed’s, the meheraj, his ascension from Mecca to Jerusalem, which includes the mystical vision that Mohammed had of the seven heavens. Thus, different dimensions of the spiritual life of Mohammed were emphasized at different times based on the different spiritual temperaments of his followers. This paralleled the development in Islamic society of the role of saints, totally contrary to the Koran.