I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian, and asking the Saints for prayers is a major part of the faith. We believe that the Saints can hear our petitions and can intercede on our behalf. Is this similar to the Sufi view of their own Saints? What is the role of the Saints in Sufism (or Islam in general)? Do Sufi Muslims ask Saints for help and intercession?
Wa `alaykum as-Salam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh.
Despite some not insignificant differences of doctrine between Orthodox Christianity and Islam, the reliance upon the saints is no doubt similar in both traditions. This reliance is simply expressed in Sufism: “Rijal Allah, a`inuna bi `awnillah (Saints of Allah, help us with the help of Allah).” It must also be recognized that there are very many saints who are respected in both traditions; a list of examples would be too long to include here. It may, however, be observed that in Islamic esoterism, the “Seal of Universal Sainthood” is none other than Jesus himself, peace be upon him.
There is an important distinction to be made concerning sainthood in the two traditions. In Christianity, the saints are recognized properly as such only after corporeal death. No doubt in Islam likewise it is understood that the saint has “died” to this world, but this understanding may also be in the context of the order of the Last Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, to “Die before you die.” In other words, sainthood belongs not only to the inhabitants of graves. In fact, a fundamental doctrine in Islamic esoterism concerns a living hierarchy of saints in this world that governs its affairs both seen and unseen. When an “office-holder” in this saintly government enters the grave, he (or she) is succeeded by another from the nearest subordinate rank in the spiritual hierarchy.
In Islamic civilization, Muslims knew – in varying degrees – to respect these saints in their affairs, and the institution of Sufism served to provide nothing less than ways to attain sainthood. The most remarkable description of Ottoman society is found in the writings of Evliya Celebi; not only does his travelogue read like a who’s-who of sainthood in Ottoman lands, but his very name “Evliya” means “saints.”
Along the borders between Orthodox Christianity and the lands of Islam, there are remarkable traces of a kind of saintly succession. In Bulgaria, where the Thracians had once venerated a mysterious rider Hero, there is a valley near Isperih considered sacred from very ancient times. Pehlivan Demir Baba – may Allah sanctify his secret – established his residence there in the 16th century upon the ruins of an Orthodox monastery of St. George. Significantly, in relation to the Christian dragon-slayer, the Pehlivan was recognized as “the successor to the power and the glory of the ancient master of the valley and its springs.” The marvelous Ottoman tomb of this saint is noteworthy for its seven-sided construction.
There is an even more surprising example of such a succession, this time according to Evliya Celebi concerning the great saint Muhammad Bukhari, who is better known as Sari Saltiq, may Allah sanctify his secret: “Sari Saltik made his will, wherein he commanded seven coffins to be made, because seven kings were to contend for his body after his death. This happened indeed as he foretold, because being washed after death and put into the coffin, seven kings claimed to have the true body, which was found in every one of the seven coffins when opened.” Among the seven kings was none other than the “King of Moscow,” and in fact all these coffins came to be positioned, for the most part, along the borderlands of Orthodoxy and Islam. Most surprising of all, however, is Evliya Celebi’s assertion: “In Christian countries he is generally called St. Nicolas, is much revered and the Christian monks ask alms under his auspices.”
No doubt these locations, formerly respected by Christians and Muslims and all but forgotten today, once functioned to help the faithful against a shared enemy.