All kinds of people in the Muslim world have such a relationship with saints. This extensive cult of saint veneration most probably grew out of a concern for honouring the Prophet, Muhammad. It is certainly justified, in the popular mind at least, by the continuing celebration of the Prophet’s birthday. A few strict sects, such as the Hanbalis and Wahhabis, deny any validity to such a cult. For most Muslims, however, saints fulfill an important role in their worldview.
Saints are variously designated and the focus of pilgrimage and worship is as much centred on the shrine as upon the saint housed there.
The cult of pir veneration in the subcontinent is highly developed.
Pirs – wealthy men, living off the gifts of money and food brought by their needy supplicants.
Not all living saints surround themselves with such grandeur. Indeed it would seem from some saints’ shrines in remote, inaccessible places that part of the intention is to enable the pilgrim to gain merit simply from the exertion needed to make a visit.
Dead saints abound in the Muslim world.
Alive or dead, saints believe to have great power. Shaykh Zuwayyid, one of several saints venerated among the Bedouin of Sinai, filled a food bowl simply by looking at it.
Relics of the Prophet are carefully preserved and draw wonder and awe from pilgrims.
An intrinsic part of the cult of saints is the concern for shrines and sacred places associated with them.
The most significant shrine among Shia Muslims is at Karbala in Iraq. Many Muslims in the southern Philippines visit tampots (shrines) to seek blessing, health and protection, and to make binding oaths.
Ordinary Muslims relate to saints in a few major ways. The processes seen as being mutually beneficial. Saints have baraka and are capable of performing miracles. Their expectation – to give certain services to believers. In return, adherents express their dependence and gratitude for services rendered in the form of vows, visits and celebrations of saints’ days.
Vow-making comes in two stages. The first stage is that of composing the vow. The second stage is that of fulfilling the vow. If a person who has not yet fulfilled a vow begins to have nightmares, he will consider them as reminders by the saint to fulfill his vow.
Visits to the shrine usually combine recognition of the saint and expression of the pilgrim’s need.
The mawlid is an annual celebration of the saint’s birth, or more usually his death. The overall objective is to honour the saint concerned.
Understanding the dynamics involved in requesting a saint’s help varies according to the education (in a formal, religious sense) of the person addressing the saint. According to the need of the hour, so approach a saint with proper ability.
The Qur’an is careful in its defense of God as the sole arbiter of human affairs. All that might be allowed by the Qur’an are angels acting as intercessors by God’s special permission.
The hadith, although they deal quite extensively with the specific issues of vow-making and oaths, are equally careful about denying help from any supernatural source apart from God. Vows disallowed because of their attempting to alter fate. Even where they are legitimate, it put’s in doubt whether they are efficacious.
Thus neither the hadith nor the Qur’an offers direct support for a cult of saint veneration. They both affirm a plethora of ‘beings’ and ‘powers’, thereby conceding the potential of human appeal to a suprahuman domain.
Possibility of mediators, intercessors and repositories of baraka was quickly legitimized in the early veneration of Muhammad, Fatima, Ali and other historic figures of the faith. Such devotion and intercession multiplied throughout families, ethnic groups and communities, with local saints becoming the objects of veneration.
Among many ordinary Muslims, many myths declare that the baraka-endued power of saints is its own justifier. The cult of saints validates, in the minds of needy Muslims, in terms of its known effectiveness.