The Cult of Saints in Russian Islam

05 December 2023

The cult of saints in Islam seems to be something detached from modernity, a remnant of superstitions of past epochs, incompatible with rationalism and the dynamics of life of a progressive man. But with more attention it is possible to discern in this phenomenon the source of regularities of religious development, the characteristics of historical forms of Islam in different regions, and to find the basis for the interaction of Islam with other confessions. In such a context one can mention Maryam, one of the most honored women in Islam, or the Muslim pilgrimage to the city of Al-Quds and other holy places of the Middle East.

Many researchers believe that despite the fundamental difference between the concept of sainthood in the dogmatics of Christianity and Islam, there are more coincidences than differences in ritual practice and forms of cult design. But Muslim saints are not approved by any special decisions. In Islam there is no procedure for determining sainthood, there are no official lists of saints. There are folk legends, written sources, burial places and also various theological opinions on the subject. For instance, the proposal to abandon the word saint in favor of the Muslim wali, derived from the Arabic word awliya – one who is close to, under the protection of Allah.

The concept of sainthood in Islam has always been a kind of intellectual challenge. It has been generating fierce disputes among Muslims and scholars alike, and protests both from the West and the East. In Soviet scholarship, because of the ban on the study of Islam, there was interest in the pre-Islamic roots of the images and rituals associated with the cult of saints. Today domestic researchers realize that the Islamic character of the phenomenon, inevitably acquired by its encounter with religion also requires study.

The cult of saints has always played an important role in the traditional spiritual culture of the Muslim peoples of Russia, being one of the components of so-called everyday Islam – a complex of religious representations and rituals in everyday reality. The cult of saints is made up of several elements, the primary of which can be called legends and written sources that reveal aspects of the sainthood of a religious figure. The sacralization of the figure of the saint in popular memory occurred when certain criteria were met: literal adherence to Shariah, righteousness, non-possession, mystical spiritual and physical abilities.

The last criterion was the most understandable and vivid basis for sacralization of a person for local residents. Saint Sherif-Ali-Buba from the Lezghin village of Yaljug in Dagestan, who lived in the first half of the XIX century, according to legends, could suddenly disappear and just as suddenly appear, travelling, for example, to Mecca during his absence. According to contemporaries, Saint Syayfulla-mullah from the village of Latyshovka in the Republic of Mordovia had the gift of seeing the future – even representatives of the Soviet and party bodies came to him for advice.

The figures of Muslim saints in different regions of Russia differ. The emergence of the cult among Muslims of the Volga Region is associated with the desire to preserve the ancient rituals of honoring ancestors and clan. Muslim saints of the Caucasus are associated with holy wars for the conversion of local peoples to Islam; saints of Western Siberia are more often ancient missionaries who were martyred by pagans; saints of the Astrakhan Oblast are honored for their righteous life and service to people.

The burial places of saints are the next important element of the cult. In Islamic tradition these places, as well as the process of pilgrimage to them, is called ziyarat – the visit to the tomb of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in Medina after the Hajj is of particular importance to Muslims. Generally, the ultimate purpose of ziyarat is to receive grace and patronage from the saint. The tomb of the above-mentioned Saint Sherif-Ali-Buba was visited in case of drought, childlessness, various diseases, and zikr was performed here. In the Caucasus, places of worship associated with any of the local saints are called pir.

On the territory of Tatarstan, according to local legends, there are graves of Muslim preachers from the times of the Bulgar Khanate, i.e. the X-XI centuries, in the Tetyushsky district. Burial places are revered among Tatar Muslims and are called izgeler kabere – the grave of saints. The sanctuaries of the Muslims of Western Siberia – astana – usually represent a mausoleum in the form of a large polygonal log cabin of five to nine crowns. In view of the absence in the early Islamic tradition of establishing a tombstone, sacred places could be confined to some prominent architectural or natural objects.

The third, final and no less important element of the cult of saints is the ritual of worship. In general, it is uniform and involves similar components: the motive for performing the pilgrimage, the rules for visiting the tomb, and the care of the tomb. It is important to note that pilgrimage is performed in order to resolve a difficult life situation, with requests addressed not to a saint but to Allah Almighty. It is believed that praying at the tomb of a saint will definitely be heard by God. It is forbidden to swear profanely, express bad thoughts, speak loudly, be untidy, take something from the grave and carry it away with you. All requests should be accompanied by traditional Islamic prayers, such as Surah Al-Ikhlas.

The tomb of a saint is cared for by special people – caretakers who act as one of the most important components of the religious culture of commemoration of saints. The range of duties of a caretaker is wide – it includes raising funds for the installation and maintenance of the monument, organizing pilgrimages and conducting memorial prayers. The right of a caretaker is confirmed by the notion of spiritual, and sometimes real, kinship with a saint buried in the neighboring area. Receiving the gift of a caretaker is a consequence of certain circumstances (for instance, the appearance of a buried saint in a dream) and is accompanied by special ritual actions.

Researchers of the Muslim cult of saints in Western Siberia were attracted by one peculiarity – most of the caretakers of sacred graves were women. In their opinion, the violation of the traditional order of acquiring the gift of a caretaker occurred as a result of direct repression against men who performed religious functions in the era of atheistic propaganda of the Soviet Union.

In Soviet times due to the mass closure of mosques, cemeteries became sacral places for Russian Muslims, within the boundaries of which active religious activities were carried out: funeral and memorial rituals, collective namazes. Being an integral element of everyday Islam, veneration of saints and pilgrimage to their graves was an important factor in preserving religious traditions under the atheistic policy of the Soviet state. Modern interest in the phenomenon gives rise to discussions about the ritual side of Islam and the canonicity of certain rites, and is undoubtedly connected with the revival of religious consciousness in Russia.



GSV "Russia - Islamic World"

Photo: Nick Fewings/Unsplash