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Friends of God

Friends of God: Islamic Images of Piety, Commitment, and Servanthood

Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Friends of God
    Book Description:

    Prophets, saints, martyrs, sages, and seers—one of the richest repositories of lore about such exemplary religious figures belongs to the world's approximately 1.3 billion Muslims. Illuminating some of the most delightful tales in world religious literature, this engaging book is the first truly global overview of Islamic hagiography. John Renard tells of the characters beyond the Qur'an and Hadith, whose stories of piety and service to God and humanity have captured hearts and minds for nearly fourteen hundred years. Renard's thematic approach to the major characters, narratives, social and cultural contexts, and theoretical concepts of this remarkable treasury of tales, based on material ranging from the eighth to the twentieth centuries and from countries ranging from Morocco to Malaysia, provides insight into the ways in which these stories have functioned in the lives of Muslims from diverse cultural, social, economic, and political backgrounds. The book also serves as a useful and evocative tool for approaching the vast geographical and chronological sweep of Islamic civilization.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94095-6
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xx)
  5. Introduction: An Overview of Islamic Hagiography
    (pp. 1-10)

    Every major faith tradition has devised important ways of acknowledging and communicating the paradigmatic status and magnetism of its central personalities. Whether religious adherents describe these personalities as founders, companions of founders (who are custodians of the tradition), prophets, saints, martyrs, sages, seers, or teachers, they locate in each of these figures a particular revelation, wisdom, insight, authority, organizational genius, or model of perfect commitment.

    One of the richest repositories of lore about such irresistible exemplary characters resides in the tales told by the approximately 1.3 billion people who identify themselves as Muslims. Like other treasuries of stories about amazing...


    • 1. Beginnings Both Humble and Spectacular
      (pp. 13-41)

      Among the various subgenres within the expansive category of Islamic hagiography, those that recount the births, infancies, and childhood years of God’s Friends are among the most intriguing for both religious and literary reasons. From a religious perspective, whatever the specific faith tradition, these accounts underscore the mystery and marvelous nature of divine involvement in human affairs. As literary forms, the stories have remarkable similarities in content and narrative art. Not all biohagiographical sketches start with stories of beginnings. Those that do share some themes, symbols, and character types.¹ This chapter considers several nativity and infancy narratives, as well as...

    • 2. Conversion and Asceticism on the Road to Sanctity
      (pp. 43-65)

      Conversion in one form or another is an essential ingredient in the stories of countless Friends of God. As chapter 1 indicates, stories of prophetic and saintly origins share many thematic and structural features. From here on, God’s Friends appear to follow a rather different path from that of the prophets. This departure reflects the fact that prophets, in most accounts, typically do not need to undergo a major change of heart before becoming genuine servants of God. Conversion, which accounts also describe as repentance or a turning back (to God,tawba), calls for a deliberate reassessment of one’s priorities...

    • 3. Dreams and Visions, Visitors and Voices: God in Touch with His Friends
      (pp. 67-89)

      Accounts of life-altering experiences, whether mundane and gradual or sudden and dramatic, do not tell the whole story of change in the spiritual odysseys of the great Friends of God. Hagiographical sources are full of anecdotes about the humbler course corrections that even the seekers who are most advanced along the path must make from time to time. Though these experiences are characteristically of divine origin, Friends do not always initially recognize that these relatively minor interventions come from God. A further miniconversion is usually necessary to open their eyes to the events’ heavenly provenance. In one story, for example,...

    • 4. Miracles and Marvels: God Working through His Friends
      (pp. 91-117)

      Signs of divine power manifested through human beings are ubiquitous in hagiographical accounts. Chapter 11 discusses various technical theological aspects of this subject. Here I explore some of the ways in which prophetic miracles and saintly marvels play out in narratives of prophets and Friends of God. Three categories can help structure this vast subject: scope of action, type of action, and subject or theme. Because one cannot draw a tidy line between categories, some overlap exists. In the first category, scope of action, we can make a useful distinction between reflexive and transitive miracles. The former are those that...

    • 5. Mere Mortals: Friends and the Human Condition
      (pp. 119-140)

      Islamic traditions about prophets and saints are replete with stories that showcase the individual’s extraordinary attributes and abilities. These traditions also include abundant reminders of the frail, flawed creaturely status of even the most exalted of God’s messengers and Friends. As previous chapters have hinted, Friends have often been involved in the sufferings and needs of other people as intercessory advocates. But Friends of God can be just as needy as the people who look to them for strength and guidance. Only human after all, prophets and saints occasionally rouse the divine pique, sometimes model less-than-exemplary relational habits, give sporadic...


    • 6. Friends and Their People: Society and Service to Communities
      (pp. 143-163)

      Many Friends of God have recommended flight from humankind as the only way to avoid losing their spiritual focus. Even the most austere and reclusive of renunciants, however, have found cause to tend to the obvious needs of their constituents. Dozens of major figures, including prophets and Companions of Muhammad as well as later saintly characters, have opted to wade into the hurly-burly of mundane affairs, seemingly unconcerned that they might be engulfed in a sea of humanity. Gregariousness and holiness are not mutually exclusive.

      Several thematic threads run through Friends’ responses to their communities. Saintly example in general and...

    • 7. Founding Friends: Authority, Institutions, and the Economics of Intentional Community
      (pp. 165-185)

      Some of the social relationships and networks that we saw among Friends of God in chapter 6 developed into more formal socioreligious structures and organizations. These institutional dimensions of the lives of God’s Friends are diverse and complex. A Friend of God’s relationship to the larger community of Muslims is often embodied in related institutions. Moreover, a Friend’s relationship with his or her community depends on perceptions of the Friend’s authority and of his or her qualifications to teach the tradition or represent one of its many constituencies. Since societal institutions can flourish only where sources of funding are readily...

    • 8. Where God’s Friends Walked: Revered Sites and Ritual Settings
      (pp. 187-211)

      One could lay out a detailed map of Islamdom, from Morocco to Malaysia and from Albania to Zanzibar, just by plotting out sites made holy and famous by Friends of God. Connected by routes that pilgrims have used over many centuries, these destinations form an expansive network of devotion, social interaction, and trade. Islam’s prophets and Friends of God collectively represent as cogent a force for way-finding and sacralization as one is likely to encounter in a major religious tradition. Their lives and stories invariably evoke a sense of place—whether a city or towns, desert or mountain, seashore or...

    • 9. Friends in Our World
      (pp. 213-234)

      Much of the data available to us about Friends of God are historic and often quite ancient. Some of the most engaging stories of holy lives come to us from “classic” sources, both literary and visual. And many of the most important places associated with Friends of God—from sprawling cemeteries with their often grand and imposing mausolea to large medieval complexes founded by Friends long-since deceased and humbler wayside shrines—can easily strike one as oversize relics of antiquarian interest. But Friends of God have remained an important and immensely vibrant feature in the faith and practice of hundreds...


    • 10. Literary Dimensions: Genre, Function, and Hermeneutics
      (pp. 237-257)

      Interpreting tales of God’s Friends is as complex and challenging as it is enjoyable and rewarding. To develop a balanced understanding of the many meanings and functions of this vast treasure-house of legend and lore, one needs to reach back to the beginnings of the Islamic tradition. Islam’s earliest sources, the Qur◝ān and hadith, offer important insights into the phenomenon of storytelling. In the introduction to this volume, I highlighted some of the indispensable traditional written sources of Islamic hagiography. Here I expand on that brief outline with a closer look at the principal literary forms through which Muslim authors...

    • 11. Theological Dimensions: Hagiography, Faith, and Controversy
      (pp. 259-282)

      Beneath the shelter of hagiography’s engaging narrative simplicity, a host of complex questions have taken refuge. Welcome to the subtext of hagiology. As early as the second/eighth century, Muslim thinkers began to discuss potential misunderstandings about the relationships between prophets and Friends of God. Do Friends enjoy the same spiritual prerogatives as prophets? If so, might Friends seem to usurp prophetic power and authority? Are prophets and Friends equally aware of their exalted spiritual status? Does either group enjoy the assurance of entry into paradise? Are the two groups equally susceptible to the ordinary failings of pride and sinfulness? Do...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 283-324)
  10. Index
    (pp. 325-346)