The word used to describe a saint in Islam, a special friend of Allah, is a wali (sing) or awliya (plural).
Wali: The General Meaning
The literal meaning of the word is “guardian”, “protector”, or “supporter”. This word appears in a general sense in the Quran, as shown in the verses below:
“Allah is the Wali (Protecting Friend) of those who believe. He brings them out from the depths of darkness and leads them unto light. As for those who disbelieve, their awliya (patrons) are false deities. They take them out of light and lead them unto darkness. Those are the companions of the Fire—they shall abide therein forever.” (Quran 2:257)
“Your real Wali (Protecting Friend) is Allah, His Messenger and fellow believers—the ones who establish regular prayers, pay the poor-due and bow down humbly in worship. Those who turn to Allah, His Messenger, and the fellow believers as his protecting friends, know that lo! it is Allah’s party who are the victorious!” (Quran 5:55-56)
The above verses show that all believers are under the protection of Allah, who is their Wali. Reciprocally, in this general sense, all believers are considered to be awliya—supporters and protectees of Allah.
Intimate Friendship: A More Special Kind of Relationship
However there is a more specific meaning for the term wali/awliya, denoting a more special kind of relationship that a believer can attain with Allah. According to the Quran and Hadith:
“Lo! Verily the awliya (intimate friends) of Allah shall have no fear upon them, neither shall they grieve; Those who believed and constantly had taqwa (kept their duty of godfearingness of Allah). Theirs are the glad tidings in the worldly life and in the Hereafter. There is no changing the words of Allah. That is the Supreme Triumph.” (Quran 10:62-64)
And in an authentic Hadith Qudsi the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, narrated:
“Allah says, “He who is hostile to a friend of Mine, I declare war against. My slave approaches Me with nothing more beloved to Me than what I have made obligatory upon him; and My slave keeps drawing nearer to Me with voluntary works until I love him. And when I love him, I am his hearing with which he hears, his sight with which he sees, his hand with which he seizes, and his foot with which he walks. If he asks Me, I will surely give to him; and if he seeks refuge in Me, I will surely protect him.”
The Works of Sainthood: Ihsan
The above verses shed light on the bases of establishing a more special kind of relationship with Allah than that enjoyed by the generality of believers:
Constancy in Iman: Iman is the foundation, the believer’s capital upon which his entire life is built. This is indicated in the Quranic verse by being the first quality mentioned by Allah in describing His intimate friends, His saints who attain to the Supreme Triumph in this life and the next.
Constancy in Taqwa: Piety and godfearingness, warding off the disliked, unlawful, and evil, in order that one may constantly abide in the good pleasure of Allah and avoid incurring His displeasure—this is the second quality Allah mentions regarding those who attain to the Supreme Triumph. This is the natural outcome of applying and living out one’s utter conviction in one’s iman: knowing that Allah constantly sees one, and holding oneself to the godfearingness that is due.
Religious Learning and Practice: How can one have godfearingness and keep one’s duty to Allah? This assumes that one knows what is right and wrong religiously, what Allah has deemed good and evil, and the duties Allah has made incumbent upon one—so one can practically implement them in one’s life. This means one must have an indispensable degree of religious learning.
This is made clearer in the Hadith Qudsi, where Allah describes the obligatory works, the fard al ‘ayn—the personally obligatory religious knowledge we must have and practice, as the most beloved works His servant uses to draw near to Him. Fundamental religious learning is indispensable to attaining Allah’s good pleasure.
Supererogatory Voluntary Works of Worship: Finally, above and beyond one’s religious obligations, Allah describes voluntary works of worship as the means of attaining to Allah’s love and proximity. If the previous 3 points were the foundations upon which ihsan is built, this is the domain of ihsan, or excellence itself—doing more than one is obligated to. Striving for Allah’s closeness and love, above and beyond what is obligated upon one.
The Mark of Sainthood: Proximity to Allah
The nature and very goal of Sacred Knowledge is that it is meant to be put into practice to transform one’s existence—a process of gaining ‘ilm (knowledge), performing ‘amal (works) based on the knowledge, and attaining to a resultant hal (state) of proximity to Allah.
This process of transformation, of change in one’s state, resulting from applying what one learns, is summed up in the Hadith Qudsi, as the resultant state of proximity to Allah attained by those servants upon whom Allah looks at with the gaze of love: “And when I love him, I am his hearing with which he hears, his sight with which he sees, his hand with which he seizes, and his foot with which he walks. If he asks Me, I will surely give to him; and if he seeks refuge in Me, I will surely protect him.”
This is the consummate awareness of Allah, of proximity to Allah, attained by His intimate friends, the saints—the awliya. They are normal human beings, who have transformed their existence, by learning Sacred Knowledge and applying what they learnt—so Allah opened for them the door to an exalted existence.
The awliya are not prophets. They are not sinless, as prophets are, nor do they receive wahy, revelation, as prophets do. However from their state of closeness to Allah, some awliya can receive ilham, inspiration—Divinely gifted knowledge. It is not binding on believers to accept the wali’s ilham, as this pertains to the special relationship that person enjoys with Allah, and is not a Divinely revealed ordainment for the rest of mankind.
Takeaway: ‘Ilm, ‘Amal, Hal
The personal imperative for each of us remains to learn our fard al ‘ayn, apply it through our works and our lives, so we too can be affected by it, transformed by the Divine Light, and reach a resultant hal of closeness to Allah.
The awliya or saints of Allah are those who have effected the process above, par excellence. And in the words of our Maker, “That is the Supreme Triumph.” (Quran 10:64)