Intercession in Middle Eastern Society

views updated


The notion of intercession (shafa'a ) is present within Muslim religious tradition as well as Muslim and Middle Eastern social and political culture. Intercession implies a special intervention or act of patronage providing favors, power, victory, or, in the religious variety, redemption from the terrible fate of sinners. Although there have been some objections, historic and modern, to this idea, it is frequently ascribed to the prophet Muhammad, his family, and the angels, as well as other Muslim holy men and women. For instance, the relics of the imam Husayn, the Prophet's grandson, are visited by the Shia in Damascus, and three famous pious womenSayyida Zaynab, Sayyida Ruqayya, and Sayyida Nafisafunction as the patron saints of the city of Cairo. Pilgrims' prayers and entreaties call for intercession and blessing. Such visitations or requests of holy figures are made throughout the Muslim world, the Middle East, and North Africa. Intercession is also sought from certain key Sufi leaders and poets via ritual, recitation, or visitations.

The primary aim of Prophetic intercession is to save Muslim sinners on the Day of Judgment when all souls will be considered, and former earthly status, wealth, or power will be meaningless. His intercession, confirmed in the Koran (17:29), could prevent the believer from slipping off the Straight Path, a bridge spanning Hell. The traditions that ascribe the potential for intercession to the prophet Muhammad emphasize his exemplary nature.

According to one, humankind sought an intercessor on the Day of Judgment from among the prophets. Each was asked, and all but Jesus believed that they had themselves sinned, and all of the prophets but Muhammad replied that they feared for themselves. Yet God told Muhammad, who is the only human to have been forgiven his sins, that he might ask what he willed, and so may intercede on behalf of the Muslim community. Shafa'a is thus an aspect of Muhammad's "grace." In addition, various traditions relate the Prophet's miraculous night journey (isra ) and ascension to heaven (mi'raj ) that established his relationship with the chain of prophecy, and during which he interceded with God to reduce the number of daily prayers required of Muslims from fifty to five. Even non-Muslims recognized the Prophet's rights of intercession, according to another tradition about a Jewish tribe who called for intercession in the name of the Prophet before a major battle and were subsequently victorious over their foes.

All four Sunni Muslim legal schools agreed that the Prophet could intercede for sinners, although Muslims must strive to cleave to the Straight Path on their own. Muhammad's intercession, in other words, is intended for sinners, not the pious. Related practices, like the uttering of the salawat sharifa, the phrase usually translated as "bless him and grant him peace," at every mention of the Prophet's name is believed to obtain the blessing of angels and might aid intercession.

In Shii Islam, the concept of shafa'a and its correlate, tawassul (attainment of an objective or achievement of purpose), is extended to the family of the Prophet, the ahl al-bayt. The Prophet is supposed to have said to his daughter Fatima that on the Day of Judgment she would intercede for women, and he for men, and furthermore that every person who had wept over the tragic death of Husayn would be taken by the hand and led into Paradise. Many other traditions including several ascribed to Ja'far al-Sadiq (Muhammad's great-great-great-grandson and the sixth Shii imam) prescribe weeping and mourning on Ashura, the day of remembrance of Husayn's death, and state that paradise is the reward for those who weep. Consequently, in Shiism, martyrdom is also linked to the notions of intercession and redemption.

In both Sunni and Shii Islam, the notion of intercession is related to other practices in which the prophet Muhammad is venerated, such as the celebration of his birthday, and to the literature and poetry written in his praise. A thirteenth-century poet, Muhammad al-Busiri, a member of the Shadhiliyya mystic order, refers constantly to shafa'a in his famous poem known as "al-Burda":

Our Prophet, who commands and prohibits and not a single one
Is more truthful than he is saying No or Yes;
And he is the beloved for whose intercession one hopes
In every horror and hazardous undertaking. (Schimmel, p. 185)

In Suleyman Chelebi's mevlut (c. 1400) a chorus begins each line with "Welcome" as in "Welcome O intercessor of the worlds," and each refrain proclaims "If you want to be rescued from Hellfire / Utter the blessings over him with love and [longing] pain." (Schimmel, p. 155). Similar references occur in countless lyrics for the Prophet and songs celebrating the hajj or pilgrimage. The concept is closely entwined with the emotional entreaties of the Sufi dhikr, or ceremony of remembrance, and their inshad (sung poetry).

The early Islamic philosophical school known as the Mu'tazila disputed the idea of Prophetic intercession because they believed that it diminished the absolute justice of God. And although the medieval jurist and polemicist Ibn Taymiyya accepted the traditions concerning Prophetic intercession, his spiritual descendants in the modern world, the Wahhabiyya of Saudi Arabia, have disputed the notions of shafa'a and tawassul, as have other modernizing reformers. Some hold that granting such powers to the Prophet or other holy figures is akin to the polytheistic practices of the pre-Islamic period. The Wahhabis interpret the Koran (2:25) to mean that because only God can grant permission for intercession, this will only be gained by a monotheist, and that the devotion to dead saints is misguided. Such reformers also object to the use of amulets or jewelry with Koranic inscriptions (or for the Shia, sometimes the image of 'Ali and the prophet Muhammad). Believers wear and bestow such items on each other in the hopes that they will confer baraka ("blessing"), similar to the charismatic blessing of a dead saint.

The Prophet's intercession is described as being connected to his baraka and is described as being made of divine light itself. Similarly, the baraka of the other Muslim holy figures is sought and thought to bring about this light-infused intercession, whether through the action of the believer at a visitation to a holy place, such as an Imamzadeh for the Shia, or in the use of language that creates an emotional bridge to the baraka of a text and its author.

Intercession in Middle Eastern societies is not limited to the religious sphere. Other social and political practices reflect the reliance on intercession of the powerful in Muslim and even in non-Muslim Middle Eastern societies. In the social sphere, powerful or prestigious figures have served as mediators for conflicts, interceding for each party until resolution was achieved. In political life, the concept of intercession led to the dominance of particular elites, in what was known as the politics of patronage in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well as during earlier periods.

The zu'ama (literally chieftains, elite leaders) of Lebanon, or urban Syria, as well as politicians in Egypt and elsewhere sponsored clients and expected their political loyalty in return for favors. It was important for the less socially and politically powerful to locate patrons, obtain their "influence," or find an intermediary (a wasta or "link") who could do so. This has lent an aura of corruption, fatalism, and violence to the political process, as people doubted that anything could be accomplished without such an intermediary. It is not unreasonable to speak of a parallel between the temporal and religious reliance on intercession. On a psychological level, the strength or efficacy of one's connections can contribute to feelings of security. Some argue that such dependence has obstructed populist tendencies and democratization. Intercession has been a major factor in social and political life, even where mass parties have been established, as in Egypt, Iraq, or Syria, cementing the cultural belief that the strength of one's connections was invariably more significant than talent, merit, or energy.

See also Islam .


Ayoub, Mahmoud. Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of 'Ashura in Twelver Shi'ism. The Hague: Mouton de Gruyter, 1978.

Gilsenan, Michael. Lords of the Lebanese Marches: Violence and Narrative in an Arab Society. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

. Saint and Sufi in Modern Egypt: An Essay in the Sociology of Religion. Oxford: Clarendon, 1973. Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Hamid Dabashi, and Seyyed Vali Reza

Nasr, eds. Shi'ism: Doctrines, Thought and Spirituality. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988.

Reeves, Edward B. The Hidden Government: Ritual, Clientelism, and Legitimation in Northern Egypt. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1990.

Schimmel, Annemarie. And Muhammad Is His Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Waugh, Earl H. The Munshidiin of Egypt: Their World and Their Song. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.

Sherifa Zuhur