01/13/2012 02:29 pm ET Updated Mar 14, 2012

Rising Above Fundamentalism: How Do We Become Saints?

If you are wondering why I picked this topic to write about, it's because I keep finding out about religious organizations and their fundamentalist congregants who have a misdirected focus, either on some kind of nationalism or with a semi-concealed racism. They have lost their focus on spirituality in favor of exploitation. This can be seen exemplified in multiple ways (often it's enemy-making), but the end result is distraction away from the original main purpose of the religion. I am not against proper political participation but this neglect of spirituality in favor of misappropriation and misuse of religion does not seem to be particular to any one religion alone.

Talking about sainthood is one way to regain a focus back onto spirituality, away from distraction and spiritual poverty. Although we don't have the concept of sainthood in Islam as it exists in Christianity, we do have a concept of the Waliullah (plural: Awliya'), the "Friends of God" and Muslim doctrines about the concept. Muslims definitely know this and there is always need within the Muslim community to discuss how better to become Friends of God amidst all the distractions of contemporary life. However, the various assaults on spirituality in modern life affect humanity across communities and the problems and challenges of one community are often universal. Dialogue about overcoming distractions to achieve a better refocusing of priorities need not be confined to any one religious tradition. (Maybe we could even compare notes about overcoming obstacles.)

I'd better be careful with this topic and to whom I recommend sainthood. Saints are notorious for often getting into serious trouble. Being misunderstood or interfering with hypocritical vested interests, they often are horribly persecuted. Not being a saint myself, I should recommend for all interested persons contacting a preferred religious institution or guide directly for more information on the process.

Being curious, that's what I did and I made sure that I got some good second opinions. I have asked this question of how we become saints of numerous scholars of major world religions. Some of the most memorable in terms of the answers I received were the answers of various Muslim and Christian religious figures in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria. The Syrian Christians of course took the concept of sainthood very seriously but they reserved deeper discussion of it to those who are under their spiritual direction. The erudite Syrian Muslim scholars and Sufis seemed deeply pleased to receive the question and offered fascinating well-researched teachings. I listened very carefully to these top Muslim scholars and Sufis. Virtually all of them said that we should strive to become the Friends of God.

Although I will not give direct advice about becoming a saint or a Friend of God, I can describe something of the phenomenon from reputable source material. The author of one treatise, Hajji Bektash Wali, lived centuries ago in Anatolia but is revered by millions of Turkish Muslims, Sunnis as well as Shiites (See "Four Gates-Forty Stations: The Stages of Spiritual Journey: Hajji Bektash Veli and His Maqalat," translated and introduced by Tahir Uluc, foreword by Thomas McElwain, edited by Kemal Argon, Religionsvetenskapliga Skrifter Nr. 68, Abo Akademis Tryckeri, Abo, Finland, 2006). Hajji Bektash describes four classes of believers corresponding to the four major gates; the people of the Law (sharia); the people of the Way (tariqah); the people of Gnosis (marifah), and the Lovers of God (The People of Haqqiqah). There is too much description here of each gate and each of its stations to reproduce here but some brief selections will make the general point.

Bektash describes the people of the Law as having still the business of doing injustice to each other. I call these people "fundamentalists" as they seem to only know the necessary fundamentals of the religion and beyond that they are quite often a bit of a disappointment if not sometimes nasty. A subset of these people of the Law also becomes the people of the Way. By their own endeavors they keep the injunctions of the religion but they cannot spiritually guide others. They are candidates for knowledge of God and the station of Sainthood. The people of the third gate, Gnosis, are purified and purifying of others, striving for divine union and harmony with all creatures. Among other excellent qualities, the people of the fourth and final stage are described as being humble, not blaming (the 72 sects), and making the whole of created beings feel safe with them. Much more ink could be spilled describing the excellent qualities of these saints. In short, they are very nice, not nasty.

This question on sainthood often proves useful to refocus on spirituality, discerning what is relevant to that goal from what is ultimately a distraction. Asking and seeing how they answer the question, "How do we become saints?" is also a useful method to find out which, if any, religious organization might be a possibility to join. It's also good to know that if I occasionally meet a limited fundamentalist, I do have the possibility of telling them that I'm not interested in being unnecessarily limited: I am more interested in the goal of sainthood. Often the easiest thing to do is to say nothing to them and simply find more spiritually interesting people to talk to.