For questionable hagiographies

22 08 2009

Lal Shahbaz Qalandar once roamed the Indian province of Sindh (now a part of Pakistan) as a missionary of Islam. Most historical details about his life and his teachings have been lost and gave room to numerous legends but what seems to be certain is that Lal Shahbaz Qalandar preached that the very essence of Islam is love: love for God, love for God´s prophet and his family, love for the friends of God and love for each fellow human being.

He gained a reputation of offering heartfelt sympathy and practical help to the ostracized and downtrodden of society and his tomb became a special place of reverence for the poorest of the poor, for members of the lowest castes, for trannies, for prostitutes and for others with a “bad reputation” in mainstream society.

Leyla Jagiella, who posted this with the video above concerning the miracles wrought by this “Muslim saint”

I was telling a priest about my research one day, and, after recounting the story of St. Martin of Tours and the spurious martyr, I remarked that Mediterreanean Catholics seem to have been venerating social bandits for some sixteen hundred years. “Yes, and they’ll keep doing it as long as the Vatican only canonizes members of religious orders and goody-goodies!” was the unexpected response. The point is a good one, especially given Mexico’s strong class system, its traditional anticlericalism, and its deep suspicion of bureaucracy, be it secular or church related.

-James S. Griffith, Folk Saints of the Borderlands: Victims, Bandits, and Healers

I don’t necessarily agree with the priest. I don’t think that folk bandits need to be canonized to play a part in the lives of the people in the pews. There is a certain synergy between official and “folk” culture that best works when the realms are separated.

That being said, I have found that there is a tendency to reduce the cult of the saints in Catholicism to the “Catholic citizen of the month” club. I felt this especially in the policies of the last Pontiff to canonize as many people as he could from different “walks of life”. This wasn’t really a move of populist leanings, in my opinion. It was more a PR move to prove that anyone could be a clericalized, Catholic goody-goody. As I have written previously, Vatican II did not so much “empower the laity”, but rather clericalized them.