Allen S. Maller
Allen S. Maller

Islam and Judaism on the importance of a few hidden saints

The dominant view in both Islam and Judaism encourages knowledge of their respective sacred scriptures and legal systems. Both religions also have a minor tendency that elevates and exalts the small number (in every generation, usually only 60 or 40 Abdal in Islam, and 36 or 30 Tsadikim in Judaism), of simple good-hearted people’s truly pious deeds of love.

Abu Hurayra said: “I entered the mosque, and Muhammad said to me, ‘Abu Hurayra, in this hour, a man will walk through this door, who is one of the seven people of the world through whom Allah diverts punishment from the Earth’s inhabitants. Just then an Ethiopian who was bald, maimed, and carrying a container of water on his head entered through that door. Muhammad said, “O Abu Hurayra, that’s him,” and then said to the man three times, “Welcome” This man used to sweep and clean the Mosque.” (at-Tirmidhi in Nawadir, Asl #123) and Khatm al-Awliya p.443)

Most Islamic scholars would say this is not a certain Hadith. But it certainly is a beautiful, compassionate Hadith, with a strong message to respect every human being; regardless of class, status or physical appearance. This Hadith also expresses a special type of wisdom that comes, not from academic books or learned scholars, but from the pious yearnings of the masses of good-hearted, religious believers.

These yearnings are then expressed by sensitive scribes and preachers who expand them into inspiring fables and pious beliefs. After all, “God made human beings because God loves stories.” (Elie Wiesel) and “There are all kinds of stories. Some are taken from reality and processed through inspiration, other rise up from an instant of inspiration; and become real after being told again and again.” (Isabel Allende)

In both Islam and Judaism, a folk belief grew up in the Middle East, unsupported by the religious scholars, that if it were not for a small number of very righteous people, the whole corrupt society we live in would collapse upon itself. Neither the Torah nor the Qur’an explicitly proclaim such a belief, but the concept does support the ideal that a few people who continue to live in righteous purity, even when everyone else has become corrupt, can in some mystical way really make a big difference in society’s survival.

Even today the whole earth seems to be filled with violence, cruelty, oppression and injustice. The corrupt behavior of many political, economic, intellectual and even religious leaders is constantly being exposed.

Of course, our generation is not the first to suffer from these widespread social, political, cultural and national maladies; and religious people know that God is merciful and compassionate as well a just. Indeed, the God, who is known to Muslims and Jews as: Ar-Rahman, Ha Rakhaman, the Compassionate One; and Ar-Rahim. El Rakhum, the Merciful One, who shows patience and forbearance in the face of widespread human inequity and sin, can be understood in many ways.

One explanation, that developed within some parts of both the Jewish and Muslim communities, is that in every generation there are a small number of very special hidden saints (60 or 40 Abdal in Islam and 36 or 30 Tsadikim in Judaism), whose souls are so kind, honest, trusting and righteous, that for their sake alone, the rest of the society of sinful human beings avoids collapse.

Thus, the concept of the hidden saints emphasizes the importance God gives to a small number of very kind and righteous people who serve as the supporting foundations of the civilized world; and in some way known only to God, support human civilization against total disintegration.

Although this idea is not stated in the Qur’an or the Torah, some faithful believers find it to be an inspiring concept. Thus, Abu Darda’ said: “When Prophethood ended — and they were the supports (Awtad) of the world – Allah substituted in their place 40 men from the nation of Muhammad called “Abdal” (Substitutes). Not one of them dies except that Allah replaces him with another one, and they are now the supports of this world. The hearts of 30 of them contain the same firm certainty (yaqin) which Prophet Ibrahim had.

“They did not succeed or rise above other people due to much fasting or prayer…but rather through being honest, having noble intentions, and having sound wholesome hearts… They do not curse anyone, or harm anyone, nor do they see themselves as being higher or nobler than anyone under them, or envy those above them. They do not fake their humility… nor are they ostentatiously impressed with themselves.” (Tirmidhi, Asl #51, and Ibn Abi Dunya K. Awliya, #57) from Abu-z Zinad.)

Most Islamic scholars think the Ahadith relating to the Abdal is weak. And since acquiring religious knowledge is highly valued in both Islam and Judaism, most Jewish and Muslim scholars have rejected this elevation of religiously ignorant individuals. However, in my heart, I see the need for religious scholars to increase the respect people in general, and the religious and educated elite, in particular, should have for the many kind, simple, poor, good-hearted, righteous believers in their own community.

This is especially true in our generation. I also see many parallels between this Islamic and Jewish revolutionary concept that society is supported and sustained; not by the high and mighty, not by the rich and famous, and surely not by the celebrities of sports and entertainment; but rather by a small number of poor, hidden and rarely acknowledged saints.

Even more revolutionary, is that within the Muslim tradition some people explicitly included Christians and Jews within the Abdal: Hudhayfa ibn Yaman said: “The Abdal in my community in Syria, include 30 men on the path of Ibrahim (Jews and Christians)… And the group (of righteous Awliya’) in Iraq are 40 men… 20 of them are on the path of ‘Isa (Christians), and 20 of them (Jews) have been given some of the instruments which Khalifa Da’wud (David) was given.” (at-Tirmidhi in Nawadir al-Usul (Asl. #51).

This and all following quotes come from the two-volume book Risala of Imam and Sufi Ibn `Abidin; quotes online at As-Sunnah Foundation of America, in an article by Shaykh Gibril Fouad Haddad titled Awliya and Qutb.)

According to Jewish folklore, these hidden saints number at least 36 in each generation. Called in Yiddish lamedvovniks (36ers), they are responsible for sustaining and supporting the civilized world. At times of great peril, a 36er could even make a dramatic appearance to defeat the enemies of Israel, and then return to humble obscurity. The 36+ are unnoticed by other people because of their humble nature, status, education and vocation. The 36+ figured in Kabbalistic folk legends of the 16–17th centuries, and in Hassidic folklore from the end of the 18th century.

Yiddish proletarian writers in the 19th and 20th centuries expanded the folk tradition of the 36+ righteous people whose kind and simple role in life justifies the value of all mankind in God’s eyes; by adding that if even one of them was missing from the minimum 36, society would come to a bad end. For the sake of these 36+ hidden saints, God preserves our world even if the rest of humanity degenerates to the level of total barbarism.

This idea is based on the story of Sodom and Gomorra in the Torah, where God told Abraham that he would spare the town of Sodom; but only if there were at least 10 righteous people in it.

Since nobody knows who the 36+ are, not even they themselves, every Jew should honor and respect all the kind, simple, honest, unselfish, hard-working and long-suffering people around us, for one of them, may be one of the 36+. I think this lesson rings true for all religions. Unlike the rich, the famous, the pious, the scholars, the powerful, the beautiful or the successful, who everyone else thinks are very important, according to this concept, the 36+ are the really important people, because without a few of the society could destroy itself.

The tradition of the 36ers, others say 30, is found in the Talmud where Rabbi Abbaye says: “there are not less than 36 righteous people in the world who receive the Sakina-Divine Presence” (Sanhedrin 97b and Sukkot 45b). ‘Not less’ is not a fixed number, and there may be many more than 36 in some generations. These righteous people are usually and incorrectly called men although it is much more likely that they are at least 18 men and 18 women since in Hebrew the number 18 spells out life.

Ibn ‘Asakir (1105–1175) and Ibn Abi Khaythama narrate that Uthman ibn ‘Ata was having a conversation with his father, who told him, “The Abdal are forty Insan (humans).” So Uthman ibn ‘Ata said to his father, “Forty men?” and his father replied, “Do not say men, but rather say humans, for there could be women among them.”

The number 36 is not the only number offered in this connection. Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, the central character in the Zohar, believed, “the world never lacks 30 righteous people” (Genesis Rabbah 35:2) while Rabbi Simeon ibn Yehozadak says (Ḥullin 92a. and Midrash Psalms 5:5) “the world exists by the merit of 45 righteous people”. Perhaps he meant 30 in the land of Israel and 15 in Iraq/Babylonia where Rabbi Simeon ibn Yehozadak lived. According to Rav Judah, the number 30 represents the number of “righteous gentiles among the nations of the world” (Ḥullin 92a).

Thus, some Rabbis felt that women and non-Jews should be counted among the hidden saints, just as some Islamic sages have taught. All of these statements about the 30 or 36+ Tsadekim (saints) are the views of individual rabbis. Their views never become part of Jewish law or general belief, just as the Abdal never become part of the general Muslim belief. (See ‘Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms: A Reform Rabbi’s Reflections on the Profound Connectedness of Islam and Judaism’ by Rabbi Allen Maller (a collection of 31 articles previously published by Islamic web sites)

The power of the prayers and tears of a kind and trusting 36+er to bring rain from God was rarely mentioned in accounts from Europe about the 36+, because rain is not often needed in Europe. But in the arid Near East both the 36+ Tsadekim and the Abdal 40 (or 60) share this trait. As ‘Ali said: “The Abdal are in Syria, and they are 40 men. Whenever one of them dies, Allah substitutes another in his place. By means of them, Allah brings down the rain, gives victory over enemies, and diverts punishment from the people of Syria.” The following Jewish folktale from Syria illustrates the theme of the power of a pure-hearted simple man’s righteous plea.

Once, in the land of Syria, there was a great drought. A rabbi called all the Jews of his village to the synagogue. They prayed day and night, but still, no rain fell. Then the rabbi declared a fast and asked God to answer their prayers. That night he heard a voice from heaven, saying, “God will send rain only if Rahamim, who always sits in the back corner of the synagogue, prays for it.” “But he’s an ignoramus,” protested the rabbi “and I am not sure how kosher his home is.” Silence was the response.

When Rahamim came to the synagogue the next day the rabbi said, “Tomorrow you will lead the congregation in prayers for rain,” “But I do not know how to pray,” said Rahamim. “There are so many others who know more than I.” “Nevertheless,” said the rabbi, “it is you who must lead the prayers.” The following day the rabbi called all the people together to pray. The synagogue was filled to bursting. All eyes were on the place where everyone expected to see the rabbi leading them in prayer. How great was their amazement to see poor Rahamim standing up there before the Holy Ark, holding a clay jar with two spouts in his hands.

“Now I ask that you pray with all your heart,” he told the congregation. So they opened the Ark, where the Torah scroll was kept, and the people poured out their hearts to heaven, wailing bitterly and beating their breasts. Then Rahamim lifted up his jar, first placing one spout to his eye and then the other to his ear. Instantly there was a rumble of thunder and then the sky opened up, drenching the earth with rain.

The rabbi later asked Rahamim, “Why did you bring that jar to the synagogue? What did you do with it?”

“Rabbi, I’m a poor, ignorant man,” Rahamim replied. “What I earn as a shoemaker barely feeds my many children. Every day they cry for bread and I have little to give them. When I hear their cries my heart breaks, and I too cry. So I collect my tears in this jar. When you asked me to come here to pray, I looked into the jar and said, ‘Master of the Universe, if you do not send rain, I will break this jar in front of the whole congregation.’ Then I heard a voice that said, “Ask again when you stand before the congregation. So I did; and I heard a voice say: ‘Do not break the jar’.”

And then it began to rain; as a tribute to an unknown 36+er in the tradition of Honi HaMa’agal but without his Hutzpah. (Ta’anit 19a)

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 450 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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