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Frank Apsey wrote:

Hi, guys —

  • I am a Catholic and would like to know when the Roman Catholic Church started the practice of sainthood?
  • When did the Muslim faith started the practice of sainthood?

It seems that Muslims had Saints before the Catholic Church.

Thanks for considering these questions.


  { When did the Catholic Church and Muslims start the practice of sainthood? }

Eric replied:

Hi, Frank —

  • Where are you getting your information?

It all depends on what you mean by sainthood.

  • Do you mean recognizing individuals as exemplars of holiness?
  • Do you mean recognizing individuals as being in Heaven?
  • Do you mean recognizing people as powerful intercessors?
  • Do you mean veneration?
  • Do you mean canonization?

I have never heard of Muslim saints of the sort Christians have; it would seem to me to interfere with their practice of Monotheism. (Not that the Christian concept of saints is polytheistic, just that Muslims are so fanatical about guarding their Monotheism, it seems unlikely they would conceive of sainthood in the way that we do.)

Be that as it may, saints in the Christian church go back to the earliest years, so much so it's hard to provide any proof of when the concept started. You can find examples in the catacombs from the early (first couple of centuries) persecutions of Christians saying Saint So-and-so, pray for us. You can see from the Martyrdom of Polycarp in the turn of the 2nd century how after his martyrdom, the faithful snatched up his bones reverently and kept them for veneration. There was undoubtedly a transition where those asleep in the Lord were first recognized as holy men and women and referred to as holy So-and-so (meaning, this person is a holy person) to the point where Saint was considered a title rather than an adjective (in Greek and Latin, Saint and holy are same word) and the position was a bit more formal.

It was further formalized in the Catholic church in, I believe, the 12th century when the present system for recognizing saints, canonization, was introduced, requiring multiple miracles and an examination of the person's life (prior to this, saints were determined mostly by acclamation, such as that you saw when Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and the Venerable Pope John Paul II died).
It may be, wherever you are getting your information from, is confusing the formal canonization process with the existence of saints. One has only to look at the Orthodox churches (which broke off in the 11th century, some in the 5th century) to see that saints were recognized and venerated long before this procedural change in the Catholic Church.

So, saints in the Christian church were venerated in every way they are now in the early church long before Islam in the 7th century. Indeed:

  • the Oriental Orthodox churches, which broke off in the 5th century
  • the Assyrian Church of the East, which broke off in the 5th or 6th century
  • the Eastern Orthodox churches, which broke off in the 11th century

all venerate saints exactly as the Catholic Church does, proving that the practice pre-existed Islam in the 7th century. Moreover, Islam provoked a Christian heresy called Iconoclasm, that is, the destruction of icons. Icons are depictions of saints. Thus, icons (and hence saints) had to pre-exist Islam for Islam to have that effect.

Hope this helps!


Mary Ann replied:

Frank —

The Catholic Church venerated people as saints from the time of the first martyrs. Islam did not begin until the 7th century. From the beginning, bishops would grant permission for certain martyrs to be venerated in the Liturgy in their diocese.

From the 4th century, holy people also began to be venerated. From at least the time of the 11th century, Popes began to do the same by allowing or prescribing universal veneration.

Mary Ann

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