SAP Seminar Series: “From Sri Lanka to America: Bawa Muhaiyaddeen and Contemporary Transnational Sufism” by Merin Shobhana Xavier

April 9, 2018 @ 12:15 PM – 1:30 PM
Uris Hall

Muhammad Raheem Bawa Muhaiyaddeen (d. 1986), a Tamil Sufi teacher from Sri Lanka, arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in October 1971. His arrival led to the formation of the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship (BMF). The Fellowship attracted a community of spiritual seekers with varying affinities to Sufism, Islam, and other religious traditions. With Bawa’s death in 1986, he was buried in the Fellowship’s cemetery and farm property in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. Since Bawa’s entombment, this community space has transformed into a site of public pilgrimage in North America, especially for Muslims in diaspora, seeking to perform ziyara (visitation to Sufi tombs). The arrival of new pilgrims has presented new challenges for an American Sufi community and its diverse members who are already negotiating the organization’s relationship to Sufism and Islam. Yet as these contestations unfold in the shared sacred space of a shrine in America, in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, where Bawa first began his ministries, stands yet another shrine complex, which is dedicated not only to Bawa but also to Maryam, the mother of Isa (Jesus). This mosque-shrine (masjid-mazar) complex, known as Mankumban, attracts a vibrant Tamil Hindu following and also draws American pilgrims seeking to reaffirm their commitment to Bawa. The caretakers of this site are similarly contending with pluralistic ritual practices unfolding at Mankumban. An exploration of the various movements in and around these spaces of a contemporary transnational movement highlights the varying intersections of religious and cultural practices at Sufi shrines and the ways in which they evade any easy categorizations.

Merin Shobhana Xavier is an Assistant Professor of Religion in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Ithaca College, New York. Her research focuses on contemporary Sufism and Islam in America and South Asia, with particular interest in Islam and Sufism in Sri Lanka. Her first project examined the communities of M. R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen (d. 1986), a Tamil teacher from Jaffna, Sri Lanka, who established a community in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The latter is the subject of her forthcoming book, Sacred Spaces and Transnational Networks in American Sufism: Bawa Muhaiyaddeen and Contemporary Shrine Cultures (2018). She has published in journals such as The Sri Lanka Journal of Humanities, Social Compass, and Islamophobia Studies Yearbook. She is also a co-author of Contemporary Sufism: Piety, Politics, and Popular Culture (2018).

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