Sacred Spaces and Transnational Networks in American Sufism

Bawa Muhaiyaddeen and Contemporary Shrine Cultures

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Merin Shobhana Xavier
Islam of the West
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , March
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


When Muslim and Sufi communities in the United States exhibit an openness to non-Muslim participation, female leadership, ethnic and racial diversity, and an ambiguous relationship to normative or “orthodox” Islamic ritual and social practices, observers might fall prey to a certain American exceptionalism, and be tempted to ascribe such qualities to the context of the United States. Merin Shobhana Xavier's excellent study of the transnational following of the Sufi teacher Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, Sacred Spaces and Transnational Networks in American Sufism: Bawa Muhaiyaddeen and Contemporary Shrine Cultures, is a salutaryrejoinder to that temptation, demonstrating the existence of similar patterns in both geographic poles of the movement in South Asia and North America.

Bawa Muhaiyaddeen began his career as a Sufi teacher, healer, and exorcist in Sri Lanka in the 1940s. By the 1960s, he had attracted a wide variety of seekers and disciples in the city of Jaffna. His followers in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, established the Serendib Sufi Study Circle, an organization incorporated for the purpose of disseminating Bawa’s teachings. In 1971, Bawa visited some of his students in Philadelphia and subsequently spent much of the rest of his life there, establishing the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship, and, upon his death, being buried in Coatesville, Pennsylvania in 1986. Xavier's research focuses on the sacred spaces associated with Bawa Muhaiyaddeen in Jaffna and Pennsylvania, and the people who use them. Bawa’s residence or ashram in Jaffna andthe shrine-mosque of Mankumban dedicated to Maryam (Mary, mother of Jesus) are the Sri Lankan pole of this study. The other is the Fellowship house in Philadelphia, its affiliated mosque, and Bawa’s tomb in Coatesville, PA. 

Each of these spaces is inhabited by what Xavier calls “parallel congregations,” following the usage of Paul Numrich (12). In Jaffna, the majority of the participants in the ritual activities—reciting praises and blessings to Bawa, the prophet Muhammad, and Allah; venerating his bed and the (empty) tomb at Mankumban; cooking and distributing food—are Hindu. This predominance of Hindus may have been compounded by the expulsion or killing of local Muslims during the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009). Meanwhile, the imam of the Mankumban mosque and the members of the Colombo-based Serendib Sufi Circle are Muslims. Pilgrims affiliated with the Philadelphia-based Fellowship add another element. Bawa’s spaces in Pennsylvania attract a diverse population as well. The Fellowship is itself ethnically diverse, with an early predominance of African Americans having given way to a Euro-American majority. It is also religiously mixed, with some members identifying as Muslim and others eschewing religious labels. The latter do not participate in salat (Islamic ritual prayer) at Bawa’s mosque. However, the mosque also serves a wider population of non-Fellowship Muslims. Many of these are not particularly attached to Bawa, nor are the numerous American Muslims of South Asian descent who make pilgrimage to Bawa’s burial place.

Xavier traces some of the fault-lines of tension in this coexistence of overlapping populations or “parallel congregations.” Different conceptions of the nature of Bawa’s teaching, whether conversion to Islam and adherence to normative Islamic practice is required, and the propriety of different ritual practices, all cause divisions and unease. Xavier argues that these fault-lines do not follow predictable patterns of ethnicity, nationality, or gender (202). For example, although the construction of the mosque, the practice of salat, and especially the gender division established in the mosque were rejected by some Fellowship members, the initial impulse to perform salat came from several of Bawa’s American female followers. Furthermore, the important leadership role of the female caretaker (the Matron) of Bawa’s ashram, Bawa’s closeness to his female students, his particular devotion to the figure of Maryam, and the fact that the Mankumban mosque does not place the same restrictions on women as the Philadelphia one, all upend any expectation that it is the “Old World” practices of gender hierarchy that are uncomfortable for American women (165). 

While both the Jaffna and Philadelphia mosques are sites that expose different attitudes towards adherence to normative Islam, fissures also appear at the two tomb shrines—in Coatesville where Bawa is buried and in Mankumban where an empty tomb was dedicated to Maryam and Bawa. Furthermore, some Fellowship members are discomfited by the religious practices of the local devotees in Jaffna, who are largely Hindu (89). At Mankumban, the tomb has recently been removed by the decision of the Muslim Serendib Sufi Circle, who found its presence, and the practices focused on it, insufficiently Islamic (197). In Coatesville, Muslim pilgrims familiar with the festive atmosphere, music, and incense of South Asian Sufi shrine culture are taken aback by the Fellowship's expectation of silence, meditative tranquility, and vegetarianism (128).

Xavier finds the roots of the various practices at Bawa’s sacred spaces not only in the religiously pluralistic character of South Asian shrine culture and the heterogenous composition of American spiritual seekers and Muslims, but more deeply in the teachings of Bawa himself. Bawa presented himself, and was received by his followers, in various guises: as god-like guru, shaykh (Sufi master), qutb (Sufi axial saint whose eternal light emanated from the light of Muhammad before creation), and insan al-kamil (human perfected through imitation of God’s qualities). “The pluralism espoused by his followers, and subsequent ministries, is a testament to the pluralism of Bawa's own being" (195).

Given the movement’s focus on a single individual who did not appoint a successorbefore his death nor establish a tariqa (Sufi order), the future of Bawa’s sacred spaces is unclear. Rising Islamophobia in both Sri Lanka and the United States, a growing Muslim American population drawn to seek the blessings of a saint’s shrine, and, at the same time, increasing intolerance for traditional Sufi shrine practices amongst many Muslims, leaves open the question as to whether the pluralisticquality of Bawa’s “parallel congregations” will survive, and in what form.

Sacred Spaces and Transnational Networks in American Sufism is a fascinating study of one of the most significant American Sufi movements. Xavier makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of American religion, contemporary Sufism, and the changing face of Islam in the United States.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amina M. Steinfels is Associate Professor in the Department of Religion at Mount Holyoke College.

Date of Review: 
June 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Merin Shobhana Xavier is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Canada.



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