In 1971, a Sri Lankan Sufi arrived in Philadelphia to address a group of spiritual seekers. This trip initiated the career of one of the most influential teachers in the history of North American Sufism. In Sacred Spaces and Transnational Networks in American Sufism: Bawa Muhaiyaddeen and Contemporary Shrine Cultures (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), Merin Shobhana Xavier, Assistant Professor of Religion at Queen’s University, provides a rich ethnographic account of his American followers, the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship (BMF), but also introduces us to his devotees in Sri Lanka, the Serendib Sufi Study Circle. The book tells us the story of Bawa’s early life and career in South Asia, his travels to the United States, and the development of his spiritual communities. Xavier narrates this history from oral accounts of followers she gathered during extensive multisited fieldwork. Much of the book reveals the spaces and ritual activities of his contemporary followers in all their diversity. Participants come from Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and “spiritual but not religious” backgrounds, each with their own interpretation of Bawa’s teachings and significance in the universe. Xavier’s fruitful comparative and translational approach forces the reader to rethink many assumptions about the character of Islam in America, how global movements connect and develop over space, and the dynamic relationship between religious leaders and their followers. In our conversation we discussed Sufism in North America, the Sri Lankan religious landscape, the challenges of multisited fieldwork, Bawa’s ashrams, mosque, and mazar, making pilgrimage, the role of women in the movement, the meaning behind Bawa’s multiple designations and titles, and how followers engage Bawa after his death.
Kristian Petersen is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies at Old Dominion University. He is the author of Interpreting Islam in China: Pilgrimage, Scripture, and Language in the Han Kitab (Oxford University Press, 2017). He is currently working on a monograph entitled The Cinematic Lives of Muslims, and is the editor of the forthcoming volumes Muslims in the Movies: A Global Anthology (ILEX Foundation) and New Approaches to Islam in Film (Routledge). You can find out more about his work on his website, follow him on Twitter @BabaKristian, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.