Transnational Sufism and Islamic Change in Contemporary Sri Lanka
by Dennis B. McGilvray
In the context of spectacular Sinhalese and Tamil forms of religious austerity and mortifying vow-fulfillment — such as the hook-swinging, kavadi dancing, and firewalking so prominently displayed at Kataragama — the so-called “cutting and stabbing work” of the Bawas is the only comparably breathtaking and “miraculous” devotional tradition available on the Muslim side. In the years since I first encountered the Bawas, my awareness of the transnational nature of the Rifai performance tradition has gradually expanded to include a live demonstration of daggers, needles, and spikes performed by the followers of a Rifai’i sheikh in Calicut, northern Kerala, and an exhibit of identical stabbing implements in the National Museum in Jakarta. The capstone experience for me, however, was to see these very same Rifai’i implements wielded by Balkan Muslims in Skopje, Macedonia, in a documentary film many of you have probably seen: I am a Sufi, I am a Muslim (with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing qawwali songs in the closing minutes of the movie).