DENNIS B. MCGILVRAY
Professor,Department of Anthropology, University of Colorado at Boulder
Boulder, Colorado 80309-0233, USA
Dispatches from the Field: Dennis McGilvray, June 2012
29 May 2012
It is 2:30 PM in Akkaraipattu,……..
This morning I interviewed my old Sufi Sheikh friend, Makkattar, about his constant use of a cell phone to confer blessings and curative incantations to his followers, some of whom live in Denmark and New Zealand. He claims he receives 1000 cell phone calls every day from disciples and seekers asking for his divine blessings via cell phone. His followers regularly give him the latest model cell phones as a devout gift to their Sufi master, and he in turn passes his used cell phones on to his favorite followers, who treasure the worn-out equipment that has touched his saintly ears and transmitted his saintly words. He said he has gone through 50 cell phones in the past ten years, each one acquiring Barakat from heavy use. Spiritually speaking, this is a win-win form of recycling. I am thinking this might be a good topic for an article in the New Yorker, Inshallah.
Love to all from the lower latitudes,
Alternative Sufi strategy in Akkaraipattu
In contrast to the Muslim religious outbreaks in Kattankudy, my research in the town of Akkaraipattu, located only forty miles further south, has revealed relatively few signs of such anti-Sufi militancy. In fact, when I visited in June 2008, I heard quite a bit of outrage over the burning of Payilvan’s body, simply on the grounds of Islamic respect for the dead. Perhaps because of a difference in spiritual leaderships styles, Sufi leaders and their ideas seem to be accepted, or at least tolerated, in contemporary Akkaraipattu as part of a more diverse and differentiated Muslim political milieu (Klem, unpublished). The example of a new Sufi leader named Makkattar Vappa (“Father Makkattar”) is a case in point.
Makkattar is a former primary school art teacher who still does some sketches and drawings himself. He tells the miraculous story of being chosen, quite unexpectedly, to succeed the leader of a Sufi order originating in Androth Island (Lakshadweep Archipelago, a Union Territory of India) off the west coast of Kerala. The previous leader (kalifa) founded the order based on the hybrid authority he possessed as a member of four distinct Sufi spiritual lineages – Qadiri, Chishti, Rifai and Naqshbandi – but Makkattar does not emphasise the branding of his particular kind of mysticism. He is related on his mother’s side to a local saint of Yemeni Hadrami descent who is buried in one of the two oldest mosques in town, and this is a source of personal pride. His followers, both in Akkaraipattu and Colombo, include men, women and entire families for whom he offers a combination of pastoral advice and spontaneous philosophical wisdom, depending on the situation and the audience assembled to hear his words. A widower, he lives in his late wife’s matrilocal dowry house surrounded for many hours of the day by his male followers and initiated disciples (murids), many of whom appear to be under the age of thirty. Unlike the controversial Sufi sheikhs in Kattankudy, both of whom developed large-scale organisations to propagate their teachings in the print and digital media in the face of conservative Muslim opposition, Makkattar works at a direct interpersonal level as a pastoral counsellor, impromptu philosopher and dispenser of curative amulets.
The fact that he has avoided disseminating his Sufi teachings in print (or by means of a website) has probably helped him to avoid the wrath of the Islamic reformists, whom he privately labels as “Wahhabis and Salafis”. However, he does things that hard-line fundamentalists would certainly condemn, such as privately giving amulets and protective blessings to women who seek his advice and guidance. He has also erected his own mosque (named in memory of the heretical tenth-century Persian Sufi martyr al-Hallaj, who was executed in Baghdad) as well as a seaside mausoleum and meditation centre that shelters the twin graves of his deceased wife and mother. Again, this is not something most contemporary Muslim reformists would condone. The courtyard of his house in Akkaraipattu is typically filled with a mellow group of younger male murids, and his mobile phone is in constant use. As a technological extension of traditional Muslim healing practices, he sometimes recites a curative Islamic incantation to a remote patient who presses his own phone in contact with the injured part of his body.
When I asked him about the possible threat posed by anti-Sufi groups, Makkattar reminded me that one of his former primary school students – and loyal spiritual followers – is a local member of parliament and of the prime minister’s cabinet. Local-level politics has been alleged to be a motive in the Kattankudy religious violence: Sufi sheikhs have the potential to influence the behaviour of a significant bloc of voters. In Akkaraipattu, Makkattar is aligned with the popular local MP, who has delivered significant patronage to his constituents, most notably a new municipal water system. However, on a personal level Makkattar has maintained a modest level of consumption, and his lifestyle is in no way extravagant. He is fully aware of the unfortunate events in Kattankudy, and he appears content to maintain a relatively low public profile. Because he is an unobtrusively pastoral Sufi sheikh, his work and teachings have not triggered the violent, and troublingly mediagenic, reaction seen in Kattankudy.
Thanks to :