Ajam Media Collective Podcast
Ajam Podcast #37: Sufi Miracle Workers of Malaya
In this episode, Lindsey, Rustin, and Ali interview Dr. Teren Sevea, Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Harvard Divinity School about his recent book, Miracles and Material Life: Rice, Ore, Traps and Guns in Islamic Malaya (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
Dr. Sevea reveals the significance of Islamic miracle workers, called pawangs or bomohs, in the Malay world from the 19th century to the present. He maps out the spiritual economy of the Indian Ocean world and its many human and non-human actors. These figures, steeped in the practice and cosmology of Sufism, were instrumental to the material life of the societies they lived in. They frequently directed the extraction of natural resources, the adaptation and use of new technologies, and the navigation of land and sea.
Combining an analysis of overlooked sources, including manuscripts and personal interaction with modern pawangs, Dr. Sevea shows how these miracle workers interacted with the Unseen world to aid and direct labor in the societies they lived in. For example, they were seen as masters of prospecting and mining tin, taming elephants and tigers, or even shooting guns. Even British colonial officials who dismissed them as “primitive” sought out their aid and guidance when it came to navigating the material world, admitting their skill despite their “superstitions.” To further complicate matters, some pawangs even considered these very same colonial officials as their own “companions” even while some of their peers encouraged war against their imperial masters.
Despite their centrality to the past, pawangs and bomohs today are marginalized in official discourse and media within Malaysia and Singapore today. Yet they are still very present, whether in guiding their followers, healing the sick, or even producing internationally acclaimed art. Dr. Sevea shows the pertinence of working with living pawangs and bomohs in order to understand their role in the eastern Indian Ocean world. Their instructions and living memory is instrumental not only to approaching their past, but also in understanding this significant chapter in the religious, social, and economic history of the Indian Ocean.
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