Mazar of Bawa Muhaiyaddeen

A growing Sufi community in America is the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship, which follows the teachings of the late Sufi leader Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. By visiting the community, attending their rituals, and conducting interviews, I have looked to gain insight on their community.

Since the passing of Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, pilgrims have traveled from all over the world to visit his shrine. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen was an Islamic Sufi leader from Sri Lanka who came to Philadelphia in the early 1970s. The Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship eventually garnered a spiritual community of over four hundred members. Even after his passing, the active community still continues to grow. His body is buried in a Mazar, or grave, about an hour from the Fellowship, where a community of Bawa Muhaiyaddeen’s students continuously visit and hold community meetings. I visited the Mazar twice in an attempt to authentically experience the community. As a Muslim in America, I have always been interested in Sufism and how it relates to mainstream practices of Islam and other Muslim communities. Although I’ve been a part of Muslim communities who follow Sufi practices, I have never had the opportunity to truly immerse myself in a fully Sufi environment until I visited the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Mazar.

Not knowing what to expect, I drove over to the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Mazar on a Sunday morning. My journey to the destination was serene. The campsite-like environment reminded me of the retreats I’ve attended, which gave me a break from my everyday life. The first thing I noticed was the arrangement. The Mazar, welcome center, kitchen, bathrooms, and prayer space were all separate buildings rather than one big one. Because of this setup, we spent most of our time in the outdoors, reflective of traditional Sufi practices, which emphasize connecting with nature. We entered the Mazar, which was a small white building on a hill where in the center lay Bawa Muhaiyaddeen’s body. As I walked around the Mazar, I found many copies of the Quran, volumes of hadith books (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), and books written by Bawa Muhaiyaddeen himself.

As time for Dhuhr (afternoon prayer) approached, I sat in the prayer pavilion and observed the place. The prayer space is a single room in which both men and women pray in. Like the Mazar, the bookshelves around the space were filled with Qurans and prayer books, many with English translations. As I sat there taking in my surroundings, two men walked in, greeted me, and informed me that they would be praying together in a couple of minutes. I joined them in prayer, which was no different from praying at a mosque or in a group. During prayer, I couldn’t help but notice the sounds of the nature surrounding us. Being in an isolated part of the town with wilderness surrounding us allowed me to focus on my prayer. I felt disconnected from the world around me--a feeling that isn’t always felt when I perform daily prayers at home or on campus, in the midst of my everyday life. After prayer, the two men started doing usual dhikrs and duas, remembrances of God. As I was following along, I got lost in the recitations. I then realized, they had included a prayer for their teacher, Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. From what I could understand, the prayer included asking God to forgive and bless Bawa Muhaiyaddeen and the community.

After getting in touch with the community leaders, I headed out again to the site early on a Sunday morning to attend one of the weekly meetings held at the Mazar prayer space. During this meeting, members of the community came together and watched a tape recording of a talk Bawa gave when he was alive. Afterward, an older couple, Zainab and Abdul Lateef, took me to the Mazar where there were now a couple men and a little boy there. The men seemed to have been sitting in front of the grave for a while, with their heads down, reciting prayers. It was clear that the two men of South Asian descent were making supplications to God while staying close to Bawa’s body. The couple sat down with us to talk about their journeys afterwards. They both were very talkative and excited to share their experiences with us. Zainab started by saying that she was born in a Catholic household. After she graduated from college, she had a feeling that there was more to life than what she’d already known. She began to explore other religions and ways of life. At one point she was an orthodox Jew, and at a later point she became a Buddhist. During her search, a friend of hers told her about Bawa, and she subsequently decided to meet him. She described meeting him as “feeling like you’re home.” Both Zainab and her husband described Bawa as someone whose “face glowed” and who was constantly in the spiritual realm. They said you could walk into the room and Bawa would already know everything going on in your life. They also said that unlike most people, Bawa didn’t have to prepare for his talks since he was constantly in the spiritual realm surrounded by knowledge. When the couple was talking about Bawa, their faces lit up, and they had smiles on their faces. They said that when they would talk to Bawa, he would joke around with them while also teaching them Islam and giving them advice.

Listening to both Zainab and Abdul Lateef talk about their journeys in finding Islam and being a student of Bawa Muhaiyaddeen has broadened my perception of Sufism. Visiting the Mazar has made me want to learn more about the Sufi traditions and explore their role in the greater Muslim American community.