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The Mass-Mediated Reproduction of Charisma within a Diasporic Sufi Community

Fri, April 1, 3:00 to 5:00pm, Washington State Convention Center, Floor: 3rd Floor, Room 302

Abstract

Max Weber devoted much labor to unpacking the mechanisms through which charisma becomes routinized after the death of a founding religious leader. However, he remained relatively silent concerning the role that material culture plays in the dissemination of the founder’s ideology. Mass-produced objects are increasingly coming to play a major role in how new religious movements establish a global presence. To illustrate, I will draw upon multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork in Sri Lanka and North America to introduce listeners to the enigmatic career of Muhammad Rahim Muhaiyaddeen, more widely known as Guru Bawa. Bawa died in 1986, but to move forward members of his Fellowship disseminate his teachings through books and videos, but also through the sale and distribution of copies of Bawa’s artwork and pictures of him. The photos appear ubiquitously in the homes and on the persons of devoted individuals. I wish to argue that reproduced objects having belonged to the deceased figure serve as devotional surrogates to enable followers to keep him near, even though he rests afar. In so doing, members of the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship create a web of exchange within which images are circulated for the purpose of subjectively experiencing Bawa’s eternal presence among them. The objects of veneration are not only visual reminders of the founder but also olfactory and acoustic ones because they disseminate scent and generate stories told repeatedly within the group.

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