Dennis McGilvray

The Sufi Scene in Sri Lanka

Sufi traditions and devotional practices among Sri Lanka’s 8% Muslim population have
continued, and possibly even grown in popularity, in recent decades despite the opposition of
Islamic reform movements. This talk presents an overview of fieldwork among Tamil-speaking
Sufi Muslims in eastern Sri Lanka who also have historic links with saintly tomb-shrines and
centers of Sufi teaching in Tamilnadu, Kerala, and Lakshadweep. The paradox of anti-Sufi
violence and pro-Sufi devotional activities will be discussed in the context of the ongoing Sri
Lankan ethnic conflict and the December 2004 tsunami tragedy.

McGilvray received his B.A. (1965) in Anthropology from Reed College, studied in the Social Relations Department at Harvard University (1965-66), and completed his Ph.D in cultural anthropology from the University of Chicago (1974). He previously taught at the University of Santa Clara (1972-73) and at Cambridge University (1973-78), and he was awarded a Mellon Fellowship at Cornell University (1978-80). His research and writing have focused upon the study of matrilineal kinship and marriage patterns, Hindu caste organization, cultural identity and interethnic conflict, and the religious and ritual practices of Tamil-speaking Hindus and Muslims in the eastern coastal region of Sri Lanka. He recently led an interdisciplinary NSF research team to study the effects of cultural and regional identities on community recovery from the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka.

He has published scholarly articles and chapters on Sri Lankan Tamil and Muslim households
and marriage, on Tamil concepts of gender and the body, and on the ethnic identity formation of Sri Lankan Tamils, Muslims, and Burghers (Eurasians). He has edited Caste Ideology and
Interaction (Cambridge University Press 1982) as well as produced a traveling photo exhibit and accompanying book, Symbolic Heat: Gender, Health and Worship among the Tamils of South India and Sri Lanka (Ahmedabad: Mapin 1998). In 1987 he won the Stirling Award in
psychological anthropology for his essay “Sex, Repression, and Sanskritization in Sri Lanka?”
(Ethos 16, 1988). In 2007 he co-authored an East-West Center monograph with Mirak Raheem
entitled Muslim Perspectives on the Sri Lankan Conflict. His newest book is Crucible of
Conflict: Tamil and Muslim Society on the East Coast of Sri Lanka (Duke University Press
2008), the product of three decades of ethnographic research among the Tamils and “Moors” of Ampara and Batticaloa Districts.