PHOTOS: Inside the Life of the Jewish Sufis by the Forward

PHOTOS: Inside the Life of the Jewish Sufis

Image by Sam Kestenbaum

In 1971 a mysterious Sufi mystic arrived in America from Sri Lanka to spread a message of religious and racial unity. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen was his name and he amassed a following — in a country reeling from the social, political and religious upheaval of the 1970s, his message resonated.

All along, Bawa’s inner circle of supporters were largely Jewish — and played pivotal roles in the history of the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship, as the group is known. Now three generations in, Judaism and Jewishness still remains important parts of their lives.

PHOTOS: Inside the Life of the Jewish Sufis

Bawa was invited to Philadelphia in 1971 by an American woman and a Sri Lankan student who knew about his work and reputation as a spiritual teacher.

In Philadelphia, he attracted a diverse crowd — Jews, Catholics and Muslims; blacks and whites. Bawa instructed his students to keep vegetarian diets. Here, he serves a meal at the Fellowship in an undated photo.

Bawa would lecture regularly from the Fellowship headquarters.

Bawa’s discourses were recorded by his students and turned into more than 20 books, which were published by the Fellowship.

In 1983, Bawa lead the community in the construction of a mosque — a move towards more formal Islamic practice that not everyone was happy about.

But the house of prayer was built. The community has since joined the Islamic fabric of greater Philadelphia.

Bawa died in 1986, but is still deeply revered. The room where he lived is treated with great reverence — the chair where he sat marked off, the bed where he slept neatly made.

Bawa was laid to rest in the countryside of Pennsylvania. His burial shrine, or mazar, is a pilgrimage site for Fellowship members.

Bawa’s mausoleum, draped in patterned cloth, sits at the center of the mazar.

Every October, members gather for a reunion and trek to their late teacher’s burial shrine.

On visiting Bawa’s burial shrine, Fellowship members pray and recite a song for their late leader.

Members of the community with Jewish roots balance religious identities, observing both Islamic and Jewish holidays. Clockwise from top left: Jonathan Granoff, Nina Ginty, Beth and Samuel Dalil Muhaiyaddeen Sheard, and David Katz.

Young Fellowship members sing songs, some of them drawn from Bawa’s words, earlier this month.

The younger generation of Jewish Fellowship members are exploring their Jewish identities more deeply. Rabia Rose Nur Muhaiyaddeen King and her brother Saajid Nuruddeen King both travelled to Israel recently.

One Philadelphia rock group, whose lead singer is Jewish, even records music inspired by Bawa.

In explaining their Sufi practice, Jewish members often point to the centuries-old relationship between Jews and Sufism. Indeed, this kind of exploration is nothing new — Jews have been interested in Sufism since the days of Maimonides.

PHOTOS: Inside the Life of the Jewish Sufis

PHOTOS: Inside the Life of the Jewish Sufis

Email Sam Kestenbaum at and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum


Sam Kestenbaum

Sam Kestenbaum

Sam Kestenbaum is a contributing editor and former staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum.

The Jewish Sufis: 13 Photos

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