Islam and the Humanities

Conference 2019

Teren Sevea

University of Pennsylvania


Shamans, Saivas and Sufis?: Tiger Forms of ‘Ali in the Malay world

This paper focuses on saints who embodied Islam in parts of the early modern and modern Malay world, and the forms they took as tigers and tigresses (sic) of ‘Ali and Fatimah. These men and women were variously described as aboriginal shamans, Tantric yogis and ‘pantheistic’ Sufis by European observers in between the eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, but were venerated amongst widespread followers as living forms (surat; bentuk) of ‘Ali and Fatimah. This paper will introduce a topography of Sufi shrines of tiger saints spread across the Malay world, the sacred settlements of these tiger saints, and ‘clinics’ they presided over, to heal diseased bodies and generate healthy, Islamic bodies. Courtly chronicles of the Malay world have been informative about how forms and signs such as ‘Ali’s ‘lion’ were appropriated and transformed to mark Islamic spaces on frontiers. Nonetheless, it is the manuscripts of incantations, manuals, fatwas, miracle stories and oral traditions of the ‘Alid tigers and tigresses that provide rich detail on how diachronic continuities of forms were apparent in the quotidian life of Muslims. Through an analysis of these texts, this paper unearths data of how forms of ‘Ali and Fatimah were embodied by these saints, in dress, rituals, discourse and structures. Attention will also be paid to the primacy of form in spaces where these men and women appeared as tigers (or metamorphosised into tigers), and to quarantine areas or ‘clinics’ wherein these saints embodied tigers to ‘lick’ naked, ill and ‘un-Islamic’ bodies. As tigers of ‘Ali and Fatimah, these men and women also possessed the medicinal organs and hyper-fertility of the historical couple. While these ‘Alid tigers may be less prominent today, herbal versions of their ‘rods’ and ‘holes’ are still available for customers today in the form of Halal beverages.