A Student of Miracles

November 9, 2020
Teren Sevea
Teren Sevea is HDS's new Assistant Professor in Islamic Studies.

Sevea studies the role of spirit mediums in the South and Southeast Asian Islamic world

Teren Sevea grew up in a “universe of miracle workers.” They were in shrines, in cemeteries, in homes, and coffee shops, and, of course, on the streets of Southeast Asian cities in which he spent most of his life. He can’t remember the first time he saw a miracle worker, but he does recall vividly the powerful mix of emotions these figures conjured up in him.

“I remember being fascinated and terrified of miracle workers,” he says. “They were either praised for their super-natural powers, lineages and esoteric knowledge or dismissed as sorcerers, black magicians, and ‘conmen.’ I bracketed them off as a childhood curiosity for decades and didn’t recognize the need to take them seriously or to treat them as a subject of historical study.” 

As Harvard Divinity School’s new Assistant Professor in Islamic Studies, however, Teren Sevea brings a scholarly eye to the connections between miracles, miracle workers, and material life. Coming to HDS from the University of Pennsylvania, Sevea specializes in the study of Islam and Islamic societies in Southeast Asia and across the Indian Ocean world. His first book, Miracles and Material Life, was about the ways that the production and extraction of natural resources—including the use of technology—were intertwined with the charismatic religious authority of the miracle workers of the Malay world. 

“The book looks at the economic, environmental, and religious significance of Islamic miracle workers in the nineteenth and twentieth century,” Sevea says. “Many spent their professional lives clearing forests, producing rice, trapping elephants, mining for tin and gold, or manufacturing guns and bullets. I explore the ways that these aspects of material life were inextricably linked to the imagined nonmaterial realms of the Unseen.”

By the late nineteenth century, for instance, Malaya was the world’s most prolific producer of tin. Sevea points out that miracle workers and spirit mediums played a central role not only in the religious lives of those in the mining industry, but also in the work itself.

“Scholars might be tempted to [approach mining] simply as an economic activity,” he says. “Instead, what we often find is that the primary actors in the mines— the key agents—were Islamic spirit mediums. They were working with prospectors, going through layers of land, fossicking for tin. They were mediating the spirits of the soil and mobilizing them to mine with human miners. In addition to that, they were introducing a form of Shari’a or Islamic law into mines, facilitating a working of religion and capitalism.”

Sevea’s already at work on his next book, “Singapore Islam: The Prophet’s Port and Sufism across the Oceans.” He says that Singapore has a distinctive religious history—one that’s often been ignored. But, although a relatively small port city, Singapore has played an outsized role in the development of Islam.

“The Sufis of Singapore were in the forefront of shaping late nineteenth- and twentieth-century debates and discussions about the nature of ‘genuine’ Islam, Sufism, and Islamism” Sevea says. “They came from the Malay peninsula as well as India, Yemen, Java, China, Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere. Many managed Sufi networks and movements that linked the devotional communities of the Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans. Their influence was vast.”

Even as he continues his research, Sevea looks forward to teaching this year and will offer courses both to HDS students and to undergraduates at Harvard College. During the fall semester, for instance, Sevea will teach the introductory class “Islam, Bodies, Sexuality: Islam and Islamic Bodies in Southeast Asia.”

“The course focuses on the literature of Islamic bodies and sexuality,” he says. “We pay attention to how Islamic ‘adepts’ associated the health, growth, and regeneration of religion with the cultivation of bodies and sexual practices. We’ll not only look at academic texts, but also manuals, mantras, travelogues, autobiographies, novels, pamphlets, and films produced in Southeast Asia between the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries.” 

If Sevea is excited about teaching, however, he’s just as excited about what he can learn from his students and his faculty colleagues. 

“I am convinced that being a part of HDS will help me to grow both as a scholar of Islam and Southeast Asia and as a teacher and enable me to realize my full potential,” he says.

Sevea calls his appointment at HDS “an honor.” He’s excited to join one of the world’s premier institutions for the study of global religion and looks forward to the years ahead.

 “It is a privilege to be part of HDS and contribute to the vibrant and interdisciplinary research being carried out by the members of the School—and their colleagues in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences,” he says. “I look forward to discussing my work with scholars who have informed my approaches to the study of religion throughout my career.”

by Paul Massari