Keramat: Beyond Imagined Divisions

Keramat: Beyond Imagined Divisions

Teren Sevea, Harvard Divinity School


Shrine and burial place of Sharifa Siti Miryam (d. 1853) in Singapore before it was demolished in 2010.  She is described as a keramat, the daughter of an ‘alim (scholar) and as the granddaughter of a renowned ‘alim and Sufi master. Photo by author. 


Much ink needs to be spilled on Islamic miracle workers, known as keramat (from Ar./Pers. karamat) in Southeast Asia, and I only introduce one keramat in this short essay. I introduce a keramat in Singapore to illuminate the limitations of certain categories that we bring into the study and teaching of Islam. These categories include but are not confined to those that arise from the following theoretical divisions: scripture/practice, elite faith/popular tradition, cosmopolitanism/vernacularism, Sufis/‘Ulama’, mysticism/materiality and Sunnism/Shi‘ism.

Throughout the history of Islamic societies, Muslims and non-Muslims have believed in the charismatic religious powers and salvific knowledge of healers and miracle workers. Indeed, the Islamic world could be described as the collective of societies grouped together according to how much they share deep-seated beliefs in charismatic religious authority, known as barkat in Malay, Persian, Punjabi, and Urdu; bereket in Turkish; baraka in Arabic. This is an Islamic world of miracle workers, healers and saints, as much as reformists, scripturalists (Salafis), iconoclasts and liberal-modernisers who attack the basis of healers’ barkat and aspire for imagined original Islamic societies wherein ‘magic’ was purged from material life. Miracle workers were and remain eminent agents of Islam, and their societal prominence challenges their academic neglect within Islamic studies. James Grehan suggests that this is due to a ‘neo-orientalist’ nature of the discipline which ignores the ‘living content of everyday’ religion, preferring ‘an essentially textual interpretation of religious experience’.[1]

The works of some scholars may have, however, prioritised the place of practice over scripture. Such an approach is invaluable, but it can (re)demarcate the realms of lived and scriptural Islam in a manner that has been common in Islamic studies. Works have also proposed that vernacular religion be appreciated more than a cosmopolitan faith, but this too can reify these categories and encourage us to assume that cosmopolitan scripture and discourse did not prevail in the localised realm of ‘popular’ Islam. The following example of a keramat suggests that the imagined divisions of scripture/practice, elite/popular religion, cosmopolitanism/vernacularism, mysticism/legalism, and Sunnism/Shi‘ism, amongst others, are inadequate when thinking about Islamic settings.

Keramat, in the Malay-Indonesian context, refers to the miracle-working individual and the miracle-working shrine located at the burial site of the miracle worker, capturing the long afterlife of miracle workers. These keramat operate as the penultimate source of miracles, only secondary to God. The bodies of Islamic miracle workers indeed constitute an internode (barzakh) between the physical and unseen worlds and their graves present an isthmus between this world and beyond. Some keramat are also respected as leading patrilineal descendant of Prophet Muhammad of the ‘Alid lineage, that is, the descendants of Muhammad’s son-in-law ‘Ali (d.661) and his daughter Fatimah (d.632) via their son, Hussein (d.680).[2] Such elite and cosmopolitan lineages prevent us from simply assuming that elite Islamic culture stands apart from popular vernacular religion. Also, ‘Alid genealogies and saints, as well as the ‘Alid piety of Sunni Muslims, are strong reminders that the veneration of ‘Ali and his family is not confined to Shi‘ism. This is a complicated matter as Sunnis following ‘Alid keramat and defending the love of the Muhammad and ‘Ali’s family might be critical of Shi‘a traditions. Nonetheless, but their ‘Alid piety complicates our imagined divisions of what constitutes Sunnism and Shi‘ism.

In the predominantly Sunni Malay-Indonesian world, ‘Alid keramat include a list of Muhammad’s male descendants (sayyid) such as the saints of Jakarta and Singapore, Sayyid Hussein al-‘Aydarus (d. 1756) and Sayyid Nuh al-Habshi (d.1866). The Prophet’s eminent female descendants (sayyida; sharifa) buried in Southeast Asian cities include a saint buried in Singapore named Sharifa Siti Maryam al-‘Aydarus (d.1853). All of these keramat have drawn little scholarly attention.[3] This is in spite of the fact that keramat have been celebrated within Islamic oral and literary traditions as some of the most renowned saints of the late nineteenth-century Malay world, simultaneously popular in the Malay Peninsula, Burma, Java, Madras, Yemen, Iraq and Haramayn (the sanctuaries, harams, of Mecca and Medina).

These oral and written or printed traditions provide us rich biographies of the keramat prominent in Southeast Asia. Through these traditions, we learn about how several keramat mediated quotidian matters of modernity and socioeconomic life, and facilitated travel, trade and the flow of labourers and capital across the Indian Ocean. Miracle workers were praised for being able to multi-locate in port cities, teleport across the ocean in order to participate in Sufi gatherings, protect sea travellers, confront European authorities and help migrants settle in ports including Batavia (Jakarta), Singapore, Penang and Rangoon.[4] In port cities, the keramat healed itinerant workers, urbanites and royalty alike, and regularly shuttled between cities and interior spaces to mediate material life on forested, agrarian and mining frontiers through miracles. Sharifa Siti Maryam al-‘Aydarus, for instance, is portrayed as helping believers in Singapore, a port plagued by poverty, crime and lack of medical facilities. As a member of the global collective of Friends of God (awliya’), she was reputed for joining other keramat to convert the island into a leading pilgrimage centre of the Islamic world.

Sharifa Siti Maryam’s tomb stood in Singapore until April 2010. The tomb and its surrounding shrine complex were located in a Muslim burial ground at Stadium Link, Kallang (Singapore) until the cemetery was removed for urban redevelopment purposes. In spite of a seeming lacuna of written records pertaining to the keramat, her historical traditions and miracle stories were transmitted and preserved by a devotees and storytellers from her predominantly working-class community at Kallang. The saint’s oral historians and storytellers include the caretaker of her shrine and diver known as Wak ‘Ali Janggut (the Bearded ‘Ali) and the late caretaker of the supernatural flora surrounding the Sufi shrine and barber named Wak Aiyim. I was in Singapore intermittently in between the years 2008 and 2013 and spent a significant part of my time at Siti Maryam’s burial ground talking with Wak ‘Ali, Wak Aiyim and other devotees, recording their oral traditions and miracle stories.

Stories of keramat including Sharifa Siti Maryam had been passed down across generations from ‘mouth-to-mouth’ (mulut-ke-mulut) and I was privileged to listen to multiple versions of these stories in between 2008 and 2013. I listened to biographical stories of Siti Maryam, describing the keramat as the daughter of an ‘alim (scholar) and as the granddaughter of a renowned ‘alim and Sufi master. She was described as the member of a family that travelled from Baghdad to Sumatra (Pasai and Palembang) for trade and religious purposes, and as choosing to settle in Singapore to ‘propagate the Qur’an, the Sunna [the Prophet’s habit and practice], love for the family of the Prophet of God and Sayyidina ‘Ali, and the Madhhab al-Shafiʿi [the Shafi‘i school]’, while performing miracles.[5] I include this quote because it best illustrates how many of our imagined (academic) divisions of supposedly distinct religious may not hold in Islamic settings.

As I learned, Sharifa Siti Maryam was, like her predecessors, a miracle worker, Sufi master and member of the ‘ulama, who performed miracles as much as she propagated or translated scripture into everyday Islamic life within non-literate settings in Singapore. According to the saint’s pious storytellers, she was buried in 1853 amongst her pious family members and fellow ‘ulama and Sufis in Kallang. The larger burial ground also contained the graves of other pious men and women and keramat from al-‘Aydarus, al-Qadri and al-‘Attas lineages, who were buried in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In spite of the burial ground’s tragic condition in 2010, historical traditions celebrated a majestic past when the itinerant Indian Ocean-traversing saint Sharifa Siti Maryam chose to settle in Kallang. In doing so, she converted a riverine settlement populated by temporary settlers of Bugis, Javanese and Orang Laut origins into an Islamic centre marked by its shrines, religious school, Islamic literary centre and growing community of ‘ulama and Sufi masters.

Sharifa Siti Maryam and her shrine mediated weather for her oceanic community and healed believers from illnesses and epidemics. Malaria, for instance, prevailed amongst the small populations on islets and mangrove swamps of Singapore’s riverine settlements and Sharifa Siti Maryam was particularly famed for being a healer of malaria. In her physical lifetime and long after, Sharifa Siti Maryam was also praised for her protection of fishermen, sailors, travellers, and divers. According to the keramat’s purportedly ‘non-literate’ devotees, the eighteenth chapter of the Qur’an (Kahf) had already affirmed that righteous predecessors would live on beyond their physical lifetimes, to help their descendants and votaries with the flow of their barkat; this Qur’anic injunction was affirmed in miracle stories. According to miracle stories shared by several devotees, the keramat was sensed by pious devotees within waters during emergencies, for instance. On one occasion, Wak ‘Ali Janggut had dived into the waters of the Kallang River but ‘was immersed at the bottom of the sea without any oxygen support or breathing-support machines for a period of seven long days’ before being resurrected in a week by Sharifa Siti Maryam to become the caretaker of her shrine. Some believers even compared Wak ‘Ali’s resurrection and rise from the waters to serve as caretaker, to the Prophet Muhammad’s ascension (miraj) to the heavens. According to Wak ‘Ali’s account, he was also working with the Singapore police coast guard in the 1980s and undertook risky diving expeditions before becoming caretaker. On one occasion, he had smelt the saint at the ‘bottom of the ocean’ and heard the voice of Siti Maryam calling him to her shrine permanently.[6] In the course of another dive, he was trapped lost under a ship, but was directed out through a ‘sun’ channelled by God and Sharifa Siti Maryam.

Sharifa Siti Maryam’s burial ground might have been demolished in 2010, but miracle stories have regularly circulated about the keramat guarding her mausoleum against post-colonial urban redevelopment. Sharifa Siti Maryam’s stories quintessentially represented the saint challenging secular urban redevelopment projects—that were purportedly encouraged by capitalists and ‘Wahhabis [term used indiscriminately for anti-keramat iconoclasts] in power’[7]—in circulation, these stories inspire threatened shrine-based communities across Southeast Asia. Miracle stories, eyewitness accounts and Malay newspaper articles from the 1980s onwards indeed maintain that the saint had frozen or toppled bulldozers. A 1987 Malay article also reported on how attempts to fell or remove a tree that stood next to Siti Maryam’s grave (see Fig. 1) had led to the violators of sacred space being terrified by blood flowing out from the tree and supernatural beings emerging from the tree.[8] According to the article and miracle stories I heard, men who had attempted to fell the tree on a number of occasions had been injured or stricken by disease and even death. The keramat even performed such miracles on the day that her burial ground was removed. According to devotees who witnessed the destruction, the labourers employed to remove her shrine were ‘bleeding, falling and struggling’ and unable to work until Wak ‘Ali prayed and asked God and the saint to forgive them, since they were mere labourers.[9] Wak ‘Ali, moreover, emphasised that throughout the day, Sharifa Siti Maryam performed miracles that dumbfounded those trying to remove her from her chosen burial ground. Indeed, the workers employed by the urban redevelopment authority were tasked to exhume Sharifa Siti Maryam’s remains and to shift them to another Muslim cemetery; the sacred relics were to be buried in a spot together with the remains of other inhabitants of the keramat’s erstwhile burial ground. In spite of all efforts to exhume the saint’s remains, she refused to allow this—in the words of eyewitnesses, the labourers ‘digged and digged’ but were unable to find the sacred bones of Siti Maryam. Members of Sharifa Siti Maryam’s devotional community refused to leave her burial site even after the removal of her mausoleum; in Wak ‘Ali’s words: She’s still here!

Sharifa Siti Maryam demonstrates how keramat in Islamic settings can powerfully challenge organizing authorities—be they academic or industrial. She serves the important lesson to resist easy arrangement in the study of Islam.  For all our efforts to plan extraction and removal, religion as it is lived and told in oral and textual traditions can elude us.

[1] J. Grehan, Twilight of the Saints: Everyday Religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine (Oxford: Oxford University, 2014).

[2] For studies of ‘Alid lineages in Southeast Asia, also see: I. F. Alatas, ‘Hadrami Sufi-scholars and their shrines in Southeast Asia: A geography’, in  C. Formichi (ed.) Routledge Handbook on Islam in Asia (London; New York: Routledge, 2021), pp. 209-24; E. Ho, The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility across the Indian Ocean (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

[3] Works on keramats include H. Chambert-Loir, ‘Saints and Ancestors: The Cult of Muslin saints in Java’, in Chambert-Loir and A. Reid (eds.) The Potent Dead: Ancestors, Saints and Heroes in Contemporary Indonesia (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2002); P. Machado, ‘Memory, memorialization, and “heritage” in the Indian Ocean’, in Srinivas, Ng'weno, B., & Jeychandran, N. (eds.). Reimagining Indian Ocean worlds (Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, 2020), pp. 149-64; S. K. Mandal, ‘Popular Sites of Prayer, Transoceanic Migration, and Cultural Diversity: Exploring the significance of keramat in Southeast Asia’, Modern Asian Studies, 46:2 (2012); G. Quinn, Bandit Saints of Java: How Java’s eccentric saints are challenging fundamentalistIslam in modern Indonesia (Lanham: Monsoon Books, 2019).

[4] T. Sevea, ‘Sufism, Miracles and Oceanic Fatwas: The Beloved of North Jakarta’, Journal of Sufi Studies, 11:1 (2022), 74-114; Sevea, ‘Miracles and Madness: A “Prophet” of Singapore Islam’, Comparative Islamic Studies, 14:1-2 (2021), 5–52.

[5] I reproduce words from an oral tradition memorised and transmitted by the pious storytellers, Wak ‘Ali and Wak Aiyim, Singapore, 12 April 2020.

[6] Wak ‘Ali, Singapore, 26 December 2008. Also see Sevea, ‘Listening to Leaves: Historical Memory of a Keramat in Contemporary Singapore,’ The Sufi and the Bearded Man: Re-Membering a Keramat in Contemporary Singapore (Singapore: NUS Museum, 2011).

[7] The term ‘Wahhabi’ is used for individuala associated with a literalist movement founded by the anti-Sufi reformer, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (d.1792). However, almost all members of Islamic devotional communities I have sat with in Southeast Asia use the term indiscriminately to deride all reformist critics of keramat as ‘Wahhabi’, connecting them to global anti-Sufi movements, refusing at times to acknowledge the diversity of Islamic reform as well as the Sufi origins of ‘iconoclastic’ movements such as the Tablighi Jama‘at.

[8] Haji Nordin Lisut, Darah keluar dari pokok yang ditebang (1987).

[9] I reproduce the words of a devotee and eyewitness named Ravi, Singapore, 14 April 2010. Ravi regularly visited the shrine and was one of the more literate devotees; he wrote letters on the behalf of Wak ‘Ali while working as a driver and was first introduced to me as ‘Pemandu Ravi’ (Driver Ravi).


Teren Sevea is a scholar of Islam and Muslim societies in South and Southeast Asia and Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at the Harvard Divinity School. Before joining HDS, he served as Assistant Professor of South Asia Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Sevea is the author of Miracles and Material Life: Rice, Ore, Traps and Guns in Islamic Malaya (Cambridge University Press, 2020), and co-edited Islamic Connections: Muslim Societies in South and Southeast Asia(ISEAS, 2009). He is currently working on a forthcoming book entitled Singapore Islam: The Prophet's Port and Sufism across the Oceans.