Anthropology Lecture Series: #1: Breathing Hearts: The Politics and Practices of Sufi Healing in Berlin (An Ethnographic Book Project)

by Dr. Nasima Selim, University of Bayreuth

Organized by Prof. Dr. Katharina Schramm

03. May 2022, 6:30 P.M.

How do we let go of a Ph.D. dissertation written for the doctoral committee and transform it into an anthropologically informed book for a wider audience? Breathing Hearts is the first book-length, ethnographic account of the practices and politics of Sufi healing in Berlin. Sufism is commonly defined as Islamic mysticism. Breathing Hearts takes this definition as a point of departure to explore what it means to “breathe well” along the Sufi path in a place where public expression of certain religiosity is constrained, and Islam is increasingly marginalized. This book examines the lifeworlds of multi-ethnic immigrants, post-migrants of Color, and white ethnic Germans practicing Sufism as members of formalized transnational Sufi networks and as nomadic Sufis without formal affiliation. As a dual apprentice of anthropology and Sufism, the ethnographer offers a unique perspective to study urban Sufi practices in the “West” by shifting the (conventional) anthropological gaze through the sensibilities of a former physician and a woman* anthropologist-writer of Color with South Asian heritage. Breathing Hearts draws on nine years of anthropological engagement (2012-2021), including 18 non-consecutive months of ethnographic fieldwork in Berlin and connected sites (2013-2015; 2020-2021). In addition to extensive participant observation and more than forty-five in-depth interviews, the ethnographer has used archival, audiovisual, and digital methods during fieldwork. Breathing Hearts implicates a wider framing of “breathing” to articulate the imaginal, meta/physical, narrative, and political dimensions of living otherwise on the Sufi path. Walking the Sufi path is about breathing in the immediate bodily, material, affective, as well as metaphorical senses. Sufi healing practices mobilize the affective pedagogy and transformative techniques of the body in the existential quest of healing secular suffering where breathing is central as the seekers walk along the desire lines of becoming Sufi; differentially un/aware of the ontological, affective, and anti-political politics of breath that dis/connect them from/with the wider society. Sufism and anthropological research of Sufi healing may lead to different kinds of knowledge. Sufis and anthropologists may live very different lives. Yet, both traditions enable us to talk back to anti-Muslim racism and the trivialization of postsecular imagination in contemporary Germany.

Dr. Nasima Selim is an anthropologist, writer, educator, and researcher. She navigates the terrains of knowledge and praxis in medical anthropology, global health, public anthropology, and anthropology of Islam in and across Western Europe and South Asia. Nasima is currently a postdoctoral research associate at the department of anthropology, University of Bayreuth. Creative writing (non-fiction and fiction), reflexive-non-hierarchial pedagogy, and interdisciplinary collaborations inform her scientific and literary aspirations. Her current ethnographic book project is titled “Wayfaring hearts: Sufi healing practices in Germany”. She is also working on a postdoctoral research project titled “Who has the right to breathe? The politics of respiration and pandemic lifeworlds in South Asia”. Nasima co-founded the working group AG Public Anthropology of the German Anthropological Association, DGSKA.

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