Alexandra Hibbs ’17 explored and experienced firsthand a Sufi community, a more mystical branch of Islam, as a John C. Young Scholar during her yearlong project titled “Mevlevi Sufism in America: Contemporary Applications of Islamic Discourse and Spirituality.”
“My research project is an ethnographic study of a Mevlevi Sufi community based in Louisville, Kentucky,” Hibbs said. “This group is called the Threshold Society.”
For the past year, Hibbs read books published by the Threshold Society’s co-leaders, Camille and Kabir Helminski, and explored their collection of online articles, video-recorded conferences and internet-based “spiritual resources.”
While she was able to find a plethora of information, her main mode of research was on the ground.
“I acted as a participant-observer for the past year, attempting to understand first and broadly, what is happening in this community,” she said. “Then, more specifically, I wanted to understand how they pursue spiritual practices and development, how they engage ‘Islamic’ tradition and how this community has negotiated their place in the American context.”
Hibbs began her research informally at the end of her junior year. She visited the Threshold Society with Assistant Professor of Religion Matthew Pierce when he realized she was interested in pursuing research on the subject.
Pierce knew Hibbs had a growing appreciation for Sufism that was inspired during her sophomore year when she studied abroad in Israel with him and Nelson D. and Mary McDowell Rodes Professor of Religion Tom Mccullough.
While there, she visited and experienced the culture of a small Sufi community. From that point on, she’s had a deep passion for the ideas, practices and complexity of Sufism and Islam.
“Alex Hibbs’ research on a Sufi Muslim community in Louisville has been exciting to see develop,” Pierce said. “She has tapped into a unique religious group that raises important questions for how we think and talk about religion, religious trends and specifically religious movements in America today.
“It’s an incredibly timely topic that she’s handling with considerable insight,” he continued.
When Hibbs officially started her project, she focused more intensely on engaging scholarship on Sufism, Islam and contemporary American religion.
“Over time, I realized that the American context is a super fruitful place for exploring contemporary religion,” she said. “We live in a time where most people seem to think of America as a nation with a growing secular or nonreligious population, but I feel that the whole notion of America secularization neglects to recognize the prevalence and growth of religious communities that exist in little pockets all around us.
“I also feel like there is a problematic but popular misunderstanding of, or at least a prejudiced resistance to, Islam generally,” she added.
Hibbs considers the Threshold Society to be, just one of many, examples of Islam in America. She explained how there is a lack of appreciation for the diversity in the global Muslim community.
“I chose this topic, because I feel compelled to provide a counter-narrative that can undermine these limited, prejudiced imaginations of what Muslims/Sufis practice, look like and think about,” she said. “After seeing Islam lived and practiced in Israel, India and now at home in the U.S., I’ve been a witness to beautiful diversity in ideas and modes of practice.”
Another reason Hibbs chose this topic was because she realized that a religious community cannot be meaningfully understood just by looking at it from the outside.
“If there’s an opportunity to engage, to experience firsthand, I feel that should be a priority for scholars of contemporary religion,” she said. “After three years of studying religion mostly through text, I wanted to dive into the live world of religion and see these things happening for myself. This project has been a combined anthropological, sociological, historical and theoretical study.”
Since Hibbs was able to witness firsthand Sufi practices, she struggled with trying to situate what she saw on the ground with what she learned from her academic work on American religion, Islam and Sufism.
“After concluding my work, I feel that the Threshold Society occupies something of a liminal space between conventional categories some scholars use to define Sufism in the Western world,” she said. “Most times, scholars define Sufi groups, especially in America, as either Islamic or universalist, but the Threshold group has characteristics of both.”
Throughout the course of the project, Hibbs learned that religion, especially things conventionally falling in the category of Islam, are very difficult to define. While this was a frustrating for her at times, she believes it’s a testament to the variety of Islam that exists around the world.
“The independent research process has really forced me to develop my self-sufficiency and academic discipline,” she said. “I feel so fortunate to have had this opportunity to focus my attention on a specific topic of religious studies and explore that in a way that is totally new to me. I’ve been personally changed by my work on the Threshold Society, and I consider this whole experience to have been one of the best, and most challenging, things I’ve ever done.”
This summer, the Centre graduate will be attending the International School for Jain Studies in India. She then plans to move to Oregon to work on an organic farm through the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms program before attending graduate school.
by Kerry Steinhofer
May 24, 2017