Dervish

by Jake Block

“You left the scene
Without a trace
One hand on the ground
One hand in space” — Hello Again (The Cars)

“To die before actually dying, that is what’s important in the world, to kill your ego. That’s why we wear white robes, which symbolize what we are wearing when we die. Even our hats look like gravestones.”— Celaleddin Loras, Mevlevi Sheikh

“Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come.”

— Sheikh Rumi

One of the things in which I have long held interest is the Sufi sect of Dervish, and more directly, the branch known as the Mevlevi Order, with its spiritual center in Konya, Turkey. While I was stationed in Turkey, from 1971 to 1974, I was able to travel through most of the country and found a group of Whirling Dervishes at a festival in Nevsehir, in the Cappadocia region of central Turkey. Although I was obviously not Turkish, nor Muslim, I was greeted warmly and offered a glass of tarçın çayı (cinnamon tea), and a few appetizers before the ceremony began.

At the beginning of each Sema ceremony, the participants (Semazens) stand with their arms crossing their chests in an “X” shape, and feet pointed inward. Young and old Mevlevis do this out of respect and to signify humility, fighting their ego through a spiritual journey inside and outside of the Dervish lodge.

The ceremony began as the ceremonial Sheikh stood at the head of the semahane (ritual hall) in which the Dervishes would begin their circular movement, and then, one by one, they came. They wore the traditional garb of the Mevlevis, a pure white robe with pants and a full, wide skirt, covered by a black cloak (removed before the Semazen performs), shoes made for the ritual and a tan or dark brown, conical, almost Fez-like hat . As each man greeted the sheikh with a bow, his black cloak was taken by an assistant and, upon being greeted in return, he stepped onto the sacred floor. After two steps, he began to slowly rotate to the left, counter-clockwise around the floor.

The ritual costumes of the Whirling Dervishes are symbolic. The hats represent the tombstone of ego, the white robes the burial shroud of ego, and the black cloak represents their worldly tomb. The whirling dance they do symbolically takes place in the space between earth and Allah. That dance is called “Sema,” which means “the listening.” The aspiring Sufi or Dervish student receives a transmission via sincere listening, so that the intuitive and emotional, as well as the analytical faculties are activated. As they turn slowly and their skirts billow around them, their arms begin to move to create “a bridge between God and man.” They silently pray and slip into trance. Dervishes of the Mevlevi Order work toward the goal of universal peace, and believe that peace must begin in the hearts of individuals. As the Dervishes turn, they stare, mesmerized, into infinite distance, prayer is imbedded in their ritual and the ritual itself becomes a prayer.The Dervishes turn round and round as the right arm reaches to the sky, palm up, “taking from God” and the left, palm down, “gives life to the earth.” Symbolically, they receive from God and give that gift to humanity.”To the accompaniment of drums and flutes, the Dervishes twirl on, while in their trance state, muscle memory assisting in the exact placement of their feet, they spin and rotate around the floor. Ilyas Noyan Ozatik, the accompanists explains that the Dervishes “are on an inner journey to where God is. Music is a unifying force” he says, “bringing our frequencies together leading to a completion of souls.” And on and on they spin, deep in trance, but occasionally, one of the Dervishes can become too enraptured in his spinning and another Sufi, charged with keeping the twirling orderly will gently touch his arm, and the Dervish will suspend his movement and begin again.

Akin Cakmut, a Dervish who began his participation as a Dervish at the age of 13, explains. “The Sema can be broken down into four parts. In the first part of the Sema the question, “Who are you” is contemplated by the Semazen. In the second, the Semazen accepts that he is human, and he is living. In the third part of the Sema, the Semazen recognizes that there is a force flowing through him, and he gives his heart to God in his trance meditation. In the fourth part of the Sema, the Semazen’s “soul” returns to his body and he understand that he is back as a human again.

Everything turns in the Universe. The world turns, the sun turns, your blood under your skin turns, and also the Dervish turns.”

Dervishes as Sufis say, “Allah is closer than your jugular vein,” it is because these mystics realize the impulses on the nerves of all the senses and discriminating mind give rise to an objective world and a subjective self, which appear to be separate, however these impulses are the life force or emanations of the “Only Beingness.”

The Mevlevi Order is over 750 years old, and is a living tradition based upon the teachings of Mevlana Celaddin, later to be known Sheikh Jalaluddin Muhammed Balkhi Rumi (1207-1273 CE), the 13th Century Persian poet, Sufi mystic, and Islamic theologian. The Mevlevi Order has its headquarters in Konya, Turkey, the former capital of the Anatolian Seljuk Sultanate.

The Mevlevis are also known as the “Whirling Dervishes,” because of their practice of whirling in their ceremonial trance meditations. Recognized by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), their Sema Ceremony has been called “one of the masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.”

The word Dervish can be broken down into its component parts, with Der meaning “door,” and vish meaning meditation. The Sema (the whirling ceremony) is meditation while in a trancelike state that has been described as “sitting on the threshold of the phenomenal and noumenal worlds, being in them, but not of them.”

The Sufi branch of Islam is known for its mysticism and asceticism, and can be characterized as being of inner thought, esoteric, and mystical. Mevlevi Dervishes within Sufism follow Sheikh Rumi’s virtues of unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness and charity. To become a Dervish, one took a vow of poverty, and lived similarly to Christian monks.

Training of a Semazen is a process that takes approximately one year to complete, with the student practicing every day and learning not only the process and the movement, which in and of itself can take six months, but knowing and accepting what the Sema represents. The murshid (teacher) must diligently instruct, but also instill within the trainee the concept that one must surrender ego and immerse oneself in the spirituality of the ritual. Personal fears and doubts must be overcome, so that there is no doubt that they can indeed commune with their concept of god. The steps of the Sema are few and simple to learn, but to achieve the exquisitely precise movements while rotating and turning within the circle while maintaining perfect balance when entranced is a skill that not everyone can attain. To lose oneself in the movement and become as one with it is what the Dervishes call “True Love.”

In the training of the Semazen, he learns of the popular theory that Sheikh Rumi’s self-initiation into the act of whirling, which apparently came to him while listening to the hammering of the goldsmiths in Konya’s bazaar. It’s most probably a romanticized account, as the historian Abdülbaki Golpinari noted that Rumi had been influenced by Shamsi of Tabriz (1185-1248 CE). It is thought that some sects of Sufi have been “whirling” from about 1049 CE. This may well be, but the Mevlevis, under Rumi have advanced the art to its highest degree. There is speculation that the act of whirling might he a vestige of middle eastern shamanism.

Men are mostly seen in the role of Whirling Dervishes. There are female Dervishes as well, whirling alongside their male counterparts, but their legitimacy is not recognized by the Mevlevi Order. The women claim that were he alive today, Sheikh Rumi would sanction their participation, as even in Sheikh Rumi’s time, he had several women as students. In the early days of the Order, there were female Semazens and Sheikhs as well. A woman known as Destina Khatun had been shaika of the Kora Hisar Mevlevi Lodge. “In the early days of the Mevlevi order, women and men were known to pray, share sohbet (spiritual conversation), and whirl within each other’s company, though more often as the centuries unfolded, women held their own Semas and men also whirled in zhikr (devotional services akin to prayer meetings) separate from women. However, in the time of Mevlana (Rumi), spontaneous semas would occur including both men and women.” ( Women of Sufism, A Hidden Treasure, Camille Helminski (2003)*1

Despite this, today’s Mevlani Order does not officially recognize women as Semazens. The Order is still run by the decendents of the Order’s founders. Spokesman Faruk Celebi says, “They are not Mevlevi. This is a show.” While there are no longer formal instructions to be a member of the Mevlevi Order, he believes that traditions must be respected. The Mevlani’s are at their heart religiously conservative, and while change may come, it will be slow, even by traditional Sufi Muslim standards.

In addition to obligatory Islamic worship, some of the main spiritual practices within the Mevlevi Order are as follows:

  • Dhikr: invocation of the Divine Names which is believed to purify the heart
  • Sema: the whirling ceremony
  • Study of the Quran and Rumi’s works (especially his poetic masterpiece the Mathnavi)
  • Spiritual conversation led by the shaikh (sohbet)
  • Meditation, known as muraqabah, in Islam
  • Adab: developing courtesy and mindfulness.

In light of the popularity of the Whirling Dervishes in Turkey and much of the rest of the world, it should be remembered that they have were banned as Sect, when in 1925, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Republic of Turkey, prohibited all Orders of Sufism under secular law #667 of the constitution on maintaining order, fear that their religious roots would lead them to revolt against the new secular government. This law was amended in the 1950s, allowing the Sema to be performed in public, probably more as a nod to boost the tourism industry than a sign of religious tolerance on the part of the prevailing secular government, however as private worship, Sufism and its Orders remain officially banned. This said, at a recent festival in the city of Konya commemorating the death of Sheikh Rumi, thousands gathered to witness the Dervishes and their spiritual dance.

While philosophically, I can’t connect with the idea of “communing with “God”, “Allah” or any supreme being, I can see the benefit of the idea of trance meditation and the intense concentration of the Sema. How one gets to that “inner communication level” can be a unique experience, and there are any number of repetitive step processes that could easily result in the self-hypnotic states to get one there. Additionally, the idea of receiving messages while in a trance state, at least to me, is akin to a particularly lucid dream I had recently, in which I asked myself serious questions that needed answers. Upon awakening, my thoughts had cleared and I could formulate a plan for moving forward.

Talking to oneself, for instance, is something that many people do routinely, independent of any religious, or even meditative processes. Most people, at times, seem to need a sounding board for their ideas and to help them make sense of stressors and complex scenarios that have an impact on their lives. Many children invent “invisible friends” that play roles in their lives and similarly help them cope with problems from loneliness to interpersonal problems with siblings. The cultural concept of employing this process to a religious experience and a communing with one’s god isn’t such a stretch that compromise should totally negate the value.

Problematic, from a Left Hand Path standpoint, would be the concept of the elimination of the ego as a component of the Sema. However, in considering oneself one’s own god, the mitigation could be seen in the inclusion of ego as a healthy part of one’s totality, rather than a negative influence on it. One’s ego can be a double edged sword, but them so too can any facet of a person’s life, or emotional health. Even love can be weaponized.

“Stop acting so small. You are the Universe in ecstatic Motion.” — Rumi

Sema, a Whirling Dervish Ceremony performed at the Mevlevihanesi, or Mevlevi Sufi Lodge at Galata in Istanbul on 18 December 2012: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ywa6glFr6io

*1 Camille Helminski presents a letter (dated from 1991) from Celaleddin Bakir Çelebi (who was the Çelebi heading the order at that time) which grants permission for men and women to once more whirl together in mixed Mevlevi ceremonies. Women of Sufism, A Hidden Treasure, Camille Helminski (2003)

Note 1 — Fun fact! The Guinness World Record holder for “most Sufi whirls in one hour” in 2015 went to Nicole McLaren in Zurich, with 3,552 rotations. That’s 59.2 rotations per minute, or not quite 1 rotation per second!

References: — The Threshold Society. Good information on Sufism, and contains a detailed explanation of the Sema and the prayers and movements of those involved. https://sufism.org/al-fatiha

— Women in Sufism, A Hidden Treasure (Camile Helminski 2003)— The Whirling Dervishes, (Shems Friedlander 1992)

— Whirling Dervishes, (Murat Duzyol 2015)

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