The Symbols of the Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlevi Order*
The divine may be experienced through a variety of means. In various global spiritual traditions, these include prayer, meditation on sacred texts, participation in religious ceremonies and going on pilgrimages. There are other means of achieving a religious experience that are perhaps not so common in the Western world. One of these is through the medium of dance, the most famous of which may be the incredible whirling dance practiced by the Sufi dervishes of the Mevlevi Order.
The Mevlevi Order was founded by the followers of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi (popularly referred to as Rumi) in 1273. Rumi was a 13th century Islamic spiritual leader who was born in 1207 in Balkh in present day Afghanistan. With the onset of the Mongol invasion of Central Asia between 1215 and 1220, Rumi’s family journeyed westwards, eventually settling down in Konya, Anatolia, in present day Turkey.
One of Rumi’s most fruitful friendships was with Shams-e Tabrizi, whom he met at the age of 37. Among other things, Shams had introduced Rumi to music, poetry and dance as a mystical way of connecting with the divine. It is these artistic expressions that are the characteristic features of the whirling dervishes of the Mevlevi Order, which was founded after Rumi’s death by his son, Sultan Veled, his disciple Çelebi Hüsamettin, and his grandson Ulu Arif Çelebi.
The Mevlevi Sema ceremony is arguably the Order’s most distinct practice, and is said to have been created by Rumi himself. Its form, however, was only finalized sometime in the 15th century by one of Rumi’s great-grandsons, Pir Adil Çelebi. The Mevlevi Order became a respected school of Sufism (the esoteric dimension of Islam). Moreover, a blood relation was formed between the Order and the Ottoman imperial dynasty when one of Rumi’s descendants, Devlet Hatun, married Sultan Bayezid I.
Although the Mevlevi Order was occasionally criticized for holding heretical ideas, it was still highly regarded by both the Ottoman sultans and the common people.
Whirling dervishes in Galata Mawlawi House (Ottoman Empire), 1870.
In 1925, the Mevlevi Order was outlawed in the newly formed Republic of Turkey as part of its plans for the secularization of the country. In the 1950s, the ban was eased, and the Sema was allowed to be performed in public in order to attract tourists to Turkey. In the 1990s, the ban was further eased, and the Sema was inscribed in UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008.
Despite now largely being a cultural performance for tourists, the Sema is imbued with religious meaning, and a greater appreciation for the dance may be achieved by exploring these symbolisms. For instance, the semazen’s (a person performing the Sema) camel hair hat represents the tombstone of the ego, while the white skirt symbolizes the ego’s shroud. When the semazen removes his black cloak, it is meant to signify his spiritual rebirth into the truth. Additionally, when the semazen crosses his arms over his chest, he represents the number one and testifies to God’s unity.
The dance begins with the singing of the Nat-i Serif, a eulogy to the Prophet Muhammad and all the Prophets before him. This is followed by a drumbeat symbolizing God’s command ‘Be’ for the creation of the universe. After this is the Taksim, an improvisation on the reed flute meant to express the life-giving breath of God.
The Taksim is followed by the Derv-i Veled (‘Sultan Veled procession), in which the semazen make a circular, anti-clockwise procession thrice around the turning space. The semazen greet each other thrice, representing the three stages of knowledge: knowledge gained from others or through study, knowledge gained through one’s observations and knowledge gained through direct experience.
After the procession, the semazen begins the Sema, which consists of four selams or musical movements. Each selam has its own distinct rhythm, and explores different religious themes. The semazen opens both arms to the sides and revolves from right to left, expressing his embrace of the entire universe. With an open palm, the semazen’s right had is then extended upwards, thus indicating his reception of God’s beneficence. As for the left hand, it is extended downwards to indicate the distribution of these divine gifts to all mankind.
Contrary to popular belief, the semazen do not aim at losing consciousness or falling into a state of ecstasy. Rather, the Sema is meant to help the semazen to completely submit himself to God, and unite with him. When the four selams are completed, a verse from the Qur’an is recited, followed by a prayer for the repose of the souls of all the Prophets and all believers. The semazen then retire silently to their rooms for further meditation.
This divine dance is well recognized the world over as a renowned symbol, an amazing performance, and unique spiritual tradition.