Rumi and the Whirling Dervishes

“Whirling Dervish” has always been one of those phrases you hear but never really know anything about. It conjures an image of frantic spinning like the tasmanian devil in cartoons with an Arabic touch, perhaps a curved scimitar. Having seen the Whirling Dervishes in Konya, the real meaning is much more peaceful and spiritual that I would have imagined.

A Poet and Teacher

While in Konya, Turkey, we had a chance to see a performance and hear a lecture about Rumi. Generally known for his poetry, Rumi, as we found out, was responsible for starting the Mevlevi order, the original Whirling Dervishes. Konya is where Rumi lived, taught and was buried. 

Rumi, or Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī, was a 13th century poet and religious teacher. His work The Masnavi, a six-volume book of poetry and religious instruction, is one of the most famous works of Persian literature. He is also credited with inventing whirling as form of dhikr, or honoring God. Many of his followers would join him for “turning” practice. After his death, the Mevlevi order was founded by his followers to continue his teaching. The members of this order were called dervishes and lived an austere life like that of a monk, or ascetic.

Symbolism in the Sema Ceremony

It was surprising to me how slow and peaceful the whirling actually was. The dervishes seemed to spin and glide over the floor, nothing like I had imagined. The spinning is actually a form of meditation. With the physical part of the dervishes’ thoughts focused on the movements, the rest of the mind is free to focus on God. The dervishes are traditionally Sufis - a form of Islam focused on perfecting the worship and love of God. The Sema ceremony where the dervishes actually whirl, is one of the ways that they worship.

The dervishes wear a special outfit during the Sema ceremony. A camel hair hat, a white skirt, and a black coat. The black coat is said to represent the earth, or the world. Before the whirling, the coat is cast off representing the start of a journey toward spiritual truth. The hat represents the tombstone of the dervish’s ego, and the skirt the burial shroud of his ego.

The Sema ceremony has many different parts, each with a different symbolic meaning. Throughout the ceremony there was live music played by drums, flute, and a kanun (something like a steel lap guitar.)  Before the dancing started, there was a section with drums and then an an improvisation on flute.

{video: Whirling Dervishes}

The action starts with the dervishes greeting the dance master, walking in a circle each greeting him in turn. After shedding their black coats they circle back to the master and then begin whirling. They turn counter-clockwise symbolically rotating around their heart. Their right hand is turned upward to God and their left down to the earth. Generally the term Whirling Dervish implies something frenetic. Instead they turned at a slow, calm pace. Though it was hard for us to tell, each section, or salute, has a special meaning. At the end of each section, the dervishes stand with arms crossed to represent the unity of God. The ceremony finally ends with a reading and a prayer.

Dissolution and Recognition

Tombstones outside Rumi's mausoleum.

In 1925, Turkey dissolved all Sufi fraternities, including the Mevlevi order. At the time it was an attempt to move toward a secular state. The order managed to survive hidden in small villages. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that they were allowed to perform a Sema ceremony again. In 2005 it was protected by UNESCO as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, and now performances for tourists are common.