Who Are The Whirling Dervishes Or The Mevlevi?

Semâ ceremony at the Dervishes Culture Center at Avanos, Turkey.
Semâ ceremony at the Dervishes Culture Center at Avanos, Turkey.

The Whirling Dervishes

The Mevlevi is a Sufi order in Konya Province, Turkey known for their practice of whirling as a form of remembrance of God. The rituals performed by the whirling dervishes have been recognized as one of the most enduring spiritual practices in the world. The dervishes live a life of austerity and poverty, and they are renowned as custodians of wisdom and enlightenment.

History Of The Whirling Dervishes

The whirling dance was popularized by Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273), who was a Sufi mystic and poet. As legend has it, Rumi chanced upon goldbeaters in the town marketplace singing songs in reverence to Allah, and he began spinning in a circle with arms outstretched. As Rumi whirled, he entered a trance and became ecstatic, and with that, the dance was born. After Rumi’s demise, his followers continued with the practice and formed the Mevlevi sect. The order gained prominence under the Ottoman Empire when it contributed significantly to music and poetry.

Purpose Of The Whirling Dance

Rumi, as the founder of the dance, said that the dervishes represent the planets going around the sun in the solar system. The whirling dervishes acknowledge humanity’s place in the cosmos and join in the movement of the earth. The dance is also interpreted as a re-enactment of death and resurrection, where the mind transcends, and the body is left to the ground. The dance is often viewed as a way of uniting with cosmic powers as well as with eternity and establishing a relationship between humanity and divinity.

The Sama Ceremony Of The Whirling Dervishes

The whirling dance features prominently in the Sama Ceremony performed in the ritual hall (samahane). For a boy to become a dervish he attended schools referred to as tekkes, where after 1001 days, he could be allowed to perform the dance. The Whirlers had to fast for several hours before commencing the dance. The ritual is strict and predetermined, and the dancers begin by bowing to the Sheikh, around whom they whirl. The Sheikh remains spinning on his axis. The whirlers don tall brown hats referred to as sikke which represents the tombstone.

The Devr-i-Veled Walk involves a stately procession by the whirlers around the hall while wearing black cloaks (hirka) to symbolize the grave. Next, the dervishes stretch out their arms to let the black cloaks fall off revealing white robes or tennure which represent death. The dancers proceed to spin on their left foot while their right palms are outstretched upwards, and their left ones face on the ground. The right hand is placed to receive God’s beneficence which is bestowed upon the earth through the left hand. The eyes remain open but unfocused, and a musical repertoire known as ney is played. At the end of the dance, a part of the Qur'an is read, and the dervishes and the Sheikh depart with a greeting of peace.

Decline And Contemporary Practice

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1924, whirling experienced a decline in Turkey. Whirling in tekkes was banned under Law 677 passed by the new ruler Kemal Ataturk. Kemal insists that Turkey, being a modern country, has no provision for Dervish magic. The dance is still banned in the nation today. The Mevlevi Sect is active, however, they were allowed partial rights to perform the dance in public in 1953 for tourism purposes. Dances are regularly conducted in Konya and Istanbul.


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