Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Last time I wrote about Rumi, a thirteenth-century Sufi mystic and poet.  Now I want to tell you about the Whirling Dervishes and give you more of Rumi’s poetry (on the whirling dance).

Islamic mysticism, that aspect of Islamic belief and practice of seeking to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God, is known as Sufism.  (The word Sufi derives from an Arabic word for wool – a reference to the coarse woolen garments of early Islamic ascetics.)  The Sufis are known as dervishes, Persian for the poor.  This usually means the poor in spirit or the humble but also can be translated as beggar.

Sufism emerged out of an early reaction against the general worldliness that had overtaken the Islamic community and against the reliance on expressions of solely outward appearance and behavior based on Islamic law.  In its first stage (asceticism), Sufism, practiced in small groups, consisted in the constant meditation of the Qu’ran, especially scriptural words about Doomsday.  With the introduction of the element of love of God, Sufism changed from asceticism to mysticism.

By the twelfth century, Sufism transformed from the practice and doctrine of small circles into a mass religious movement, especially with the spread of Sufi orders or brotherhoods.  The orders centered around their shaikh (master), with their shrines constituting the places of pilgrimage for their followers.

The Mevlevi Order (from the name Mevlana which mean our guide or our lord in Persian and was the name given to Rumi who is referred to as Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi) was founded by one of Rumi’s sons to carry on the master’s teachings and practices.  (For 700 years, the sect has been led by Mevlana’s direct progeny.)  The Mevlevis are known as semazens [whirling dervishes, or those who practice the sema (whirling dervish ceremony)].

During his lifetime, Rumi often was seen whirling through Konya in sheer ecstasy.  Also he found himself drawn to circle a pillar in the mosque.  He held the pillar with one hand and would lean back as he circled the pillar.  This movement caused poetry to pour out from his lips in ecstatic waves.  His disciples began to mimic this movement.

When I saw a sema —  and not one of the purely commercial shows (usually with an added bellydancing act!) — it was held in a thirteenth-century caravanserai (a gated inn, with a large central courtyard, in which caravans – the men, camels and cargo – could stop safely for the night while traveling on the Silk Road).  The sema I saw was a primarily spiritual event and deeply moving.

A sema consists of seven distinct parts, each representing a step in a mystical journey.  The performance follows a strictly prescribed ritual.  Some parts consist of a chant, another accompanied by a drum and/or reed flute and the conclusion with recitations from the Qu’ran.

In the dance, the dervishes, with their arms crossed across their torso (to testify their unity with God) begin to spin, starting on their right foot, spinning counter-clockwise (around the heart, embracing all of humankind and creation with affection and love).  Arms begin to stretch out as they continue to spin.  One hand is cupped upward to receive the grace of God and the other hand is turned downward to empty that grace onto the world.

The dance requires months of practice.  A novice either uses a sema board (a portable wooden board with an exposed nail in the middle) or he wedges a large floor nail between the big and second toes of his left foot and pivots around it with both arms extended, one palm up and the other down.

In 1925, when Ataturk formed the new, and secular, Republic of Turkey, he ordered all religious sects and orders (brotherhoods) closed.  That included the Mevlevi Order and their tekkes (dervish lodges).  The Order’s assets were confiscated and all ceremonies banned.  Two years later, The Mevlana Mausoleum, where Rumi’s tomb is, in Konya, was allowed to reopen, but only as a museum.  By the 1950s, the Turkish government again permitted the order to hold its annual whirling dervish performance in Konya to commemorate the death of its master.  (The Mevlana Mausoleum is one of the most visited monuments in Turkey.)

Here are three of Rumi’s poems:


Dance, when you’re broken open.
Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance, when you’re perfectly free.
translated by Coleman Barks


A secret turning in us
makes the universe turn.
Head unaware of feet,
and feet head.  Neither cares.
They keep turning.
translated by Coleman Barks


In your light I learn how to love.
In your beauty, how to make poems.

You dance inside my chest,
where no one sees you,

but sometimes I do,
and that sight becomes this art.
         translated by Coleman Barks


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