The Whirling Dervishes

There is an unwritten list that I have of things that I want to see on this planet. Some would call it a ‘bucket list’.  I have been very fortunate to see breathtaking and awe inspiring things so far, but the list is still unfinished. One of the items on the list, I was fortunate enough to scratch off a little while ago. I don’t remember when I became aware of this group of people, but they immediately fascinated me. They would just spin for long periods of time in one spot to the tune of what sounded like a dirge. It was beautiful and weird and hypnotic all at the same time. They were called Whirling Dervishes.

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I was talking to my friends in Turkey a while ago, and somehow the topic turned to the Dervishes and come to find out they are from a town in Turkey! So we did some research and planned to go see them at some point in the future. Then a while ago, we found out that they were coming to the capital of Turkey for the anniversary of the ritual.

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The origin and roots of Sufism lie in the life and practices of the Prophet of Islam and the Qur’an. Sufism espouses a well-founded and thoroughgoing interpretation of Islam, which focuses on love, tolerance, worship of God, community development, and personal development through self-discipline and responsibility.

The Order of the Whirling Dervishes is one branch of the vast Sufi tradition of Islam. This ritual, which is only performed by the Order of the Whirling Dervishes, has come to symbolize these values in the hearts and minds of millions throughout the world.

The Sema Ritual began with the inspiration of Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi (1207-1273) and was influenced by Turkish customs and culture.

…the fundamental condition of our existence is to revolve. There is no being or object, which does not revolve. Everything revolves, and the human being lives by means of the revolution of these particles, by the revolution of the blood in his body, and by the revolution of the stages of his life, by his coming from the earth and his returning to it. The whirling dervish or semazen, intentionally and consciously participates in the shared revolution of other beings.

Contrary to popular belief, the semazen’s goal is not to lose consciousness or to fall into a state of ecstasy. Instead, by revolving in harmony with all things in nature — with the smallest cells and with the stars in the firmament — the semazen testifies to the existence and the majesty of the Creator, thinks of Him, gives thanks to Him, and prays to Him. In so doing, the semazen confirms the words of the Qur’an (64:1): Whatever is in the skies or on earth invokes God.

An important characteristic of this seven-centuries-old ritual is that it unites the three fundamental components of human nature: the mind (as knowledge and thought), the heart (through the expression of feelings, poetry and music) and the body (by activating life, by the turning). These three elements are thoroughly joined both in theory and in practice as perhaps in no other ritual or system of thought.

The Sema ceremony represents the human being’s spiritual journey, an ascent by means of intelligence and love to Perfection (Kemal). Turning toward the truth, he grows through love, transcends the ego, meets the truth, and arrives at Perfection. Then he returns from this spiritual journey as one who has reached maturity and completion, able to love and serve the whole of creation and all creatures without discriminating in regard to belief, class, or race.

In the symbolism of the Sema ritual, the semazen’s camel’s hair hat (sikke) represents the tombstone of the ego; his wide, white skirt represents the ego’s shroud. By removing his black cloak, he is spiritually reborn to the truth. At the beginning of the Sema, by holding his arms crosswise, the semazen appears to represent the number one, thus testifying to God’s unity. While whirling, his arms are open: his right arm is directed to the sky, ready to receive God’s beneficence; his left hand, upon which his eyes are fastened, is turned toward the earth. The semazen conveys God’s spiritual gift to those who are witnessing the Sema. Revolving from right to left around the heart, the semazen embraces all humanity with love. The human being has been created with love in order to love.

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The Ritual Dance or Sema

The Mevlevi Ritual dance or sema consists of several stages with different meanings:

The first stage, Naat-i Sherif, is a eulogy to the Messenger of Islam and the all Prophets before him, who represent love. This eulogy is followed by a drumbeat (on the kudum) symbolizing the divine command ‘Be’ for the creation of the entire universe.

The Naat-i Sherif is followed by a Taksim, an improvisation on the reed flute or ney. This expresses the divine breath, which gives life to everything.

Then follows the Sultan Veled procession, accompanied by peshrev music; this is a circular, anticlockwise, procession three times around the turning space. The greetings of the semazen, or whirling dervishes, during the procession represent the three stages of knowledge: ilm-al yaqin (received knowledge, gained from others or through study), ayn-al yaqin (knowing by seeing or observing for oneself) and haqq-al yakin (knowledge gained through direct experience, gnosis).

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During the Sema itself there are four selams, or musical movements, each with a distinct rhythm. At the beginning, during and close of each selam, the semazen testify to God’s existence, unity, majesty and power:

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The First Selam represents the human being’s birth to truth through feeling and mind. It represents his complete acceptance of his condition as a creature created by God.

The Second Selam expresses the rapture of the human being witnessing the splendor of creation in the face of God’s greatness and omnipotence.

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The Third Selam is the rapture of dissolving into love and the sacrifice of the mind to love. It is complete submission, unity, and the annihilation of self in the Beloved. This is the state that is known as nirvana in Buddhism and fana fillah in Islam. The aim of Sema is not uncontrolled ecstasy and loss of consciousness, but the realization of submission to God.

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In the Fourth Selam, just as the Prophet ascends to the spiritual Throne of Allah and then returns to his task on earth, the whirling dervish, after the ascent of his spiritual journey, returns to his task, to his servanthood.

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(This is some footage of the ritual that I shot. It’s not the entire thing, but splices from different segments.)

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To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time for every purpose under heaven

Turn! Turn! Turn!, The Byrds

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