Dervish by Amedeo Preziosi The Mevlevis, or whirling dervishes, belong to a Sufi mystical sect inspired by a spiritual poet named Mevlâna Celaleddin Rumi (1207-1273). The order was created in 1273 after the death of Mevlana in Konya, which was a center of learning and art in the 13th century under the Seljuk Turk sultans.
The Mevlevis stress personal devotion and value the idea of relinquishing one's earthly ties to reach a state of tranquility, love and harmony. They believe that death is meant to be celebrated because a union forms with god. The sect often blends local practices into worship, is open to members of all religions but is based on the principals of Islam. Many were wandering mendicants.
Traditionally, dervishes have been only men. In the early 2000s, some groups began allowing women to join. The sect has also been the subject fo a sex scandal. In the 1990s, a leader of a dervish sect was arrested and charged with having one-night “marriages” with young followers. Ataturk ordered the Sufi lodges closed in Turkey in 1925 after the dervishes were deemed too powerful.
Websites and Resources: Islam.com islam.com ; islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ; Islamic History Resources uga.edu/islam/history ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/islam/islamsbook ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Islamic History friesian.com/islam ; Islam.com Timeline classicalislam.com ; Islamic Civilization cyberistan.org ; Muslim Heritage muslimheritage.com
Mevlâna Celaleddin Rumi
Rumi Mevlâna Celaleddin Rumi (1207-1273) was Persian born in what in now Tajikistan in Central Asia and settled what in what is now Konya Turkey when his family fled westward to get away from the Mongol hordes. The son of a Sufi master, he was trained in Muslim theology and Arabic and Persian literature.
Rumi was a traditional religious teacher until he was 37, when he met a wandering dervish, Shams of Tabriz, who changed his life. Recalling his first encounter with the man, Rumi wrote: “What I thought of before as God, I met today in a human being.” Their partnership was short. Three years after they met Shams was murdered by one of Rumi’s jealous followers.
Rumi was devastated by the loss of his teacher. He poured out his feelings of sorrow, longing and love in a steam of poems that he wrote at a rate of 15 a day for the next 29 years until his death. In one poem he wrote, "When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth but find it in the hearts of men." Rumi was known as a “drunken Sufi” because he found ecstacy in dancing, poetry and music.
Rumi Meeting Rumi and Molla Shams al-Din Rumi’s poetry can be passionate, spiritual and sexual. He often wrote about the masteries of human desire and the ecstacy of love. In Daring Enough to Finish he wrote: [Translated by Coleman Barks]
Face that lights my face, you spin
Intelligence into these particles
I am. Your wind shivers my tree
My mouth tasse sweet with your name
In it. You make me dance daring enough
To finish. No more timidity!
Let fruit fall and wind turn my roots up
In the air, done with patient waiting.
Rumi eschewed ritual and emphasized tolerance. In Spiritual Couplets, one of the most influential pieces of Islamic writing, he famously wrote:
Come! Come ! Whoever, whatever you may be, come!
Heathen, idolatrous or fire worshipper, come!
Even if you deny your oaths a hundred times, come!
Our door is the door of hope, come! Come as you are!
Dance of the Whirling Dervishes
A whirling dervish ritual begins with prayers and meditation in which each dervish, one after the other, receives a blessing from a superior. Then flutes play an introductory melody which symbolizes man's desire for mystic union, and the dance begins. Each dance consists of three stages: the first is the knowledge of God; the second is the seeing of God; and the third is the union with God.◂
The conical hats the dervishes wear represents a tombstone, the dervish's jacket symbolizes the grave, and the dervish's skirt, a funeral shroud. As the dervishes dance they remove their jackets to show they are shedding earthly ties, and escaping from their graves. As they whirl, the dervishes raise their right hands in prayer and extend their left hands toward the floor. The meaning of these gestures is "what we receive from God, we give to man; we ourselves possess nothing." Their whirling symbolizes the rotation of the universe in the presence of God.◂
Mevlevi is a form classical Turkish music associated with the Sufi Mevlevi sect (the whirling dervishes). It uses the same modal systems and instruments featured in Ottoman classical music five centuries ago. The mystical melodies are played with the ney , a Turkish flute made from calamus reed or hardwood with six holes on the front and one on the back. Most of the compositions were written by Kocek Dervis and Mustafa Dede from the 17th century, Dede Efendi from the 18th century and Rauf Yekta from the 19th century.
The dervishes sometimes whirl around for six or seven hours at a time. The whirling inflates their white skirts and puts them into a hypnotic trance which they say brings them closer to God. They whirl by crossing their legs and spinning, crossing their legs and spinning, over and over, and they claim they don't get dizzy. Careful footwork and deep concentration it is said keep them from getting dizzy.
The fast, ecstatic dancing of Sufi mystics, scientists have said, causes hyperarousal and generates a feeling that one is channeling the energy of the universe. According to a Newsweek article on mysticism: “these rites manage to tap into a precise brain mechanisms that tends to make believers interpret perceptions and feelings as evidence of God, or at least transcendence. Rituals also tend to focus on the mind, blocking out sensory perceptions—including those that the orientation area uses to figure out the boundaries of the self.”
Description of Whirling Dervishes in the 1970s
Describing a whirling dervish Sufi sect in Istanbul, Thomas Abercrombie wrote in National Geographic, "The service began with a kind of deep breathing exercise, and congregation repeating, 'Alll-ahhhh, Alll-ahhhh, Alll-ahhhh. Then, to the rhythm of a slow drum, a young dervish in a conical hat and skirted robe began to spin counterclockwise."
"Edip pulled me into the congregation forming a concentric circles around the dance, shoulder to shoulder, chanting the sonorous Muslim creed, "La ilaha illa llah!" slowly at first, then faster and louder: 'There is no god but Allah.' We circled the spinning dervishes, in the opposite direction."
"Faster and faster we circled, at one with the atoms and the planets, cosmic sleepwalkers belying time and space, lost in the whirling and the rhythm of the chant: 'La ilaha-illa llah, La ilaha-illa llah.'...Only afterwards dir I realize we had spun for nearly an hour. Where did the time go?"
Description of Whirling Dervishes From 1613
Dervish from Bosnia Describing a group of Mevlana in 1613, the English traveler Thomas Coryate wrote, “ I entered a pretty fair room, to which I passed through an outward court, which room before me was almost full of Turks that came thither to serve God...A little after I came into the room the Dervishes repaired into the middle void space...Their habits differing much from the other Turks... first the covering of their Head was of a differing sort from the other, for they wear certain gray Felts made in a form not unlike the blocks of Hats that we use in England.”
“A certain singing man sitting apart in the upper room began to sing certain hymns, but with the most unpleasant and harsh notes that I ever heard, for the yelling and disorderly squeaking of them did even grate mine ears. Whenever he pronounced the Name of Mahomet all of them did cast down their heads to their knees” and “fell prostrate upon their faces and kissed the ground.”
“Almost a quarter of an hour before he had done, three pipers sitting in the room with the singer began to play certain long pipes not unlike tabors, which yielded very ridiculous and foolish music...Having played for near a quarter of an hour...they sounded much louder than ordinary, whereupon some five and twenty of the two and fifty dervishes suddenly rose up barelegged and bare-footed, and casting aside their upper garment, some of them having their breast all uncovered, they began by little and little to turn about...Afterwards they redoubled their force and turned with such incredible swiftness, that I could not choose but admire it.”
“This turning they kept for the space of one whole hour at least, during which time, sometimes they turned exceedingly swiftly, sometimes very gently. After they had half done, the singer in the upper room began to sing again, at the pronunciation of some of whose words,, the dervishes mumbled out certain strange terms, with a most hideous kind of murmuring that did in a manner terrify and astonish us...The forms of their dancing is as strange as the continence of their swiftness, for sometimes they stretch out their arms as far as they can in length, sometimes they contract them in a lesser compass, sometimes they hold them about their heads, sometimes again they perform certain merry gestures, as if they were drawing a bow and shooting an arrow...The violence of their turning it so great, that I have heard some of them have fallen down dead in the place.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Also articles in National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011