02-Dance of the heretics-The Whirling Dervishes

“Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.” - Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi

Dear Reader,

Thank you for being here. Today without much ado we will quickly jump into chapter-2. If you missed the first chapter, find it here


When the Heavens dances with the Earth

Scenario from a typical Sema ceremony:
The hauntingly soft melody of flutes and tambourines reigned like shadows engulfing the whole Tekke (convent hall). At the epicenter of the somewhat circular hall stands an old man whose face bears marks of wisdom. He is the sheikh (master) of the younger Dervishes who shall enter into the whirling meditation soon. The Dervishes in their sikke (tall camel hats) approach the sheikh and bow to him. They then slowly move away forming a large circle. After removing their black overcoats symbolic of shedding the ego, the Semazen, in their magnificent white flowing hirka, pass the chief Semazen (Semazenbasi) three-time exchanging greetings with him. The ney cries insistently, and the rhythm changes slowly. The initiation ceremony of prayers and meditation goes on for a while. The hall vibrates in the powerful vowel sounds like 'ah', 'ee', and 'uh'. The sacred tunes ring through the body of the Dervishes and unlock their mental blockages. Finally, ready for the whirling, the Dervishes get up again forming a circle. They then eventually enter into a graceful and steady spin. The transition from the sitting meditation into the moving one is usually so slow and steady that the observer might fail to recognize that the dance has already started. Accelerating counterclockwise on the right foot, the Dervishes began to whirl slowly, raising the right arm pointing to the sky and the left arm pointing towards the Earth.

Their serene faces glow brightly in the mellow ambience of the hall. There are no traces of emotions visible on their faces. They seem empty but not lifeless. Their half-opened eyes constantly stare into the infinity. It is as if they are looking without seeing. As if they can see what we cannot. They look hyperaware of the profound magnitude of their inner world. And at the same time, the synchronous movements with their peers show their mental presence and spatial awareness. In this way, the Semazen (Dervish who perform in the Sema) becomes a source of pure joy lost in the transcendental state of ecstasy. A conduit, a doorway, if you will, between the material and the spiritual world. They are both here and there at the same time. They are channeling the light of wisdom to dispel the darkness of ego and greed of materialism.

Sema: Music is the bridge between ego and soul

The ceremonial music begins with the hymn to remember the great Prophet Mohammed, written by Jalaluddin Rumi, and ends in a series of enthusiastic short songs. The very essence of the name given to the ritual 'Sema' means listening. So the ceremony is about listening to the music, and the dance becomes instrumental in eventually surrendering your whole being away to the music and letting it take you where it will. After abandoning the baggage of ego, you board on the ship of music, which takes you on an inner journey closer to your soul. According to Rumi, the house of love (God) is made of music. To the one who is listening, even the emptiness of the space encompasses music. Music is the door to transcendence. He once said, “You hear the doors when they close, I hear them when they open”.

Jalaluddin Rumi stated the significance of the Sema ceremony very simply: The revolving galaxy of the whirling Dervishes in their white flowing attire are like the stars and planet swirling around the center of the universe (God). While replicating the macrocosm in the Sema ceremony, the Dervishes open up a divine path in their microcosm. They tap into the infinite awareness of this ever-expanding universe and convert it into nuggets of wisdom. Therefore, the Sema ceremony is about the Semazen’s transcendence and enlightenment.

The symbolism of attire in the Sema ceremony

The Dervishes follow a set of ethics and dress code during the Sema ceremony. Everything in the ceremony is thought out and has a purpose. Each piece of attire has a specific significance. The dress consists of the traditional dress or tennure, a sleeveless frock or destegul, belt, black cloak or hirka, felt cap or sikke.

The symbolism of the attire is as follows:

1. Camel hat represents the tombstone of the ego

2. White skirt represents ego’s shroud

3. Removing the black cloak is synonymous with being reborn to the truth

The whirling techniques

Similar to the attire, the postures, and the techniques used while whirling have their individual spiritual and physiological significance. These techniques were specifically designed to avoid vertigo and dizziness. To achieve an uninterrupted ecstatic flow state, the Dervish needs to train and practice the techniques to perfection.

1. The whirling begins with the Dervish holding both his arms crossed on their opposite shoulders, representing the number one which represents unification with God.

2. The Semazen rotate on his left foot complete 360 degrees towards the left leg along the heart line. This movement signifies that the Semazen has opened his heart to all the beauty in the creation. The rotation on a fixed axis also minimizes shaking while whirling.

3. His head remains tilted approximately 25 degrees to the right. In this posture, both the inner ear canals are stimulated equally and hence remain in equilibrium. (Inner ear is responsible for balance in our movements and posture)

4. He opens his arms, fingers of the right hand pointing upwards towards the heavens to receive grace, and the left hand pointing down sending the same grace back among his fellow humans.

5. The Semazen’s head remains tilted slightly to the right, his face slightly turned to the left. His eyes remain half-open, gaze fixed on the left thumb. This method helps with optical fixation and awareness of the immediate surrounding.

6. Lastly, the tennure skirt that opens up during the whirling aids and stabilizes their movement with a constant centrifugal force that reduces the possibility of shaking that can cause dizziness.

Origin and principles of the Mevlevi order

Mevlevi order, known to the western world as the whirling Devershies, is probably one of the most mysterious spiritual orders existing in the world today. The order was founded by Jalaluddin Rumi, a 13th century, poet, mystic and Islamic theologian. Also known as Mawlana (our master) among those initiated on the Mevlevi path, Rumi’s life was nothing less than an ocean of profound realizations. He regularly escaped into ecstatic communion with God. One fascinating aspect about him was his much-speculated relationship with Shams Tabrizi (an elusive heretical ascetic who lived in 13th century Persia). The relationship between Shams and Rumi was a controversial one. People still bicker about the alleged sexual connection between the two who used to lock themselves away in a chamber for days, lost in the ecstatic proclamations of God (sohbet). Since homosexuality is equivalent to blasphemy as per Islam, the Islamic world tends to dismiss such speculations. There is no proof that Rumi's relationship with Shams was physical, there is no proof that it wasn’t. Biographers, historians, and scholars, who have academically studied Rumi, will be able to tell you more about this particular connection than I. However, one thing I can assure you here is the fact that Shams was instrumental in Rumi's feats. Shams was the one who inspired and trained Rumi as a Sufi. Even the whirling dance was a gift from Shams to his most beloved and devoted student. The mystical dance form to which Rumi surrendered his entire life was no coincidence. It was under the weight of immense grief that Rumi yielded to poetry and whirling. When Shams mysteriously went missing, never to return, Rumi broke into a state of anguish from which he could not recover. He was left with no other option than to find Shams in the teachings that he left behind. In his practice and perfection of the whirling meditation, he found his lost love. The purity and union he once felt with Shams resurfaced while whirling. With this realization, he later wrote in one of his most moving works Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi

"Why should I seek? I am the same as
He. His essence speaks through me.
I have been looking for myself!"

So essentially, there would be no Rumi, the great poet that the world knows today, without Shams. And without Rumi, the world would have never seen the magnificent whirling dance of the Dervishes.

After Rumi's death, the Order of the Whirling Dervishes was formalized by his progeny and disciples. The 750-year-old tradition is the living legacy and embodiment of the teachings of Rumi, who in his later life advocated unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, innate goodness in human nature, charity, awareness through love, and ecstasy in surrender to the flow of the universe. The only material remains of Rumi’s seven centuries-old legacy is preserved as a mausoleum erected on his grave in Konya, present-day Turkey. People flock from around the world at this 13th-century mausoleum to celebrate the Seb-i-Arus or ‘wedding day’. Find below the live recording from last year’s Seb-i-Arus, which is a celebration of the union of Mevlana (Rumi) with God.

The Sema is the cornerstone of Turkish history and culture today. Sema represents a mystical journey of a person's ascent through the murky realms of mind to the spiritual absolution of love. The Dervishes whirl away from the deserts of ego towards the fountains of truth. From this journey, they return wise, centered, and ready to serve the world, without discrimination or prejudice. They can now see through eyes unclouded of hate.

The Mevlevi order, although deeply influenced by Islam, has always been progressive and liberal in spirit. As per Rumi, the foundation of Islam is love and tolerance. Şefik Can aptly said and I quote, “Rumi tells us to take the love of God to the forefront, to abstain from being attached to the letter of the law rather than the spirit of it, to find the essence of the faith, and to raise our faith from the level of imitation to the level of realization.” In 2005 Sema’s cultural significance went down in history when UNESCO recognized the "Mevlevi Sema Ceremony" of Turkey as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Dance me to the end of the world

When a Dervish whirls, his world slowly crumbles and collapses. This material reality has lesser significance for him when he is seeking the nectar of truth. So he leaves it behind to whirl in tune with the natural flow of energies of the universe. In this choreography replicating the Cosmos, the Dervishes train to yield their bodies to the rhythm of the Earth. Their bodies sway, their blood pulsates, and their consciousness expands. They lose their human identity, and even if for an hour become one with eternity. With their bodies held suspended in rotation by the pull of gravity, their minds finally become free to contemplate the nature of existence. In this altered state of consciousness, the Dervishes finally understand the eternal nature of the soul. This is their moment of awakening.

“The Sama means to die to this world and to be revived in the eternal dance of the free spirits around a sun that neither rises nor sets.”

In the words of the great Jalaluddin himself:

“‎Dancing is not just getting up painlessly, like a leaf blown on the wind; dancing is when you tear your heart out and rise out of your body to hang suspended between the worlds.”

If you want to read more, here are some sources -

Role of women in the Dervish Community: Women of Sufism, A Hidden Treasure, by Camille Helminski

Whirling meditation, altered state of consciousness, and mental health

The Forbidden Rumi: The Suppressed Poems of Rumi on Love, Heresy, and Intoxication