I have seen short scenes of the dervishes dancing themselves into a trance on a couple of travel shows. Even though the hosts explained the background behind the ceremony, I never really fully understood because the short segments were just a part of a bigger picture about Iran or Turkey.
So, when I learned that the Dialog Institutue of the Southwest (led locally by Necip Orhan) was bringing the Whirling Dervishes to Albuquerque, I decided to do a bit of research. The most basic thing we need to know that this is a deeply spiritual practice rooted in the Sufi tradition. 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. Dervishes spread into North Africa, Turkey, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Iran, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The Whirling Dervishes that tour around the world (and are coming to Albuquerque) are most closely connected to the groups in Turkey.
|Image from Füsun A's blog|
The rituals performed by the dervishes could be likened to Christian or Buddhist monastic practices or many Native American or traditional African dances in the sense that they draw from deep prayer and reflection and a direct connection with the Creator so they can better engage with the world around them.
For Sufis, engagement with the world sometimes results in a deep advocacy for human rights, which ultimately brings them into conflict with the powers-that-be. This has been the case in Iran. "A Sufi’s way of life is to love and be of service to people, deserting the ego or false self and all illusion so that one can reach maturity and perfection, and finally reach Allah, the True, the Real," said an online site about the Whirling Dervishes.
In his blog, Canadian writer Füsun A describes the Sema Ritual, which began with the inspiration of Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi (1207-1273) and was influenced by Turkish customs and culture.
|from Whirling Dervishes of Rumi site|
Over these, they wore full black cloaks which they removed before they started their whirling. These black cloaks were representations of the worldly tombs which they shed as an indication of their will to be born to spiritual truth and be delivered from the attachments of the material world.
The Semazen stood very straight, with their arms crossed over their chests — a posture which symbolizes the number one, expressing God’s singularity. One by one they shed their black cloaks, greeted their sheikh, who symbolizes the sun illuminating the universe, and each other before they started whirling. Their arms unfolded gently like the wings of a bird, as they turned like Earth turns around its own axis.
With one foot grounded on the Earth and other giving them momentum and encompassing all nations, they started spinning into a trance, through which they seek divine love, truth and self-transformation to unite with their Creator before returning to life as servants to all creation.
Their right palms were turned up towards the sky and left palms pointed to the Earth to transmit divine benediction to mankind. As they whirled from right to left, spinning to a state of spiritual unity, their turns became increasingly dynamic and mesmerizing.
Although I couldn’t understand all of the words in their chants, I was fascinated by the hauntingly beautiful music and the voice of the singer. Five musicians played Turkish instruments: the ney, which is a type of flute; the tanbur, a long-necked lute; kemenche, a three-stringed fiddle; an ud, which is akin to a lute, and the kanun, a zither.
The Sema ended with a reading from the Qu’ran as the sheikh and dervishes greeted each other once more with a gesture of peace, and left to the accompaniment of joyful music."