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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Celaleddin Mevlâna Rumi and the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey: An Introduction


Sufism is a branch of Islam that uses meditation to draw closer to God. The people who practice this are known as "Sufis" or "dervishes". There are many techniques that Sufis may use in their quest to focus their attention on spiritual matters, and one of these techniques involves continuously spinning. Sufis who use spinning as a moving meditation are often referred to as "whirling dervishes".

The vast majority of whirling dervishes in Turkey trace their spiritual roots to Celaleddin Mevlâna Rumi, who founded the Mevlevi Sufi order in the 13th century. "Mevlâna" means "guide", or "master". "Rumi" means "from the Sultanate of Rum".



A Brief Historical Look

NOTE: The historical information in this article came mostly from a pamphlet distributed to tourists near Konya and the Turkish tour guide that Shira had in 2000. If academic sources contradict the information in this article, it's probably better to believe the academic sources.

The son of a noted Islamic preacher, Celaleddin Mevlâna Rumi came to live in the city of Konya, Turkey in 1240, when he was 33 years old. Four years later, he met Mehmet Shemseddin Tebrizi, one of his father's Sufi disciples. Tebrizi had a profound effect on Celaleddin, who became devoted to him.

According to an informational flyer that was distributed to spectators at a whirling dervish exhibition near Konya, Turkey in 2000, Rumi's own disciples put Tebrizi to death in 1247 because they feared his powerful influence over their master. Horrified, Rumi withdrew from the world to meditate. It was then he wrote his great poetic work, the Mathnawi. He also wrote many ruba'i and ghazal poems, which were collected into the Divan-i Kebir.

Rumi died in December, 1273. His son organized his followers into the brotherhood of whirling dervishes now known as the Mevlevi. Today, tourists and pilgrims can visit the tomb of Rumi, his father, and his son in Konya, Turkey at the Mevlâna Müzesi.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo taken by Shira shows the tomb of Celaleddin Mevlâna Rumi at the Mevlâna Müzesi shrine in Konya, Turkey. Click on the photo to see it in more detail.

Tomb of Rumi

This museum / shrine once served as a monastery where members of the Mevlevi order lived and meditated. In addition to hosting the tombs of prominent dervishes, it has several hairs from the beard of Mohammed on display.

Several of the cells in which members of the order once lived have been arranged to show dioramas of daily life in the monastery. One such cell is shown in the photo to the right. Click on the photo to see more detail.

Over the centuries, the dervish orders held a great deal of influence with the Ottoman political, social and economic life. When Ataturk came to power in the early 20th century, he abolished the dervish orders and converted the monasteries to museums. Though outlawed, several dervish orders remained alive under the guise of fraternal brotherhoods. They were revived in 1957 in Konya as a "cultural association" intended to preserve a historic tradition.

Restrictions against the order have eased in the decades that followed. The order still exists in Turkey today, led by a descendant of Rumi named Faruk Hemdem Çelebi.

More than seven centuries after his death, religious and secular communities alike continue to honor Celaleddin Mevlâna Rumi as one of the world's greatest poets and philosophers ever known.

Dervish Diorama in Konya



The Dervish Clothing

Dervishes wear tall, conical felt hats on their heads which signify the tombstones of their egos. They wear long, white robes with full skirts which represent the shrouds of their egos. Over those they wear voluminous black cloaks representing their worldly tombs. They remove these at the beginning of the ceremony to symbolize their deliverance from the cares and attachments of this world.



The Semâ (Whirling Ritual)

The semâ begins with a chanted prayer to The Prophet, who represents love, and all prophets before him. Next a kettledrum sounds as a symbol of the Divine order of the Creator, followed by haunting musical improvisation on the ney (reed flute) which symbolizes the Divine Breath which gives life to everything.

The master bows, then leads the dervishes in a circle around the hall. As they pass the master's ceremonial position at the head of the hall, they bow to each other. This portrays the salutation of soul to soul concealed by shapes and bodies.

After three circles, the dervishes drop their black cloaks. One by one, arms folded on their breasts, they approach the master, bow, kiss his hand, receive instructions, then spin out onto the floor.

Through whirling, the dervishes relinquish the earthly life to be reborn in mystical union with God. Opening their folded arms, the dervishes hold their right hands palm-up to receive the blessings of heaven. They hold their left hands palm-down to transfer the blessings to earth.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Shira took this photo at a dervish exhibition in a caravanserai near Konya, Turkey.

Eventually, the semâ reaches a point where all dervishes are simultaneously whirling. After about 10 minutes, all stop and kneel. Then rising, they begin again. This combination of whirling followed by salute is performed a total of four times. Each of the four repetitions of kneeling is a salute, and they signify:

  1. Humanity's birth to the truth of God as Creator and humanity's role as creature.
  2. The rapture of man witnessing the splendor of creation.
  3. Dissolution into the rapture of love and the sacrifice of mind to love, to complete submission to God.
  4. Termination of the spiritual journey, including return to everyday life and subservience to God.

At the conclusion of the whirling, the hafiz reads the Koran, especially the verse from Sura Bakara 2, verse 115: "Unto God belong the East and the West, and wherever you turn, there is God's countenance. He is all-embracing, all-knowing."

The semâ closes with a prayer for the peace of the souls of all Prophets and all believers.

Whirling Dervishes



An Important Warning to Dancers

Many dancers have been fascinated by the beautiful, haunting music used by dervishes. Played on the ney (a type of flute) and drums, and accompanied by chanting, this music has the power to captivate even when the words of the chants are in a language you can't understand. Never, never use dervish music (or any other Sufi music) for belly dance performances, especially if it contains vocals!!!! The chants are prayers, and using such music for Oriental dance would be deeply insulting and offensive to Muslims. Please respect Islam, and don't profane Islamic holy music in this way.



For Visitors to Turkey

The holy city of Konya hosts the museum/shrine containing the tombs of Rumi, his father, his son, and several great leaders of the Mevlevi dervish order. For Turkish Muslims, this is a very holy place, and some people make pilgrimages to it to seek Rumi's intercession.

Tourists visiting the Mevlâna Müzesi should approach it with the respect a religious shrine deserves. Even those who do not follow Islam should remember that this shrine is holy to Muslims, and conduct themselves in a manner that will not interfere with their pilgrimage experience. It would be disrespectful to wear shorts or miniskirts. Shirts with sleeves 3/4 length or longer would be advisable, and necklines should be high enough to cover cleavage.

A current guidebook should be able to identify where in Turkey it's possible to see a semâ. Semâs are typically open to observers, even non-Muslims. Alternatively, a folk dance show may include a portrayal of whirling dervishes in addition to village dance forms.



Related Articles

Scenes from Turkey

Photos taken in Turkey in July, 2000.

Dervish-Related Topics



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