For most of my life, I’ve been fascinated by the mysterious, the enigmatic, the unknown, the hidden… esoteric philosophies, ancient practices, rituals, and rites practiced for thousands of years by those in the ‘know’… I’ve read books, watched documentaries, and gone out of my way to meet as many of these people as possible. This past weekend, with Jen’s help, I discovered another.
We took a trip to Konya – the largest city in Turkiye by square kilometers – to attend a very unique performance ceremony. Historically, the city was the capital of the Seljuk Sultanate empire (between 1077 – 1307). And during this time, a new sect of Islam was born in Persia and carried to Konya by a mystic named Shams Tabrizi – a spiritual instructor and founder of Sufism.
Sufism is to Muslims what Gnosticism is to Christianity. Essentially, Sufis consider themselves as the original true proponents of this pure original form of Islam. Many people contend that Sufism predates all religion.
Classical Sufis were characterized by their attachment to dhikr, a practice of repeating the names of God, often performed after prayers. Sufis believe they are practicing ihsan (perfection of worship) as revealed by Gabriel to Muhammad: “Worship and serve Allah as you are seeing Him and while you see Him not yet truly He sees you.”
Classical Sufi scholars have defined Sufism as a science whose objective is the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God. Muslims and mainstream scholars of Islam define Sufism as simply the name for the inner or esoteric dimension of Islam which is supported and complemented by outward or exoteric practices of Islam.
One of these exoteric practices is the dance of the whirling dervish. The whirling dance is best known by the Mevlevi Order in Konya, and is part of a formal ceremony known as the Sema, the purpose of which is to reach religious ecstasy. The term dervish refers to an initiate of the Sufi path of Islam.
The Sema was traditionally practiced in the samahane (ritual hall), and every Saturday night, free of charge, at the Mevlana Kultur Center in the middle of Konya. According to a precisely prescribed symbolic ritual, the dervishes whirl in a circle around their sheikh, who is the only one whirling around his axis. They wear a white gown (symbol of death), a wide black cloak (symbol of the grave) and a tall brown hat (symbol of the tombstone).
The whirling dervishes are representative of the moon and they spin on the outside of the Sheikh who is representative of the sun. They spin on their left foot and additionally, they have their right palm facing upwards towards Heaven and their left hand pointing at the ground. The dance they perform is broken up into four parts.
- Naat and Taksim – Naat is the beginning of the ceremony where a solo singer offers praise for the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The first part is finished with taksim (improvisation in free rhythm) of the ney reed flute which symbolizes our separation from God.
- Devr-i Veled – During the following Devr-i Veled, the dervishes bow to each other and make a stately procession in single file around the hall. The bow is said to represent the acknowledgement of the Divine breath which has been breathed into all of us. After all the dervishes have done this they kneel and remove their black cloaks.
- The Four Salams – The four salams themselves are representative of the spiritual journey that every believer goes through. The first one is representative of recognition of God, the second one is recognition of the existence in his unity, the third one represents the ecstasy one experiences with total surrender and the fourth one, where the Sheikh joins in the dance, is symbolic of peace of the heart due to Divine unity. After the four salams, this part of the ceremony is concluded with another solo Taksim.
- Concluding Prayer – The fourth part of the ceremony is a recitation from the Qu’ran and a prayer by the Sheikh and then the Sema is complete.
Witnessing the beauty, elegance, and simplicity of the whirling dervish dance took our breaths away. I cannot possibly describe the emotions we felt that night. Jen was more excited to see it before we arrived, though during and after, I shared in her admiration for the practice as well as the skill of both the musicians and the dancers. I found myself admiring the Sema and the Sufis. I hope the photos convey a fraction of the ritual’s magnificence.
Until Next Time…
PS – And speaking of the beauty and magnificence of the evening, we added to its specialness by promising our lives to each other… Jen and I are officially engaged!!! I love you, Rain Drop!