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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Mevlevi: Whirling Dervishes

Come, come whoever you are
Whether you are a non-believer,
Whether you worship an idol or fire,
Whether you have repented a hundred times,
Whether you have broken a vow of repentance a hundred times,
Our lodge is not one of despair;
Come however you are.

Mevlâna Jelaleddin Rumî (1207 - 1273)

Summed up in his poem, Rumi's religious philosophy of tolerance gave rise to the Sufi branch of Islam that brought about the order of whirling dervishes.

Whirling dervishesThe whirling dervishes of Turkey are dancers - but dancers with a difference. Its members are part of a fascinating order of Islamic mystics or Sufis, who trace their origins back to the 13th-century poet and thinker Rumi, and a branch of Sufism - the Mevlevi. This school of thought was founded by his son Sultan Veled after the death of the Mevlana (meaning "Our Master") in Konya, Turkey. The order gained favour and prominence during the Ottoman Empire, with patronage secured from Ottoman royalty and even counting one sultan among their ranks.

There are many stories about how Rumi himself, as he was wandering through the bazaars of Konya, would hear the sound of a hammer on a copper pot and would be transported by the rhythm of the beat and begin whirling on the spot. Although there is evidence that similar dances were first seen in Baghdad some 200 years before Rumi's birth, it was his teaching that transformed it into a religious experience. After the Mevlana's death, his followers formalised the rituals that now form the sema, the whirling dance of the dervishes which repesents the abandonment of the self set into motion.

Rumi believed a union with God could be achieved through dance. His idea was that dancing can be a kind of prayer, an exquisitely beautiful meditation in motion. The Mevlevi followers pursue this ecstatic state as they whirl in a highly formalised ritual, its characteristic spinning on the spot giving the dervishes their name.

These particular Sufis believe dance was created when the Universe came into being. The dance, the music, the listening and the spiritual experience are fused together during the dance of the dervishes. With the revolving movement, according to the Mevlevis, the dervish detaches himself from earth and is united with God. And so, the Mevlana followers have been performing this religious "whirling" dance for centuries since.

The Mevlevi dancers - many who have families and professions in medicine, law and the arts - perform their seven hundred year old dance in the Galata lodge in Istanbul and every December in Rumi's adopted hometown of Konya, where he is buried and where every December a Whirling Dervish Festival commemorates the death of the man looked on by many Muslims as a saint.

It's a joyful tradition: a celebration of Rumi's death, an event he saw as a marriage with God in the eternal. The final night of the festival is the "wedding night", the anniversary of the Mevlana's actual death. Usually around fifty whirling dervishes dance the sema, revolving around themselves, participating in the revolution of the universe and abandoning their egos to find truth.

However, these celebratory dances usually take place in large modern stadiums, in front of thousands of people. Some complain that it has become more a show for tourists, without the intensity of a private ceremony. Critics claim the sema should be viewed at the revered Galata Tekke in Istanbul founded in 1491 for a real experience. But whichever setting they are viewed at, it seems it never fails to transport the audience with these human spinning tops.

Whirling dervishesThe dervishes pivot on the left heel and use their right foot in support as they rotate around their own axis while circling, until their eyes glaze and their heads rest to one side, falling into a trance. Just before they reach the pinnacle of the trance, they break free to symbolise their refusal to make themselves on par with God. Would-be members of the order undergo at least a year of training before they can begin to spin without dizziness.

However, for all their mysticism, the dervishes are ordinary people. While dervishes from other countries live a monastic existence belonging to confraternities known for their extreme poverty, in Turkey the owner of a local corner shop will come together with a commercial lawyer to whirl in white robes at various sema ceremonies in Konya and Istanbul.

One dervish explained it by stating, "Being a dervish doesn't mean total denial. Dervishes can use a car, have a family. I don't know you are a dervish until I look into your heart."

For the Mevlevi it is about Rumi's teachings, and the basis of those teachings being love in everything done. According to a custom, if a Mevlevi dervish wanted a drink of water during a meal, he would motion to the water server, the saki. All present would stop eating so that none would eat more than another. The saki would pour the water, kiss the glass, and offer it to the thirsty one. In silence the dervish would kiss the glass and drink. When the glass was empty, "Aşk olsun" would be proclaimed and everyone would continue to eat.

This phrase, "Aşk olsun" (Ahshk olsun) - "May it become love" - is a declaration of a dervish's best vision of the fate of any sustenance: that it be transformed within the human heart into conscious awareness of the Divine love that provided it in the first place.

The Mevlevi Path

For more than seven centuries the Mevlevi Tradition has held the light of the religion of love, offering spiritual refuge and enlightenment for those who wished to develop their human-ness to the highest level. At the apex of their popularity in Ottoman times the Mevlevis cultivated not only spiritual attainment but cultural and artistic excellence as well. Mevlevis have always been progressive and liberal in spirit while at the same time conserving the best of tradition. The Mevlevi Tradition offers a spirituality adequate to all times.

But not every dervish is a whirling dervish, or follows the Mevlevi Path.

These dancers are unique to the dervishes of the Mevlevi school and should not be confused with other dervishes from Sufi sects that ritualise chants and sometimes, for example, maim themselves apparently with no outward injury, as in Iran, Pakistan or Afghanistan who have adopted the philosophy of the popular mystic of the Mevlevi as their own.

The Mevlevi simply turn to the sheer passion of Sufi trance music. The aim of this music - among all branches of Sufism - is to heal, transform, and connect to the divine and some of the most intense musical experiences will be found among other Sufi sects in Morocco, Pakistan and Central Asia. However, to see and hear Rumi at his core you need to come and watch the original Mevlevi Sufis in their Turkish homeland.

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