The Sufi Mystical Prayer Dance – The Whirling Dervish

If I was required to change my religion to Islam, I’d be a Sufi for sure! It reminds me in so many ways of the Christian mystics.

“The body is like the earth, the bones like mountains, the brain like mines, the belly like the sea, the intestines like rivers, the nerves like brooks, the flesh like dust and mud. The hair on the body is like plants, the places where hair grows like fertile land and where there is no growth like saline soil. From its face to its feet, the body is like a populated state, it’s back like desolate regions, its front like the east, back the west, right the south, left the north. Its breath is like the wind, words like thunder, sounds like thunderbolts. Its laughter is like the light of noon, its tears like rain, its sadness like the darkness of night, and its sleep is like death as its awakening is like life. The days of its childhood are like spring, youth like summer, maturity like autumn, and old age like winter. Its motions and acts are like motions of stars and their rotation. Its birth and presence are like the rising of the stars, and its death and absence like their setting.” – From The Whirling Dervishes, by Ira Friedlander (1)

I was especially drawn to learn more about the mesmerizing dance of the whirling dervishes and how I could add this practice to my Christian walk of faith in a way to express my love and devotion to God, and help create a mystical union with the Divine. The whirling dervish dance communicates (transports, carries) God’s spiritual gift to us.

Go sweep out the chamber of your heart. Make it ready to be the dwelling place of the Beloved. When you depart out, He will enter it. In you, void of yourself, will He display His beauties.” – Rose Garden of Mystery by Sufi Mahmud Shabistari, 13 c. 

Female whirling dervish. Photo from Hindustan Times

“There is a candle in your heart, ready to be kindled. There is a void in your soul, ready to be filled, you feel it don’t you? You feel the separation from the beloved. Invite him to fill you up, embrace the fire. Remind those who tell you otherwise, that loves come to you on its own accord, and the yearning for it, cannot be learned in any school.” – Rumi

A few of you [my classmates] wrote about the Sufis in the Reading Reply section for this week, so I won’t go into detail about the origins of Sufism, but give a very cursory outline.

“Sufism (Arabic Tasawwuf) is a name which probably has its origin in the wearing of undyed wool (suf) as a mark of personal penitence. The Sufis are also known as fakirs and dervishes, both words originally denoting that these were people who believed in being poor (in spirit). All Sufis stress the supreme importance of religious experience, and distinguish themselves among Muslims by their insistence that experience of God (who is often viewed in Islam as remote and unapproachable) can be achieved in this life.” (2)

“Sufism is defined as the inner and mystical dimension. The Mevlevi Order was formed in 1312 in the Turkish city of Konya (formerly the capital of the Anatolian Seljuk Sultanate) by the followers of the 13th century Persian poet, Islamic theologian, and Sufi mystic Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (or Mevlânâ). Organized by Mevlânâ’s son, Sultan Walad, the order in Konya soon began to expand into other towns with appointed leaders, and in its heyday there were 114 tekke (monasteries) established throughout the Ottoman Empire, including ones in Belgrade, Athens, Cairo, Mecca, Baghdad, Damascus, and Tabriz.” (3)

“Based on experience rather than doctrine, Sufism has always been more open to outside influence than other forms of Islam. Because it took root and developed in the centrally located Middle East, it has quite naturally absorbed ideas and practices from several of the world’s notable religious and philosophical systems. In addition to early influences from Christianity, one can find elements of Zoroastrianism, Neoplatonism, Hinduism, and other diverse traditions, around its Islamic kernel.” (2) 

With the fall of the Ottoman Empire after WWI, the Sufi organizations were declared illegal, and the tekkes were either closed down, adapted into mosques, or turned into museums. Two of the most important remaining Mevlevihane are the ones in Konya (where Mevlânâ is buried) and the Galata Mevlevihanesi in Istanbul. By 1953 public performances of the Mevlevi Sema, or the Whirling Prayer Ceremony [Whirling Dervishes], were permitted by the Turkish government, and soon large crowds came from all over the world to watch displays organized by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.” (3)

“In addition to obligatory Islamic worship, some of the main spiritual practices within the Mevlevi Order are as follows:

Dhikr: invocation of the Divine Names which is believed to purify the heart
Sema (sama): the whirling ceremony
Study of the Quran and Rumi’s works (especially his poetic masterpiece the Mathnavi)
Spiritual conversation led by the shaikh (sohbet)
Meditation (known as muraqabah in Islam)
Adab (developing courtesy and mindfulness)” (4)

Image from video (70) Nar-i Ney – Mercan Dede

“Originally, the Semahane Ceremony was a weekly remembrance of God, a ritual practiced by each Mevlevi tekke community where everyone was present, including Mevlevi musicians, women, and non-resident dervishes who chanted the Mevlevi ‘zikr,’ or prayer, silently in their hearts. As for the symbolism of the Sema ritual itself, the semazen camel’s hair hat (called a sikke or a fez) represents a tombstone of the ego, while the white skirt (called a tenure) is the shroud of the ego. When the dervish takes off his black coat, he is meant to be spiritually reborn to the truth. At the beginning of the ceremony the dervish holds his arms crosswise to represent the number one, testifying God’s unity.” (3)

While whirling, the dervish’s arms are open with his right hand directed to the sky, representing his readiness to receive God’s beneficence. The dervish’s left hand is turning toward the earth, representing his willingness to convey God’s spiritual gift to those witnessing the Sema. It is also believed that while revolving from right to left around his own heart, the dervish embraces all humanity with love, since Sufis believe that the human being was created with love in order to love. A quote by Rumi states that, ‘All loves are a bridge to Divine love. Yet, those who have not had a taste of it do not know.’” (3)

Photo from Learn How to do a Whirling Dervish Dance – Istanbul Dervish Ceremony

Rumi mentions whirling in a number of his poems. In one ghazal in the Divani Shamsi Tabriz he says:

Those who turn in the direction of prayer,
whirl in both this world and the next.

Pay heed when a circle of friends whirl,
circling round and round, the Kaaba* is the center.

If you wish a mine of sugar, it is there;
and if you wish a fingertip of sugar, it is gratis. (4)

*Kaaba meaning: literally ‘The Cube’ is a building at the center of Islam’s most important mosque, the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. It is the most sacred site in Islam. It is considered by Muslims to be the Bayt Allah literally ‘House of God’ and is the qibla (direction of prayer) for Muslims around the world when performing salah” [prayer]. (5)

The Whirling Dervishes – Dancing to Get Closer to God

Before trying the practice yourself, here are some helpful answers to a few questions:

Why do Whirling Dervishes spin counterclockwise:

“The rotation of the Earth creates the Coriolis force which causes winds to be deflected clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and anti-clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere – it is this effect which is responsible for the rotation of cyclones.” (6)

Why do Whirling Dervishes not get dizzy?

. . .how do the dervishes manage to keep balance and not get dizzy? First, they slowly increase the number of turns tricking the brain to become less and less sensitive to the impulses it receives.” (5)

“There are three pieces which balance the system. The eyes, deep sense, the inner ear and the brain is responsible for providing the balance. Three semicircular canal, called the organs utrikul and sakkul in the inner ear which sensitive to the movements of the head available. Movements during the “sema”, their wearings, inner peace, their diet prevent the emergence of dizziness, nausea, [or] a imbalance sense in Whirling dervishes (or Semazens).

Importance of shifting the rotation axis towards the left side from the midline: 

Shifting the rotation axis of the body from midline to vertical axis which between of the left leg and the heart minimizes shake while rotating, minimizing the stimulation of the inner ear balance center.

Importance of eyes half-open condition with looking to thumb of the left hand:


While eyes half-open condition whirling dervishes have blurred vision this provides an “optical fixation”. [The] Semazens head tilted slightly to the right, his face slightly turned to the left, his eyes at half-open position looking to the thumb of the left. This “Sema” method can allow optical fixations regardless of the fact that [they are in a] large or small room and [alleviating] dizziness.

Artist: Puisi 

The importance of the 25 degrees to the right head-lying position:

In this position, the left ear drum at above and right ear membrane at below. During the returning [of] the head to the left without shaking and swaying movement at this position, three Semicircular canals in the inner ear are stimulated equally.

The importance of wearing skirts “called “Tennure”

Both pairs of Tennure skirts open during Semazens turning around them. In this way due to the centrifugal forces the right or left swinging of the Semazen in the vertical plane and the possibility of shaking reduced. [similar to an acrobat or a rope-dancer]. The symmetrically sewing of [the] skirts is very important. [The] skirt of Tennure can also give the feeling of coolness with the ventilator effect of it.” (7)

“Importance of nutritional actions:

Whirling Dervishes avoid overeating and avoid eating some foods that can increase the stomach acid [like] fatty foods and meat. They [are] performing the “Sema Show” immediately after the evacuation of the stomach, while not hungry [or] satiated; this can reduce blood pressure in the brain and reduce dizziness.

The importance of inner peace during the “Sema”:

“Rotation motion is considered to represent [and] allow [the] seeing [of] God in every direction during the “Sema Show” and taking to [the] light from all sides, [the] foot hitting is considered to represent the crushing [of] his lower self, opening of arms to both sides is considered to represent [the] orientation of maturity, opening down to the left hand while the right hand opening up is considered to represent the scattered light of mercy from God to the public. [The] Whirling Dervish dance with this mind system (or way of thinking) can reduce muscle tone, prevent [the] elevating [of] blood pressure, and increase the durability [of the] Cylinder-shaped cap [AKA as a fez] worn during “Sema Show” [is] thought to be important for the fixation of energy on [the] skull.” (7)

An emotionally-charged whirling dervishes performance | © Vladimer Shioshvili / Flickr

There are classes in the U.S.A. (in Spencer, New York) to learn to do the Whirling Prayer – Whirling Dervish: Sufi Whirling Dervishes– Mevlevi Order of America: Whirling Dervish Retreat Center: Classes (whirling-dervish.org)

“Remember, the deep root of your being,
is the presence of the only Being
Give your life to the One who already owns your breath and your movements.” – Rumi

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☆ This blog entry is from my work in the World Religions course at Phillips Seminary. ☆

References:

1. The Whirling Dervishes (cassiopaea.org)

2. SUFIS: THE MYSTICAL MUSLIMS | Christian Research Institute (equip.org)

3. A Brief History Of The Whirling Dervish (theculturetrip.com)

4. What is a whirling dervish and why is it called that – Istanbul Dervish Ceremony

5. Why do Whirling Dervishes not get dizzy? – Colors-NewYork.com

6. Kaaba – Wikipedia (Links to an external site.)

7. Why Vertigo Is Not Seen In Whirling Dervishes? (ent-istanbul.com)

Links of interest:

10 Mysterious Ancient Dances – Listverse

Sufism: A Way of Seeing – The Washington Post

The Mesmerizing Dance of the Whirling Dervishes – Sonima

How to Be a Whirling Dervish by Laura Sheahen–Sufi Islam Muslim Rumi whirl – Beliefnet

If you use any information from my blog posts as a reference or source, please give credit and provide a link back to my work that you are referencing. Unless otherwise noted, my work is © Anna A. Kasper 2011-2021. All rights reserved. Thank you.

About Anna Kasper, ACDP

I am an avid Genealogist. I am currently a student at Phillips Theological Seminary (one of the few Catholics!). I am an ACDP - Associate of the Congregation of Divine Providence (Sisters of Divine Providence of Texas). If you are unfamiliar with what a Religious Associate (also called an Affiliate, Consociate, Oblate, Companion) is exactly, visit my about me page for more information. In community college, I majored in American Sign Language/Deaf Studies, and Interdisciplinary Studies when at university.
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