A secret turning in us
makes the universe turn.
Head unaware of feet,
and feet head. Neither cares.
They keep turning.
—Rumi, “The Secret Turning”
Anyone who has watched a child gleefully spinning in circles recognizes the bliss that comes in freely moving one’s body. Yet for members of the Whirling Dervishes, this twirling is a very conscious and intentional act, symbolizing the revolutions that appear in all of life. Becoming one with this universal rotation unites them in a love with all humanity, inducing a feeling of total rapture.
Whirling Dervishes—a History
As a branch of Sufism, the Order of the Whirling Dervishes follows the vast tradition of Islam and the Qur’an, focusing its interpretation on love, worship, tolerance, and self-discipline. Through service to the community, Sufis believe they can transcend the ego and eventually become one with Allah.
Yet it is perhaps the great Persian mystic and poet Rumi (1207-1273) who has most influenced the Dervishes. The Sufi values of love and service are even more central to this sect, and their Sema ritual or signature whirling—which symbolizes these very values—was directly inspired by Rumi’s teachings.
Rumi—also known by his full name Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī—taught of the universality of all things, and a rudimentary understanding of science acknowledges that every known object or being exists because of the revolutionary nature of electrons, protons, and neutrons in atoms. The revolution of these particles in the blood allow for life in the physical body, while the stages of existence—being born of the earth, and eventually returning to it—mark the very circle of life itself.
Whirling Dervishes—the Ceremony
The Sema ceremony, therefore, represents humankind’s spiritual journey or return to this sense of oneness with the divine. By constantly turning or spinning toward truth and love, the semanzen is able to achieve a state of harmony with all things, transcending the ego to arrive at perfection—and thus, like Allah, able to serve all of creation equally without discrimination.
Every movement of the Sema is symbolic. The semazen’s hat or sikke represents the ego’s headstone; his wide skirt, the ego’s shroud. The shedding of his black cloak represents the dervish’s rebirth in the truth. As he whirls, his arms are wide open to the heavens; the right arm points upwards to the benevolent God; the left hand is turned toward the ground. By performing the Sema, a Whirling Dervish acts as a sort of loving conduit between the audience and Allah. In Rumi’s words, “All loves are a bridge to Divine love.”
Traveler Tip: The Sema is a spiritual ritual; applause during the performance is not appropriate. If you so desire, you may show your appreciation after the dervishes have left the stage.
To learn more about the Whirling Dervishes, visit www.whirlingdervishes.org.
For more information on our adventure to Turkey, including a Whirling Dervish performance in Cappadocia, visit our trip page.