Islamic mysticism seeks awareness of god in manner being, and hence the various mystic sects of tarikats of whirling dervishes or Sufis in Turkey and other countries have generally been characterized by open-mindedness, vision, exuberance, and lot of the arts, particularly music and poetry. Their tendency to relegate doctrine and the outer forms of worship a secondary degree of importance has frequently brought the sects into conflict with orthodoxy over the centuries The emphasis in dance music of the Mevlevi’s, and the transgression of the Orthodox ban on intoxicating liquor by the Bektasis are issues which were strongly condemned by the Muslim establishment during Ottoman times in Turkey.
The first Islamic sect emerged in Yemen and dates from the 37th year of the Hegira (657 AD) when the Angel Gabriel is supposed to have exhorted Uveys el-Karani to turn his back on the material world and choose a life of asceticism. Each mystic sect by tradition also asserts legitimacy by tracing its origins to Ali or Ebubekir Cuneyd-i Baghdadi (died 910) and other Sufis forged a link between the concept of bezm-i elest (the union of God and souls) and the ecstatic dance known as Sama (Sufism) introducing various recited litanies in praise of God to the accompaniment of whirling movements. Experts in Muslim jurisprudence have frequently rejected sects such as the Rufais, Halvetis, and Mevlevis because dancing degrades religion. In the early 16th century, for instance, Ibn Kemal (D. 1534) wrote a treatise entitled Risaletun fi Tahkik’r-Raks asserting that music and spinning movements known as devran were sinful, citing early fetva as evidence for his argument, Ebussuud Efendi (D.1574), on the other hand, while still disapproving, took the view that with certain modifications and restrictions the practice should be tolerated.
Many of the sects which arose in Anatolia, such a Yessevis, Bektasis and Naksis fell afoul of orthodox although the Mevlevi’s commanded the growing respect of the orthodox establishment largely on account of the Mesnevi, the greatest philosophical work of Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi, a Turkish Sufi who migrated from northern Persia to Anatolia in the 13th century. The sed which grew up after his death is by far the most fascinating in terms of whirling dervish culture, including ritual and costume.
The Sema (Whirling Dervishes) is Different Than Other Sects
The Sema of the Mevlevi’s differed from the movement adopted by other sects. The dervish turns independently, without touching shoulder to shoulder, both around their axis and around the sheik and other dervishes. They made neither a sound nor any movement of the hands, arms or head The Mevlevi novice underwent long years of self-denial, penance, and training in the Sema. The state of Trans which the Sema induced cut off all awareness apart from that of communion with God. The Bektashi, however, ridiculed the Mevlevi dance as an unnecessary adjunct to the worship of God. Mevlana (d. 1273) believed that the spirit was relieved of the weight of the flesh in the course of the Sema and that the jubilation which emanated from men’s true being as sensitive and thought could only be experienced in this way. Although the Sema could be practiced singly, it was customary for the dervish to dance together at noon in the Semahane or hall of the dargah. The dervish, responsible for the ritual, would spread the sheepskin which symbolized the office of the sheik, head of the convent, on the floor of the Semahane. Wearing their white costumes with voluminous skirts known as tennure and tall hats, the whirling dervishes would perform their prayers when the sheik warning a green headdress appeared. After readings from the Mesnevi and the Qoran, one of the dancers would begin to play the ney, a reed flute of great antiquity whose plaintive music is associated almost exclusively with the sect.
Lord Charlemont, who traveled in Turkey in 1749, gave the following account of the Mevlevi Ceremony, which was performed in public on Tuesdays and Fridays to an audience which included many women.
The crowd pressed toward the extremities of the chamber, which was occupied by the monks dressed, as usual in a gown of coarse whitish cloth, closed before and behind, and fastened about the way it is with a leather strap. Over this, they wore a sort of jacket… On their heads they wore caps of the same color, usually made of camel’s hair, and stiffened into the form of sugar-loaf (The prayer) was succeeded by a long hymn, performed with great vociferation, and to our prejudiced ears, with little music, and accompanied by a sort of flute or oboe and by a large tabor like a small kettle-drum. As soon as the hymn was ended, the instruments changed their tune into something of a quicker movement, and the monks began to turn themselves around with a velocity not to be described or easily conceived. Our most fixed attention could not count the number of their revocations, but according to our best reckoning, they must have exceeded sixty in one minute. This painful exercise was continued for a considerable time, till at length the music ceased, and they stopped seemingly undisturbed by giddiness, and thus the ceremony ended.
Galata Mevlevihane, the dervish convent visited by Charlemont, was one of Istanbul’s most distinguished centers of music and literature until the turn of the 20th century. Many major Turkish composers, calligraphers, and poets trained here. Foremost among them was the scholar and poet Seyh Galip (1757-1799), who under the patronage of Sultan Selim III and his sister Beyhan Sultan became seyh of the dargah. The dargah was well restored between 2005-2009 to serve as a ceremony hall and museum welcoming guests every week on Sundays at 17:00. (Tickets can be purchased at the entrance of the museum before the show).
The Mevlevi dervishes had lodged in many parts of Turkey, including Afyon, Kutahya, Bursa, Gallipoli, Aleppo, and of course Konya; the home of Mevlana. In Istanbul, there were Mevlevi lodges at Kulekapisi, Bahariye in Besiktas, Kasimpasa, and Uskudar. They all consisted of a large inner courtyard surrounded by the Semahane, a room for the novices, reception rooms, a harem where the family of the sheik lived, refectory, and kitchen. The day began with morning prayers and meditation and continued with the study of Mevlana’s writings, and then music practice for the whirling on the ney and kudum, a small double drum played with small sticks.
Although Charlemont referred to these prayers as monks, the resemblance is only slight, since dervishes married, kept their own homes, and made their living.
What are the Best Places to See the Whirling Dervishes Ceremony?
In Istanbul or Cappadocia, we will be happy to make a reservation for you where it is performed almost every evening at Hodjapasha cultural center in Istanbul, Galata Mevlevihanesi and in Cappadocia at Sarihan, a 13th century AD caravanserai.
If you happen to visit Konya to see the Shrine of Rumi or Catalhoyuk; Mevlana Cultural Center has a free of charge performance every Saturday at 19:00 as well. Here is a list of what else to see in Konya.