Sunday, October 21, 2007

Of Whirling Dervishes

Just returned from a full-capacity performance of the Whirling Dervish at the Singapore Esplanade. It was charming and surreal, yet I have seen a more enrapturing and enchanting performance in a smaller and more cosy setting. The performance started well with an introduction of the whirl celebrating the 800th birthday of its founding father, the revered Mevlana Jalalludin Rumi. But from the many uninitiated, they have asked me what the circular movements were all about. If only they had more background knowledge, I believe they would be able to appreciate more the performance, which to the practitioners, is actually a religious act.

The Mevlevi Order is a Sufi order founded by the followers of Mevlana Jalalludin Rumi in 1273 in Konya (present-day Turkey). They are also known as the Whirling Dervishes due to their famous practice of whirling as a form of dhikr (remembrance of Allah). Dervish is a common term for an initiate of the Sufi Path. The Mevlevi sect belongs to the Sunni or orthodox mainstream of Islam. Its doctrine never developed a revolutionary strategy - and although it was occasionally criticized for its heretical ideas, it always enjoyed the respect of the officialdom.

The Mevlevi or "The Whirling Dervishes" believe in performing their dhikr in the form of a "dance" and music ceremony called the sema. The Sema represents a mystical journey of man's spiritual ascent through mind and love to the "Perfect." Turning towards the truth, the follower grows through love, deserts his ego, finds the truth and arrives at the "Perfect." He then returns from this spiritual journey as a man who has reached maturity and a greater perfection, so as to love and to be of service to the whole of creation.

The sema was practiced in the semahane (ritual hall) according to a precisely prescribed symbolic ritual with the dervished whirling in a circle around their shaykh, who is the only one circling around his axis. The dervishes wear a white gown (as a symbol of death), a wide black cloak (hirka) (as a symbol of the grave) and a high brown cap (k├╗lah) (as a symbol of the tombstone). The fundamental condition of our existence is to revolve. There is no object, no being which does not revolve. The shared similarity between all created things is the revolution of the electrons, protons, and neutrons within the atoms that constitute their basic structure. From the smallest cell to the planets and the farthest stars, everything takes part in this revolving. Thus, the Semazens, the ones who whirl, participate consciously in the shared revolution of all existence.

The rituals of the Whirling Dervishes are among the enduring as well as the most exquisite ceremonies of spirituality. The ritual whirling of the dervishes is an act of love and a drama of faith. It possesses a highly structured form within which the gentle turns become increasingly dynamic as the individual dervishes strive to achieve a state of trans. The music that accompanies the whirling from beginning to end ranges from somber to rhapsodical; its effect is intended to be mesmerizing. Chanting of poetry, rhythmic rotation, and incessant music create a synthesis which, according to the faithful, induces a feeling of soaring, of ecstasy, of mystical flight.

The semazens stand with their arms crossed, ready to begin their turn. In their erect posture, they represent the number one, testifying to God's unity. Each rotation takes them past the shaykh, who stands on a red sheep skin. This is the place of the Mevlana Rumi, and the shaykh is understood to be a channel for the divine grace. At the start of each of the four movements of the ceremony, the semazens bow to each other honoring the spirit within. As their arms unfold, the right hand opens to the skies in prayer, ready to receive God's beneficence. The left hand, upon which his gaze rests, is turned towards the earth in the gesture of bestowal.

Fix-footed, the semazen provides a point of contact with this Earth through which the divine blessings can flow. Turning from right to left, he embraces all creation as he chants the name of God within the heart. The Sema ritual consists of seven parts:

(1) It starts with the singing of the eulogy to the Prophet Muhammed (saw), who represents love. Praising him is praising the truth of God that he and all the prophets before him brought.

(2) Then follows the call of the drum and the slap of glory, calling the semazens to awaken and "Be". This begins the procession known as the Sultan-Walad Walk. It is the salutation of one soul to another, acknowledged by bowing.

(3) Then begins the Sema ritual itself. It consists of four salams or salutations. The first salam is the birth of truth by way of knowledge. The second salam expresses the rapture of witnessing the splendor of creation. The third salam is the transformation of rapture into love; the sacrifice of mind and self to love. It represents complete submission and communion with God. The fourth salam is the semazen's coming to terms with his destiny and his return to his task in creation. In the fourth salam, the shaykh enters the circling dervishes, where he assumes the place of the sun in the center of the circling planets.

(4) The Sema ends with a recitation from the Qur'an. The shaykh and dervishes complete their time together with the greeting of peace and then depart, accompanied by joyous music of their departure.

One of the beauties of this seven-centuries-old ritual is the way that it unifies the three fundamental components of man's nature; mind, emotion, and spirit, combining them in a practice and a worship that seeks the purification of all three in the turning towards Divine Unity. But most significantly, the enrichment of this earth and the well-being of humanity as a whole.


castillo said...

I agree with your opinion about the one in the smaller setting (I am assuming we are talking about same performance - the one earlier this year which ran for 2 nights) being more enrapturing and enchanting.

Whilst the performance last night was beautiful and perhaps possibly a snapshot of how it is traditionally done, the feedback I got from some quarters who were uniniated was that the peformance was a little too slow and "draggy".

saedah said...

I can't help myself but feel sad each time I see the dervish dance reduced to a mere performance especially to promote tourism.
Please pardon my ignorance.
Thank you for the elaborate description of the ritual. :-)
Oh. I hope its not too late.

TheHoopoe said...


I was more referring to the session conducted at the University just before Ramadhan. A few of us were there.

That one ... was truly awesome!

For those who were looking for more exciting performances, they can try to hook up with the flamenco dances next theatrette.

TheHoopoe said...


'Eid Mubarak!
Minal a'idin wal faizin wal maqbulin.
Kullu am wa antum bi khair...

humaira said...

i believe... i was one of the uninitiated ones :( I know nothing about the sema, and that word was first heard during the presentation @ NUS Lt13.

Despite my ignorance, i cant help but to FEEL the beauty of the dance. There's humility in each actions.

Syukran Ustaz for sharing this article with us.