The Whirling Dervishes of Turkey

Dervish Ceremony

For over 750 years the Mevlevi dervisihes have spun in their religious ritual, called the sema, in a whirling celebration of love and unity with God and the universe. The Mevlevi is just one branch of the very large practice of Sufism within Islam. While Sufism is often interpreted by Westerners as being Islamic “mysticism,” and the whirling ritual a form of trance-like meditation, these concepts are not quite correct.

In reality, the sema is an expressive embracing of the world and all its living things as created by God/Allah. Its movements and salutations (selams) to God symbolizes the spiritual journey of each semazen, or participant, in growth through love, shedding of ego, and finding perfection. Above all, every aspect of the sema is a testament to God’s unity with and beneficence for the world, with each gesture, hand position, step, and revolution having a specific meaning. Above all other meanings, however, the soul of the sema, of Sufism, is to love, and to find love and harmony with God and the universe.

The fact that the sema is a religious ritual is the reason why I have no pictures of the ceremony that Michael and I saw in Istanbul. Cameras were strictly forbidden, as was applause. The dervishes are not “performing” for praise – they are the ones praising, through the sema. For all my own personal distrust of organized religion, I believe everyone should respect the guidelines of behavior in others’ religious ceremonies and houses of worship. But, I digress. The point is, I took no pictures, but relied on what photos I could find on line that best depicted what we saw. Also, at the end of this blog is a link to two videos which show just slices of the 45-50 minute ceremony. It’s well worth taking the 3+ minutes to watch it.

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The Fundamentals of the Mevlevi

The beliefs of the Mevlevi Order are based on the poetry and writings of Mevlâna Jalâddîn Rumi. Although Rumi was born in what is now Afghanistan, he spent almost all his adult life in central Turkey, and Turkish customs and culture, along with the Quran, greatly influenced his work.

The dervishes’ spinning both emulates and becomes a form of worship through recognition that all things in the universe revolve: bodies are made of whirling atoms, the earth spins on its axis, and joins the other planets in their revolutions around the sun and through the universe. By whirling, the dervish strives to bring together mind, body and soul with the universe. Thus, the various salutations or movements represent man’s spiritual journey – through love and service – to perfection.

The clothing of the dervishes is highly symbolic. The conical hats they wear represents a tombstone of the ego, and the outer, dark cloak, the ego’s shroud, both of which must be shed before one can be reborn and seek truth and perfection.

At the beginning and between the movements, the dervishes stand with their arms crossed over their chests as a symbol of God’s unity. As they begin to spin – always in a counterclockwise rotation, their arms open up, with the right hand reaching in praise to God, and the left curved down to convey God’s love and beneficence.  Their heads are tilted to the right, toward God, but their eyes are not shut, but focused on the left hand. By spinning counterclockwise, they are rotating around the heart, conveying the spiritual gift of love.

The celebrants’ whirling is accompanied by low key music of traditional Turkish instruments: a reed flute, 1-2 stringed instruments, and a soft drum. Other than the instruments, there are no other sounds, just the visual, mesmerizing flow of the long white skirts as the dervishes spin off their left feet while simultaneously revolving in an elliptical circle.

The dervishes whirl then pause and stand still for several moments, signaling the four different phases of the salutations, or selams. Before starting each selam, each dervish will bow, arms crossed over his chest, to each other and a stationary figure, who represents Rumi, usually dressed in red. The four selams represent birth and acceptance of each person’s condition as a creature of God; the splendor of creation; the dissolution of ego and self into love of all things in the universe and submission to God, and, thus, the reaching of the highest spiritual plane; and, fourth, the re-descent to earth to act as God’s servant, but always with love and service and humility to all.

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I found the concepts of the whirling ceremony very reminiscent of Eastern religions in many respects. In fact, several of the texts I consulted in trying to understand the Mevlevi called the third selam (movement) akin to reaching nirvana in Buddhism, but without the medium of meditation. Regardless, the entire ceremony was entrancing, but also emitted a peaceful feeling. I’ve certainly never heard a quieter audience exiting the building.

So, in lieu of pictures, I leave you with links to two videos.  I’m pretty sure they were both illicitly filmed and by amateurs in the audience. But they show different aspects of the ceremony. The first shows how the dervishes enter, arms crossed, honor each other with bows, and begin the whirling. The second is a bit more polished, and has great closeups of how they move their feet. It also shows the dervish symbolizing Rumi, in red, joining the others in the last movement. Both videos provide mere glimpses of the entire, 45-50 minute plus ceremony, but I’m sure you’ll find the dervishes fascinating. We did.

For an interesting article on the whirling dervishes, go to: