To Whirl or Not to Whirl: The Dervish Debate

A door was could we not watch?July 13, 2009, Ankara, Turkey


I’ve wanted to see the Whirling Dervishes for more than a decade, after a missed opportunity during my last visit to Turkey more than 10 years ago. Although I admit that I wasn’t thinking of the Dervishes as a form of religious expression, but more of a performance representing one of the more unique customs of the Turks.

On my first morning in Ankara (and already scheduled to see the Whirling Dervishes later that same night), on the front page of one of Turkey’s English-language newspapers, was an article “Whirling Dervishes Under Risk of Commercial Erosion.” Oops. That be me.

But before we get into the debate over whether or not the dervishes should whirl for tourists, let’s chat for a moment about the significance of the ceremony.

Practiced by Sufi Muslims of the Mevlevi Order, the Semâ ceremony, popularly known as “whirling,” is seen as a method of attaining religious ecstasy.  At the core of the ceremony is the idea of “revolution as the fundamental condition of our existence.”

The Semâzen, or Whirling Dervish, revolves in a mystical quest to ascent through love, by deserting his ego and finding truth. Only then will he attain “perfection.” 

The Semâ ceremony comprises 7 parts of a mystic cycle toward perfection:

1. A chanting of the eulogy “Nat-i ?erif” to the Prophe

2. Drumming to symbolize the Divine order of the Creator

3. A musical improvisation and the cry of “ney”
to symbolize the first breath which gives life to everything (The Divine Breath)

4. Greeting among dervishes as they circle walk 3 times to symbolize the salutation of the soul.
This circle walk is called Devri Veledi and is accompanied by music

5. Semâ (whirling) consists of 4 salutes, followed by the dervish testifying to God’s unity:
    Salute 1: Man’s birth to truth
    Salute 2: Rapture of man witnessing the splendor of creation.
    Salute 3: Dissolution of rapture into love, symbolizing a complete submission
                   of the self in the loved One.
    Salute 4: Termination of the spiritual journey and return to state of subservience.

6. Reading of the Quaran: “Onto God belong the East and the West, and wherever you turn, there is GOD’s countenance. He is All-Embracing. All-Knowing.”

7. Prayer for the peace of souls of all Prophets and believers. After the Semâ ritual, the dervishes return alone to their rooms to silently meditate.

For more information on the Semâ ceremony and the caravansarais where it was held, check out these amazing images and video.  

Read Part 2 of this article – on the Dervish Debate!

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 29th, 2009 and is filed under Europe.

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