To Whirl or Not to Whirl: The Dervish Debate, Part 2

A solemn, sacred ceremony, the Semâ

A solemn, sacred ceremony, the Semâ

July 13, 2009, Ankara, Turkey    

Part 2 of a two-part series. (Read Part 1)

Now that we have some understanding the symbolism of the Semâ, we can discuss whether or not we’re objectifying the ritual for crass commercialism.

The Semâ dates from the 13th century and is an inspiration of Mevlânâ Celâleddin-i Rumî, a Muslim philosopher, poet, Islamic jurist, theologian and mystic. Whirling is a dance used by followers of the Mevlevi Order to try and attain religious enlightenment. 

A 3-page Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism memo sets out conditions of performance by whirling dervishes, explicitly outlining the time and place for these demonstrations, and before “audiences who are interested and come to watch the ceremony willingly.” The memo further states that “all performers should possess the required technical skill and knowledge of the spiritual aspects of the culture.” Some think the Semâ ceremony is being performed at inappropriate locations which are hurting the dervish culture by diminishing it to the level of a traditional folklore dance. The newspaper article cited several examples of dervish impersonators who are paid 50-100 Turkish lira to whirl at hotels and festivals.

The article even cited a whirling taking place on the same stage as a Brazilian samba – which, as we all know, is sort of the antithesis of religious solemnity. Our viewing of the Semâ ritual was extremely respectful. Performed at night at a historical caravanserai built in 1249, we were warned beforehand that no pictures, clapping or talking was allowed. The 1-hour ceremony was extremely beautiful and full of religious reverence. As an audience member, you knew you were observing a serious and symbolic ritual.

Here’s my stance: While I understand the concerns of reducing whirling to a mere tourist attraction, I’m extremely thankful that I got the privilege to observe the Semâ ceremony. Not only did I go “willingly,” but with much anticipation of learning more about how and why this sect of Sufi Islam performed the whirling ritual. I think it is imperative that we share our religious ceremonies with one another if we are learn and appreciate?and truly respect?different (foreign) customs and religious traditions. We did pay 50 Turkish lira (about US$35) each to view the performance. I assumed (maybe naively) that this money was given to the Mevlevi Order. I guess I saw my participation as an audience member as no different than attending a Catholic service on Easter Sunday and giving a donation to the church. Although I guess that’s the rub. No one charges you entry to attend a Catholic mass, and a donation is requested, but not mandated.  Hmmmm. I still feel lucky to have witnessed such a sacred Sufi Muslim ceremony.

What do y’all think?  Did I participate in the commercialization of the Semâ and play a part in degrading this centuries-old religious ritual?

This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Read Part 1.

This entry was posted on Friday, July 31st, 2009 and is filed under Europe.

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