Male and Female Whirling Dervishes of Rumi

Male and female Whirling Dervishes, belonging to Rumi's Mevlevi Sufi Order, performing the Sufi Sema Dance in Istanbul, Turkey

درويشان چرخنده مولانا -زنان و مردان چرخنده- ورقص صوفيانه سماع طريقه مولويه در استانبول - تركيه

If you're interested to know more about the female participation in the traditionally male dominated Sufi circles, particularly the Mevlevi Sufi Order's breaking the centuries old Islamic taboos by allowing female whirlers to also dance alongside male dancers, I highly recommend reading the following first hand accounts of the hugely talented and dedicated Sufi sister, the Canadian-born female Sufi whirler and artistic dancer, Mira Hunter who practices Sufism and belongs to Rumi's Mevlevi Sufi Order.

A Short History of Whirling
courtesy of Mira Hunter Official Website

Whirling has existed in many forms, in numerous religions and cultures for centuries. An original form of whirling in Turkey was thought to have been practiced by nomadic tribes as a healing ceremony. The Mevlevi Order, devoted to the study of the poet and scholar Mevlana Celaladin Rumi, is a Sufi Order or mystic sect of Islam that was inaugurated at his death in 1273. The recitation of the Koran, the playing of live music, and whirling are brought together in the traditional Mevlevi ceremony of Sema.

Ironically, my introduction to the teachings of Rumi and whirling as a non-Muslim student in the west, may be due to Turkey’s secular revolution, westernization, and subsequent persecution and outlawing of Sufism. In 1923, after the overthrow of the Ottoman Empire, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk instituted many measures to modernize Turkey into a democratic republic. Some of these measures included the adoption of western clothing, a new alphabet, and the abolition of the Islamic law courts. The fear of opposition and rebellion to these radical reforms, led Atatürk to install Law 677 and the ‘maintenance of order’ law. Law 677 closed all dervish tekkes (communal lodges), tombs, and schools and forbade the practice of any Sufi orders (Friedlander, 1992). The notion that old traditions, customs, and practices were based on privilege and must be excised, to allow for a just society to emerge was adopted to excuse the new prohibitions in the guise of modernization (Çagatay, 2006).

There was no public turning. Tekkes and tombs were turned into social institutions such as museums or soup kitchens. Finally a group of Sheikhs in negotiation with the mayor of Konya (the city where Mevlana is buried) devised a way to publicly whirl in accordance with the new laws, not as the religious act of Sema, but as a cultural celebration of the great Turkish poet. On his Urs in December of 1953, the first authorized whirling since 1925 took place in a cinema with only three musicians. The two participating Sheikhs wore street clothes. Subsequent years saw the gradual expansion of the ceremony, as it first moved into a library, and finally a large gymnasium. Intense scrutiny from the police was always present. If any of the Semazens were discovered by the authorities to be praying, they risked being punished with lengthy prison sentences. The ongoing tourist ‘Semas’ were once again beginning to generate attention from the international community, but they left much to be desired for the dervishes. With religious freedoms still stifled, leaders of Sufism such as Mevlevi Sheikh Suleyman Dede Loras looked to the west.

UNESCO brought the Mevlevis to Paris in 1964 for the first time (Friedlander, 1992). British author, Reshad Feild, met Suleyman Dede on a trip to Konya, and felt immediately compelled by his contemporary and compassionate ideas. Feild initiated further international trips in the 1970’s, bringing Dede to North America. Small Sufi communities began to flourish in the West. Suleyman Dede appointed leaders, and encouraged the practices of whirling, Zikr and Sohbet. Reshad Feild, who was appointed as a Sheikh of the Mevlevi Order by Dede, travelled constantly between England, California, Boulder and Vancouver, assisting the new groups in organizing teaching structures for whirling. Reshad had little specific knowledge of the Mevlevi ritual; he had only memories of the performances in Konya he had witnessed as a bystander to rely on. It was inner intention and esoteric knowledge that was important to Suleyman Dede, not outward forms or details. He did not have in depth knowledge of the mechanics of teaching the turn, as that is not always the responsibility of a Sheikh.

Suleyman Dede encouraged the new communities to study whirling from the perspective of this inner intention versus adhering strictly to tradition, a progressive concept the new initiates wouldn’t recognize as rare until years later. After being briefly shown the structure of Sema by Suleyman Dede, the Vancouver group was challenged to practice and perform the formal ceremony before his return to Turkey three weeks later. As fate would have it, an individual within the local Sufi community had a connection to the Western Front Society, one of Canada’s first artist-run-centres. So in the fall of 1976, the group’s first public performance of Sema in Vancouver took place at the art collective’s headquarters.

Creativity and careful study of available photographs and films made for a close re-creation of a traditional Mevlevi ceremony, but despite the group’s ambition to comply with even the minor details of the ritual, a few small differences and unintentional innovations transpired. Though the tall hats were fashioned from felt and cardboard instead of the customary goat hair, and the grand tennures were reduced to waist-high skirts, rather than full-length dresses, the footwork and technique of the turn were virtually traditional. The dervish always pivoted on the left foot, pushing with the right foot in a smooth counter-clockwise rotation. In the classical whirling posture, both arms are raised, with the right palm facing up, while the left palm faces towards the ground. Divine energy is believed to cycle through the right palm, heart, and exiting out the left palm into the physical universe. Dede encouraged women and men to turn together, which in the Turkish Mevlevi Order continues to be forbidden.

In my own personal experience of Sufism and whirling in Vancouver, female dervishes have always outnumbered men. All Mevlevi orders in North America allow women and men to study whirling and worship together. It was only when I first travelled to Turkey, that I became fully aware of the extent of the gender based separation within the Turkish Mevlevi order. Though there are a small number of teachers that do accept female students, none operate with the endorsement of Farouk Hemdem Celebi, the official head of the Mevlevis. These superficial separations seem to challenge what is widely recognized as the tenets of Sufism, which espouse universal evolution through self-improvement, the annihilation of the ego, acceptance and openness (Shariff, 1961). The use of a female whirling dervish as a subject could have been considered contentious by the current Celebi’s official perspective, but not from a scholarly, historical or intuitive position. It also symbolizes a departure from what I believe to be an exclusive tradition within a beautifully inclusive philosophy.

Mira has whirled in Turkey on publicized tours with a well-known Turkish electronica composer, producer and musician (DJ) Mercan Dede aka Arkin Allen since 2002. While the current Turkish Ministry of Culture greatly promotes innovations such as the amalgams of contemporary and traditional culture as seen in the music of Arkin Allen and whirling performances of Mira, some issues still remain somewhat contentious. She is listed on publications as simply a ‘dancer’ and never specifically a ‘whirling dervish’. This sidesteps any possible religious censure or protests and subtle issues with government cultural funding support. In North America we observe a Mevlevi practice that encourages gender equality. While it is through teachers and leaders appointed by Turkish Mevlevi lineage, there remains a complex set of cultural traditions in Turkey that don’t allow for a complete acceptance of female whirling dervishes. This project is not meant to overtly challenge a society we don’t live in it is simply to present whirling as we know it. The current Celebi, does not openly endorse women whirling but perhaps much will change as his older sister Esin Celebi is active in visiting North America, even lecturing and participating in the Mevlevi orders.  From the perspective of feminist Jill Morawski, the act of presenting a female dervish is not necessarily a sign of frustration or protest but a subtly subversive position focusing on a future transformation.

In Sema all participants are considered integral aspects of the ceremony. The musicians are not seen as separate from the whirling; everyone wears the same tall goat-felt hat that reflects their common spiritual identity. The Sheikh acts as the spiritual head of the ritual, representing the physical embodiment of Rumi.  The Semazens all wear the same symbolic dress made of simple cloth weighted with felt. All the clothes represent aspects of death, humility, and transcendence. The tall felt hat or sikke represents the tombstone or the death of ego. The long, weighted dress or tennure represents the Islamic burial shroud or our inner consciousness.  The dark cloak or hirka, worn at the beginning and close of the ceremony, personifies the tomb itself or our outer consciousness. Under the cloak is a white jacket, called a dasta gul, which poetically translates as a bouquet of roses. The left lapel is loose, while the right is secured to a wide black belt, also known as the alif-lamed. Alif is the first letter in the Arabic alphabet. Most dervishes wear thin, ankle-high leather mosque slippers called mest. Each action in the ritual focuses on striving to attain a perfect form through humility. Everything is kissed, from the different articles of clothing as the dervish puts them on and even the floor. These devotional actions and symbolic items assist in preparing the dervish for liminal states of consciousness.  They are acts of humility and opening

Though Mevlevis are described as Ecstatic Sufis, it is not intended as a reference to becoming lost in an uncontrolled euphoric state, but instead that through focused physical meditation a Semazen can actually become ecstasy. The state of ecstasy has long been regarded as a transformational state connected to mystical enlightenment. The ethnographic concept of liminality appropriately helps to focus in on many aspects of Whirling. It is witnessed not only in the states achieved in the physical ritual worship but also many of the symbolic and theoretical aspects. The liminal is an ambiguous realm where the ritual subject is between known attributes of the past or coming states.Liminal or limen signifies a threshold in Latin, in architectural terms the thin strip within the doorframe, not quite inside or outside . The word dervish is often attributed to the Persian word darwish, which literally translates as the sill of a door (Friedlander, 1992). The ceremony of Sema also has a liminal instant, the Darbi Jelal. After the ceremonial entrance of all the participants, prayers are sung to the Prophet. Then following a musical interlude, the Sheikh and dervishes slap the floor with their hands. This moment is meant to shock the inner consciousness awake to begin first walking, then whirling on the bridge Sirat. This is the bridge mentioned in the Koran that must be crossed from this world to reach Paradise on the day of the Last Judgment. This bridge is as thin as a strand of vermicelli, and as sharp as a sabre tooth tiger tooth. Like the big bang and light becoming, they enter into the liminal. “If they didn't turn inwardly all the time, they couldn't turn outwardly. They couldn't even do it twice; they would be very dizzy. God helps them to turn that way, as a whirling dervish.”-Sheikh Suleyman Dede Loras. It is in this state of unknown or relaxed boundaries, where the use of creativity or new perspectives has the greatest possibility of generating expansive transformation.

At the end of the first three salams the dancers huddle together at the borders of the space, leaning on each other before returning to whirl. Finally, the post-liminal phase of the ceremony is the reintroduction of the subject to a stable state (Turner 2004). This is the point when the whirling dervishes stop turning abruptly at the end of the final Selam. Their tennures wrap up around their legs in a tight spiral. Then seated, they listen to the final Koranic recitation. Placing their black Hirka cloaks on their shoulders, they return changed to a former reality.

While these are predetermined rituals and mainly symbolic references, it is here that the practice of whirling starts. This form of whirling does not begin with uninhibited abandon or free form spinning, but with years of careful practice and meticulously controlled body positions. From this level of technical proficiency and restraint one is able to, as the Celebi has said, become ecstatic.

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