Whirling Dervishes: History, Dances, Konya, Hats

Home | Category: Sufis / Muslim Culture and Science


20120510-Dervish Amedeo_Preziosi_-_Turks.jpg
Dervish by Amedeo Preziosi
The Whirling Dervishes are one of the great Muslim mystical sects. Founded by the a spiritual poet by the name of Mevlâna Celaleddin Rumi, the sect was based on the of idea of relinquishing one's earthly ties to reach a state of tranquility, love and harmony. To reach this state Dervishes donned white skirts and tall red fezes and twirled around to the sound of ethereal reed flutes with their heads cocked to one side, and one hand raised and the other lowered, symbolizing the link between earth and heaven.

The Whirling Dervishes belong to a Sufi mystical sect. The order was created in 1273 after the death of Rumi by his son in Konya, which was a center of learning and art in the 13th century under the Seljuk Turk sultans. Also known as Mevlevis, they believe that death is meant to be celebrated because a union forms with god. The sect often blends local practices into worship, is open to members of all religions but is based on the principals of Islam. Many were wandering mendicants.

Traditionally, dervishes have been only men. In the early 2000s, some groups began allowing women to join. The sect has also been the subject of a sex scandal. In the 1990s, a leader of a dervish sect was arrested and charged with having one-night “marriages” with young followers. Ataturk ordered the Sufi lodges closed in Turkey in 1925 after the dervishes were deemed too powerful.

Describing a whirling dervish Sufi sect in Istanbul, Thomas Abercrombie wrote in National Geographic, "The service began with a kind of deep breathing exercise, and congregation repeating, 'Alll-ahhhh, Alll-ahhhh, Alll-ahhhh. Then, to the rhythm of a slow drum, a young dervish in a conical hat and skirted robe began to spin counterclockwise. Edip pulled me into the congregation forming a concentric circles around the dance, shoulder to shoulder, chanting the sonorous Muslim creed, "La ilaha illa llah!" slowly at first, then faster and louder: 'There is no god but Allah.' We circled the spinning dervishes, in the opposite direction.Faster and faster we circled, at one with the atoms and the planets, cosmic sleepwalkers belying time and space, lost in the whirling and the rhythm of the chant: 'La ilaha-illa llah, La ilaha-illa llah.'...Only afterwards dir I realize we had spun for nearly an hour. Where did the time go?"”

Websites on Sufis Divisions in Islam archive.org ; Sufism in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World williamcchittick.com ; Sufism, Sufis, and Sufi Orders – Sufism's Many Paths islam.uga.edu/Sufism ; The Threshold Society sufism.org ; Mysticism in Arabic and Islamic Philosophy, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu ; Risala Roohi Sharif, translations (English and Urdu) of "The Book of Soul", by Hazrat Sultan Bahu, a 17th century Sufi risala-roohi.tripod.com ;Sufism - an Inquiry sufismjournal.org

Rumi and the Whirling Dervishes

Jalaluddin Rumi, widely known simply as Rumi, is perhaps the greatest Persian poet. He was a great influence on Muslim writing and culture and, in recent decades, his poetry has enjoyed something of a renaissance and is well known throughout the world today. Known for its imagery and passion, his poetry transcends cultures, religions and languages and has brought Sufism to the masses. He is one of the best selling poets in America. Readings of his works have been performed by well-known artists, with the health writer Deepak Chopra being one of his biggest promoters. The year 2007 was designated the UNESCO Year of Rumi. [Source: BBC, September 1, 2009 |::|]

20120510-Dervishes_Avanos.JPGRumi was known as a “drunken Sufi” because he found ecstasy in dancing, poetry and music. According to the BBC: “It is believed that Rumi would turn round and round while reciting his poetry, and it is this dance which formed the basis for the Mevlevi Order, or Whirling Dervishes, after his death. Dervish means doorway, and the dance is believed to be a mystical portal between the earthly and cosmic worlds.”

Sheikh Mehmet Fatih Citlak is whirling dervish. AFP reported: Under a headdress lined with 20 metres of braided green ribbons, he presides over more spiritual "semas" at the Irfan Study and Research Centre in Konya, where prayers are interspersed with music and songs. "We don't just twirl around all day," laughed the sheikh, who was recently invited to perform at Oxford University by its art history department. "But as long as we stick to our discipline, we don't mind the public," he added, saying that "between art and love, Mevlana offered us a third way. Everyone interprets him in their own way," he said. “But if he were better understood, would the world be in the state it is in today?" [Source: Anne Chaon, AFP, December 19, 2023]

Whirling Dervish Festival

The Whirling Dervish Festival in Konya, also known as the Festival of the Mevlâna, is held in Mid December. Dervishes whirl around to hypnotic music with one hand pointing to the earth and another raised to God. The whirling puts them in a hypnotic trance which helps them attain a higher state of consciousness Tickets for the performances, which are held in a theater, are sometimes difficult to get. A few special exhibits and displays are also held, but, for the most part the festival consists only of the performances.

Reporting from Konya during the 750th anniversary of Rumi’s death, Anne Chaon of AFP wrote: Every year, the "Seb-i Arus" ("Wedding Night") festival honouring Rumi's death on December 17, 1273, draws so many people that traditional venues are not large enough to contain the crowds. Pilgrims, tourists, meditation enthusiasts and the curious flock to this vast Anatolian city, where Rumi spent most of his life. The "sema" rituals — which honour Rumi's legacy — are performed by whirling dervishes who don a tall light brown hat, with their arms elegantly spread. [Source: Anne Chaon, AFP, December 19, 2023]

To the sounds of reed flutes and tambourines, the dervish takes off his long black cloak to dance, but keeps his cylindrical felt hat on. The "sikke" represents the tombstone which will one day stand at the head of his grave. Then the dance begins. Extending his right hand toward the sky and his left towards the ground, the whirling dervish forms a link between the two.

Such a major anniversary of his death was "an opportunity to make him even better known," said Celebi Bayru, a 22nd generation descendant of the Sufi poet. She and her brother co-chair the Mevlana International Foundation, created in 1996 in Konya to perpetuate Rumi's legacy.

Dance of the Whirling Dervishes

Whirling Dervish with their musicians

A whirling dervish ritual begins with prayers and meditation in which each dervish, one after the other, receives a blessing from a superior. Then flutes play an introductory melody which symbolizes man's desire for mystic union, and the dance begins. Each dance consists of three stages: the first is the knowledge of God; the second is the seeing of God; and the third is the union with God."

The conical hats the dervishes wear represents a tombstone, the dervish's jacket symbolizes the grave, and the dervish's skirt, a funeral shroud. As the dervishes dance they remove their jackets to show they are shedding earthly ties, and escaping from their graves. As they whirl, the dervishes raise their right hands in prayer and extend their left hands toward the floor. The meaning of these gestures is "what we receive from God, we give to man; we ourselves possess nothing." Their whirling symbolizes the rotation of the universe in the presence of God."

Mevlevi is a form classical Turkish music associated with the Sufi Mevlevi sect (the whirling dervishes). It uses the same modal systems and instruments featured in Ottoman classical music five centuries ago. The mystical melodies are played with the ney , a Turkish flute made from calamus reed or hardwood with six holes on the front and one on the back. Most of the compositions were written by Kocek Dervis and Mustafa Dede from the 17th century, Dede Efendi from the 18th century and Rauf Yekta from the 19th century.

The dervishes sometimes whirl around for six or seven hours at a time. The whirling inflates their white skirts and puts them into a hypnotic trance which they say brings them closer to God. They whirl by crossing their legs and spinning, crossing their legs and spinning, over and over, and they claim they don't get dizzy. Careful footwork and deep concentration it is said keep them from getting dizzy.

The fast, ecstatic dancing of Sufi mystics, scientists have said, causes hyperarousal and generates a feeling that one is channeling the energy of the universe. According to a Newsweek article on mysticism: “these rites manage to tap into a precise brain mechanisms that tends to make believers interpret perceptions and feelings as evidence of God, or at least transcendence. Rituals also tend to focus on the mind, blocking out sensory perceptions — including those that the orientation area uses to figure out the boundaries of the self."

Description of Whirling Dervishes From 1613

early depiction of Whirling-Dervish-like dancers

Describing a group of Mevlana in 1613, the English traveler Thomas Coryate wrote, “I entered a pretty fair room, to which I passed through an outward court, which room before me was almost full of Turks that came thither to serve God...A little after I came into the room the Dervishes repaired into the middle void space...Their habits differing much from the other Turks... first the covering of their Head was of a differing sort from the other, for they wear certain gray Felts made in a form not unlike the blocks of Hats that we use in England."

“A certain singing man sitting apart in the upper room began to sing certain hymns, but with the most unpleasant and harsh notes that I ever heard, for the yelling and disorderly squeaking of them did even grate mine ears. Whenever he pronounced the Name of Mahomet all of them did cast down their heads to their knees” and “fell prostrate upon their faces and kissed the ground."

“Almost a quarter of an hour before he had done, three pipers sitting in the room with the singer began to play certain long pipes not unlike tabors, which yielded very ridiculous and foolish music...Having played for near a quarter of an hour...they sounded much louder than ordinary, whereupon some five and twenty of the two and fifty dervishes suddenly rose up barelegged and bare-footed, and casting aside their upper garment, some of them having their breast all uncovered, they began by little and little to turn about...Afterwards they redoubled their force and turned with such incredible swiftness, that I could not choose but admire it."

“This turning they kept for the space of one whole hour at least, during which time, sometimes they turned exceedingly swiftly, sometimes very gently. After they had half done, the singer in the upper room began to sing again, at the pronunciation of some of whose words," the dervishes mumbled out certain strange terms, with a most hideous kind of murmuring that did in a manner terrify and astonish us...The forms of their dancing is as strange as the continence of their swiftness, for sometimes they stretch out their arms as far as they can in length, sometimes they contract them in a lesser compass, sometimes they hold them about their heads, sometimes again they perform certain merry gestures, as if they were drawing a bow and shooting an arrow...The violence of their turning it so great, that I have heard some of them have fallen down dead in the place."

Whirling Dervishes’s 'Tombstone' Hats Remind Them of Their Death

Whirling dervishes wear distinctive tall light brown hats. According to AFP: In Konya, one of the last workshops makes these special "sikke" hats to order. Yunus Girgic refuses to sell sikkes to tourists because they are exclusively reserved for real dervish dancers. And he makes sure they do not reach amateurs' hands, quizzing potential clients about their motives for wanting the distinctive hat. "I ask a few basic questions and immediately see who I am dealing with," Girgic told AFP. [Source: AFP, December 19, 2023]

At the start of the "sema" dance ritual, dervishes take off their long black coats but retain the sikke, which signifies the tombstone — the end of life on Earth when the dancer meets God. The manufacturing secrets of these deeply symbolic felt hats — each one 26 to 27 centimetres (about 10 inches) tall — have been passed down for four generations to Girgic. Each one is produced from a kilo (half a pound) of goat or sheep wool, which is patiently stretched, dipped several times in soapy water and then rolled flat, like pie crust. This centuries-old felting technique allows the fibres to be tightened and strengthened, said Girgic, who works with two apprentices.

Mevlana Mausoleum in Konya, the home of Rumi's tomb

The resulting square of wool — now reduced to 350 grams — is moulded onto wooden shapes whose size is adjusted to the customer's head size, and left to dry for up to two days. The material, relatively heavy and itchy on the forehead, is a "reminder of the discomforts of life on Earth", Girgic said. His workshop produces "80 percent of the sikkes in the world", the artisan added.

Musician Ashmi Benmehidi comes to collect his first sikke and tries it on with pride. He left an insurance job in Montpellier in the south of France to practice the art of playing the "ney" — a reed flute which accompanies the sema ritual. "I have just been invited to play in a dedicated group," he said, adjusting his headdress. "I'm very moved," he added. Girgic's workshop produces 30 to 80 sikkes a year. Each one sells for 2,000 liras (almost $70) and is designed to last around 45 years.

Konya, the Home of Rumi and the Whirling Dervishes

Konya, a sprawling city in Turkey's central Anatolian plain, is the home of the whirling dervishes and where Rumi spent most of his life and died 750 years ago. One of the world’s oldest cities and inhabited by over 2 million people today, Konya was the capital of the Seljuk dynasty, which reached its peak under the leadership of Sultan Alaeddin Keykubat in the 13th century. It is also known as the home of some of the best carpet markers and carpet making traditions in Turkey. Textiles have made here since the 11th century.

Mevlâna Rumi and many of the other great Dervish leaders are buried inside the Mevlâna Tekke, an extraordinary mosque and museum crowned with a glistening turquoise tower. The unusual tombs inside look like big mounds of carpets with massive refrigerator-size turbans on top of them. The larger the turban on the tomb, the more important the dervish was. The museum contains an interesting collection of musical instruments, clothing, and minutely detailed miniature Korans. In addition, the Mevlâna Tekke complex includes old religious buildings and a seminary where the Dervishes once studied. It also worth exploring the conservative neighborhoods around mosque.

Monuments that date back to the Seljuk Turks include the unpretentious 13th century Aladdin Mosque which is perched on hill in the center of town. Some of the world’s oldest carpets, for the 13th and 14th centuries, were found in the mosque in 1905. Among the ruins around the mosque are Byzantine brick walls and Roman columns. Across the street is the Kataray Medrese, a mosque raised in the 13th century that now houses a tile collection. There is also an Archeological Museum with some Greek artifacts. Konya itself is a congested medium size city in one of Turkey's most conservative regions.

AFP reported: Everywhere in Konya, souvenirs bearing the image of Rumi and dervishes fill stalls. Ironically, the most famous master of Sufism — who taught tolerance with the words "come, come, whoever you are, wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving" — is honoured in a city with one of Turkey's most staunchly conservative Sunni traditions.In front of his immense green and gold tomb, a grumpy Sunni pilgrim curses as Rumi's followers sit on the ground, eyes closed, fingers pointing to the sky. "This is not a place for meditation, it's for prayer," the Sunni pilgrim complained. [Source: Anne Chaon, AFP, December 19, 2023]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, Encyclopedia.com, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.