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Sufism is essentially a way of life, which involves the discovery of a deeper self, this deeper self is much different from the superficial self that we perceive ourselves to be, this is a self that is in harmony with all things in the universe. The Persian poet Hafiz wrote, ‘I searched for God and found only myself, I searched for myself and found only God’, these lines explain to us the very core of Sufism as it emphasises on spiritual experience rather ritual practice, contemplation over action and the cultivation of soul over social interaction. Sufism is thus, less of a doctrine or code of belief and more an experience and way of life.

Sufism can trace its origins back to the Islamic school of thought. However, it is often perceived to be a sect of the Islamic order (such as the Shia and Sunni). Instead, it is a more spiritual interpretation of the Islamic teachings and surpasses all cultural, linguistic, physical and gender boundaries. Sufism comprises different tariqat (orders), every tariqa consists of a murshid (guide) and muridin (followers), a tariqa, therefore, is essentially a concept for the mystical teachings and practices of Sufism. Some of the tariaqat of Sufism include the Bektashi Order named after Haji Bektash Veli, the Naqshbandi Order named after Baha-ud-din Nashband Bukhari, the Chishti Order named after Khwaja Mawdood Chishti, while Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti is the most famous sheikh of the Order. However, it is the Mevlevi Order that is the most popular of the Sufi tariqat, named after Jelal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi. 


The Mevlevi Order is a traditional Islamic Sufi tariqa, preserving and propagating the spiritual teachings of Jelal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi Rumi, his successors, descendants and followers for over 700 years. The Mevlevi are popularly known as the Whirling Dervishes, primarily because of their practice of whirling or turning as a way of zikr or remembrance of God. The Mevlevi Order was established by Rumi’s son Baha al-Din Muhammad-i Walad, in the year 1273.

The Mevlevi since their inception has held high, the torch of the religion of love, offering refuge to those who seek to develop the highest form of their human-ness and those who seek to attain the truth. Rumi more than anyone else has extended an invitation to the all-encompassing light, to people of all backgrounds. He says in one of his couplets:                                                                                                                           

“Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, idolater, worshipper of fire,
come even though you have broken your vows a thousand times,
Come, and come yet again.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.”

Thus, the Mevlevi has always been a liberal order, surpassing all worldly constraints, they have cultivated not only spiritual experience but also cultural and artistic excellence. They have embraced progressive developments while holding on to the best of the traditions. Rumi’s Sufism talks about the liberal spirit of Islam by emphasising on the essence of love in the relationship between the believer and the beloved. It represents God as the source of supreme love, doing away with all the aspects of fear and punishment that are often represented as the characteristic features of the relationship between the believer and God.


The Sama, performed by the Mevlevi, is an active form of meditation, it is a way of remembrance of God or zikr. The practice involves the muridin whirling in circles around the murshid who is the only one whirling around his axis. Here the muridin are symbolic of the moon that revolves around the Sun, i.e. the murshid. The Sama is the way through which the dervishes aim to reach the source of all perfection, the reality or haqiqat.

The Sama can be divided into four parts. First, is the Naat and Taksim, the Sama ceremony begins with the recitation of a Naat, which mainly involves a solo singer offering praise to the Holy Prophet Muhammad. The first part ends with Taqsim which refers to improvisational music of the ney (reed flute) which is the recalling of the separation of the soul from its divine source. Second is the Devr-i Veled, where the dervishes respectfully bow to each other and take a round of the hall in a single file, the bow is considered to be in the acknowledgement of the existence of the Divine within us all.

Third is the whirling of the Sama itself, this part is referred to as the Four Salaams, where the dervishes, wears a hat which is symbolic of the grave, the cloak symbolic of death and the skirt symbolic of the shroud, whirl on their left foot, with one hand pointing towards the heavens and the other pointing towards the earth. This symbolises the willingness to convey the spiritual message of God to those witnessing the Sama. The experience of whirling brings the dervish into harmony with the ultimate reality as the Four Salaams symbolize the spiritual journey every believer goes through, that is, the recognition of God, the recognition of existence in his unity, an ecstasy of total surrender, and the peace of heart because of union with the Divine. Finally, the Sama ends with a recitation from Quran by the murshid himself.

The origin of Sama can be traced back to an incident in Rumi’s life. Once Rumi was roaming in the marketplace of Konya, Turkey when he heard sounds of rhythmic hammering of a gold-beater, in this hammering Rumi, listened to the zikr of God, these sounds triggered a feeling of love, and he entered a state of ecstasy which made him turn. Rumi continued this practice in spontaneous gatherings involving poetry, music, singing and Sama. This was tradition later developed into a more formalised practised by the successors of Rumi and has even led to the development of a musical tradition around the ceremony. This incident itself is a testament to the omnipresence of the Divine, and to the simplicity of the Sufi experience, where a simple beating sound can lead you to the ultimate reality and a state of ecstasy. 


The Mevlevi Order despite being in existence for more than seven centuries and having a huge influence over culture and tradition has faced a few challenges in the recent past. The Mevlevi were banned by the new Turkish Republic 1925; their religious association was used as a justification to ban the order after the founding of a secular republic. This was an attempt taken by the new Turkish government to align Turkey with the secular world of Europe and is a classic case of the East trying to merge itself with the Western culture, ignoring its rich heritage, in the race of becoming a ‘modern state’.

It is believed, however, that the Sama was still practised as the dervishes went underground and continued their romance with the Divine. The restrictions on the Mevlevi were partially eased off in the 1950s as they were permitted to perform Sama in public. However, it is often pointed out that this was a move to boost the tourism sector of Turkey, instead of the protection of the rights of the Mevlevi. The Mevlevi and the Sama have since then, continued to have a significant influence over spirituality, culture and music all over the world. ‘The Mevlevi Sama Ceremony’ has also been included by UNESCO amongst the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The Whirling Dervishes festival is celebrated every year in Turkey which attracts a large crowd of people from diverse backgrounds.

The poetry of Rumi has had an enormous influence over Western society and has become an intrinsic part of pop culture, particularly in the past few years. The interpretations of Rumi’s work and ideas in the West today are, however, contradictory to what he stood for. This misappropriation of Sufi poetry emanates from the unfamiliarity of the indications that the poets used. For example, symbols used in Sufi poetry are often understood literally instead of understanding the meaning they are used to convey. For example the intoxication of wine which represents losing one's sense of rational self in the sea of Divine Love, the tavern which is representative of the overwhelming experience of being surrounded by Divine Presence, and Layla is an Arabic word which literally translates to ‘darkest night of the month’ and is used in Sufi poetry for symbolizing the hidden realm that lies beyond the materialistic world. These metaphors are often understood in there the literal sense in western translations of Sufi works and thus become contradictory to the original message.

The adaptations of Sufi music in South Asian cinema is also an area that has undermined the essence of the mystic and spiritual roots of the tradition by transforming the nature of Sufi music from devotional to that of a commodity, Sufi verses are often fused with contemporary lyrics and produced as popular dance numbers, these songs completely ignore what the lyrics stand for and lead to the development of a new tradition that undermines the spiritual and metaphysical essence of the culture. Thus, a better understanding of the love and devotion that the tradition teaches is essential for the sustenance of the true image of the Whirling Dervishes in the minds and hearts of the people. The sustenance of this tradition is important today, also because it represents the teachings of love, affection and inclusiveness in Islam, which are being overshadowed more and more by the spread of Islamophobia in the West. In Rumi’s own words, ‘All loves are a bridge to Divine love. Yet, those who have not had a taste of it do not know.’


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Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/nov/05/featuresreviews.guardianreview26

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Written By Mohammad Omar

20, wise and otherwise.

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