The Mevlevi (followers of Mevlâna Jelaleddin Rumî), or Whirling Dervishes, are alive and well in Turkey. (Want to see them?)
Their spellbinding worship service, the Mevlevi sema, has dervishes in long white dresses whirling ecstatically for a quarter hour at a time to the drone of ancient Islamic hymns.
The sema (seh-MAH) is derived from Rumî‘s habit of occasionally whirling in ecstatic joy in the streets of Konya, capital of the Seljuk Turkish Sultanate of Rum, and his home for the greater part of his life. It is perhaps the most familiar aspect of Sufism (Islamic mysticism).
After the death of Rumî in 1273, the Mevlevi (mehv-leh-VEE) order spread throughout the Seljuk and Ottoman empires.
Though all dervish orders were closed shortly after the foundation of the Turkish Republic, the Mevlevi were soon allowed to reform as a “cultural organization,” perhaps because they were not overtly political and reactionary as were some other orders.
The Mevlevi have always been ecumenical in outlook, welcoming non-Muslims to the sema in the belief that all people are equal in the sight of God. (Seljuk society was an equally ecumenical place: a ruling class of Turks and a populace of Byzantine Greeks, Jews, Armenians, Kurds and others).
Rumî‘s most famous writing is his invitation to the sema:
Whoever you may be, come
Even though you may be
An infidel, a pagan, or a fire-worshipper, come
Our brotherhood is not one of despair
Though you have broken
Your vows of repentance a hundred times, come.
I encourage you to attend a Mevlevi sema if possible. The prime event is the annual Mevlana Commemoration Festival (Mevlâna Anma Törenleri, Şeb-i Aruz) held at the Mevlana Cultural Center in Konya during the first half of December. Because hotel rooms are fully booked months in advance, the best way to attend is on a Rumi Tour.
However, you may also be able to witness whirling, and perhaps even a proper sema, in Konya near (but not in) the Mevlana Cultural Center: a modern shopping-and-restaurant complex near the museum arranges whirling sometimes.
You may also be able to observe the sema in Istanbul. More…
—by Tom Brosnahan
|Mevlâna Jelaleddin Rumî
Mevlevi Sema Whirling Ceremony