The Dancing Dervishes

With so much of hardline news concerning Muslims being pumped out these days, the more lyrical, poetic and flowing form of Islam is virtually forgotten.

But it does exist and thrives in many forgotten and far flung corners of the Muslim world. Whether it is Turkey, Iran, Morocco or Egypt, besides of course India, Sufism continues to infuse Islam with melody and devotion.

While the musical Qawwali is something we are all very familiar with, the Persian mystic Rumi started a tradition which has adherents in areas like far western Asia and northern Africa. The custom is called Sema and it has seven parts which explain the mystic cycle to perfection. In this, dervishes swirl repeatedly in a meditative dance, so as to achieve seamless ecstasy.

They believe that everything in the Lord’s creation is revolving, whether it is electrons, protons, planets, satellites or even the blood circulating in our body. The whirling dervishes (Semazen) by voluntarily spinning try to participate in the movement of the universe as they make an ascent through the mind towards love and the Perfect (Kemal).

To a viewer, most of their dance would seem like unending swirls, but all their movements have deep meanings and give out profound messages about the nature of God and his creation. The circular progression shows that while turning towards his creator, the dervish deserts his ego, finds truth and achieves the Perfect. Once he arrives at the door of the highest element, he feels love for all creatures without discrimination on basis of religion, caste, creed or race.

I was fortunate enough to witness one such show in the Goreme province of Turkey. What made the entire experience more special was the fact that the show was organized in an underground natural cave.

While seats were made of natural formations and cement, the dim lights added to the atmosphere. Soon enough, all the dervishes arrived in a line and took their respective positions on stage.

The dervishes were elegantly dressed in long enveloping white tunics which were worn over tight pyjamas. Over this, they wore a black cloak. They also had special footwear to enable them to move their feet freely. The dervish’s head-dress indicated the ego’s tombstone, their tunic - the ego’s shroud and by removing the black cloak at the beginning of the ceremony, the Semazen indicated their spiritual progress.

The first part of the show was the chanting of a eulogy to the Prophet called Nat-I Serif. This was followed by the gentle beats of the drum symbolizing the Divine order ‘Kun-Be’.

Third, some traditional instruments were played representing the first breath which gives birth to the entire creation. Following the recitation, as a fourth part of the ceremony, dervishes bowed to each other by way of greetings of a soul to another soul concealed in different bodies.

As a fifth part, they began their series of four salutations. At the onset, the dervishes crossed their arms which indicated the unity of God. One by one, they began to move in smooth circles.

Their first salute denoted man’s birth to truth. It represented his complete conception of the existence of God as creator and his own state as part of the creation. The second expressed the rapture of man witnessing the splendour of creation, in front of God’s greatness and omnipotence. The third salute was the dissolution of the rapture into love and thereby the sacrifices of mind to love. It is the complete submission, annihilation of the self in the loved one to achieve perfect unity. This state, which is known as Nirvana in Hinduism, is called Fenafillah in Islam. The aim of Sema is not loss of conscious thought, but self’s realization by submission to God. The fourth salute was for the Prophet, depicting his ascension to the throne, his return to Earth to fulfill a task and his ascent again.

The penultimate phase of the Sema ceremony included reading of some verses from the Quran, especially Sura baker 2, Verse 115 – “Onto God belong East and West, and wherever you turn, there is God countenance. He is all embracing, all knowing.”

While whirling, they held their right arm up showing readiness to receive God’s beneficence. The left arm was directed towards the earth. Their turns from right to left indicated God’s act of watching over humans. And the revolution around the symbolic heart illustrated their all embracing love.

The entire programme ended with a prayer for peace for all the Prophets and believers. Normally when the ceremony is over, all the dervishes become completely silent and reenter into their caves for meditation.

The remarkable thing about the entire presentation was the ambience. To watch a show like this in an underground cave was a unique experience.

The songs of the dervishes were full of piety and their dance movements were graceful and fluid. The astounding aspect was the expression on their faces, while they slowly swiveled in circles repeatedly. Very clearly, some of them seemed to be in a trance. But sure enough, at the right points, they would break out from their hypnotic circulation and move to the next series of actions.

While most in the audience, including myself, were carrying cameras, the sanctity in the progression was such that nobody clicked any photographs.

Following the end of the show and exit of dervishes, the audience realized that they had missed freezing these moments for their albums and there were calls to invite back the Semazen for a photo session. The dervishes obliged and we all snapped happily away.

It must be said that the entire episode was thoroughly enjoyable. Though I would also have to confess I did not feel transferred, even momentarily, to some heavenly realm because of the spiritual magnetism of the ritual.

Nirvana is the motive of the dervishes, but nothing comes for free these days. To attend the dervish ceremony that lasts about 50 minutes, one has to shell out Euro 35 per head. But yes, you get a free welcome drink. There are other variants of the show also available. For a hundred plus Euros, you could see the dervishes dancing and enjoy a Turkish dinner alongside, complete with kebabs, mezes and Turkish delights. Now, that’s what you call commercialization at its best!