Who are the whirling dervishes, whose founder’s death is commemorated?

Who are the whirling dervishes, whose founder’s death is commemorated?

This Sunday, December 17 marks the 750th anniversary of the death of Djalal ad-Din Rumi, Persian poet and mystic. Born in Balkh in what is now Afghanistan, this Sufi master inspired the brotherhood of whirling dervishes in the 13th century – the name given to them in the West because of their gyrating dance.


Founded by Rumi in the city of Konya, in central Turkey, this brotherhood within Islam was then truly organized by his son, Sultan Veled. The first tekke (monastery) was established in Konya, where the Rumi mausoleum is located. The movement then spread to Anatolia. Helped by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet I, the Mevlevie way spread throughout the Empire, notably in Syria, Palestine, Egypt and the Balkans. In addition, the head of the brotherhood, named “chélébi” (noble, courteous) and residing in Konya, received the privilege, from the 16th century, of handing over the sword to the new sultan.

The popularity of whirling dervishes came to a halt after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the advent of the Republic of Turkey. Atatürk banned all Sufi paths, which led to the closure of dervish convents. Many were subsequently reopened as museums, as is the case in Konya.

Authorities allowed whirling dervish ceremonies to resume in the 1950s, recognizing their cultural value. This is how the order still exists in Turkey, the inheritance of which is through the generations of Rumi’s male descendants. It is officially led today by Rumi’s 20th great-grandson (22nd generation), Faruk Hemdem Celebi.

Who are the dervishes?

Dervishes (from Persian “beggar, poor”) are people who follow the Sufi path in Islam and consider deprivation as a tool in their spiritual quest. They choose poverty by relying on God. Initiated by a master, the faithful then perform the rituals. Belonging to a brotherhood can lead to residence in a monastery (tekke) for more or less long periods.

There are several brotherhoods, among Shiites and Sunnis. In Sunni Islam, the best known path is that of the whirling dervishes. However, there are also howling dervishes. Thus, the French man of letters and traveler, Xavier Marmier asks in his story From the Rhine to the Nile published in 1847: “Is there in the regions of the known world, except among the fakirs of India, a more absurd institution than that of the howling dervishes who believe they are paying homage to the Divinity by uttering wild cries, or whirling dervishes, who, to imitate the rotation of the stars, spin on themselves like tops? ».

The sema ceremony

The whirling dervishes owe their name to the whirling that characterizes them and of which Rumi was the initiator. According to legend, the mystical poet once passed a bazaar where gold was being minted. Seized by a strong emotion, carried away by the rhythm and the crystalline sound of beaten gold, he would have started to whirl in a movement of elevation and would have entered into communion with the divine.

Several rituals are possible to achieve this state of communion, including repeated invocations of the name of God (dhikr) then singing and dancing. Whirling dervishes practice sema, a dance that can lead them to a trance and union with God.

Dressed in a long, loose white tunic and a cylindrical hat or fez, the dervishes spin faster and faster, listening to the music, until they reach a form of ecstasy. The position of their hands is symbolic: the right raised towards the sky collects divine grace, the palm of the left hand is directed towards the earth to spread it there. The sema can be accompanied by the ney, a reed flute with an oboe mouthpiece, and drums against a background of religious songs. The sema has been included on the UNESCO intangible world heritage list since 2008.

Every year, celebrations take place in mid-December in Konya, Turkey, where the Rumi mausoleum is located. If Turkey is the main center of whirling dervishes. They are also found in Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Syria, Lebanon and the Balkan countries.

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