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Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi and the Whirling Dervishes

Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273)

The lasting impact of his works centuries later has been likened to that of Dante and Shakespeare. In the span of 25 years, Rumi composed over 70,000 verses of poetry, which reflected divine love, ecstatic passion, and mystic illumination. Today, his Persian works are widely read in English, Turkish, Urdu, Arabic, Russian, German, French, Italian and Spanish by spiritual seekers around the world. His message of Love and Compassion leading to Global Peace and Unity continues to resonate strongly with audiences worldwide as his works are celebrated in concerts, workshops, readings, dance performances and other artistic creations.

Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi was born into a family of Muslim Scholars in the year 1207 in the province of Balkh, now the border region between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. He was an accomplished scholar and teacher of the religious sciences and sacred Islamic law. But he is most renowned as being, perhaps, the greatest mystical poet of Islam. By communicating the absolute love of God through his works, he has attracted spiritual seekers from almost every religious and spiritual path in the world for hundreds of years.

Escaping the Mongol invasion and destruction in his time, Rumi and his family traveled extensively in the Muslim lands and finally settled permanently in Konya. The turning point in Rumi’s life occurred in Konya in the year 1244, when he was introduced into the mystical path by a wandering dervish, Shams of Tabriz. Shams taught Rumi the most profound levels of Sufism, transforming him from a pious religious scholar to an ecstatic mystic. In their parting, Rumi authored brilliant works, notably the Mathnavi, his famous six-volume epic, and discourses, Fihi ma Fihi, both revered gifts from a mind overwhelmed in mystical thought.

Rumi, left this world to join his Lord on December 17th, 1273, shortly after completing the Mathnavi.  His disciples formed the Mevlevi Sufi Order, which was named after Rumi, whom they referred to as “Mevlana”.  In North America and Europe, the Mevlevis are more commonly known as the Whirling Dervishes because of their distinctive dance, or whirling that has now become one of their central rituals.

Whirling Dervishes

“Sema,” or the ceremony of sacred music and whirling dance, represents a mystical journey of spiritual ascent through mind and love to a state of perfection. The goal is to love and to be of service to the whole of creation, transcending discrimination against beliefs, races, classes and nations.

Originating among the Turkish Sufis, the practice of Sufi whirling is a devotional meditative dance that has been passed down to devotees of the Mevlevi order for centuries. As a symbolic ritual through which dervishes (or semazens) aim to reach spiritual perfection (“kemal”), the sema helps to lead the passional ego (“nefs”), chained as it is to worldly desires, to sweet surrender. For the dervish, the journey from imprisonment by the lower desires to spiritual liberation is traced through unwavering focus and reflection upon the pearls of wisdom disclosed by the Sufi Shaykh (spiritual guide), through rites of remembrance of God (“dhikr”), and through devotional music and mesmerizing whirling dance, which brings the dervish into harmony with a primal cosmic turning or revolution, the very movement of life.

From the symbology of sema, we learn that the semazen's camel's hair hat (“sikke”) represents the tombstone of the ego, with the expansive white skirt signifying the ego's shroud. By removing his black cloak, the dervish is spiritually reborn to the truth. At the beginning of the sema, by holding his arms crosswise, the semazen appears to represent the number one, thus testifying to God's unity. While whirling, his arms unfold, with his right hand open toward the heavens, ready to receive God's mercy and beneficence, and his left hand, upon which his eyes are fastened, turned downward toward the earth. The semazen, then, becomes the place of meeting between heaven and earth, and conveys God's gift of love to those who are witnessing the sema. Revolving from right to left around the heart, the semazen embraces all humanity with love.

As Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi says, "All forms of love are pathways to Divine love. Yet, those who have not had a taste of it do not know!"

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