I’ve had a fascination with Sufism since I first learned of it. Interestingly, I was reading the poems of Rumi, way before I ever knew what a Sufi was.
I thought they were beautiful and ephemeral and spoke to what I felt was true. At the time, I was deep into Taoism and the Tao te Ching and I was amazed that this Persian poet had captured the essence of the Tao so well.
Later, through my brother, I met a profoundly interesting man, Sharif Baba. Sherif Baba is a Turkish whirling dervish. He was living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and having zickers in the basement of a tea house called Silk Roads. He liked my brother and the three of us connected well in conversation both at the tea house and in the house where Sherif Baba was staying. I would say that in the short time I knew him, I picked up some of the most interesting pieces of spiritual wisdom that I have come across. Probably the most interesting thing was that God needs to be taken with a sense of humor. As Sharif Baba said “All the buses lead to the same bus station.”
You can learn more about Sharif Baba at http://www.sherifbaba.com/
It was at this time I discovered that my favorite poet was the founder of the most important sufic order. I began reading a lot and fell in love with Sufi parables and realized that while this was definitely Islam, it was all inclusive Islam. I asked Sharif Baba why whirling was important and he told me something like this
“The dervish whirls so that the true form of the world can be seen. When we whirl all the individual pieces we think are separate blend together and we begin to sense the totality that is God.”
Needless to say, my mind was blown as I immediately saw the truth in his statement. Like the Hindu story of the blind men who are arguing over what an elephant looks like based upon which part they touched, humans argue over what God looks like based on which part they’ve touched or been told that others touched. It was around this time that I truly became a Muslim, one who submits to the will of God. The reason was simple, I recognized that there is no choice in the matter.
As I have said before, being a Muslim shouldn’t be about the pillars, not about the Quran, not about fasting, not about anything except that understanding, that submission, that recognition. Don’t confuse the forms with the reality.
So, needless to say, I was excited to see dervishes whirling in Turkey. It is only in the west that we call them Whirling Dervishes, they call themselves the Mevlevi Order and they were founded by Mevlana Rumi in the 13th century. Yes, that’s the same Rumi. The basic tenets of the order are tolerance, forgiveness, and enlightenment and while I’m still failing pretty hard on all those counts, I recognize that my life would be better if I had stronger versions of all three.
Essentially, the zicker (rkir) is a religious ritual which is a prayer to Allah (aka God and many other names). The basic idea is to let go of ties to the forms and to merge with the totality of the divine. Music and dance are an integral part of this.
The Mevlavis played a huge role in Turkish culture in music, art, calligraphy, dance, poetry, and religious thought.
We went to a refurbished Hammam and we sat in an audience. There were clear signs not to take pictures since it was truly meant to be a religious experience. There were also signs not to applaud and not to speak during the music and dance. It seems that I was one of the only ones who read them though. Pity.
The dervish pictures in this post are from internet sources.
For the most part the audience was respectful but we had three Russian Israeli’s (Israilis who spoke Russian) next to us who spoke in loud voices, cracked jokes, and took pictures during the entire thing.
It was an incredibly moving performance even with the distraction. It brought tears to both of our eyes. The whirling of the dervishes was mesmerizing and the music was trance like and completely divine. Most of the crowd stopped applauding and talking and looked as moved as we felt. Not those three next to us though.
When we left, we were surprised to see that they were staying for a second performance.