A subgroup within Sufism, the mystical movement in Islam
distinguished by a form of ecstatic whirling dance. When first
observed by Westerners they were described as the ‘‘whirling
dervishes.’’ The word dervish indicates a poor man, religious
mendicant, or ecstatic. The dervishes follow a semiesoteric doctrine.
Their various ‘‘paths’’ or systems may date back as far as
the ancient rites of Persia and Egypt.
The Bektash Sufis offer a representative example of the dervishes.
In the fifteenth century Bektash of Bokhara received his
mantle from Ahmed Yesevee, who claimed descent from the father-in-law
of Mohammed. Bektash established a ‘‘path’’ to
spiritual truth consisting nominally of seven degrees, only four
of which, however, were essential. These aimed to establish an
affinity between the aspirant and the sheik, the latter leading
the aspirant, through the agency of the spirit of Bektash, and
that of Mohammed, to Allah.
The initiation ceremony provided a severe test. The aspirant
was tried for a year with false secrets. When his time of probation
expired, a lamb was slain, from the carcass of which a
cord was made for his neck and a girdle for his loins. Two
armed attendants then led him into a square chamber, where
he was presented to the sheik as ‘‘a slave who desires to know
truth.’’ He was then placed before a stone altar, on which were
12 scallops.
The sheik, attended by 11 others, gripped the hand of the
aspirant in a particular way and administered the oath of the
order, in which the neophyte promised to be poor, chaste, and
obedient. The aspirant was then informed that the penalty for
betraying the order was death. He then stated, ‘‘Mohammed is
my guide, Ali [Mohammed’s son-in-law] is my director,’’ and
was asked by the sheik, ‘‘Do you accept me as your guide’’ The
reply being made in the affirmative, the sheik added, ‘‘Then I
accept you as my son.’’
Among the Bektosh sect’s important symbols were the double
triangles and two triangles joined at the apex. One of their
maxims was, The man must die that the saint may be born. For
a jewel they made use of a small marble cube with red spots, to
typify the blood of the martyred Ali.
The dervish sects were held suspect by many orthodox Moslems,
who said they devoted themselves entirely to the wellbeing
of their order rather than to Islam as a whole.
The whirling dervishes originated in Konya, on the Anatolian
plateau of Turkey. They were organized by Jalal al-din
Rumi (born in Afghanistan in 1207), also known to his disciples
as Mevlana (Our Master). Rumi was a theological scholar who
came under the spiritual influence of the wandering dervish
Shams Tabriz. Tabriz was murdered by disciples who were jealous
of Rumi’s devotion. After this, Rumi adopted the mourning
costume of the period (tall felt hat, white skirt, and black cloak)
and gyrated in his garden, repeating the name of God until he
passed into an ecstatic trance.
Rumi’s dance became the basis of the sema, a sacred ceremony
of the dervishes that has survived into modern times. It commences
with the sound of a reed flute, symbolizing a longing
for reunion. The costume worn is also regarded as symbolic of
the tomb, the shroud, and the tombstone. The floor is said to
indicate the Last Judgment. The whirling dance itself symbolizes
the movement of the planets in relation to the sun (represented
by the sheik, who supervises the dance).
The whirling dervishes are also known as Mevlevis, and
their organization has recently spread to other parts of the
world through a revival of interest in Sufi doctrines. Today
there are British and American Sufis who have learned to practice
the sema.
Brown, John P. The Darvishes; or Oriental Spiritualism. London,
1927. Rev. ed., London Frank Cass, 1968.
Burke, O. M. Among the Dervishes. New York E. P. Dutton,
Farzan, Massud. The Tale of the Reed Pipe. New York E. P.
Dutton, 1974.
Friedlander, Ira. The Whirling Dervishes. New York Macmillan,