Founded by the great philosopher and writer Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi in the 13th century, the ritual of the Mevlevi sect, known as the sema, is a serious religious ritual performed by Muslim priests in a prayer trance to Allah. Mevlevi believed that during the sema the soul was released from earthly ties, and able to freely and jubilantly commune with the divine.

During the ceremony, the dervishes remove black cloaks to reveal the tennure (white religious robes with voluminous skirts). They turn independently, shoulder to shoulder, both around their own axis and around other dervishes, representing the earth revolving on its own axis while orbiting the sun or possibly God.

The dervishes silently perform the sema, making small, controlled movements of hands, head and arms as they whirl. They are accompanied by music, often dominated by the haunting sound of the reed pipe or “ney”, as well as drums and chanting as the ritual gradually transforms itself into rapid, spinning ecstasy.

In the Middle East it is believed that the dervish is in prayer and that his body becomes open to receive the energy of God. The Turkish Sultans often consulted the Dervishes in difficult times. Their spinning created a relaxing and hypnotic effect in which the Sultans could search for guidance.

Dervish literally means “doorway” and is thought to be an entrance from this material world to the spiritual, heavenly world. During this solemn religious ceremony it is believed that the power of the Heavens enters into the upward extended right palm and passes through the body and leaves the lower, turned-down left palm to then enter into the Earth. The dervish does not retain the power nor is he to direct it. He accepts that he is the true instrument of God and therefore he does not question the power that comes and leaves him.

The Whirling Dervishes played a vitally important part in the evolution of Ottoman high culture. From the fourteenth to the twentieth century, their impact on classical poetry, calligraphy and the visual arts was profound. Perhaps their greatest achievement, though, was in the area of music. Since the dogmatists of Islam’s orthodoxy opposed music, claiming it was harmful to the listener and detrimental to religious life, no sacred music or mosque music evolved except for the Mevlud, a poem in praise of the Prophet, chanted on high occasions or as a requiem. Rumi and his followers integrated music into their rituals as an article of faith. In his verses, Rumi emphasized that music uplifts our spirit to realms above, and we hear the tunes of the Gates of Paradise. The meeting places of the dervishes, consequently, became academies of art, music and dance.


A secret turning in us makes the universe turn. Head unaware of feet, and feet head. Neither cares. They keep turning.”
– Rumi

Click for a description of the Sema, Dance of the Whirling Dervish.

Click to view the Whirling Dervish event held at Yale University, April 2007.

Click for more information about Rumi and the Mevlevi Order.


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