What’s a Whirling Dervish?

By Karen Harris

Whirling Dervishes spin and twirl. Source: (turkey.theglobepost.com)

You’ve undoubtedly heard the term ‘whirling dervish’ before, but you may not be aware of the important cultural and spiritual tradition of these frenzied, spinning Turkish dancers. For outsiders, watching the Whirling Dervishes dance and spin is a breathtaking sight. For devoted members of the Mevlevi Order of Islam, however, the spinning has special significance. 

Whirling Dervishes In The 19Th Century. From El Mundo Ilustrado, Published Barcelona, 1880. Source: (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

A Frenzied Spinning

The best-known characteristic of a Whirling Dervish is the spinning dance called the Sema ceremony. The Dervishes wear all white long gowns with full skirts and tall hats. Seemingly tireless, the dancers can spin and whirl for hours at a time with their arms held up in the air. They assume this stance so that they are open to receive the blessings and energy from heaven. Each individual Dervish spins from right to left using his own heart as a pivot point. Keeping time to the accompanying music, the Dervish will rotate slowly at first, picking up speed as the music intensifies until the group of Dervishes is all whirling in a fast-paced frenzy with their white gowns spinning. 

Source: (travelatelier.com)

Finding Sufism

The goal of the whirling or spinning is to achieve a state of Sufism. A form of Islamic mysticism, Sufism is a state of inner power and peace that allows the person to feel a deep love and connection to the rest of the world. Sufism is achieved through rituals and devote practices…one of those is dancing or spinning. 

Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi. Source: (bbc.com)

A Centuries-Old Tradition

Whirling Dervishes, as part of Sufism, is a custom that dates back more than 700 years. The Mevlevi Order of Islam was founded in 1312 in the city of Konya in Turkey. The Order was established by the devoted followers of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, also known as Mevlana, who was a 13th-century Islamic mystic, theologian, and accomplished Persian poet. Under the leadership of Mevlana’s son, Sultan Walad, the Mevlevi Order quickly grew and spread into surrounding cities and towns. 

Rumi under the guidance of the mystic Sham al-Din. Source: (collective-evolution.com)

Rumi’s Encounter with Perfection

In 1244, Rumi met a wandering mystic who profoundly changed his life. From their first meeting, this mystic, Shams al-Din of Tabriz, seemed to hold a strange power over Rumi. Rumi viewed the mystic as the embodiment of perfection and the true likeness of the “Divine Beloved.” Although Rumi was a teacher in his own right with a devoted group of followers, he became a follower of Shams al-Din. His students and followers were dismayed to watch Rumi ignore his own scholarly pursuits and rituals to adopt the disciples of Shams al-Din. A small group of the students attempted to break Shams al-Din’s hold over Rumi. In 1247, they murdered the wandering mystic. Distraught, Rumi withdrew into mourning.

A prolific writer. Source: (amazon.com)

Rumi Emerged with New Ideas

When Rumi emerged from his mourning, he had new ideas about reveling in god’s love through trance dancing. The Sema Ceremonies were born. Interestingly, Rumi also became a prolific poet following his time in mourning. For the remainder of his life, he produced an astonishingly amount of writings. In all, he produced six books, more than 25,000 rhyming couplets, more than 2,500 mystic odes, and about 1,600 quatrains—four-lined poetic verses. 

Source: (mikestravelguide.com)

Lavish Monasteries were Built

As the Mevlevi Order rose to prominence and expanded throughout the Ottoman Empire, huge, lavish monasteries were built. The ornate buildings—numbering more than 100—feature grand ballrooms for the Sema ceremonies, silent rooms for meditations and prayer, burial tombs, and shrines. The main monastery in Konya, Turkey, has been converted into a museum and tourist site. 

Source: (pixels.com)

Whirling Dervishes to Promote Tourism

After World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey declared Sufism illegal. The lavish monasteries were either turned into mosques or converted into museums. In 1953, the only time Whirling Dervishes could dance in public places was under the approval of the Turkish government, who sought to downplay the religious and spiritual significance of the Whirling Dervishes and, instead, rebranding the dance as a cultural or folk dance. 

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.