Understanding the whirling dervishes

Cultural Insights — By on November 30, 2009 at 7:10 am

Whirling dervishes. The term is a familiar one to many people, but what exactly is a whirling dervish? That is, beyond some exotic Middle Eastern man who twirls round and round while dressed in a white robe and tall hat? Not many people know that the dance of a whirling dervish is actually a spiritual activity, most often performed by Sufi Muslim mystics. The Intelligent Travel blog of National Geographic Traveler recently published a spectator’s view of the whirling dervishes, complete with a video. It’s worth a look.

I first heard the term “Whirling Dervishes” as a young child and, reasonably enough, surmised that they were dervishes who loved to whirl. What a dervish was, exactly, remained a mystery to me until last Friday, when I stepped into a 500-year-old Turkish bathhouse (repurposed as the Hodjapasha Culture Center) in the Sirkeci area of old Istanbul. Here, monks of a mystical Sufi order of Muslims–known traditionally for their spirituality, self denial, and tolerance–perform a centuries-old dance ritual…

I glanced at the notes I had taken as our guide, Etem Öztürk, explained the significance of the dervishes’ clothing: “They wear tall felt hats, white gowns with long skirts, and black capes that they remove,” he said. “The hats represent tombstones. The gowns are burial shrouds. The black capes are the dirt of the grave.” The point of the ritual, Öztürk continued, was to leave everything of the world behind and to become one with God, with Allah. “That only truly happens in death,” he said. “These monks are mimicking death. When they’re performing, it’s as though they are dead.”

Fair enough, though, as we watched, the dervishes seemed quite alive to me, the hems of their gowns lifting centrifugally from the floor as they spun, always counterclockwise, sending a gentle breeze out over us spectators. I watched for the movements Öztürk had described: the tilting of the head, the opening of the arms–the palm of the right hand facing up, the left palm facing down, in order to transmit the positive energy of heaven earthward, spreading peace and wisdom.

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