Whirling Dervishes

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Spinning rapidly in place, these Whirling Dervishes perform in Istanbul, Turkey. Dervishes achieve a higher state of conciousness in this fascinating Sufi tradition practiced by the Mevlevi. Getty Images.

Whirling Dervishes

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

As Western travelers published accounts of the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, among the most prominent images were of the Whirling Dervishes. Their ecstatic dance seemed unusual and novel to Western eyes, yet the dervishes contributed an important element to the development of Muslim culture, especially in Turkey, the center of the Ottoman Empire.

Those who did a little research learned that the dervishes were members of a semi-secret Sufi mystical religious community, the Mevlevi, founded by Mevlana Celaleddin (also known as Jelaluddin al-Rumi) in the thirteenth century. Rumi was born in what is now Tajikistan in 1207. His family left their homeland to escape the invading Mongols. Settling in what is present-day Turkey, he followed his father in becoming a scholar. Here he was also introduced to Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. The key event in Rumi’s life was the death of his teacher. He expressed his grief through poetry, music, anddance. As he continued to write, the major theme of both his poetry and prose was the love of God. His death on December 17, 1273, is commemorated annually by members of the order.

Within the order, the whirling dance, and its accompanying music, is designed to induce a trancelike state in which the love of God becomes personal reality. Music is provided by a flute and various string and percussion instruments. Rumi’s poetry is recited to the music. The chief drummer serves as the ceremonial conductor. The most obvious feature of the dance is the twirling. It is done in a precise manner around an imaginary axis that runs from the head to the stationary left foot. The right hand is lifted upward to receive God’s love, which is transmitted downward through the heart and to the earth via the left arm. The circular movement is prompted by the steady rise and fall of the right foot, which follows the beat of the music. Significant deviation in the method of spinning quickly produces mere dizziness rather than a heightened consciousness.

One of the order’s sheikhs, Jelaluddin Loras (d. 1985), introduced the mystical teachings and practices of the Mevlevi to the West in the 1970s. An initial following was brought together in the Threshold Society, which in the 1990s relocated from Vermont to California. In 1990 the head of the society, Dr. Kabir Edmund Helminski, was the order’s representative in North America. Among the activities of the society has been the sponsoring of events at which visiting members of theorder from Turkey allow the public to see and experience the dervish dance and music. The Mevlevi Order is headed today by a descendant of Rumi, Frank Hemdem Celebi, who succeeded his father in 1996.


Friedlander, Shems. The Whirling Dervishes. Albany: SUNY Press, 1992.
Hatman, Talat Sait. Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi and the Whirling Dervishes: Sufi Philosophy, Whirling Rituals, Poems of Ecstasy, Miniature Paintings. Istanbul: Dost Yayinlari, 1983.
Helminski, Camille, and Kabir Edmund Helminski. The Rumi Collection: An Anthology of Translations of Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi. Boston: Shambhala Classics, 2000.
Rumi, Jelaluddin Mevlana. The Essential Rumi. Trans. Coleman Barks with John Moyne. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.