Excerpts from a Sama, or Whirling Dervish Ceremony performed at the Mevlevihanesi, or Mevlevi Sufi Lodge at Galata in Istanbul on 18 December 2012.
The Sama and the Mevlevi Sufi Order both originate with Sufi Master Jalaluddin Rumi (known in the West simply as Rumi, and by Muslims as Mevlana which means Master). He was born in northern Afghanistan in 1207, but lived for most of his life in Konya, in central Anatolia in what is now Turkey. He died there in 1273, and his tomb in Konya is now a centre of Muslim pilgrimage.
Rumi was already an eminent Islamic scholar and preacher when, at the age of 32, he encountered a wandering Sufi dervish, Shams of Tabriz, who inspired his mystical awakening. Following this he became a prolific mystical writer and poet with the best known collection of his sacred poems called the Masnavi.
He also founded the Mevlevi Sufi Order that spread throughout the Ottoman Empire under the aegis of several Ottoman Sultans. Its central ritual is the elaborate Sama, best known for its whirling.
As the wonderful book 'Rumi and His Sufi Path of Love' edited by Turkish scholars M. Fatih Citlak and Huseyin Bingul explains, the word 'sama' is an Arabic word "denoting a variety of meanings, such as listening, paying attention, lending an ear, the statement heard, good reputation, and remembrance....it has been the name given to listening to the musical melodies, falling deep into ecstasy, moving arbitrarily to the sound, and to the standing dhikr (remembrance of God) performed by sufis amid a cyclone of rapture".
All elements of the Sama, the music, the dress of the participants, their gestures and movements are rich in symbolism. For instance their conical hat, called a sikka, symbolizes the tombstone of the self. All the symbols deal with big universal spiritual ideas and concepts.
As the aforementioned book explains, the dervishes "rotate around the area, akin to how the planets rotate around themselves and around the Sun. The idea of the sama is itself an expression of the composition of the universe, and within it man's resurrection, his movement triggered by the love of God, and his inclination towards the Universal Man, or Insan-i Kamil, by virtue of realizing his servanthood".