Take a bus that drives onto a ship and sail across the Sea of Marmara under starry night to the town of Bursa. There you can see the ceremony of the Whirling Dervishes, or the Mervlana, as they’re called in Turkish. As a practice of the more mystical side of Islam, the Sufis use the ceremony of the Mervlana to connect more directly with Allah. The place where they practice in Bursa was not overrun by tourists. In fact, the only foreigners there were two Canadian women (one of which was of Middle Eastern descent), my girlfriend and myself. One of the more senior Mervlana, who had a good command of English, took my lady and I aside to explain what was about to happen in the ceremony and what it signified.
His explanation pulled me into a state of extreme focus. I felt connected– a place in which I felt I was completely present. He pointed out the significance of every aspect of the proceedings and then led us to a room with very high ceiling that holds about 40 people. The men sat on the bottom floor and the women went up a steeply curving, creeking staircase to the second floor where they watched the ceremony from over a very low wooden railing. An elderly lady who couldn’t make it up sat on the steps instead. The room was bordered with the same very nicely carved wood that lent a warmth to the spacious room. The carpet was a fine Persian rug, displaying various shades of red in grand patterns and was soft to the touch. A group of about 13 men were in the far corner, each with different traditional Turkish instruments which they began playing, starting slowly at first then gradually building up in volume and tempo. About 3 were playing a Turkish flute, yet another few men played various drums and tambourines, and other members of the group played various Turkish stringed instruments. The song had spiritual depth and was no doubt an intricate part of their practice. It was like a mantra that to me was complex enough to not feel repetitive. About 7 dervishes ranging from ages 12 to 50, including one master entered the room wearing black cloaks over their white garments. They donned white cylindrical hats that were purposely fashioned in the same shape as Muslim gravestones. Under the black cloaks they wore long white robes fastened with a wide green silk belt around their mid sections. The master had a similar hat except it had a green sash around the base of it that matched the green sash they all used as a belt. As they entered the door and proceeded to their right towards the musicians, they shed their black cloaks, an act that was symbolic of the shedding of the ego. The ego is thought of as a hindrance to our own enlightenment and closeness with god, and so the ego being black, another example of the deep symbolism at play during the ceremony, portrays this idea. Underneath the black cloak they wore white robes; white signifying purity, light. This state of egolessness is the ideal state for them to be in while they connect with Allah through the practice of whirling. After shedding the cloaks they began to whirl, one at a time, counter-clockwise around the master who stood still in the center having not shed his black cloak.
As they whirled, some of the Mervlana held their hands in different positions, which indicated that some members were at different levels of spiritual advancement. A less experienced Dervish has both palms up, hands below his shoulders receiving a lesson from Allah. An intermediate Dervish has one hand up to the heavens receiving knowledge transmitted to the spirit from Allah and the other pointing downwards towards the ground passing the energy on to the other Dervishes. A more seasoned Dervish holds both hands up and high and is at the highest spiritual level. He is receiving knowledge directly from Allah. They spun with their left foot grounded, using their right foot to touch gently at various points along the spin to keep them going rather quickly. This gentle touching of the foot indicates a ‘touching’ with other nations and cultures, recognizing and respecting them, while still staying grounded through the left foot to your own region and people. I recall that the man told me earlier that it takes more than a year of practicing spinning on a wooden board with a small metal ball in between your first and second toes to be able to sustain the spinning as long as the performing Dervishes do. Their heads were tilted at an angle, to the same degree as the earth’s axis, with their chins pointing down to their left side towards their hearts. This supposedly helps with the dizziness as well as being spiritually symbolic. The act of spinning, the man explained to me, is found everywhere in the universe from the big bang, the spinning of galaxies and planets, the way doctors separate plasma from blood in a spinning machine and the way a sperm cell goes to the egg. They all whirled around the master like the planets around our sun. The Dervishes were in such a state of one-pointedness that I couldn’t help but feel and be moved by the meditative energy in the room. They were connecting spiritually in a very real way. They did this for about 45 minutes straight, constantly building upon this energy and taking each other to higher and higher levels of consciousness.
The onlookers, including myself, were all mesmerized by the ceremony’s unfolding. The musicians gradually slowed their pace and brought down the volume while the Dervishes slowed their pace in sync. Finally they came to a stop and everyone lingered for a second, and then we finally came out of our seated positions like being reanimated after being frozen in time. Everyone prayed for about 10 minutes in Arabic, beautiful in and of itself if you’ve never heard an Azan that wasn’t pre-recorded. The event ended and some people chatted amongst themselves in small groups, but most were quiet. I was asked about my origins by a few older gentlemen nearby. Then the procession was over and everyone slowly, languidly exited the building where outside they all took Chai, a must at any time of the day in Turkey.
This experience was truly profound. Although I have read a good amount of the Qur’an, I couldn’t ever really connect with the way the teachings were delivered (perhaps due to me having to read an English translation rather than the original Arabic). However, this more mystical side of Islam, the Sufi tradition, definitely spoke to me from a very deep place and I won’t soon forget that place in time and space.