Whirling dervishes: An art and a prayer


Whirling dervishes is a Sunni Sufi order founded by Jalal Al-Din Al-Rumi (1207-1273 AD). Rumi is originally from Afghanistan but he spent most of his life in the Turkish city of Konya. He composed most of the poetry recited in dhikr rituals (religious exercise in which short phrases or prayers are repeatedly recited).

Rumi witnessed an era of war and chaos from the arrival of Genghis Khan in the region up to the crusades; an era characterized by a plethora of bloodshed and destruction. At the time, a handful of religious doctrines and schools emerged, such as al-Mu’tazila and others which shared affinities similar to atheism. As a result, Rumi found it necessary to establish a school of faith calling for the preservation of Islam and urging Muslims to unite, hence he founded the Mewlewi Sufi Order also known as the whirling dervishes.

This mystic order originally started in the Seljuk era in Turkey and affected the art and piousness there. Later on it spread to other Islamic countries. However, it was first introduced in Egypt after the Ottomans conquered the country and was subsequently called “the dervish performance stage”.

The Egyptian whirling dervishes’ band formed in 1994. It was seeking to apply its own philosophy in handling the whirling dervishes’ legacy. The band was performing in different tekkes (a type of hospice) in Egypt, on top of which was the Mewlewi tekke, considered by many as the first theatrical stage in Egypt. But the whirling dervishes’ performances go back to the Ottoman era beginning with the 16th century, though the monumental buildings inside the Mewlewi tekke had already been established in the 14th century. The main purpose for building a tekke was to lodge and feed the poor along with the dervishes who devoted themselves to prayer. The tekke comprises many parts, such as a mosque, shrine and a school for teaching children Qur’an and Hadith.

One of the most important tekkes in Egypt was called “Kahf Al-Sudan” and was used by the whirling dervishes during the 15th century. In the era of the Ottoman Empire, they moved from this tekke to “Al-Saedya school”. Sheik Sharif Ne’mat Allah Al-Huseini who came to Egypt in 1436 AD was responsible for this particular tekke. After he passed away, “Kahf Al-Sudan” was renovated by Sharif Nour Al-Din Ahmed Al-Eji. Later, this tekke came under the management of Bektashi Turkish dervishes who adopted the ideology of Bektashism (an Islamic Sufi order in Turkey). This order went back to the 15th century and enjoyed the protection of the Ottomans. It was also named after Haji Bektash Veli, its founder.

The philosophy behind the order

The dancing ring is an important characteristic of whirling dervishes’ rituals. For hours, they move around the centre of a circle where their sheikh stands. They become deeply involved in sublime spiritual feelings, ridding themselves of psychological nuances and moving into a spiritual trance that takes them away from the material world and closer to the divine. The flute is an important musical instrument related to this order. They liken its sound to a man’s sighing. The whirling dervishes order was also known for its tolerance of non-Muslims no matter what their beliefs or ethnicity were.

The whirling dervishes’ performances include spontaneous improvisation accompanied by supplications, prayers and religious chants. The performance usually starts with reciting the Qur’an then moves towards supplication. The sheikh stands at a corner of the area and recites the Qur’anic verse “Know that no God except Allah”, then the dervishes who stand in the ring repeat the verse. After that, the sheikh says the supplication “God the Victory Giver, the All Knowing! Messenger of Allah help us!” Later the dervishes stand and begin to move in circles in an artistic way while wearing loose white clothes. They increase the pace of their movements while doing signals with their hands which have mystical meanings in Sufism. The most famous chant for whirling dervishes is “Oh Messenger of Allah! Give us help!” while the sheikh continues to repeat “Hayy” which means “The Ever Living”. At the end of the performance they repeat “Allah” many times.

The whirling dervishes’ order became a type of folklore that attracts large segments of religious devotees, audiences and tourists.