The whirling dervishes are a sect within the Sufi branch of Islam. They perform a distinctive dance called the sema to honor Allah as part of their religious practices. The sect is well known for this dance, which is performed in flowing robes which create a whirling effect across the performance space. Technically, whirling dervishes are actually members of the Mevlevi Order of Sufis, but most Westerners are more familiar with the colloquial “whirling dervish.”
The Mevlevi order was founded in the 13th century by Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi. Rumi was a famous Sufi mystic and poet, and much of his work is still widely read around the world. Along with other Sufists, Rumi believed that self-discipline, love, and responsibility were an important part of the worship of Allah. Rumi developed the sema dance as a dhikr, or remembrance of Allah. The dance follows a set ritual of steps and motions which are intended to represent the spiritual journey of the dancers.
The term “dervish” comes from a Persian word, Darwish, which has historically been used to refer to a religious ascetic. A dervish takes a vow of poverty and service as part of his or her religious practice. The romantic associations with the sema dance led to the popular title of “whirling dervish” for members of the sect. The sect was actually briefly banned in its native Turkey before the national government realized the historic and cultural value of the dervishes. Whirling dervishes can also be found in other parts of the Middle East.
In addition to the traditional flowing robes which characterize the whirling dervishes, the dancers also use specific music. Mevlevi religious music can be heard throughout the Middle East, and it contains many elements which people associate with “Oriental” music. There is also a rich tradition of Mevlevi song and poetry linked to the whirling dervishes as well. Mevlevi cultural traditions are celebrated in many parts of the world, as is the Sufi branch of Islam in general.
Groups of whirling dervishes travel around the world offering performances and education, especially on 17 December, when whirling dervishes celebrate Rumi's birthday. Performances are also held as part of cultural festivals and similar events, and may also include a brief talk or lecture. To find a local performance of whirling dervishes, try searching for “whirling dervishes” in your area on your favorite search engine, or asking local cultural organizations about performance schedules.