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A subgroup within Sufism, the mystical movement in Islam distinguished by a form of ecstatic whirling dance. When first observed by Westerners they were described as the "whirling dervishes." The word dervish indicates a poor man, religious mendicant, or ecstatic. The dervishes follow a semiesoteric doctrine. Their various "paths" or systems may date back as far as the ancient rites of Persia and Egypt.

The Bektash Sufis offer a representative example of the dervishes. In the fifteenth century Bektash of Bokhara received his mantle from Ahmed Yesevee, who claimed descent from the father-in-law of Mohammed. Bektash established a "path" to spiritual truth consisting nominally of seven degrees, only four of which, however, were essential. These aimed to establish an affinity between the aspirant and the sheik, the latter leading the aspirant, through the agency of the spirit of Bektash, and that of Mohammed, to Allah.

The initiation ceremony provided a severe test. The aspirant was tried for a year with false secrets. When his time of probation expired, a lamb was slain, from the carcass of which a cord was made for his neck and a girdle for his loins. Two armed attendants then led him into a square chamber, where he was presented to the sheik as "a slave who desires to know truth." He was then placed before a stone altar, on which were 12 scallops.

The sheik, attended by 11 others, gripped the hand of the aspirant in a particular way and administered the oath of the order, in which the neophyte promised to be poor, chaste, and obedient. The aspirant was then informed that the penalty for betraying the order was death. He then stated, "Mohammed is my guide, Ali [Mohammed's son-in-law] is my director," and was asked by the sheik, "Do you accept me as your guide?" The reply being made in the affirmative, the sheik added, "Then I accept you as my son."

Among the Bektosh sect's important symbols were the double triangles and two triangles joined at the apex. One of their maxims was, The man must die that the saint may be born. For a jewel they made use of a small marble cube with red spots, to typify the blood of the martyred Ali.

The dervish sects were held suspect by many orthodox Moslems, who said they devoted themselves entirely to the wellbeing of their order rather than to Islam as a whole.

The whirling dervishes originated in Konya, on the Anatolian plateau of Turkey. They were organized by Jalal al-din Rumi (born in Afghanistan in 1207), also known to his disciples as Mevlana (Our Master). Rumi was a theological scholar who came under the spiritual influence of the wandering dervish Shams Tabriz. Tabriz was murdered by disciples who were jealous of Rumi's devotion. After this, Rumi adopted the mourning costume of the period (tall felt hat, white skirt, and black cloak) and gyrated in his garden, repeating the name of God until he passed into an ecstatic trance.

Rumi's dance became the basis of the sema, a sacred ceremony of the dervishes that has survived into modern times. It commences with the sound of a reed flute, symbolizing a longing for reunion. The costume worn is also regarded as symbolic of the tomb, the shroud, and the tombstone. The floor is said to indicate the Last Judgment. The whirling dance itself symbolizes the movement of the planets in relation to the sun (represented by the sheik, who supervises the dance).

The whirling dervishes are also known as Mevlevis, and their organization has recently spread to other parts of the world through a revival of interest in Sufi doctrines. Today there are British and American Sufis who have learned to practice the sema.


Brown, John P. The Darvishes; or Oriental Spiritualism. London, 1927. Rev. ed., London: Frank Cass, 1968.

Burke, O. M. Among the Dervishes. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1973.

Farzan, Massud. The Tale of the Reed Pipe. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1974.

Friedlander, Ira. The Whirling Dervishes. New York: Macmillan, 1975.