The word dervish, translated literally from Turkish, means doorway. In the sacred sense, it suggests an entrance leading from the material or earthly world into the spiritual or heavenly world. More commonly, the word is used simply to refer to the followers of a spiritual teacher such as Rumi.
In their sema, the Mevlevi whirl round and round — as did Rumi — as a means of spiritual ascent. Thus, they came by their Western name: whirling dervishes.
But their whirling is neither mindless nor frantic as common American use of the expression infers. Their whirling is instead mindful and serene.
According to Atilla Kahveci, Interfaith Dialogue Coordinator for Global Cultural Connections, "The whirling dervish, or semazen, intentionally and consciously participates in the shared revolution of other beings." Every kind of being, from proton to planet.
All things, says Kahveci, revolve. But unlike the whirling dervishes, other things revolve involuntarily. While, contrary to some popular beliefs, the semazen's goal is not, Kahveci says, "to lose consciousness or to fall into a state of ecstasy."
As the semazen revolves in harmony with all of nature, the sema becomes a testimony, he says, "to the existence and the majesty of the Creator." The sacred ceremony affirms, in the words of the Koran (64:1), that "Whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is on the earth glorifies Allah. His is the dominion, and to Him belong all the praises and thanks, and He is Able to do all things."
The sema reflects the Sufi aspiration to lose one's ego in God's will. Accompanied by traditional Sufi music, the seven-centuries-old ritual is steeped in symbolism.
At its start, the samazen stands erect with his arms crossed over his chest. Pillar-like, resembling the numeral one, he attests to the oneness of God.