Worship usually isn’t something to be watched. People bow their heads in prayer. They sing hymns, or recite mantras. They meditate silently for hours on end. Whirling dervishes, however, are a different case. There’s something so peaceful, meditative, and yet unusual in the way they practice their faith that people turn out in the hundreds to see them slowly whirl in circles to spiritual music, their long skirts twirling outward.
Whirling dervishes are Sufis, or practitioners of a mystical order of Islam that was spread across the Middle East and Asia by philosophers like the 13th century poet and mystic Rumi. “It’s not separate from Islam,” says Britton Koroglu, a member of the S.C. Dialogue Foundation who is helping to bring the Whirling Dervishes of Konyu to Charleston for a performance at the Charleston Music Hall. “There are mandatory things that all Muslims do, but then there are extra things you can do, like be generous, be thoughtful, be caring.” Living those values is an integral part of Sufism, which is based in love, tolerance, peace, and non-violence. By following these tenets in life and in worship, Sufis and whirling dervishes seek to attain the perfection of unity with God, and the pure joy that results from that unity. Rumi’s love poems, for example, revel in the ecstasy of union with God as well as with the beloved. “Whirling dervishes have a very particular way they practice their worship,” Koroglu says. “They’re focusing on the oneness of God in their whirling.”
This intensity of focus, combined with sacred music, is what makes seeing a whirling dervish ceremony such an interesting, often tranquil, experience. Like all rituals, there’s a specific meaning behind everything they do, Koroglu says. “Why they wear the clothes that they do, the instruments, the way they hold their hands, all these things mean something. The whirling relates back to many things, from the revolutions of the planets all the way down to the atom. It was all created by God.”
The whirling dervishes who will be performing in Charleston come from Konya, a city in Turkey that scholars believe Rumi lived in. Though the event is called a performance for simplicity’s sake, Koroglu emphasizes that it’s really more of a ceremony. “In English we’re sort of having to say performance, but in Turkish the ceremony is called a sema,” she says. “It’s not a show, it’s a worship. They do this so people can come and experience this worship of God with them.”
In this way, whirling dervishes are different from many monks, priests, or hermits who separate themselves from society in order to focus more fully on the spiritual. “[The whirling dervishes from Konya] have performed all over the world. They want to share this type of worship so the world can see what they do, because we’re all created equally and from God,” Koroglu says. “They want to be in society and share the understanding that we can be tolerant, generous. That we don’t have to have a shade over our eyes.”
The S.C. Dialogue Foundation, which was founded by Turkish-Americans, hosts events like this to increase awareness of Eastern culture and promote dialogue among different cultures and faiths. The foundation’s primary goal is to promote tolerance among South Carolinians. “We want to show a different side [of Islam] than what we see in the media,” Koroglu says. “As a group of people who are Muslim, we’re trying to practice tolerance, love, understanding — we’re trying to practice our religion as best we can.”
Koroglu hopes that those who see the dervishes will come away with a deeper understanding of what it means to be Muslim, and of the Islamic culture as a whole. “We would want [attendees] to feel at peace, and to understand the true meaning of what the worship all means,” she says. “For over 700 years people have practiced this way, and it’s so peaceful. I always say that you can follow a religion, do everything you’re supposed to do, and it’s kind of like looking through a window. But if you want to be more pious, and truly experience the oneness of God, it’s like walking through a door — you’re completely transformed. The whirling dervishes, they walk through the door, but then they come back. And they share that experience.”