The sacred art of whirling dervishes
The last period has been saturated for me; the death of my father and the completion of 10 years long Ph.D. project left me emotionally numb. On the one hand grief and the other hand excitement of completion – seemed as if the two opposites have canceled each other into a silent equilibrium.
The daily meditation practice has given my mind calmness and clarity. I genuinely feel capable of seeing the states of my emotional affairs without overreacting and full identification. However, only mind discipline is not enough. I could feel how all the tension and grief found its way through my body like mycelium under the forest.
One of the most intuitive and genuine ways for me to release pain, grief and express gratitude has been through dance. No matter how many practices I discover in my quest, dancing is as natural as breathing, crying, and laughing.
For the last two Saturdays, I had an amazing opportunity to participate in Banafsheh Sayyad’s workshop SAMA the holy ritual of whirling. Iranian-born dancer, teacher, and choreographer brings hitherto confined only to male dervishes sacred dance to a wider audience, to everyone.
The roots of whirling dance take us to infamous poet, scholar, and theologian Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī. Even though I cannot speak Persian, I adore his poems and have found refuge and inspiration in his beautiful verse. Whirling as a part of the spiritual and mystical practice has been a part of the Mewlewī Sufi order, which was founded after Rumi’s death in 13th centruy. Most likely you have seen pictures or performances of whirling dervishes, which are easily recognizable by their wide skirts, and incredible mastery to spin in flow for hours.
Needless to say that the practice has been confined to the members of the order and primarily to men1 . Banafsheh Sayyad has made it her lifework to bring the art of whirling to a wider public, to women and individuals of other (or no) religious affiliations. Her mastery of the dance is amazing; nonetheless, what moved me the most were her words: ‘in whirling we learn to persevere and surrender’. Indeed it is through the perseverance of not stopping, not getting scared, and surrendering – that the whirling happens.
By spirit you are deathless, imperishable,
magnificent from within!
You belong to the glorious,
you are of divine radiance!
What have you seen of your own beauty?
You are still hidden, unmanifest
One dawn, like the sun,
you will arise
From within yourself.
You are like a hawk
Whose feet are tethered,
Weighed down by the body.
It’s with your own claw
That you must untie the knots
a section of a poem by Jalaleddin Rumi shared by Banafsheh Sayyad during the workshop
1 Rumi taught female members of his family how to whirl (Reinhartz, as quoted in Xavier, 2020, p. 169)
Xavier, M. S. (2020). Gendering the divine: Women, femininity, queer identities on the Sufi path . In J. Howe (Ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Islam and Gender. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781351256568