Perception Is Reality

The Swirling Dervish

Posted on: September 16, 2007

Note: This is not a scholarly article. It is for one’s understanding of the Swirling Dervish and the practice.

Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi
“A secret turning in us
Makes the universe turn.
Head unaware of feet,
And feet head. Neither cares.
They keep turning.”
– Rumi


      Today I write with much influence and love for the swirling dervish. Although the following passages have no scholarly value, they are very informative and nothing short of interesting.



The Dervish: Semazen, The Practice: Semah

     The word Dervish, especially in European languages, refers to members of Sufi Muslim ascetic religious fraternities, known for their extreme poverty and austerity, similar to mendicant friars.
     As Sufi practitioners, dervishes were known as a source of wisdom, medicine, poetry, enlightenment, and witticisms. 

    ‘Semah’ is the Alevi ritual dance characterized by turning and swirling, this dance of worship has many varieties. ‘Semah’ is quite similar to pre-IslamSwirling Dervishesic Turkish religious worship dances made by shamans. Performed by men and women to the accompaniment of the Bağlama, the Semah is an inseparable part of any ceremony. It symbolizes the putting off of one’s self and union with God.
     The Semah is a mesmerizing, seven-century old ritual, which features beautiful costumes, hypnotic music with flutes, string and percussion, and the amazing sight of the Dervishes whirling. The ritual unites the three fundamental components of human nature: the mind (as knowledge and thought), the heart (through the expression of feelings, poetry and music), and the body (by activating life, by turning). These three elements are thoroughly joined both in theory and in practice and as perhaps in no other ritual or system of thought.
     It is scientifically recognized that the fundamental condition of our existence is to revolve. There is no being or object which does not revolve, because all beings are comprised of revolving electrons, protons, and neutrons in atoms. Everything revolves, and the human being lives by means of the revolution of these particles, by the revolution of the blood in his body, and by the revolution of the stages of his life, by his coming from the earth and his returning to it.

     By revolving in harmony with all things in nature the semazen testifies to the existence and the majesty of the Creator, thinks of Him, gives thanks to Him, and prays to Him.
     The Semah ceremony represents the human being’s spiritual journey, an ascent by means of intelligence and love to Perfection (Kemal). Turning toward the truth, he grows through love, transcends the ego, meets the truth, and arrives at Perfection. Then he returns from this spiritual journey as one who has reached maturity and completion, able to love and serve the whole of creation and all creatures without discriminating in regard to belief, class, or race.

The Semah Ritual

     In the symbolism of the Semah ritual, the semazen’s camel’s hair hat (sikke) represents the tombstone of the ego; his wide, white skirt represents the ego’s shroud. By  removing his black cloak, he is spiritually reborn to the truth. At the beginning of the Semah, by holding his arms crosswise, the semazen appears to represent the number one, thus testifying to God’s unity. While whirling, his arms are open: his right arm is directed to the sky, ready to receive God’s beneficence; his left hand, upon which his eyes are fastened, is turned toward the earth. The semazen conveys God’s spiritual gift to those who are witnessing the Semah. Revolving from right to left around the heart, the semazen embraces all humanity with love. The human being has been created with love in order to love.

“All loves are a bridge to Divine love.
Yet, those who have not had a taste of it do not know!”

                                                                                              – Rumi

The Selams

A Swirling Dervish in Semah     During the Semah itself there are four selams, or musical movements, each with a distinct rhythm. At the beginning and close of each selam, the semazen testifies to God’s unity.

     The First Selam represents the human being’s birth to truth through feeling and mind. It represents his complete acceptance of his condition as a creature created by God.

     The Second Selam expresses the rapture of the human being witnessing the splendor of creation in front of God’s greatness and omnipotence.

     The Third Selam is the rapture of dissolving into love and the sacrifice of the mind to love. It is complete submission, unity, the annihilation of self in Second Selamthe Beloved. This is the state that is known as Nirvana in Buddhism and Fana Fillah in Islam. The next stage in Islamic belief is the state of servanthood represented by the Prophet (P.B.U.H.), who is called God’s servant, foremost, and subsequently, His “messenger.” The aim of Semah is not unbroken ecstasy and loss of consciousness, but the realization of submission to God.

     In the Fourth Selam, just as the Prophet (P.B.U.H.) ascends to the spiritual “Throne” and then returns to his task on earth, the whirling

Fourth Selamdervish, after the ascent of his spiritual journey, returns to his task, to his servanthood. He is a servant of God, of His Books, of His Prophets (P.B.U.T.) of His whole creation. In the Qur’an this is expressed as:

“The messenger has believed in what was sent down to him from his Lord, and so did the believers. They believe in GOD, His angels, His scripture, and His messengers: “We make no distinction among any of His messengers.” They say, “We hear, and we obey.* Forgive us, our Lord. To You is the ultimate destiny.””
           – Surah Baqarah [2:285]

      At the end of this salute, he demonstrates this again by his appearance, arms consciously and humbly crossed, representing the unity of God.     Afterwards follows a recitation from the Qur’an, especially the verse:

“To God belong the East and the West,
and wherever you turn is the face of God.
He is the All-Embracing, the All-Knowing.”

                                                                    – Surah Baqarah [2:115]

     The ceremony ends with a prayer for the peace of the souls of all Prophets (P.B.U.T.) and believers. After the completion of the Semah, all the dervishes return silently to their rooms for meditation (tefekkur).





15 Responses to "The Swirling Dervish"

Pretty good roundup here. I wrote a paper on sema and musical mysticism for a class a few years ago – it was some of the best research I ever had to do.

I can understand the mesmerising impact of the sufi music and the fascination by the intensity.

I saw a documentary on PBS, on the orgin of Coffee and learned of the Dervish. Of how they used coffee to enduce a sort of trance for their dance. ( Not sure if it is still used in that way today ) Very intresting practice. I agree with Sehreen, “the mesmerising impact of the sufi music and the fascination by the intensity”, is a wonderful way of putting how I feel every time I am re-introduced to these beautiful Sufi practitioners.

Hi crystal,

Thanks for the comment. It is true that at various points in history, drugs like tea, coffee and hash were used to enhance emotions. At this point it is I believe a more symbolic gesture.

Sehreen is very good at articulating as well, and I believe she speaks formost of us when she discusses the exotic, enchanting effect of the practice

Thanks once again for the comment

hi thanks for ur write up it will be really a gr8 help for me, actually i am doing research on sufi, i myself like there music, i have collected many songs from renowned sufi singers, those sufi songs inspired me to take this theme for my final design collection,actually i am a fashion designer and i want to make a collection whose inspiration will be “whirling dervish “,today was my second day of research and i got your article,thanks a lot, i want a favour from you, if possible can i get any information on there wardrobe, if possible, in INDIA there are many dargah dedicated to sufi practioner, specially in delhi like hazrat nizammudin, inayat khan etc, in this week i will go there to feel that how they think, how is there lifestyle, etc, i will wait for your reply and thanks again

Hi ajeet. Please allow me to get back to you in a day or two. I would love to help you.

Thank you 🙂

just because of ur article i got to know that why dervish raise there one hand up and other in downward position,the concept behind this pose is really very meaningfull, and i really liked there costumes, is there any reason to wear that flared skirt and big headgear type thing,it looks mysteryful

sure dear i will wait for ur reply, even i am planning to visit nizammudin dargan in delhi, may be i will get some info on fabrics, prints, motif or any kind of surface ornamentation which they use,hope for the best, in the mean time u also search , and thanks for ur reply

umm ne1 noe where i can find midi music for this dance?

well its not just one song, there’s many. your best bet would be to youtube “sufi music”


Just wanted to thank you for your wonderful description of the swirling dervish. Do you mind if I quote some of your text on my website? It is quite by accident that I came upon Sufism. I had a mystical experience during a rock concert that changed my life. (Sammy Hagar’s concert in 2003). My search for explanations led me to Sufism and Rumi, both of whom described my experience perfectly. I knew the truth lay within their teachings. If you would like to check out my blog before you give your permission, it is Thank you for considering my request.

yes, please go ahead 🙂

I was lucky and blest to attend a semah in Turkey. However, I would love to know the symbolism of the blood red wool rug they placed on the floor? Is it referring to sacrificing?

I thought it was very beautiful and all the audience were enthralled. Using our body for worship seems such a natural way to worship, I think anyway.
I hope somebody will answer my query.
regards and shalom

Hey Aine,

I’m not sure about the symbolism. I will try to find out

I agree with your second point. After all, our soul is said to be contained within the body.

shalom and regards as well 🙂

Thanks for The Swirling Dervish | Perception Is Reality
Keep on writing, great job!

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Born in Karachi, Pakistan in an Adventist hospital, I grew up in a city where on one side I experienced poverty and oppression, while on the other I had the good fortune of Tabish Bhimani being a member of an upper middle-class business family...more...

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