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when dance is a prayer

As part of our ongoing educational tour of Turkey, we had an opportunity to participate in a Whirling Dervishes performance of the Mevlevi group that traces itself back to the famed Muslim sage and poet Rumi.

The whirling dance is today both a sacred activity and a tourist trap. You can see “whirling performances” in many Turkish cafes and restaurants. Most of the times, the dancers are high school and college kids.

There are also the situations where many Sufis, particularly from North American, come to Turkey to witness the Whirling as a sacred manifestation of an embodied spirituality. For them, the whirling is perhaps the very zenith of the spiritual path.

We had a chance to observe the whirling performance in an unusual setting: a 13th century caravanserai.
Somehow, though, the ambiance works, and it is my favorite place to take the group for their first whirling performance.

There is much that one can say about the whirling, ranging from the extraordinary amount of concentration that is required to the intense training.
But here I want to focus on another aspect: the connection to the Prophet Muhammad.

Dance is very rarely associated with Islam, and yet in this case we are faced with a ritual which uses the movement of the body to us with the whirling of the cosmos. Furthermore, it is the very presence of the Prophet that presides over the whole ceremony.

The performance begins with a poem, in Persian, called “Na’t-e sharif”, the noble hymn.

The poem first mentions Rumi’s name:

Ya Hazrat-e Mawlana
Haqq Dost 

O His Holiness,
Our Master [Rumi] Friend of God

It then goes on to mention the Prophet:

O Beloved of God
You are the Messenger of the One Creator.
You are the one Chosen by the Lord of Majesty
You are the Pure You are the peerless.
You are the darling of God You are the full moon of creation.
You are the light of the eyes of the prophets

The whirling performance ends again with a mention of Rumi and his lineage, sending blessings on all the lovers past and present, east and west, and then again returns to the master of ceremonies, who is none other than the Prophet.


Peace and Blessings upon you, O Messenger of God
Peace and Blessings upon you, O Beloved of God.
Peace and Blessings upon you, O Light of God’s Throne
Peace and Blessings upon you, O Mater of the First and the Last
And peace upon all the messengers.

The whirling performance provides us with another opportunity to see a tender, spiritually potent, and aesthetically powerful manifestation of Islam.

It is also a chance to see the Prophet of Islam not merely as “just a man”, but rather as what he is for many Muslims: an embodiment of Divine mercy.

Tags: aesthetic, dance, islam, muhammad, music, poetry, prayer, prophet, rumi, sufi

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