Whirling With the Sufi Dervishes
I visited Konya, a city in central Turkey, to pay my respects to Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi, one of the greatest poets and mystical spiritualists in Islam, who lived there about eight centuries ago.
Rumi inspired the founding of the Mawlawi Sufi order, a mystical branch of Islam. He illuminated spiritual love and made God closer to humans.
“Never think that the paths to God are difficult to pass. To work with holiness is never difficult,” he wrote.
To know how Rumi enlightened people I visited Konya’s Mevlana Museum. The museum and his mausoleum are located in the compound that used to be a dervish lodge of the order. A dervish is someone who follows a Sufi Muslim life of austere poverty, known as Tariqah. Mawlawi was an official state institution supported by sultans and officials in the Ottoman Empire from the 17th to the 19th century.
In the lodge, dervishes learned about music, poetry, calligraphy, Sema (ritual dance), and Islamic spiritual discipline. The living quarters and kitchen now exhibit the goods that were once used in the lodge, such as banners, emblems, prayer beads, prayer rugs, beautiful calligraphic Korans, pens, candle stands, ornate clothing and musical instruments. It is clear that for Rumi, spiritual music and dance are an important part of religious expression. After visiting the museum, it’s easy to see that the dervishes led a devout life in order to be closer to God.
Rumi was born in 1207 in Balkh, located in present day Afghanistan, which had been a major center for Islam learning. His father, Bahauddin Valad, was a Muslim preacher, scholar and Sufi master and named him Jalaluddin Muhammad bin Husein al Balkhi. When the Mongol Empire invaded Central Asia, the family fled. Sultan Alauddin of the Seljuk Sultanate then invited the family to live in Konya, the capital.
Later, he changed his name to Jalaluddin Muhammad al Rumi. This is because Anatolia — present day western Turkey — was called Rum for centuries, as it was part of the Eastern Roman Empire. In Turkey, Iran, India and Pakistan Rumi has always been known as Mawlana, an Arabic word that means “Our Master.” Only in the West has he been called Rumi.
Rumi was a pious Muslim. By the age of 24 when his father died, he was an accomplished scholar in Islamic science. For 10 years he studied under Sayyid Burhanuddin Tarmizi. When he was 37 he met his second Sufi master, Shamsuddin Muhammad Al Tabriz. Shamsuddin introduced him to Islamic mysticism. After three years together, Shamsuddin transformed Rumi into a mature lover of God.
Rumi’s works were originally written in Persian. He has two masterpieces: Diwan Shams Tabriz, consisting of 40,000 verses. It speaks to his contemporary feelings, spiritual intoxication and ecstatic love, while in the spiritual state of “Sama,” which means “listening to God” and involves singing, dancing, poetry and prayers. His other major work, Mathnawi, consists of 25,000 verses in six volumes.
Rumi has become known as poet of love, as translations separate his love poems from his belief in God and Islam. In fact, for Rumi the tremendous love in his works was an expression of his love for God.
Yet Rumi’s works cross boundaries. In “A Gift of Love,” Rumi’s poems were adapted by Deepak Chopra and set to music, Madonna used a translation of Rumi’s verses praising God, and Donna Karan played recitations of his poetry in her fashion shows. In 2001, his poems were the best selling in the United States, and Unesco chose 2007 as the Year of Rumi. Even Sean Stone, an actor, documentary maker and son of director Oliver Stone, is planning a film about Rumi’s life.
Rumi died in 1273. People have commemorated the anniversary of his death for centuries, and in the last 50 years people have marked his death on Dec. 17. Mawlawis call it the “night of union” and gather in Konya to perform Sama.
I walked to the local mausoleum and, like other visitors, I took off my shoes to enter. The gate led me to the Tilavet Room decorated with exquisite Ottoman calligraphy. There is a raised platform where the tombs are situated. Rumi’s is covered with brocade, embroidered in gold with Koranic verses, located under a green dome. Visitors stood in front of his tomb, solemnly reciting prayers. I was trembling. By the time I stood before his tomb, I burst into tears and prayed for him. I felt no distance from him, as if overwhelming love was radiating.
In semahane (dance hall), others performed prayers for him. I was speechless. I moved to the next room, a small mosque that is now used to exhibit a collection of old Korans and prayer rugs from the Seljuk Turk to Ottoman Empire times. Exiting the mausoleum, I felt happiness and melancholy.