Rumi & Sufism in Turkey

Rumi, or Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, is one of the world’s best-selling poets – a particularly impressive feat, given that he died some eight centuries ago. His message of universal love and religious tolerance is profoundly influential, and has found a significant audience in the modern world. Mevlevi, the Sufi order founded by his followers, is known around the world for the practise of Sema, a worship ceremony famed for the whirling dervishes who spin on the spot with arms outstretched as a form of meditation and prayer.

Yet for many readers of his work, the real Rumi is hidden behind inaccurate translations that strip away the context of his Islamic faith. Language is more than just a means of communication. It is also a way of keeping shared beliefs, traditions and memories. Reframing Rumi’s poetry to appeal to different cultures, time periods and religious sensibilities, and uncoupling it of context to make it more ‘Instagram-friendly’ is effectively a form of spiritual and cultural colonialism. For Rumi’s work to be seen as universalist and encouraging tolerance, its roots in Islamic teachings must be acknowledged.

What is Sufism?

Sufism, or Tasawwuf in the Arabic-speaking world, is a mystical approach to Islam. Followers strive to attain closeness with God, purification of the inner Self, and perfection of worship through focusing on spirituality, asceticism and ritual such as meditation, chanting and, in the case of the Mevlevi Order, whirling. Rather than being a type of Islam, Sufism is a way of understanding it.

Through writers such as Rumi and Attar of Nishapur, Sufism was integral to the spread of Islamic civilisation, as well as intellectual culture through the Islamic world, in part due to its suitability for societies based around religious plurality or secularism. It has been described by several commentators as “an antidote to fanaticism”.

Tending to be moderate and apolitical, Sufis are concerned more with spiritual change within themselves than changing the external situation such as oppressive governance – something that has led to suspicion and aggression from some quarters. The fact that Sufis worship saints, which can be viewed as idolatry, has also made them targets of extremist fundamentalists.

Many Sufi orders took root in Turkey over the centuries. The practise was banned under secular reforms by the Ottoman state in 1925, but those roots went deep and it was able to survive underground.

Today, while still tolerated rather than officially permitted, Sufism flourishes, and it is not difficult to find a performance of the Mevlevi order’s whirling dervishes, especially in Konya, the Anatolian city where Rumi spent most of his life.
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Who was Rumi?

Rumi has quite the resume. Revered 13th-century Persian poet, one of the most widely read and best-selling of all time, a prolific and massively influential Islamic theologian a philosopher.

Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi was born in Central Asia, in what is today Tajikistan, but after the Mongol invasion of the Persian Empire his family sought sanctuary in Konya, former capital of the Seljuk Sultanate.

Konya was a very cosmopolitan city in Rumi’s time, home to diverse religions, languages and ideas, as well as a well-educated elite, an atmosphere of religious tolerance and diversity that allowed him to learn from several faiths.

However, the greatest influence on Rumi, his thinking and writing was a brief but intense relationship with a wandering mystic known as Shams of Tabriz, who encouraged Rumi to add poetry, dance and music to his worship. When they parted, Rumi ploughed his emotional distress into poetry, writing love songs to Shams, the Prophet Muhammad and God.

It’s said that Rumi started whirling to the percussive notes of gold-beaters in the market one day. He became known for spinning away while composing his poetry or meditating, and today the Mevlevi Sama (listening) Ceremony has been recognised by UNESCO.

Translation… or interpretation?

Rumi’s words of love, joy and spiritual devotion have resonated through the centuries with amazing relevance. His is ultimately a humanist message, one capable of transcending religion, language and geography, but also one that stems directly from his Muslim faith and belief in the Koran.

The Rumi that has found fame in recent years has an attractive way with words, but the price paid for such beautiful simplicity is that much of the context, specifically Rumi’s Islamic faith, has been shorn away. Many translations have taken substantial liberties with Rumi’s poetry and the meaning behind it.

Rumi’s poetry shouldn’t be uncoupled from Islam, as it was directly informed by his religious beliefs, which were in turn informed by the Koran.

What are whirling dervishes?

Whirling, as practised by the Mevlevi order founded by Rumi, is a Sama (listening) ceremony performed in remembrance of God, often accompanied by music, singing, poetry recitals and prayer. Groups of devotees, usually men, move in a circle while spinning around, inwardly chanting “Allah” with every 360-degree rotation. It’s a form of spiritual meditation that has become a cultural attraction, but it’s not always done for tourists.

Clothing is integral to Sama. The dancers appear wearing long black cloaks that symbolise death and the grave, discarding them to reveal white robes, a symbol of resurrection. On their heads they wear tall brown felt hats which are meant to resemble tombstones and symbolise the death of the ego, a necessary act to achieve closeness with God.

Where can I watch whirling dervishes in Turkey?

Whirling dervish performances (though it must be remembered that they are also religious ceremonies) can be observed in many locations across Turkey.

Among the best-known are those held at the Galata Mevlevi Museum in Istanbul and near the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, which holds a festival every December where you can also see many instances of whirling.

If you're very lucky you may be invited to a community-run dervish lodge where you can witness a non-touristy ceremony.

Where is the tomb of Rumi?

The tomb of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi is in the mausoleum of the Mevlâna (Our Master) Museum in Konya, central Turkey. Construction of the mausoleum was finished a year after his death in 1273, and it, as well as the dervish lodge of the Mevlevi order, became a museum in 1926.

The museum, with its eye-catching green conical dome, is one of the most popular destinations in Turkey. Almost 3.5 million pilgrims and tourists visited in 2019. There are weekly whirling dervish performances in the attractive rose garden outside during the summer months.

Rumi’s father and son are also buried here, and among the exhibits are a number of musical instruments used by Rumi himself, books of his poetry and some ancient Korans and prayer rugs.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: GuenterRuopp] [Intro: Incelemeelemani] [Who was Rumi?: Nathan Hughes Hamilton] [What are Whirling Dervishes?: svklimkin] [The tomb of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi: Nazzarenoagostinelli]