"We do not Turn for ourselves. We turn around in the way we do so the Light of God may descend upon the earth. As you act as a conduit in the Turn, the light comes through the right hand, and the left hand brings it into this world. We Turn for God and for the world, and it is the most beautiful thing you can imagine."
Suleyman Hayati Dede
Mevlevi Sheikh of
Everything in us and around us is moving, spinning, evolving and re-volving. From our molecular bits to the planet we stand on, all of it in is a whirling dance of motion with everything else. The Sufi ceremony that invokes and evolves this interconnected revolution is called the Sema and it is, indeed, beautiful. And Turning isn't nearly as easy as they make it look, especially with your arms up in two different directions and angles while you try to stay in one place on the floor. Try it sometime. Keep an eye on your left thumb--the one that's facing down. It helps.
Embodied worship, like the Turning of a Darvish, is a challenge to the primacy of written texts. Is there anything, anywhere, that I could read that would transport me in the same way as a Sema, with its Turning humans, its aching ney, its ecstasy of submission to and unity with the Divine? Is there anything on a page that can show me the touch of God on a human heart as the expression on the face of a Turner can? Is there a book that can give me the sounds of the robes and soft, leather slippers susurrating the rhythm of the Turn? If there is, I haven't read it yet.
A Darvish is a sacred text. The music they move to is a sacred text. The chanting of Allah, Allah, Allah while they stare at their thumbs so as not to topple is a sacred text. Writing is good, but words on a page, unfiltered through the beating of a heart that yearns for what the text can merely describe, can only take you just so far.
The Sema is highly ritualized. Everything in it means something, and I can only point at the subtleties, not yet being learned enough to fully grok them. Many of the ritual objects--the slippers, the robes, the felted wool hat--come from ancient Central Asian shamanism that predates Islam. Sacred dancing to sacred music wasn't invented by the Sufis, but they certainly did a lot to evolve these shamanistic techniques and symbols to an elevated (and elevating) art form.
Not all Sufis Turn. The ones that do, including the Mevlevi order, are causing the mind to participate in the nature of the oneness of being, representing the individual's ascent through 'dying before you die' and working to tame the nafs, the bits of us that keep us away from the Beloved. The tall, felted hat is a symbol of a gravestone for the nafs.
The Sema has 7 parts. I'll give you a rough sketch.
Part 1: Testifying to tawhid, Divine unity. The Darvish enter, usually a round space, with a black cloak over the white robes. This part begins with a hymn of praise to the prophets, which symbolizes love for Allah for the gifts of prophets.
Part 2: Begins with a drum, symbolizing the Divine Voice saying, "Kum!" (Be!) which is Allah calling being into Being.
Part 3: A taksim with the ney, symbolizing the Divine Breath that is given to everything.
Part 4: The Darvish greet each other and the Shaykh, one soul to another in unity and recognition, moving in a walk that was created by Mevlevi's son, Sultan Veled. There's special music for this. At the end of the third repetition of Sultan Veled's Walk, they shed the black cloak and prepare to Turn.
Part 5: This is the actual Turning part; it has 4 sections, or Salaams. Each Salaam (Peace) has its own music.
Salaam 1: ~7 minutes. Awakening to truth, complete conception of the Divine as Creator of all things.
Salaam 2: ~3-4 minutes. Expresses the rapture of humankind witnessing the splendor of creation; this is ecstatic.
Salaam 3: ~10 minutes. Transformation of ecstasy into love; sacrificing the self to Love, merging into the
Salaam 4: ~3 minutes. From disappearing into Allah, we re-turn, dwelling in Allah but present to the world and sustained. The goal isn't to stay disappeared but to bring back the Love of Disappearance to all beings.
Part 6: Recitation of Sura 2:115 (The Heifer)
"To Allah belongs the East and the West. Whichever way you turn, there is the face of Allah. Allah is All-Embracing, and Allah is All-Knowing."
Part 7: Closing. Prayers of repose for Muhammad, his family, the Prophets, Celebi, etc.
One of my favorite translations of ihsan is "doing the beautiful." Sema is doing the beautiful. May we turn from all that is not Love and return again and again to the Unity that is everywhere, no matter where we Turn.
I hope you've enjoyed taking this journey into Mevlana with me. The class was amazing, and sharing it with you has been a pleasure. May you go from here in Peace, Grace, Honey, with Allah al-Haqqi, with aching song and beautiful word. Please, share this around to anyone you know who might enjoy it or benefit from it.
Elhamdulillah! Only the mistakes are mine.
I mentioned last week that the reed flute, the ney, is an important instrument in Mevlevi music and features strongly as a symbol in Mevelevi poetry. This discussion is about writing, not music, yet the reed flute is present, crying, "Hu, Hu!"
Arabic calligraphy is done with a hollow reed pen, cut and sharpened in a particular way. This reed flute cries for not wind, but ink; it sings a song of whisper and skritch, of pen on paper, the union of the loving ink with the beloved surface. The pen is the delivery system for union between the vessel of the words, the ink, and the recipient of that grace, the paper.
You may have heard that Muhammad, may peace and blessings be upon him, was illiterate. That's apparently a bad translation of the word "umi," (OOh-me) which is better translated as "unlettered." Some truly unlettered, ignorant folks would dismiss the Qur'an as a sacred text by saying it was given to an illiterate person and so it can't possibly be an accurate transmission. This is neither appropriate nor correct.
Muhammad was an orphan. Before he became a prophet, his uncle took him in and taught him the family merchant biz. Later, he met Khadijah, an older widow who ran her own business; Muhammad went to work for her. After she saw what a bangup job he did being a decent human and tending her affairs, she offered marriage. He accepted. It is said that it was in Khadijah's arms, wrapped in her cloak, that Muhammad wept his fear and frustration at having been picked to receive the Qur'an. It's highly unlikely that Muhammad was illiterate, running businesses and stuff like that. I think of 'unlettered' as being more like a really smart person with no degrees, no alphabet academic soup following the name. No Dr. Muhammad, no Muhammad of the Tribe Quraysh, Ph.D. Just Muhammad, messenger of Allah.
Muhammad may not have been a master poet or calligrapher, but that didn't stop him from receiving the Qur'an. The Qur'an itself helped to spread Arabic everywhere it went. I've read most of it in translation and heard much of it in Arabic. I can tell you that the music, the magic of the sound of the words, the transcendent resonances of the words spoken aloud instantly vanish when you take it out of Arabic. The language itself it quintessential to the message; the written language is the transmitter of that message. That makes Arabic really important.
Today, only 18% of the global Muslim population speaks Arabic, yet the Arabic alphabet is used to scribe many different languages, just as the Roman alphabet is (French, German, Spanish, etc). Not speaking Arabic makes engagement with the source text problematic but, if you think about it, very few Christians can read their source text in its parent tongues, either. With the Qur'an, there's only one language: Arabic. To read the Bible in its original bits (it's not one, cohesive text), you'd need to be able to read Aramaic, Latin and Greek at the very least.
Arabic isn't the easiest language I've ever tried to learn, but it may be the most beautiful, especially in its written form. Originally the vehicle for the Qur'an, written Arabic relatively quickly (it only took about 600 years) evolved into high art. Qur'anic passages done in elaborate calligraphy are referred to by some Sufis as "visual zikr" )zikr means "remembrance" in that nifty, mindful, prayer-ish kinda way). Enslaved Muslims forced to work on projects for people of other faiths incorporated Arabic in architecture, building and design. The Dome of the Rock, a site in Jerusalem sacred to Jews, Chritians and Muslims alike, sports gorgeous calligraphy (pix to your right).
Arabic calligraphy became not only the vehicle for transmission, but ornament and talisman as well; it was woven into clothing for blessing and protection (pic on right), used extensively in architecture and developed into a visual art suitable to many media.
To get a quick feel for Arabic calligraphy, watch this. With many thanks to my excellent and patient teacher, Issa Nessim, I offer for your viewing pleasure my first word written in Arabic: it's "hu," which means the Divine Essence (pic also on the right). The sound of Hu is also used as a Sufi breath practice, to help one come into the Presence.
Peace be with you, Hu-ever you are!
The Song of the Reed (part one)
Mathnawi I: 1-3
1 Listen1 to the reed (flute), how it is complaining! It is telling
2 (Saying), "Ever since I was severed from the reed field,4 men
and women have lamented in (the presence of) my shrill cries.5
3 "(But) I want a heart (which is) torn, torn from separation, so that
I may explain the pain of yearning."6
-- From "The Mathnawî-yé Ma`nawî" [Rhymed Couplets of Deep Spiritual Meaning] of Jalaluddin Rumi. Translated from the Persian by Ibrahim Gamard (with gratitude for R. A. Nicholson's 1926 British translation) © Ibrahim Gamard (translation, footnotes, & transliteration)
Humans like music. It makes us happy, sad, energized or achey. Not merely entertainment, music is a way in which humans convey meaning and information; it'’s also a handy tool for enculturation, celebration and education. Music isn't just a soundtrack to our lived stories; it's a character in the stories themselves.
That being said, I can tell you more about what I don't understand about Ottoman music than what I do. I can tell you that the first few times that I heard Turkish or Persian music I found it cacophonous. I didn't have the ears to understand it. Now that I have a slightly better understand of what's going on in the music, I can tell you that it's dynamic and active; pretty much all of it means something, signifies something. This music is art, rife with complex scalings, meters and tropes. I don't know nearly enough to trul, profoundly appreciate it, but I know enough to appreciate how little I know, and how much this music has to offer.
The influence of Mevlevi Sufism on Ottoman music wasn't immediately obvious to me. Now I don't see how I could've missed it. There are three basic types of Ottoman music: Courtly, Popular and what we'll call Sacred. The Sacred category has two main types: the kind of music played in a masjid or mosque, and the kind played in a tekke (a Sufi gathering place). You may have heard that in Islam there is no music or dancing or art. You've been misinformed. Different Islamic sects have chosen different relationships to music, dancing and art but I assure you, there's plenty of art in Islam--up to and including lush Persian depictions of Muhammad (turns out it was a political dispute that created the whole no-pictures-of-Allah-or-Muhammad deal. Figures, dunnit?).
The Sufis, particularly the Mevlevi order of Rumi, made a lot of music. Really beautiful music. They wouldn't give it up, either, even when popular convention told them they should; even when the entire Mevlevi Order was illegalized. Sufi music is an act of praise and worship to Allah; it's a form of ihsan ('doing the beautiful'). Mevlana wrote a lot of poems about the reed flute, and how, once cut form it's bed, it sings achingly of reunion. This instrument, the reed flute, is called a ney. It has a surprising range and creates a resonance that's filled with sweet, warm wind and the emptiness of separation. It can shriek and it can soothe. It's a lovely little hollow stick that's full of sonic surprises. And it's tricky to learn how to play well. The best, perhaps only, way to learn it is to study with a Master.
By the mid-1700's, all Master ney players were Mevlevis. By the turn of the 18th century, all Master Court ney players were Mevlevis. Today, Mevlevis represent a large percentage of all Master ney players; the Mevlevis have done amazing work preserving skill, transmitting knowledge through music and creating new musics as we move into the future. Since all of these fabulous ney players are Mevlevis--Sufis, of the Mevlevi (Rumi) order, their beliefs and practices have inextricably woven themselves into the music. Maybe that's why it can transport me so. And that's just the listening part; I recently had the privilege of attending a Sufi zikr with live musicians; the combination of sound, breath and movement are heady indeed. There were even women musicians, as well as women darvishi!
Islam was and primarily still is an oral tradition; music is a key component of transmission in oral/aural traditions. One of the most stunning things about Mevlevi music is that it's open to everyone. Men, women, hijra, other: anyone can enter Mevlevi music. Mevlevi music has been critically important to the preservation of archives, teachers and transmitters; its influence is audible in many other musics, too, like Armenian, Jewish and Greek. To hear some for yourself, click here; there are samples of the three main types as well as many other subtypes. Let it call you into the union of breath and sound.
Yup. That's right. Sufi women. As in Friends of Allah (Allah al-Haqqi). As in intelligent, gifted intellectual and spiritual leadership within Islam. As Muslims. And as women and other non-male gendered beings. And just so you know, I only use that language because it's the easiest and I am not in the mood to have that discussion. I do not feel that males or maleness is the defining standard against which all other embodiments should be evaluated.
I don't know about you, but when I think of dervishes (darvish), like those in the Mevlevi Order of Sufism, the image that pops into my head is that of all men, wearing the white robes and honey-colored fezs of the order, spinning gracefully, absorbedly, and looking like exquisite flowers in a magical garden. I like the image of manflowers, but somehow it isn't a complete picture for me, a monocultured garden. I've just always accepted the image of darvishes as male, and the only one; it was all I knew.
A few weeks ago, I went to a zikr (prayer meeting) of the Mevlevi Order. There were darvish and darvishi. There were women turning, right alongside the men. It took my breath away. It felt somehow complete.
Today I learned that up until about the fourth century, Sufism (not what it was really called then) had women involved at pretty much every level. Women could be seen, with men, in public, turning towards/with Allah. Women were honored as scholars, jurists, philosophers, prophets, saints and practitioners
Then it stopped, for a lot of complex reasons having to do with mashups in geography, politics, religion, culture and more.
Guess when women and other non-male gendered folx were finally officially allowed by the head of the Mevlevi Order to start turning again in public, in mixed gender settings?
For the last five-hundred-plus years, women and intergendered Sufi practitioners couldn't pray with their brothers in public, by turning. They're still frowned on, these integrated practices; many attempt to refute them by saying, “Well, of course, they can't be Muslim. That can't be Islam.”
Mevlana said, "In your body is a precious jewel. Seek that." It doesn't specify which kind of gendered body has a jewel within; sounds to me like it means all bodies. One of the unique features of Islam as it emerged (especially while Muhammad (mpbuh) was alive), was the inclusive and fair treatment of women in society. For the first time, women had a voice in religion and a say in society. They were honored and protected accordnig to the needs and demands of their world at that time. Remember: everything is contextual, and to understand something, we hafta look at it where it came from, not where we want it to be.
Okay, so, no. It didn't last all that long--all this juicy, egalitarian goodness. But my point is that it's there, embedded in Islam. Today, we see a lot of this dispute centered around hijab, divorce, and the proper role of women in the world and in Islam. But one thing Mevlana Rumi knew that would benefit us all to remember is that the Mevlevi community--which is Islamic-- is known for its emphasis on "the art of living the life of a true human being," and that art has no gender.
For your further reading pleasure, not just about Sufi women but about Muslim women in general, please visit: http://www.altmuslimah.com/
and check out this fantastic NPR program about women and hijab, discussed (gasp!) by the people who atuatlly wear it: http://www.npr.org/2011/04/21/135523680/lifting-the-veil-muslim-women-explain-their-choice
Be sure to scroll further down the page to view the nifty multimedia presentation that adds depth to the stories.
May peace be upon you!
I may be only a humble grad student, but I think I've learned something. We have this nasty tendency in the West to find something we like and then disassociate it from anything we might not like. Take Sufism, for instance.
The West loves Sufism. We love its poetry (well, what awkward interpretations we have access to in English, anyway). We love its orientation on Love and Beauty. Of course, anything so exquisitely lovely couldn't possibly be related to anything we find as scary and dangerously menacing as Islam, right?
For all of you out there who are profoundly in love with Rumi, I ask that you remember one thing: Rumi and his Sufism come from Islam. That's right--the faith tradition we're being media-schooled to fear and hate as radical and terrifying. Rumi comes from that big, scary "monster." I recently heard a statistic stating that at least 25% of the Masnavi is directly connected to the Qur'an.
Clearly, a process must occur. We must either tear Sufism away from its parent tradition, forbid it its own language and make it conform to our needs (sound familiarly colonial?), or we must find ways to understand Islam as something not monolithic and capable of producing exquisite beauty.
One of the 99 Name of God is "Most Beautiful." Allah is beauty, and every possible manifestation of beauty (both the chair and the idea of chair, if you need some Greek framing). Allah is also everything horrible, and every manifestation of horror. In order to see things as they are, we have to know that each thing we see may have multiple manifestations but only one Divine, peerless source.
Allah made Rumi. Submission to Allah is Islam. Rumi submitted. Rumi is islam. It's just not possible to take Sufism out of Islam any more than you can take Teresa of Avila or Thomas Merton out of Christianity. So, since we can't remove the sweetness from the substance and still rightly call it honey, we must come to more reasonable grips with Islam.
Rumi gives us a way in to Islam, not an invitation to divorce it. There's an hadith that says Allah told Muhammad that the thing Allah hates most (of all the legal things) is "divorce," which is better translated as "separation." Here's my invitation to you: use the Rumi you love as a way to kneel and kiss the ground of Islam, instead of refusing to even entertain the notion that Islam--at least, the ugly face we've insisted it wear in public--is the parent of such exquisite beauty.
Put down the Coleman Barks and go read some William Chittick, or a good translation of the Masnawi. Confront yourself with ambiguity that forces you to wrestle with difficult things. Find the beauty in the struggle for beauty, and gaze in awe and wonder at the miracle of your own heart.
To read more by those far wiser than I, please click here.
Quite a lot, as it turns out--at least with 12th century Sufi poets.
Most folks just call him Rumi, which simply means "the Roman," and is an allusion to where Mevlana lived in
Having just created this blog as an act of public scholarship, I set out to find some nice art to fancy it up with. Having learned that Rumi is actually something of an insult and rarely if ever used by his adherents, I searched for Mevlana instead. I immediately noticed a difference: when I searched for Rumi, most of the sites came back in English. When I searched Mevlana, almost every single site was in Arabic, Farsi or Turkish. To be fair, because I can't read them yet, I may be misidentifying the languages, but I do know for sure that they weren't English.
That says something to me. It says "Rumi" is for people who like their wisdom bite-sized, instantly and in English. "Rumi" fits on a bumper sticker or coffee mug, is easy to pronounce and provides an accessible referent. It's the finger pointing at the man. Now that I know Coleman Barks didn't translate Rumi but rather wrote his own interpretations of Mevlana's (sometimes poorly) translated works, I feel a little sad. There's beauty in how Barks puts things, sure, but it isn't Mevlana.
This amazing scholar and poet had titles as well as names. "Mevlana" is one of them; it means "our master" or "our teacher." "Hudawandigar" means "distinguished leader." The term "mevlevi" refers not only to a follower of Mevlana, but also means "one with an awakened heart." It seems that the man became a figure on which one might hang many beautiful names.
The term "sufi" comes from the root word for "wool," and speaks to simplicity, the beauty in simple everyday things. The hats that dervishes wear are made of wool and are symbolic of the tombstones of the nafs, ofeten loosely translated as "ego." "Dervish" means "one who stands on/at a threshold," and Sufis certainly dance with the liminal. We are always at a threshold, one between the world we experience and the tawhid or oneness of Allah.
This post is dedicated to Silas Knight, who warned me early on, when I was too foolish to listen. I get it now. Thank you, Silas.