Sema (Whirling) - Cemalnur Sargut

Sema (Whirling)

Cemalnur Sargut


The dictionary meaning of “Sema” is to hear in English. Our holly book Qur’an begins with the word ‘read’. When the reader is a “kamil” (mature, perfect) human resembling the “ney”(a reed flute especially played in Mevlevi music), who has abandoned all his desires and become the reflection of “Allah” (God) like a mirror as in Prophet Muhammad, the meaning of what is being read activates our spirits and the sound of it activates our body. Thus whirling and dancing enthusiastically in a state of ecstasy while listening to the music of Qur’an is called “sema”. Actually whirling with a music that does not lead one to Allah cannot be “sema”. “Sema” should originate from the spirit not the body. One should know that “sema” is a kind of worship expressing submission to the eternity of Allah by revolving clockwise around the heart.

Moving and revolving are the fundamental conditions of existence. Both macro and micro cosmos i.e. the universe and the atom exist by revolving systematically. Yes, all the beings no matter what their size is are continuously at motion performing “sema” all the time like whirling dervishes.

At the Kaaba at Mecca the center is the heart (“gönül”). Likewise in “sema” the center is the heart of the spiritual teacher, the sheikh (“murshid”), which is the station of Allah’s light (“nur”). Qur’an says: “Allah is the light of the earth and the heavens”. (Qur’an, Nur, 24:35)

“Sema” can be identified with “tavaf” (the ceremony of going around the Kaaba during the pilgrimage at Mecca) and it can be said that pilgrims purify themselves by revolving around the Kaaba, which symbolically represents the heart (“gönül”). Similarly a dervish performing “sema” purifies himself from adverse feelings because revolving objects throw out things that do not belong to them. This means you will not put any “küfür” (cursing). “Küfür” here means dualism or not being able to see Allah in every being.  If such a cursing exists in your heart, you must get rid of it.

“Sema” is a means of “zikir” (reciting the name of Allah) in Mevlevi order and the purpose is to elevate to a higher spiritual state and to progress on the way to Allah.

The action of whirling in “sema” combines with the mystical music and every time the dervish completes a turn, the name of Allah is being recited and this enlightens him embracing his heart (“gönül”) and purifies him changing him into a column of light (“nur”) which ascend to Allah.

The magic of music prompts whirling. “Lafza-i Celal” (expression of God’s might and Allah’s command: Come into being!) opens windows of heart.  The divine enlightenment that pours into one’s heart accumulates, enthusiastically overflows and burns the dervish. Thus he rises to the heavens through invisible stairs stemming from the spiritual towers of the platform where all the beauties are blended. He, then, finds himself in the rose garden of unity and continues his whirling there. The unity (to be able to see Allah’s manifestation in every creature like the reflection in the mirror and thus respecting the creature owing to the Creator) embraces the dervish whirling along with him. Such a “sema” is a never-ending “sema” of a never-ending symphony.

To put it in a nutshell, “sema” expresses the formation of the universe, creation of human being and his realization of being a servant to God. It also expresses a human being’s starting to act with love to his Creator and heading towards “Insan-? Kamil” (perfect human being)

The “sikke” on the head of the dervish whose ego is dead is his tombstone, the “tennure” he wears is his shroud and the cloak is his grave.  The “semahane” (the place where “sema” is performed) is the universe; the right side of it is the materialistic world that we see and know of and the left is the spiritual world. The “semahane” is like a battlefield because man is continuously in battle with his “nafs” (ego, self). Just as what the Prophet Muhammad said upon his return from one of the battles: “Now we are done with the minor battle (the actual battle with the enemy) and are faced with the major one (the battle with our “nafs”). During his battle with his “nafs”, the dervish is encouraged by the religious hymns and song just like a soldier is encouraged by flags, maces and axes. This is all for a human being to experience divine feelings. All these sounds, words and instruments are meant to say Allah.

The “sema” ceremony starts with “Nat-? ?erif”. It is the poem of Mevlana which praises Muhammad, who is the reason for the universe to be created. Its music is composed in “Rast Makam” by a 17th century composer, Buhurizade Mustafa Itri Efendi known as Itri. The dervish called “na’t-han” remains standing when singing “Nat-? ?erif” and sings it without the accompaniment of any instrument, which expresses respect.  It is then followed by the beats of “kudüm” (a small double drum used for rhythm in Mevlevi music, played with special small sticks). This is the expression of the divine order of Allah: “Come into being!”. According to Islamic belief, Allah created the lifeless body of man first and then made him come to life by blowing the soul of His own.

“Taksim” (an instrumental improvisation) by the “ney” following these beats expresses this divine breath. The “ney is “kamil” (matures, perfect) human being.  It reflects the meaning of Prophet Muhammad. In essence Mevlana himself is being described. As expected from a “kamil” person Mevlana says: “As long as I live, I am the slave of Qur’an and the dust underneath Muhammad’s foot.” “Kamil” human being resembles the “ney” in many ways. He has come to the world from the spiritual world which is like the ney being removed from the reed bed.  Just like the “ney” which is carved, he has also been carved so that his desires will be eliminated. On the “ney”, certain holes are opened so that it can give all kinds of tones of music. Similarly “kamil” human being can display all the names and attributes of Allah and therefore; he finds nothing wrong and insensible. The “ney” is burned in furnace so that it can give only the sound of the musician who blows it. Just like this, “kamil” human being, upon burning with the love of Allah, utters only the words of Allah. Therefore, the “ney” is a symbol of “kamil” human being. And Allah says in Qur’an: “My prophet never speaks according to his own will but my words (revelations)” (Qur’an, Necm, 53:3-4).

After “taksim”, the sheikh and the dervishes (“semazen”) start to walk in a circular fashion symbolising walking from this world towards hereafter. They walk around the stage like this three times and this is called “Devr-i Veledi” (Period of Veled). In sema during this stage performers show respect and greet to each other by bowing their heads. This is called “mukabele”. The word “k?ble”, the direction we perform our “namaz” (prayers) to, originates from the word “mukabele”. In the same way in “namaz” we direct ourselves to “k?ble” and “k?ble” directs to us. We show respect to “k?ble” and it does the same.

Kaaba is the symbol of “k?ble” indeed. In fact what really matters is man, holy man. In essence Kaaba conveys the reality of human beings who have been unified by and focused on the belief in the existence of the one and only Allah. Qur’an says: “Declare pilgrimage (“hac”) so that people would come to you from far away feeling exhausted either on foot or riding camels” (Qur’an, Hac, 22:27).

This verse of “hac” is an invitation to Kaaba. Allah, who knows and governs everything, does not tell us to come to Kaaba but to come to you meaning Prophet Muhammad because Kaaba is for human beings and a human being is the center and the meaning of the universe. Man (In Qur’an Allah says: “Prostrate to man as I created man and blew my soul into him” (Qur’an, Hicr, 15:29). Human being is a superior being to whom God ordered angels to prostrate.  Human being is great because he carries the spirit of Allah. Mevlana says: “Thanks to Allah for creating me as a human being. Do not deceive yourself just because you have a mind which sees and knows everything.”

“Ve lekad keremna beni Adem”: “We really honoured Man” (Qur’an, Isra, 17:70). This verse is attributed to man only. And none of the creatures have been honoured in the same way. All other creatures exist for the benefit of man and were offered to man.  Mevlana says: “Man is a pearl, the most precious piece in the necklace. This is the reason why there is “kamil” human being in the center of the universe and the reason why other performers rotating around him to be like him. We should always keep in mind what Ali has said: “Man! Why do you underestimate yourself? Thousands of universes are folded within you.”

The dervishes who will perform “sema” first clean themselves through ritual ablution (“abdest”) and then enter “semahane” (the place where sema is performed). “Abdest” means being in contact with water and thus revival. After being revived with water man is cleaned and ready to stand before Allah i.e. to be in God’s presence with peace of mind. (In Turkish for both to be before someone and to have peace of mind is expressed by the same word, “huzur”). To feel a moment of rapture in your heart means to be with the beloved. Living in such rapture is the same as being united with one’s lover like a “bairam” (a religious festival).

The purpose of all worships and obedience to Allah is to find peace at heart. It is more valuable and preferable in the eyes of Allah to perform two units of “namaz” feeling peace inside than thousands of units without peace at heart. Our Prophet Muhammad says: “Namaz” without peace cannot be regarded as “namaz”. Similarly to perform two units of namaz in peace is more acceptable than performing thousands of units of namaz without seeing Allah. “Namaz” without feeling peace at heart is just bending up and down. “Hac” (pilgrimage) without peace is something exhausting and fasting without feeling peace is to be starving only. What is meant by peace is “edep” (good manners)

Ablution (“abdest”) cleans the body. Cleaning ourselves from the sins and being protected from the sins is possible by doing good deeds and worshipping. This is cleaning the soul.  The water necessary to clean the filthiness in the heart and nafs and to get rid of bad morals is act upon the virtues of Allah.

And there exists another “abdest”, a metaphysical, spiritual “abdest”. The water of this cleaning is abandoning everything worldly that keeps you away from Allah. If a dervish does not clean himself like this, (washing himself in the fountain of love and affection and unifying four affirmations) the “sema” he performs is not a proper one. Unifying the four affirmations means abandoning the world, abandoning hereafter, abandoning the existence (egoism) and abandoning the abandonment. Once you clean yourself like this, are at the level of “fena” (annihilation, nothingness) This is the level of “Kurb-? kabe kavseyni ev edna” .........

Having performed “abdest”, dervishes enter “semahane” bowing their heads and line according to their seniority. The most senior in service stands closest to the sheikh.
There exists an imaginary line between the entrance door of “semahane” and the red sheep skin (“post”) opposite, which divides the place into two semicircles. This line is called “hatt-? istiva” (line of uniformity) and is considered to be holy by Mevlevis and thus it is not allowed to step onto it. It is almost like “s?rat-? müstakim” (straight road). The starting point of this line is where the Sheikh stands and it symbolizes “The World of Absolute Existence”. Just the opposite is the ending point of the line and it represents “The Degree of being a human”. One enters “s?rat-? müstakim” as a human being and goes out as being one with Allah. In this way “hatt-? istiva” divides the area where sema is performed in two semi circles. The curve that symbolizes the descent from the ‘Absolute Existence’ to the ‘Human’ represents the physical world and the other curve that symbolizes the ascent from the ‘Human’ to the ‘Absolute Existence’ represents the spiritual world. This is called “seyr-ü süluk” (special training of a religious order).

The sheep skin (“Post”) is considered to be the centre of “tevhid” (oneness of God, unification) and the “maqam” (station) of Mevlana and has been used since the time of Abraham. As is known in the story of Abraham God with the intention of testing him orders him to sacrifice his son. When Abraham was about to sacrifice his son, a ram was sent by God through Gabriel and Abraham sacrificed the ram. Then Gabriel sat on the ram skin and prayed. After Abraham, Ishmael was given the prophet hood and sat on the mentioned skin.  In years, the distinguished members of the order regarded the skin as the symbol for spiritual “maqam” (position, status) and continued to use the skin as the place of the sheikh. The skin has been the physical expression of Allah’s manifestation in Perfect Human Being (“Kamil ?nsan”). The skin that belongs to sheikh is red in colour. The sun turns into red during sunset and it was when the sun was setting that Mevlana passed away. That is why the colour red is considered to represent the union with one’s beloved (“vuslat”). Red is also regarded as the colour of manifestation with the belief that death means to be born in the hereafter and to come to realize hereafter. The sky gets red when the sun is about to rise which symbolizes being born for the second time.

The fourth part is the period of Sultan Veled. The Sheikh and all the whirling dervishes silently reciting Allah hit their hands strongly on the floor and then stand up. This is how the period of Sultan Veled starts. Standing up symbolizes being revived with the sound of the trumpet of the Judgment Day and finding life in Real Existence after getting rid of self and relative existence. This kind of death means reaching the level of being content with everything by getting rid of extreme desires and thus finding heaven in this world, being in the presence of Allah and staying in Heaven forever.

One’s longing for such a death starts with the sound of the trumpet of the Judgment Day. The sound of this trumpet in this world means hearing one’s spiritual guide asking: “You passenger! Where are you going?” The passenger hears this call, shivers and says: “I have everything but I am not happy. Where am I to find peace?” This is called reaching puberty. Then one starts to realize that a superior existence governs oneself. This is called faith. Then one acknowledges the superiority of this existence and understands one’s nothingness. This is called repentance. Afterwards Allah starts loving him. As it is stated in the saying of Prophet Muhammad: “When a human being approaches Allah with voluntary act of worship, Allah makes His love dominant in him. Inside and outside of this human being get painted by Allah’s light (nur). He hears with Him, sees with Him, talks with Him and walks with Him.” Such a moment is when one becomes a human and enters s?rat-? müstakim (the straight road leading to Islamic religion). It is also the moment when Allah manifests in him. It is the completion of these stations (maqam) that sema explains.

The Period of Veled is circular walk of the whirling dervishes with pe?rev (a form of oriental music) greeting each other three times. It is the greeting of the hidden spirit to the spirit. The dervish follows the right side of the platform, reaches where hatt-? istiva is, and crosses the other side without stepping on it or turning his back to his sheikh. In this way he comes face to face with the dervish coming after him. Those two dervishes bow their heads at the same time. This is called “mukabele”. With this salutation the manifestation of God in mankind has been is sanctified.

When the dervish arrives at the point where ‘hatt-? ihtiva’ cuts the platform into two, opposite the sheep skin, he bows and continues to walk without stepping on it. Upon the completion of the third cycle, the sheikh takes his position on the sheep skin, which completes the Period of Veled. Getting out of Absolute Existence, the dervishes progress in three worlds: in the worlds of none living things, plants and living things. Under the guidance of the sheikh known as the spiritual trainer the cycles symbolize knowing the Absolute Truth as ?lme-l Yakin (knowing through science), seeing it as Ayne-l Yakin (knowing through sight) and reaching Him as Hakk-el Yakin (being one with God).

?lme-l Yakin is the station of Moses and explains the knowledge of Allah through science. At this holy station this holy Sultan asks from God: “Oh my God, make yourself visible to me” and declared that his knowledge does not suffice. And God replied him by sending him a ‘murshid’ (spiritual guide) called H?z?r and teaching him a science beyond all sciences (ilm-i ledün: knowledge of Allah). Moses ascends to the station of Jesus and starts to see what he knows in other words to feel in his soul. (beyond three dimensions). The ultimate point of seeing is the point where you stop existing as a separate being and become one with your beloved and this is the station of Prophet Mohammed. He was in such full obedience with God’s commands that he led a normal life.

The lead player of the “kudüm” beats a few times announcing the end of the Period of Veled, the lead player of the “ney” performs an instrumental improvisation and the musical ceremony (“ayin”) starts.

The dervishes take off their black cloaks which represent nothingness and are symbolically born into the Truth. They cross their arms representing number one. Thus they witness the oneness of Allah.

The whirling dervishes get permission from their sheikh by kissing his hands one by one and “sema” (whirling) starts.

Sema consists of four sections each of which is called “selam” (greeting). It is conducted by the head of whirling dervishes who makes sure that whirling is in order.

The first selam means understanding one’s being servant (seria: religious law codes)

The second selam expresses one’s admiration towards the greatness and omnipotence of Allah (tariqa: path leading to divine truth)

The third selam means the transformation of this admiration into love. (Haqiqa: divine truth)

The fourth selam means one’s returning to his original duty in his nature i.e. being a servant to Allah, which is the highest station in Islam. (Marifet)

“Marifet” is being able to explain to others the meaning of Allah in a secretive manner as seen in Qur’an after one has fully comprehended this meaning. That is why how much one can understand the explanation depends on his ability to perceive and one assumes that he has fully comprehended.

“Seria” is the external part of religion and the regulations regarding deeds. It is like the skin which protects the human body. “Haqiqa” is the inside, the core and the truth of religion. Tariqa is the path that takes from seria to haqiqa. Marifet is the secrets and the essence of religion. Marifet is the state that comes after achieving haqiqa. It is living the divine secrets and obeying the morals that dictate concealing these secrets.

Rumi resembles seria to a candle, tariqa to progressing on a path with a candle, haqiqa to destination and reaching the ultimate aim. Marifet is preserving religious life and doing what is required after reaching one’s aim.

With the start of the fourth selam, the sheikh (“postni?in”) joins the sema with his cloak on and without extending his arms. He comes from where the sheep skin is to the middle of the platform whirling. The central point of semahane is called the Polar Station (“Kutup Makam?”) and whirls back to his sheep skin. This is called “post sema”. This is the station of Mevlana and the person who represents his way, in other words the station of the Pole, the inheritor of divine truth of Prophet Muhammad. The sheikh’s participation in sema represents his return to servitude. Meanwhile the fourth selam is over, the final “pe?rev” and “yörüksemai” is completed and the final improvisation is being played.

The final improvization ends as the sheikh returns to his place at the sheepskin. Then a?r-? ?erif (a section from Kuran) is recited. Sema ceremony ends with finals prayers, final salutations and sounds of “Hu” (one of the names of God). The Sheikh, who has entered the semahane with his right foot, leaves it with his left. The dervishes (both whirlers and musicians) also leave the semahane after saluting the sheepskin.