Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Turkey: The Troubadours of Allah

Text by Albena Shkodrova | Photographs by Anthony Georgieff   
The mystical whirling dervishes, which have been hypnotising Europe for centuries with their unearthly dances that lead them into a trance, are nowadays becoming a part of Turkey’s tourist industry. On the Old Continent, it is a little known fact that their Mevlevi Order practices one of Islam’s most liberal forms, based on Neoplatonism, and that their ideas have influences some of the most prominent intellectuals, from Shakespeare through Andersen.

The faces of the four musicians hover in the orange candlelight glow, like four moons in the night sky. They shimmer and sway to the droning, rhythmical sound of their psychedelic tune.

Around the edges of the circle in front of the musicians, five male figures materialise. Casting off their black cloaks, they suddenly become visible in the darkness, wearing loose white clothes and tall hats like tombstones.

The five men take short, mincing steps forward and then begin to spin; slowly at first, then progressively faster. They gradually extend their arms, which had been folded across their chests, the right palm raised upwards to heaven and the left one facing down towards the earth. They believe that this position creates a link between the divine and the earthly.

The spinning continues to accelerate, until you can’t see their legs at all. The peaks of their long, tilted hats trace small circles, as their long, white robes balloon out around them in large, rotating circles, ever increasing in circumference.

After a while everything blurs together, into one gigantic, all-embracing, vertiginous twirl. The dancers spin on their axes in pairs; viewed all at once they gyrate in a large, pulsating circle. The whole world starts to resemble a centrifuge: captivating and intoxicating.

This is sema, the ritual through which one of the most mystical religious sects of all times, that of the whirling dervishes, “gets closer” to God. The authentic religious ceremony is considered a sacrament, and is almost entirely restricted to members of the order.

The reason for this exclusivity is that for the Mevlevi, who belong to the spiritual brotherhood of the Sufis, the ritual culminates in personal contact with Allah; this is the moment of truth, the most intimate and sublime experience in life.

Sema is the food of the lovers of God, for within it is the flavour of tranquillity of mind,” said Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, a Medieval Persian poet and philosopher and the spiritual founder of the whirling dervishes.

In Turkish, Rumi is also known as Mevlana, which means “our guide.” His followers, the Mevlevi, are members of the most mysterious faith in the world’s religious history.

Somewhere between the tenth and twelfth centuries AD, Plotinus’s philosophy began to spread in Persia and Asia Minor, paving the way for new spiritual movements in Islam based on Neoplatonism. The first of these philosophies to take hold was Rumi’s. The ideas of the liberal intellectual laid the foundations of the Mevlevi Sufi order, as well as influencing a number of related doctrines, including the Alevi.

In an ironic quirk of history, Mevlana not only had no direct role in organising his followers into a brotherhood, but he would have probably disapproved of it. A tolerant man of liberal views, by the end of his life the poet and philosopher had become deeply disappointed with his disciples, and wanted them to disband.

Born in 1207 in the Persian town of Balkh, in present-day Afghanistan, Rumi led a life worthy of a Brazilian soap opera – full of prophecies, migrations, devotions, murders, and disillusionments. After he had a prophetic dream at the age of 20, he and his family left Balkh. A month later, the town's citizens were slaughtered by the Mongol hordes.

After several relocations, Mevlana eventually settled in Konya, in Seljuk Anatolia, where he lived until the end of his life. In 1244 he met Shams-i Tabrizi, a wandering dervish from Iran, whom he accepted as his spiritual master. Then came the dramatic, gory finale: jealous over their increasing closeness, Rumi’s disciples murdered the stranger. Shocked by this extreme act of jealousy, Mevlana withdrew.

This drama did a favour to mankind, however, because in his seclusion Rumi wrote one of the greatest masterpieces of old Persian literature, the Masnavi-ye Manavi, the Spiritual Couplets. The poet wrote much exquisite verse throughout his lifetime, but this philosophical and poetic work came to be regarded as his magnum opus.

The Mevlevi Order was founded by his son after Mevlana’s death on 17 December 1273, a date that his followers celebrate as the “Union With the Beloved,” the communion of the human soul with God.

The dervishes who joined him perceived Rumi’s teachings as very different from orthodox Islam, and non-fundamentalist in particular. One of the order’s central ideas was borrowed from Plotinus and says that God is not only the source, but also the purpose and the essence of the universe. Unlike the Christian philosophy of creation, the Sufis do not believe that the world was created by Allah; rather, it is his expression. To them, the universe is a manifestation of God, and cannot exist on its own without him.

From the point of view of conventional Islam, Mevlana was a heretic. Way back in the thirteenth century, he stood in favour of monogamy and equal rights for women in public life.

Viewed against the background of Europe's conservative Middle Ages, Rumi’s order is also remarkable for the influence it exerted on Western views. In one of his stories, entitled “The Merchant and the Christian Dervish,” Mevlana tells of his mystical bond with a “Frankish dervish,” who spent his life in the streets of an unnamed European city.

The most visible impact of Rumi’s philosophy, however, has been on literature. Researchers have identified his tales, some of them borrowed from Sufi parables and others that he made up himself, in the work of dozens of authors, from William Shakespeare to Hans Christian Andersen.

A good example is the fable about the elephant and the blind men, quite well-known in Europe. In it, a city of blind people sends several of their men to study a newly-arrived, never-seen-before beast, and inform their fellow citizens about its nature. The first one, standing nearest the animal’s ear, declares that it is big, wide, and floppy, like a carpet. The second, fumbling at the trunk, says that the beast is a frightful, empty, and destructive hose. The third one, standing near the leg, defines the elephant as being “mighty, and firm as a column.”

In Europe, this story suggests that fragmentary knowledge should not be interpreted as knowledge of the whole, but Mevlana found another moral in it: in his view, that which man learns through his physical senses does not reveal the divine truth. The moral, for him, is that man should not seek the road to faith through his intellect alone.

Like most Sufi stories, Rumi's tales share a cyclic structure, with an unexpected ending. They finish where they began, having described a wide circle along the way. Just like the ritual of sema, their narrative structure serves to both explain and symbolise the cyclic nature of the universe that forms the basis of the Mevlevi beliefs.

For Mevlana, this is nothing less than the secret of life revealed: “Originally, you were clay. From being mineral, you became vegetable. From vegetable, you became animal, and from animal, man. During these periods man did not know where he was going, but he was being taken on a long journey, nonetheless. And you still have yet to go through a hundred different worlds.”

Whether Rumi’s words describe the true nature of the human soul is not clear. It is certain, however, that they are a good metaphor for the progression of human ideas, from ages before Plotinus right up to the present day.

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