In Defense of the Whirling Prayer Ceremony (Sema)
By Ibrahim Gamard,
In spite of the centuries-old opposition to Islamic sufism [taSawwuf] maintained by certain kinds of conservative Muslim clerics (such as those called "Wahhâbî" or "Salafî" today), many educated Muslims continue to respect and value Muslim sufi teachers and teachings. Generally, teachers of the "sober" traditions of sufism are easier for Muslims to accept.
It is the "ecstatic" traditions of sufism that have long been more controversial, especially their practice of "audition" [samâ`], which sometimes has included "dancing" or, more precisely, dance-like movements. The purpose of entering into a state of ecstasy [wajd] is the temporary obliteration [maHw] of one's ordinary state of ego-centered thoughts and desires and entering into a state of "annihilation" or "passing away" [fanâ] in which there is pure awareness of "except (only) God" ['illâ 'llâh--Qur'ân 47:19]: "All that is upon (the earth) will pass away [fân-in], but the Face of your Lord will abide", Qur'ân 25:26-27). Sufis of the ecstatic traditions have viewed this as a rare attainment for sufis of the sober traditions if their remembrance [dhikr] has not gone beyond thoughts, even the most pious and lofty thoughts about God. It can be said that the real goal is sobriety after ecstasy (symbolized by the term, "drunkenness," in sufism), as mentioned by Shams-i Tabrîzî, Mawlânâ Rûmî's teacher:
"The man who reaches this perfection is drowned in the light of God and drunk in the pleasure of the Real [[Haqq]].... Beyond this drunkenness [[mastî]] there is another sobriety [[hoshyârî]], as I explained." "The drunkenness of God's road [[râh-i khodâ]] is the third level. It is an immense drunkenness, but it is linked with stillness [[sikûn]], for God has brought him out of what he had fancied it to be. After that is the fourth level--drunkennesss in God. That is perfection. After that is sobriety."--from the Discourses of Shams-i Tabrîzî(Maqâlât-i shams-i tabrîzî, pp. 147; 700), selected translations by William Chittick, published as Me and Rumi: The Autobiography of Shams-i Tabrizi, pp. 118-19; p. 117 (words in double brackets added by I. Gamard)
Most Muslims would view "sufi dancing" as an innovation [bida`]. They would ask, rhetorically, if the Prophet (may the peace of God be upon him) or his companions (may God accept them) ever engaged in such. No. But there is a Tradition [Hadîth] in the most respected collection of Traditions, Sahîh al-Bukhârî, in which the Prophet permitted some Abyssinian Muslims to do a spear dance in the masjid in Medina during an `Eid celebration. This view, of judging the permissibility of actions, is often too narrow and restrictive. For example, it was said about Abu Yazîd al-Bistâmî, an ecstatic type sufi teacher (died, 875 CE) that he refused to eat Persian melon because of the lack of a Tradition stating that the Prophet had done so.* There are many actions that were not judged by the Prophet and many of these can be called permissible [mubâH] because they were neither enjoined or forbidden, so doing or not doing them is equal (unless such actions contribute to sinful actions). Other actions are considered offensive or disliked [makrûh] according to Islamic law [sharî`ah] but not strictly forbidden [Harâm], and therefore not deserving of punishment. According to sufi manuals, the Prophet (pbuh) approved of certain kinds of poetry and certain kinds of singing (such as by camel-drivers to gain better cooperation from the animals). Some sufi authors have cited a Tradition (no doubt controversial) in which the Prophet approved of a musical instrument, a type of flute [mizmâr], in a particular situation. *Maqâlât-i shams-i tabrîzî, p. 741; p. 82 in Chittick's translation
According to very conservative Muslims scholars, all innovations are bad. But according to many scholars, "good innovations" [al-bida` al-Hasana] that further increase Islamic piety are desirable. Examples of actions not done by the Prophet that are often cited are the collection of Qur'ân in a written and authoritative form, the writing of Traditions [ahâdîth], and group performance of the tarâwîH prayer during Ramadan--called by `Umar, "What a good innovation this is!" [ni`imatu 'l-bida`atu hadhi-hi]. Another is the widespread use, for centuries, of a circular string of beads [tasbîH] used for the mention and remembrance [dhikr] of God through praise and glorification [tasbîH]. And, of course, the sufis defend their own practices and rituals of "remembering Allah" or "chanting the praises of Allah" [dhikru 'llâh] as actions based on frequent commands in Qur'ân to remember and mention God.
The early development of individual and group sufi practices occurred in the vicinity of Baghdad during the eighth and ninth centuries CE. The early sufis specialized in the cultivation of Islamic virtues and methods of remembering God as much as possible. It seems likely that most of these practices were inspired by mystical interpretations of verses from the Qur'ân having to do with remembrance of God [dhikr] and surrender to the Divine Will [taslîm].
An explanation is needed about the misunderstood sufi practice of "audition" [samâ`]. This was intended to be a form of Islamic remembrance of God [dhikr] and nothing else. The sufi was to listen to all sounds, including selected chapters and verses of Qur'ân, mystical verses of poetry and, mystical music as if he were hearing the voice of God (such as "Am I not your Lord?", said by God to souls who answered, "Yes!" prior to the creation of the universe-- Q.7:172, and hearing the sound of the angelic Trumpet inaugurating the Resurrection of the Dead on the prophesied Day of Judgment--Q.39:68). In this state of mystical hearing, if a sufi entered into a spiritual state [Hâl] of consciousness [Hâl] and felt inspired to move, then it was permitted to engage in spiritual movements and to strive for ever-deeper submission to the Divine Will. Such movements would have included the basic positions of ritual prayer (sitting, bowing while standing, and prostration), calling aloud to God ("Allah, Allah!"), chanting any of the beautiful Names of God from the Qur'ân, and so on. It was forbidden to move according to self-will, a whim of the imagination, or for physical pleasure. The most legitimate sufi groups had strict rules for samâ`, such as no talking to or touching another, no women or "beardless youths" (whose presence and attractiveness could be a distraction from the remembrance of God), and no movements done for the sake of impressing others (which leads to hypocrisy). Of course, the samâ` sessions stopped when the call to pray was heard, and could resume after the ritual prayer [salât] was performed.
Professor Wlliam Chittick has explained the origins of samâ` a bit differently: "Literally, 'listening.' The word designates sessions of music and recitation of poetry, often accompanied with dancing, with the aim of heightening the participants' awareness of the divine presence. Sama grew out of the importance of reciting the Koran and the divine names, practices that were often carried out with great attention to beauty and musicality. Sama has always had an ambiguous legal status."--from Rumi and Me, p. 393.
The mention of specific movements is rare in sufi literature but these include standing while waving the hands [dast afshândan] (in imitation of the angels' praise of God), tearing the top of the shirt or the cloak when in a state of spiritual ecstasy (this was not "tearing off one's clothes" as it is sometimes mistranslated today, since public nudity is forbidden in Islam), whirling [charkhîdan] (which was probably inspired by the verse, "Whichever way you turn, there is the Face of God"--Q.2:115), and "dancing" [raqS]. The latter should be understood as a dance-like movement done out of deep spiritual surrender to God combined with intense spiritual yearning [ishtiyâq]--far from something done deliberately from self-will, out of physical pleasure and excitement, or to impress viewers.
Dhu 'n-Nûn al-Misrî (died, 859 CE) said: "Audition is a divine influence (wârid al-Haqq) which stirs the heart to seek God: those who listen to it spiritually (ba-Haqq) attain unto God (taHaqqaqa) and those who listen to it sensually (ba-nafs) fall into heresy (tazandaqa)."--translated by Nicholson, quoted by Hujwiri
The practice of audition (which may also be translated as the "mystical concert") spread most rapidly among Persian sufis, and it became so popular that it became corrupted early on by groups that ignored the rules--to such an extent that leading sufis declared samâ` to be forbidden [Harâm] to such people. Here is what Hujwîrî (died, 1071 CE) wrote:
"Foolish aspirants to Sufism, seeing the adepts absorbed in ecstasy during audition (samâ'), imagined that they were acting from a sensual impulse and said, 'It is lawful, else they would not have done so,' and imitated them, taking up the form but neglected the spirit, until they perished themselves and led others into perdition. This is one of the evils of our time. I will set it forth in the proper time... It's lawfulness depends on circumstances and cannot be asserted absolutely: if audition produces a lawful effect on the mind, then it is lawful; it is unlawful if the effect is unlawful, and permissible if the effect is permissible... Auditors may be divided into two classes: those who hear the spiritual meaning [[ma`nˆ]], those who hear the material sound..." --translated by Nicholson
"You must know that dancing (raqS) has no foundation either in the religious law (of Islam) or in the path (of Sufism), because all reasonable men agree that it is a diversion when it is in earnest, and an impropriety (laghwî) when it is in jest. None of the Shaykhs has commended it or exceeded due bounds therein, and all the traditions cited in it favour by anthropomorphists are worthless. But since ecstatic movements [[Harakât-i wajdî]] and the practices of those who endeavour to induce ecstasy (ahl-i tawâjud) resemble it, some frivolous imitators have indulged in it immoderately and have made it a religion. I have met with a number of common people who adopted Sufism in the belief that it is this (dancing) and nothing more. Others have condemned it altogether. In short, all foot-play is bad in law and reason, by whomever it is practised, and the best of mankind cannot possibly practise it; but when the heart throbs with exhilaration and rapture becomes intense and the agitation of ecstasy is manifested and conventional forms are gone, that agitation (iDtirâb) is neither dancing nor foot-play nor bodily indulgence, but a dissolution of the soul [[jân-godâkhtan]]. Those who call it 'dancing' are utterly wrong. It is a state that cannot be explained in words: 'without experience no knowledge.'"--translated by Nicholson
"The rules of audition prescribe that it should not be practised until it comes (of its own accord), and that you must not make a habit of it, but practise it seldom, in order that you may not cease to hold it in reverence. It is necessary that a spiritual director [[pîr]] be present during the performances, and that the place should be cleared of common people, and that the singer should be a respectable person, and that the heart should be emptied of worldly thoughts, and that the disposition should not be inclined to amusement, and that every artificial effort (takalluf) should be put aside. You must not exceed the proper bounds until audition manifests its power and when it has become powerful you must not repel it but must follow it as it requires. If it agitates, you must be agitated, and if it calms, you must be calm; and you must be able to distinguish a strong natural impulse from the ardour of ecstasy (wajd)... I think it would be more desirable that beginners should not be allowed to attend musical concerts (samâ`hâ), lest their natures become depraved. These concerts are extremely dangerous and corrupting, because women on the roofs or elsewhere look at the dervishes who are engaged in audition; and in consequence of this the auditors have great obstacles to encounter. Or it may happen that a young reprobate may join the party, since some ignorant Sufis have made a religion (madhhab) of all this and have flung truth [[Sidq-i ma`nˆ]] to the winds."--translated by R.A. Nicholson, Kashf Al-Mahjub of Al-Hujwiri: The Oldest Persian Treatise on Sufism; words in double brackets added by I. Gamard
In the time of Mawlânâ Rûmî, samâ` was practiced as it had been among Persian sufis for four hundred years--spontaneous, unplanned spiritual movements inspired by mystical poetry and mystical music (usually only one or two instrumentalists). The earliest Persian sources often state that Mawlana participated in samâ`--not whirling [charkîdan], as has been incorrectly translated and misunderstood in Turkey. According to the earliest biography, Mawlana did not participate in such gatherings until after he met Shams-i Tabrîzî, who indicated to him, "Enter into the audition, for that which you are seeking will become increased in the audition" [dar samâ` dar â, ke ân-che Talab-î dar samâ` ziyâda khwâh-ad shodan]. Audition has been forbidden [Harâm] to the common people because they become engaged with the desires of the base ego [bar hawây-i nafs]" (Sepasâlâr,Zendagî-nâma-yi mawlânâ jalâluddîn môlavî, p. 65). According to another early biography, Rumi's son said that when his father began to participate in audition, he would mainly wave his hands (in praise of God), but that later, Shams-i Tabrîzî showed him how to whirl [charkh zadan] (Aflâkî, Manâqib al-`ârifîn, p. 681). However, the sources rarely state that he whirled. Two such cases are well-known: when he heard the pounding hammers of goldsmiths and when he stood before a creaking windmill. In sum, samâ` ("Sema" in Turkish) should not be translated as "whirling" and Rûmî should not be called the originator of Sema. Whirling was only one feature of samâ` for centuries. Of the several thousand lyric poems [ghazaliyyât] and quatrains [rubâ`iyyât] that Rûmî composed, most of them were probably intended to be used in samâ` (which is probably why the Mevlevis ordered all the ghazaliyyât according to twenty-three poetic meters in one early manuscript--making it easier to sing multiple poems in the same meter). Here is what Mowlânâ Rûmî said about samâ`:
"Feet-pounding, hand-waving in praise (of God), exulting in the glory (of God), (and exclaiming), "O our Lord, You have brought us to life! [Q.40:11]" [pây-kôbân dast-afshân dar Sanâ/ nâz-nâzân rabba-nâ aHyayta-nâ-- Masnavî I: 3675]
Here is what Rûmî's teacher said about samâ`:
"The men of God have more of this disclosure [[tajallî]] and vision [[rû'yat]] of God in the sama. They have come out of their own existence, and the sama brings them out of other worlds, so they reach the encounter with the Real [[liqây-i Haqq]]. In short, there is a sama that is forbidden [[Harâm]]. In fact, he was kind to say it is forbidden. A sama like that is unbelief [[kufr]]. A hand that is raised without that state [[Hâlat]] will certainly be chastised by the fire of hell [[and a hand that is raised in that state will certainly reach to paradise]]. There is a sama that is allowable [[mubâH]], and that is the sama of the folk of ascetic discipline and asceticism, which brings them to tears and tenderness. There is a sama that is incumbent [[farîZa]], and that is the sama of the folk of states [[ahl-i Hâl]], [[since it is an essential requirement [farZ-i `ayn], such as the five (daily) prayers and the fast of Ramadan, and like the consuming of water and bread at the time of extreme need; it is an essential obligation for the companions of states]] because it is an aid to their lives." --from the Discourses of Shams-i Tabrîzî (Maqâlât-i shams-i tabrîzî, pp. 72-74), selected translations by William Chittick, published as Me and Rumi: The Autobiography of Shams-i Tabrizi, pp. 277-78; words in brackets added by I. Gamard)
Samâ` among Rûmî's descendants and followers (known as Mawlawî or Mevlevi) continued to be spontaneous until the time of Rûmî's great-grandson Pir `Adil Chelebi (died 1460), when it became more ritualized and began to take the form it has today as a "whirling prayer ceremony," a specified and fixed choreographed ritual based on circular movements. This circular format enabled whirlers to strongly concentrate on the remembrance of God by stepping with the right foot at the end of each rotation in time with the drum beat of the music and the the silent repetition of the name of God [Allâh] in the heart. The rhythmic beat also aided the other Mevlevis present at the ritual concentrate on their own internal repetition of the Divine name. The whirlers were trained to whirl at the same speed together and to maintain the same physical position in order to facilitate an attitude of selflessness and to discourage individual display of spiritual passions, including states of ecstasy.
To someone who has not experienced the benefit of rhythmic sound and simple physical movement in helping to concentrate and go deeper into God-centered states of consciousness, one can only quote the Arabic saying, "He who does not taste does not know" [man lam yadhuq lâ yudri]. When individual sufis or a group of sufis are engaged in simple repetitive movements, it should be understood that they are engaged in the remembrance [dhikr] of God. If they are sitting in a circle or line, they are exerting themselves in pure worship. And if they are standing in a circle or line, they are immersed in concentrated worship--not dancing. Whether audible or inaudible, sufis repeat various sacred words and phrases from (or derived from) the Qur'ân in Arabic, sometimes together with physical movements, such as: "There is no divinity except (only) God" [lâ ilâha 'illâ 'llâh--Q.47:10], "except (only) God" ['illâ 'llâh, 'illâ 'llâh], "God, God" [allâh, allâh], "He is God" [huwa 'llâh--Q.112:1], "God is One" [allâhu 'aHad--Q.112:1], "God is He" [allâh hû--Q.3:1], "O Living, Eternal One" [yâ Hayyu yâ qayyûm--based on Q.3:2], "Glory be to God" [subHâna 'llâh--Q.12:108], "The praise is to God" [al-Hamdu li-'llâh--Q1:1].
Mevlevi Sema generally took place once a week following the noon-time Friday congregational prayer. Every Mevlevi center throughout the Ottoman Empire had a Sema halls [Semahane], where Sema was done privately. The Mevlevi community would gather for Sema (women Mevlevis had a separate entrance and stairway to a room with a screen through which the Sema could be viewed). Each whirler [semazen] was not a "dancer," but a "rememberer of God" [dhâkir], who generally had years of training to silently repeat the name of God in his heart in every step of his rotation. The whirlers did not perform for an audience; rather, they inspired the whole Mevlevi community to strongly concentrate on maintaining the silent dhikr of the Mevlevis ("Allâh, Allâh"). As in the ancient (spontaneous) samâ`, the Shaykh's immersion into spiritual movement was considered to be more profoundly surrendered to God than that of his disciples, so his participation came last. In the Mevlevi ritual, the Shaykh whirls slowly in the middle of the whirling hall. He symbolically "tears" his cloak by holding the front of his mantle in a certain way--reminiscent of how, in the ancient samâ`, the shaykh would tear his cloak in a state of spiritual ecstasy, after which his disciples would eagerly compete to grab pieces to sew on to their own cloaks for a blessing [baraka].
The most prominent Mevlevi Shaykh of the late Ottoman Empire, Rusûkhuddîn Ismâ`îl Anqarawî (died, 1631), wrote a book in defense of Sema entitled, Argument in Proof of Audition ("Hujjatu 'l-samâ`"), which was approved by the Shaykhu 'l-Islâm, the highest authority on Islamic law in the Empire.
A number of sufi orders in Turkey had a circular format [dawrân, devran] to their weekly communal dhikr rituals. For example, the Helveti-Jerrahi sufi men hold hands in a circle and step to the left at the same time. All circular [devran] sufi rituals were condemned as "dancing" by the opponents of the sufis. Anti-sufi jurisprudents had condemned the practice of samâ` in Rûmî's time, and since then. Usually, the Mevlevis and other sufis were protected by supporters in high positions (including the Sultan and the Shaykhu 'l-Islâm) who were themselves sufis or who were sympathetic to sufis. There was one exception: The Kadizadelis managed to get Sema (and all dance-like sufi rituals) banned in Istanbul from 1665-1684. Then in 1925, the secular Turkish State made all sufi orders illegal and confiscated their buildings.
Starting in the early 1950's, after being banned for nearly thirty years, Mevlevi Sema was permitted again, for tourists--not as a spiritual ritual of the remembrance of God, but as a form of "Turkish folk dancing" to be done in basketball stadiums and theater stages in front of ticket-paying audiences. For many years, Sema was allowed only once a year in Konya on the solar anniversary of Mevlana Rûmî's death--changed to the Western solar calendar (December 17) from the lunar Islamic calendar (5 Jumada II), when it had been memorialized for almost seven centuries. Later, the December Sema was done in Istanbul. Later still, Sema was performed in Konya and Istanbul to commemorate Mevlana Rumi's birthday on September 30--which had not been a Mevlevi custom. Early on, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism compromised with the Mevlevis and permitted recitation from theQur'&acrc;n at the end of the Sema, as was done traditionally. The Ministry also accepted that the direct descendant of the last Grand Chelebi of the Ottoman Empire (whose official position as the leader of the Mevlevi Order was abolished in 1925) had the sole authority to appoint a new Sema leader (called "Postneshin"--and formerly, "Shaykh"). An exception to this occurred when the Ministry formed its own professional group of musicians and whirlers in Konya and appointed, on its own authority, a new Postneshin to lead Sema.
Nowadays, the whirlers generally know little about sufism, or if they do, they may not even identify themselves as Mevlevis, but as members of other sufi orders. And they may or may not be committed to the basic religious practices of Islam. They lack sufi/darvîsh training, so very few whirlers are genuine "whirling dervishes." Since they whirl in front of an audience, they are subject to the temptation to impress the audience with their performances, which can lead to pretension and hypocrisy. If the call to prayer is sounded, the Sema does not stop. Few whirlers maintain a valid ritual ablution [wuZû'], a traditional requirement for participating in Sema. The sheepskin on which the Mevlevi ceremony leader, or Postneshin, is supposed to be placed pointing to the prayer direction [qibla] toward Mecca; this is disregarded when the Sema takes place on theater stages. The musicians seem to have little identification as Mevlevis; rather, they have been academically trained to play Turkish sufi music. And few, if any, of the musicians who sing Mevlana Rûmî's poetic verses in Persian During Sema know the meaning of the syllables they are vocalizing.
Traditionally, Mevlevi lodges were financially supported by numerous kinds of endowment [waqf]; after basic expenses, wages and management fees were paid, the profits received from a single farm or business owned by a Mevlevi lodge might continue for centuries. After 1925, all endowments supporting sufi lodges were ended. Today, Sema whirlers are paid for, at the minimum, their travel, laundering, and meal expenses; Sema musicians may be paid more. The money comes from ticket sales. In other words, they are paid to perform for an audience that expects to be pleased. In this regard, Sema in Turkey is both a spiritual performance and a type of business. Some whirlers leave the Sema group, after they have received the training and garments, and become self-employed, whirling at weddings and for tourists in hotels. The other source of money comes from the Turkish government: the Ministry of Culture and Tourism employs two groups of Sema musicians (one in Konya, the other in Istanbul) and one group of whirlers (in Konya). These professional Sema groups fly all over Turkey to give performances. In other words, they are paid to perform Sema according to high standards, not for the purpose of mystical prayer and glorifying God, but to make audiences happy and proud about their Turkish "folklore" traditions.
The Turkish government, through the Ministry of Culture and Tourism has exploited Mevlevi Sema so that it has degenerated into a public performance detached from it's original purpose. The Turks (including many Mevlevis) seem to be unaware of this and seem quite happy with the "whirling dervish" performances, which are extremely popular. The Islamic roots and symbolism of Mevlevi Sema are largely forgotten, and few seem to care.
Mevlevi Sema has become so secularized and corrupted that some Muslim readers of this article may conclude that Mevlevi Sema, controversial for centuries even when done privately, should be viewed as completely forbidden [Harâm] for Muslims to participate in, now that it is done publicly.
However, here is a different view: It is not the fault of the Mevlevis that all their lodges (including private Sema halls) were confiscated by the government, that their weekly dhikr ritual was allowed to be done only in front of audiences, or that they had to accept whirlers with little or no knowledge of Mevlevi Islamic sufi traditions. Mevlevis have been trying to keep their tradition alive despite great adversities. For decades, after 1925, they were spied on and arrested and, therefore, fearful of meeting together. When Sema was permitted again for tourists in the 1950's, this was also a renewal for the surviving Mevlevis. Without the renewal of Sema at that time, it is unlikely that there would be more than a few Mevlevis left today.
In spite of everything that is wrong with Sema today, Mevlevi Muslims are justified in participating in it for the following reasons: Maintaining the Sema ritual today may enable it to be restored in the future, God willing, to it's original function as a private dhikr ritual for Mevlevis. It is a communal dhikr ritual of great spiritual value and beauty as part of the Islamic sufi heritage. It expresses sublime Islamic mystical themes derived from the Qur'an (such as turning or returning to God, remembering God often in the heart, and the joy of the elect of God after the Resurrection). To the extent that the Postneshin or Shaykh and only a single whirler are immersed in glorifying God by silently repeating the name of God in their hearts and are oblivious of the audience, that is the degree that the traditional Mevlevi Sema is authentic. It is also important that Sema should continue to be done as a concentrated whirling prayer, as much as is possible and in spite of all the obstacles, because it is derived from the spiritual practices of the great Muslim sufi saint, Jalâluddîn Rûmî. And, finally, unless sincere Mevlevi Muslims continue to participate in the Sema ritual, it is doubtful that what remains of the Mevlevi tradition of Islamic sufism can survive.
Instead of taking a narrower, either/or approach by asking whether Sema should be permitted or forbidden to Muslims according to Islamic law [sharî`ah], perhaps it is better to take a broader approach by following the example of authorities on the ancient samâ`, who stated that it should be different for certain kinds of individuals. The following are suggested as possibilities (keeping in mind that legal judgments in Islam should be made by those who are qualified): Certainly, Sema should be forbidden [Harâm] to those who do it primarily for worldly reasons such as physical excitement, money, social status, personal vanity, and the admiration of others; for them it is little more than dancing in public for show. Since Sema is almost always done in front of an audience that views it as a kind of "folk dancing to music" (perhaps with some idea that it is also spiritual), it is hard to propose that it could have a higher status than disliked [makrûh] in Islamic law. But perhaps, being more liberal, it could be viewed as permissible [mubâH] only for the most sincere Mevlevis: the Postneshins and whirlers who are engaged in spiritual movements for the glorification of God alone, and who are detached or oblivious of the presence of an audience; for them it is not "dancing," but authentic worship in the Islamic sufi way.
Now, let us examine how Sema can be presented more accurately. Sema has been described for many years using mostly secular and idealistic explanations, in order to make it attractive to as many people as possible. However, Sema is so popular now that it can be eplained differently, in a way that connects it to its roots in Turkish sufism [tasawwuf, tasavvuf] and Islam. Sema [samâ`] is a ritual for worshipping God. Sema is not a whirling dance performance; it is a whirling prayer ceremony. Sema was the weekly ritual of the remembrance of God [dhikru 'llâh, zikirullah] for the Mevlevi community, in which everyone (semazens, musicians, postneshin, semabashi, other Mevlevis, and women Mevlevis in the upstairs room) were silently chanting the Name of God ("Allâh") in their hearts together in the Sema hall [samâ`-khâna, semahane]. Repeating the Name of God ("Allâh, Allâh") was the zikir done by Hz. Mevlana, as well as his father.
It is similar to the weekly zikir ritual of other Turkish Sufi orders in that there is a sitting part, a standing part, and a circling [dawrân, devran] part (for example, in the devran part of the Helveti-Cerrahi zikir, the men hold hands in a circle and step to the left at the same time). Whirling in Sufism was probably inspired by the verse in the Koran, "Whichever way you turn, there is the Face of God" (Q.2:115). Sufis developed many forms of zikir because the Koran commands zikir (such as, "Remember God with much mentioning"--Q.33:41). Whirling in Sema is a special way of concentrating on the Name of God in the heart. The semazens, or whirlers, are not supposed to be the "stars of the show," admired by an audience that is busy choosing its "favorite performers." Rather, every semazen should be the servant of the Whirling Prayer Ceremony and the rememberer of God [zâkir], under the spiritual leadership of the postneshin, or Mevlevi shaykh.
There is important Islamic symbolism in Sema. The red sheepskin [pôst, post] upon which the postneshin [pôst-neshîn] sits and stands is supposed to face the prayer-direction [qibla, kible] toward Mecca. The tall hat [sikke] of a Mevlevi symbolizes his tombstone, so that he should be dead to worldly concerns. At the end of the sitting part of the ceremony, the semazens and their two leaders (the postneshin and the chief of the semazens [semazenbashi]) stand up after a loud drumbeat (which represents the Trumpet sound that starts the Resurrection of the Dead). They then begin a slow walking ritual (which represents the solemnity of the Day of Judgment) and complete three circlings (which symbolize the first three circumambulations [tawâf] of the Ka'ba in Mecca). After that, the semazens come out from their black cloaks (symbolizing their graves) and begin to whirl in white garments (symbolizing their grave clothes). Here, the semazens represent the joyous souls that have been blessed by God: "O soul at peaceÉ enter among My servants and enter My Paradise" (Q.89:27). The semazens complete four sections of circlings (which symbolize the final four circumambulations of the Ka'aba in Mecca). Going round in a circle also symbolizes the soul's journey from God into the world and the return to it's origin: "We belong to God and our return is to Him" (Q.2:156).
People who introduce Sema to an audience could briefly explain the above and then invite the audience to silently chant "Allah, Allah" in their hearts to the beat of the drums (or to silently chant "God," "Almighty God," or "God is Love," and so on in their own languages) during the entire Sema.
Introducers should stop saying that Hz. Mevlana said the words, "Come, come, whoever you are, even if you are an unbeliever [kâfir] or a Zoroastrian or an idol-worshipper"--because that is not his poem. It is a quatrain [rubai] of Abu Sa'id ibn Abi 'l-Khayr, who died in 1048 CE (159 years before Mevlana was born). Dr. Nuri Shimshekler of Seljuk University in Konya has confirmed this. And the late Mevlevi shaykh and scholar, Shefik Jân, has said that it is not Mevlana's quatrain.
Introducers should stop saying that Hz. Mevlana accepted people of all religions. He doesn't say that in any of his true poetry. There is only one story in which some Jewish rabbis visited him, supposedly as part of a group that included Christian monks; another story told of his extreme politeness when meeting Christian monks. However, at the end of these stories, Aflâkî claimed that they all became Muslims after meeting him. He had one disciple who had been a Christian named Theryânûs, but who became a Muslim and was given the name `Alâ'uddîn. In Masnavî and Dîvân-i Kabîr, Mevlana mentions black-skinned Hindus as slaves or as symbols of "darkness" (contrasted with Turks as symbols of "light")--but nothing about Hindu religion. And when he said, "The speech of (the country of) Hind is (the mode of) praise (of God) for the Hindus" (Masnavî 2:1757), he meant the Muslims of India (who had, by then, lived along the Indus River for over five hundred years)--not the polytheists and idolators of India. The story of Mevlana's funeral should not be told in such a way as to imply that people of all the world's religions attended his funeral. When Aflâkî wrote that "all the religious communities [jamî`-i milâl] and their leaders were present," he meant the religious communities present then in Konya. And he specified: "...were present, including the Christians and the Jews..." He did not suggest that people of any other religions were present (such as Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Manicheans, etc.)--which would be unbelievable in any case.
Introducers should stop talking about exalted spiritual states experienced by the semazens from whirling--such as saying they achieve "annihilation (of ego) in God" [fanâ fî 'llâh] in the third selâm and then return to serve the world in the fourth selâm; or that they achieve "the truth of Certainty" [haqqu 'l-yaqîn] in the fourth selâm; or that they receive divine blessing [baraka, bereket]with their right hands and give it to the world with their left hands; or that they experience ecstasy [wajd, vecid] or oneness [ittiHâd] with God. This is Sufi theory about spiritual stages that has become a kind of "promotional advertising," especially when referring to performers on stages in theaters. Besides, ecstasy is not the goal of Sema, but one of its possible blessings. The goal of Sema is to concentrate on the remembrance of God [zikru 'llâh]; to forget oneself during the zikir of Sema and to remember only the Most Beloved.
And, finally, people who introduce Sema should quote only authentic verses from Mevlana's poetry, especially those about love of God. The audiences do not know that some of Mevlana's verses are sung in Persian during Sema. Members of the audience could be given one-page handouts with the poetic verses translated into Turkish and English. Some brief explanations would be needed to explain the symbolism of some frequently misunderstood Sufi terms, for example: that "wine" and "drunkenness" refer to spiritual states of consciousness and not to alcoholic wine; that "idol" refers to the Sufi master (often Shams-i Tabrîzî) and his spiritual beauty which attracts the love and devotion of his disciples (and not a carved idol); and that "unbelief" [kufr] may refer to the rejection of preoccupation with things of the world [dunyâ] (and not the rejection of God).