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The Quranic verse most often associated with whirling is Wheresoever you turn, there is the face of God [2:115]. However, as I have struggled to learn the practice, another passage from the Quran has begun to resonate, too:
Have We not expanded your chest,
and removed from you the burden
which weighed down your back,
and increased your remembrance?
Truly, with every difficulty comes ease:
Truly, with every difficulty comes ease!
So, when you have been emptied strive onward,
and to your Sustainer turn with longing.
[Surah Ash Sharh 94:1–8]
For me, whirling has become an enactment of this surah, the title of which translates as ‘The Opening Up of the Heart’. The whirling of the semazen is a symbolic affirmation of each line, and, potentially, a means of verifying each line’s truth. At the start of the ceremony, the heavy black khirka (cloak) is removed from the semazens’ shoulders and they stand unburdened in white. Then, with arms outstretched, the semazens’ chests become expanded as they begin turning.
The surah invites us to see that with the chest’s expansion and the removal of burdens comes a third gift, that of increased ‘remembrance’ (zhikr in Arabic). Again, with each turn the semazen is silently repeating “Allah, Allah…” and so there is remembrance of God, too.
An obvious part of the sema ceremony is its repetition – the semazens simply keep whirling. The repetition of the next two lines of the surah seem to echo this: Truly, with every difficulty comes ease: Truly, with every difficultly comes ease! These lines call to mind the gentle swishing sound of the semazens’ robes as they turn. It is very reassuring if we are receptive to it. On the other hand, if we are reading the Quran on auto-pilot, and possibly skimming over what seems superfluous, it may bore us and make no impression at all. In the same way, both practitioner and observer in the sema ceremony may become bored by the repetitive whirling if they are not really receptive to it. Yet the repetition is key to unlocking its gift, because it seems to me that whirling is an exercise in perseverance.
When we think of a whirling dervish, we might automatically think of somebody in a joyous state of ecstasy, someone who has passed beyond difficulty into ease. Whilst this may be the reality for mature dervishes, my experience so far has taught me that first and foremost whirling is a discipline, and a difficult one at that. Yet the repeated promise is held out: Truly, with every difficulty comes ease: Truly, with every difficultly comes ease! Mevlevi shaikh, Kabir Helminski, speaks of this:
It would be worthwhile to try to describe what occurs within individuals as they enact this ceremony year after year as part of their spiritual training, for the ceremony itself teaches its secrets over time and no two ceremonies are experienced in the same way. The individual semazen, or dervish, must be able to expand his awareness to include several dimensions at once: He or she must focus on his or her own physical axis, which in this case is the left leg and foot, revolving three hundred and sixty degrees with each step, inwardly pronouncing the name of God, keeping an awareness of exactly where he is in space and the narrow margins of error in this tight choreography, feeling a connection through the shaikh of the ceremony to the whole lineage and also the founder of the order, Mevlana, and most of all turning with a deep love of God. The sheer impossibility of accomplishing all of these tasks through one’s own will can push one toward another possibility: that of letting a deeper will take over. In this way, the sema becomes a lesson in surrender.
[The Knowing Heart, Kabir Helminski, p.218]
What strikes me here is that one has to go through the ‘impossibility’. The physical strain (‘This hurts!’), the failure to focus and bring it all together (‘Why can’t I do this?’), the impatient thoughts (‘When will I feel uplifted?’), the boredom (‘This is repetitive!’), and perhaps even the repulsion of the reductive mind (‘This is crazy!’) are all a necessary part of a kind of breakdown that the training and the ritual are designed to take us through. Yet our willingness to fail is the sign and proof of our love. If our own efforts have not made us feel that our chest is expanded nor our burdens removed, then perhaps we will truly accept that Allah said “Have We not..” and not “Have you not…”
The last two lines of the surah seem to speak of the journey towards fana, where fana is ‘the state of having melted into the Divine Being’ [The Knowing Heart, p. 272]. So when you have been emptied strive onward, says Allah. To journey towards fana we must first become empty of ourselves, free of our own will and the tyranny of our egos (and even then we must keep ‘striving’). And so the semazen must persevere, and even though the ego may be protesting or finding excuses not to practice, he or she must keep turning in love: And to your Sustainer turn with longing. A vision begins to emerge of the necessity of the human being’s striving, but of the agency that saves us belonging to God.
Maybe we sense a beautiful impossibility (at a more elevated level perhaps) in these lines from an ayin sung during the sema ceremony:
With every breath, with every blink,
the fragrance of the Darling is unfolding.
With each embrace, my Darling’s Face becomes aflame.
Wine becomes fire, love burns; what delight!
Encircled, the soul cries out, ‘Where can I escape?’
Facing fire surrounding, the soul screams,
‘Where can I flee?’
[‘Ussak Ayin’, Neyi Osman Dede, translated by Refik Algan and Camille Helminski]
Finally, other than perseverance, I am discovering another essential ingredient for turning may be gratitude. If we sincerely believe that the answer to Have We not expanded your chest? is ‘Yes’, then what more appropriate feeling could there be than thankfulness? For the semazen, to be physically able to turn – to possess the necessary health, stamina and coordination – is a blessing in itself. And then to be part of a lineage which teaches such a beautiful and integrated form of worship is surely a greater blessing again (‘light upon light’). Perhaps developing consciousness of this as one turns is an invitation to the Impossible. Perhaps, with gratitude, the imitation involved in ritual becomes transmuted into something deeper and more spontaneous, like the whirling of children, or even of Rumi and Shams.
~ Daniel Dyer