Sema, the celebration of Whirling Dervishes

The Mevlevi Whirling Prayer Ceremony (Sema)

(Taken from the sister-website Dar al Masnavi, and partly simplified for easy reading.)


The Whirling Prayer Ceremony (Sema) of the Mevlevi Order (“Whirling Dervishes”) begins in the traditional manner of Islamic gatherings with praises of God and the Prophet Muhammad (may God bless him and give him peace). The poetic form of such praise is called the “Noble Praise” or “Noble Eulogy” (Naat-i Shareef) of the Prophet. The poem used in the Ceremony is a Persian ode (ghazal) which consists of six lines and is traditionally believed to have been composed by Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi (may God be merciful to him).


For the last three centuries it has been sung according to the musical setting of Mustafa Itri. In Itri’s composition, praises of Rumi have been added to the original poem. This is a feature of Sufi music, in which exclamatory praises of God or of individual saints are added during pauses in vocal music. In the case here, the added exclamatory phrases do not match the meter and rhyme of the original poem and were never intended to change its meaning. It is a common misunderstanding among non-Muslim listeners that the Naat-i Shareef is addressed to Rumi rather than to the Prophet, as it is intended, since the opening line addresses him with “O our sublime master” yaa Hazrat-i Mevlana).


Following the Naat-i Shareef, a musical section (taqseem) begins: a solo improvisation, mostly played on the reed flute (nay). This evokes the famous opening lines of Rumi’s masterpiece, The Masnavi:

Listen to the reed flute, how it is complaining.
It is telling about separations, saying,
“Ever since I was severed from the reed field,
men and women have lamented in the presence of my shrill cries.
But I want a heart which is torn, torn from separation,
so that I may explain the pain of yearning.”


After the reed flute solo, the Dervishes slap the floor (which evokes the thunderous sound initiating the Day of Resurrection), stand up, and begin walking counter-clockwise (the direction in which pilgrims circle around the Kaaba in Mecca). This part of the ceremony is in honour of Rumi’s son, Sultan Veled, and is called the “Sultan Veled Circling”. The music for this part is the “Introductory Peshrev music”, which is in 56/4 or 28/4 time.


After the third circling, the dervishes take off their black cloaks (symbolizing their graves) and they appear dressed in their white grave clothes, joyously resurrected, to begin the first of four “Salams,” or segments, of the ceremony. The Dervishes are simultaneously anchored to the ground and “flying”, and their aspiration is “union with God” (as the Sufis have called it), meaning ecstatic nearness to God, the Only Beloved. Each of the four Salams has its own tempo, musical quality, and spiritual-mystical flavour. After the vocal part of the Fourth Salam has ended, the musical composition continues with two brief instrumental sections (in 4/4 and 6/8 time), followed by a final musical solo improvisation. The dervishes continue whirling and stop when they hear the recitation of the Holy Quran.