When we think of a whirling dervish, we might automatically think of somebody in a joyous state of ecstasy. 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. Simultaneously self-expression and a journey towards self-annihilation, it can be quite bewildering. These lines occasionally sung during the sema ceremony, in which a higher self seems to be enraptured, while a lower self seems to be in agony, capture the paradox:
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?’
When I began turning it was probably with the hope of experiencing the rapture described above, but what about that disconcerting scream? How can one, single experience be both a kind of heaven and hell?
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 also begun to resonate:
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 can be seen as a symbolic affirmation of each line. At the start of the sema 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! And here, too, we have a bewildering mixture. Normally the lines are read as if the ease follows the difficulty as kind of reward. But Sufis often read them as being simultaneous. What if the repetition of this statement contains a profound secret God wishes us to hear? Should we not expect the “opening up of the heart” to be both an excruciating and liberating experience? Are the semazen’s raised arms symbolic of joy or a kind of crucifixion?
The lines also call to mind the gentle and repetitive swishing sound of the semazens’ robes as they turn. The semazens just keep turning. 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 partly an exercise in perseverance, of the kind this surah exhorts us to develop.
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’. 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, he or she must keep turning to 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.
Mevlevi shaikh, Kabir Helminski, evokes the impossible when speaking of whirling:
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.
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 incomprehension of the rational mind (‘This is crazy!’) are all a necessary part of a kind of breakdown. Yet our willingness to fail is the proof of our love.
And we are actually not turning for ourselves anyway. I am coming to understand that turning is more about creating a communal space where something subtle and indefinable happens to all those present – those turning and those witnessing the turn. God willing, whirling then becomes an act of service; a field of subtle, beneficial energy is created which nobody can quite put their finger on, and which somehow isn’t about the semazens at all.
But the semazen has a part to play, and I am beginning to sense that an important quality that he or she might bring is 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…[24:35]
 ‘Ussak Ayin’, Neyi Osman Dede, translated by Refik Algan and Camille Helminski
 The Knowing Heart, A Sufi Path to Transformation, Kabir Helminski,p. 272
 Ibid., p.218