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Religion: Whirling Mystics

2 minute read

Listen to the reed breathing

Fervent love and intense pain

Since it was wrenched from its

marshy bed…

Kindled by the spark of love

I am drunk with love’s own wine

If you wish to know what lovers


Listen to the reed.

For the 13th century Persian poet Jalal al-din Rumi, the reed was a metaphor for man. Rumi was a follower of the ancient principles of Sufism, a mystical movement that is to Islam roughly what Hasidism is to Judaism. He believed that the soul and God are one and the same. The world, he taught the faithful, is but a tomb, temporarily separating the soul from its divine milieu. In order to release the imprisoned spirit, he taught the Sufi dervishes (Persian for beggars) to dance themselves into an ecstatic trance; all their movements were made in rhythm with the music of reed flutes, drums and tambourines.

Last week the modern disciples of Rumi, who were ending their first tour of North America to promote Turkish culture, performed their 700-year-old ritual at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Nine dervishes, solemn in long black capes and tall cylindrical hats, entered the hall led by a sheik. Beckoned by the chant of a blind singer and the melancholy solo of a reed flute, they threw off their voluminous black cloaks, symbols of the tomb that they believe encases the soul. Slowly and gracefully they began to revolve, their long white skirts billowing into circles. Gradually they extended their arms, one palm turned heavenward to receive divine grace, the other toward earth, symbolically dispensing the grace to man.

In contrast to the common notion that dervishes spin themselves into a delirious frenzy, they performed movements that were as carefully controlled as they were ritualistic, each of the dancers adopting his own speed, like so many planets turning on their axes. “It is a spiritual feeling,” explains Dance Master Ahmet Bican Kasapoglu, “but we are in reality. We don’t give ourselves over to unreality.” After nearly half an hour, during which kettle drums drove the music to a hypnotic crescendo, the dervishes gradually wound down. Their arched skirts sank to their ankles, and they crossed their arms over their chests, in seeming resignation to the necessity of returning once more to their earthly prison.

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