Many people who come to Turkey see what is called the 'Whirling Dervishes' which is a sight particular to Turkey. All I knew about them is that they are followers of Sufi Islam, which is the mystical branch of Islam. I decided to find out more.
Turns out that the Dervishes are followers of the philosopher known as Rumi in the West (his full name is Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī, but he is more commonly known to the Turkish people as Mevlevi or Mawlawi). Rumi was a Persian philosopher who lived in 13th century. Though he was born somewhere in Persia, in modern day Tajikistan, his family moved and, after performing the Hajj*, finally came to rest in Konya, in modern day Turkey, the capital of the Ottoman Empire at the time. “Rumi”, actually refers to where he lived, which had been under the control of the Roman Empire (Rome – Rum – Rumi). So to call him 'Rumi' would be like calling someone from Florida 'The Floridian'. Sort of like the Spanish/Greek painter El Greco (literally, "the Greek") was known by that nickname instead of his given name.
Though he wrote in Persian, his influence is felt very profoundly in Anatolia (Anatolia being the area of Turkey in Asia) and in Turkey in general. His songs are sung as lullabies, his quotes are used to admonish children when they misbehave, and his grave is a great pilgrimage sight for Sufis.
Much like Martin Luther in the 15th and 16th centuries, Rumi believed that a person did not need an intermediary to commune with god. He believed that organized religion actually hindered the spiritual development of a person. And like Martin Luther, he was not too popular with many of the authorities of his religion.
He famously said: “God's truth is lost on the men of orthodoxy. Mystics refuse to turn life into forgery. God's truth is an ocean and the dogma, a ship. Most people don't leave that ship to plunge in that sea. At the threshold of truth, the dogma held them back at that door. All came in sight but they could not see.”
This basically means that though a dogma is useful for navigating the world, if you learn to think for yourself and connect with the world on your own terms (metaphorically learning to swim), the dogma is only holding you back.
He wasn't a prophet, as Muslims maintain that Mohammad was the last prophet, but merely a philosopher who interpreted Islam in his own way.
So where does the whirling come in? You ask. The Mawlawi Sufi Order came into being after Rumi's death, started by his descendants. The dance comes from his philosophies – he had one foot rooted in Islam and one foot dancing through all the nations where Islam was present. The whirling is a kind of meditative practice. With one hand they take from God and with the other they give to the people and vise versa. It reminds me of the Bhakti movement in Hinduism where they believe that by the sheer amount of devotion you show to God – demonstrated visibly by singing and dancing more or less constantly – you will achieve salvation
The Mawlawi Sufi order was outlawed by Ataturk in an effort to secularize the state of Turkey and remains so today, though the religious ceremony of the Whirling Dervishes is now recreated for tourists, and a handful of the old monasteries of the order are now cropping up in Istanbul and other major cities.
It’s a tricky subject. On the one hand, the Sufis were the least detrimental – in my opinion – to a secular rule with their moderate views and religious tolerance. But on the other hand, Ataturk wanted to create a cohesive state and the sect was a potentially divisive element. Either way, what you see nowadays performing for tourists are just dancers.
But one of Rumi's famous quotes was: 'dwell not in the past, be the child of tomorrow'. The world turns and destroys but as long as you have joy in your heart you are able to make your garden again. Though his religious traditions have been ostensibly reduced to entertainment for tourists, I don't think he would be angry. The true faithful still continue their ceremonies in private and the world is fascinated by the mystery of the Whirling Dervishes.
* the Hajj is the holy pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are supposed to perform in their life if it is at all possible.