A Connection of Love and Awakening: the Mevlevi Sema
When someone is involved in a field such as mine, it is inevitable that the study of various sacred rituals comes into focus. One particular sacred ritual that has mesmerized me ever since I began ethnomusicological research is the Sema, a musical ritual of the Turkish Mevlevi sect of Sufi Islam. It is truly a powerful event to watch, whether one believes in the spiritual or not, and I hope to shed some further light on this mystical occurrence with this post.
Sufism is the mystical, less-accepted religious sect within the Muslim world. It holds that unity with God, or “oneness,” can in fact be achieved. The Mevlevi sect of Sufi Islam was formed in Turkey by followers of the poet and spiritual leader Rumi. The ritual of the Sema was actually spoken of by Rumi himself, stating “For them it is the Sema of this world and the other. Even more for the circle of dancers
within the Sema. Who turn and have, in their midst, their own Ka’aba.”
The Sema (known also as the whirling dervishes) consists of a spinning dance to meditative music (dominated by the Turkish ney (flute), tambur lute, rebab, fiddle and percussion). The dancers, as they slowly twirl, hold the right hand to the heavens and the left hand to earth, believing that their dance is an intermediary between the spiritual realm and the physical realm. Look at the video link below to see the dance for yourself, both the music and ritual are truly beautiful.
The Sema ritual has faced some resistance, namely during the time that the Turkish republic was formed. Until 1946, religious classical music (the category the Sema ritual belongs in) was forbidden by the government. It wasn’t until a secular festival was created in honor of Rumi’s death that the Sema ritual became performed in an accepted context. Now, in the current age, this Mevlevi ritual can be found all over the region of Turkey.
The significance of the Sema ritual, at least for me, is that it allows both insider and outsider to see a different world. Each individual that views it, whether in person or on recording, sees something different. For some it may be a deep connection with something greater than themselves, and for others it could be the enlightenment of coming into contact with a culture vastly different than their own. Whatever the case, the Mevlevi sect of Sufism has given a great gift to humankind in sharing their beliefs and rituals with the world. I shall close with a quote from Rumi himself as I feel that it poignantly states what the connection of cultures through music and dance is all about, “There is a community of the spirit. Join it, and feel the delight of walking in the noisy street, and being the noise.”
(Source: Boratav, Ferhat, and David Muddyman. 1994. “Ronda a la Ataturk: Music of Turkey.” In World Music: The Rough Guide edited by Simon Broughton, Mark Ellingham, David Muddyman, and Richard Trillo. London: Rough Guides Ltd., pp. 160-166.)