The image of whirling dervishes spinning endlessly with their arms outstretched and their heads tilted down – dressed in conical felt hats and long white robes, their eyes half closed in trance – has an allure even for those who know nothing about the ritual. It is a movement performed all over the world, from private rooms to arenas with hundreds of spectators.
While working on my master’s degree in London last year, I had to do anthropological fieldwork on a dance or movement system. I chose a group called the Whirling Dervishes of West London – a community that studies various mystical principles and teaches their own version of the “turning.”
Turning is the practice associated with “whirling dervishes,” groups who identify as part of the Mevlevi order of Sufism. The order was created after the death of well-known 13th century Persian poet and mystic Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī, or Rumi as he is more popularly known. It is said that Rumi prescribed and organized exercises, like whirling, while in Konya, Turkey, for the benefit of the community in which he was a part.
The impact of those movements were specifically catered to the culture of his region and the needs of the population at the time. In Rumi’s own words, the main beneficiaries of the exercise were not the dancers themselves, but the audience of overly-placid and dispassionate Greek Anatolians, whose emotions he hoped to rouse through observation of the dances.
Today, several centuries later, many groups have replicated the movements in an effort to establish them as a continual tradition and, in my mind, in order to feel a deeper connection to the teachings of Rumi.
The Turkish government has also adopted the image of whirling as a national heritage and pays sheikhs to train individuals so they can perform the dance for tourists. UNESCO has even deemed the whirling an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, although it admits that “many sema ceremonies [which include whirling] are no longer performed in their traditional context but for tourist audiences”.
My research with the group in London was focused on the movements of turning itself and the individual’s embodied experience relating to their spiritual or religious beliefs. What surprised me, though, was hearing each individual’s reason for taking part in the weekly ceremony. For most members of the group, it wasn’t the religious aspect that was most important – although spirituality was a large component of their motivation. It was the feeling of community they valued the most.
After turning practices and a bi-monthly ceremonial performance, we would all go to the communal dining area in the building and have a meal together, which was prepared by a handful of regulars. Sometimes we would hang out until the early hours of the next morning. For me, eating communal meals was warmth inside of frosty London – comfort in a brisk city.
The conversations I had with members made me think about what compels us to seek the things we seek. Perhaps beyond material objects, career goals, romantic relationships, sex and religion is our search for community. Humans need the comfort and security of a cohesive group, especially if our families are broken or dysfunctional and/or if we live socially fragmented lives – which so many of us do. In fact, we need community not just to function, but also in order to thrive.
I wonder if many of the senseless acts of violence taking place in the world today can be traced back to this same deep longing?
A chosen community becomes calming in times of turbulence, a lifeline in times of loneliness and support in times of despair. It appears as many different labels – Muslim, Christian, Jew; gay, straight, transgendered; vegetarian, vegan, omnivore – but at the heart of all these identities is community, a place where we feel connected to like-minded individuals who have similar values. It satisfies our need to belong.
We evolved and survived as a species by being members of tightly knit groups. Being rejected or cast out of the group – without the safety and sustenance the community provided – often meant death.
As more of us continue moving into cities and living in the ever-growing number of apartment towers or cookie cutter suburban homes – each to her own separate space – we will only become more alienated from one another, existing in anonymity and searching ever more desperately for community.
And so I came to learn from the Whirling Dervishes of West London that, although they come together for a sense of spiritual connection, like others who identify with a particular group, what they are ultimately seeking is community, a place to belong.
Let’s remember that when we meet someone with a different label than ours: We’re likely seeking the same thing.