Some Questions Regarding the Mevlevi Sama'

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Munhib Shah

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Oct 13, 2023, 2:34:15 PM10/13/23
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Dear Shaykh and also Friends,
Assalam u Alaikum.

I had some questions regarding the Mevlevi Sama'. My background relates to the Chishtiya order, which conceives the Sama' differently, and that naturally leads to some confusions. To make my question obvious, allow me the time to briefly describe Sama' as my Shaykh taught it in our order:
  • The Chishti Sama' begins with an instrumental, which roughly represents kun and the coming into existence; this is followed by guidance, represented through a Hamd in praise of the Lord, a Madh in praise of the Prophet ﷺ, Manaqiba in praise of Sayyidina Ali and the masters of the order; then there are Ghazals on Ishq, Fana, Fana an al-Fana, and Baqa; finally, a special Ghazal we title Rung, about the "color" of the shaykh and of Allah coloring everything and removing all other priorities.
  • The seating is very specific, with the Shaykh sitting on one side, the reciters in front of him, and in concentric circles, the students in between with the part in the middle being empty.
  • Control is favored over ecstasy; if anyone reaches a haal, it is preferred to silently cry, but if he seeks permission or loses control he is allowed to whirl, in which case the other students form a circle around him. But this is considered unpreferred.
By contrast, the Mevlevi Sama' is a very different structure, the meaning of which I have found explained in some of the things I have read, but some aspects of it I have not yet been able to understand... As such, if the following questions could be explained, or resources provided, I would be grateful:
  1. Given that the Mevlevi Sama' involves whirling (which some silasil in the subcontinent call raqs e derwishi), and it seems to be planned, have the Shuyukh written on it and their justification for it; or are their restrictions on the raqs that we are left unaware of?
  2. While I have tried to find some material on the procedures, what exactly is the procedure of poetry and of the sama', and what is its signification? What does it mean and what benefit does it seek to provide?
  3. When exactly was the procedure formalized? For I have read that Mawlana did not formalize it, in which case, also, was there and are there still alternative opinions among the Mevlevis?
  4. What requirements and restrictions are placed on the actual Mevlevi Sama' regarding attendance? In other words, not as it is now, treated as a cultural phenomenon, but as a Sufi ritual, what restrictions does it have?
And any other details you deem important. Mawlana is considered a great figure by the many orders of the subcontinent, but I must admit that the Mevlevi Sama' is a potential cause for confusion. I hope that a better understanding will be of benefit.

Prayers for you all, bless you.
Ma' Assalama.

Ibrahim

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Oct 15, 2023, 5:47:46 PM10/15/23
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Dear Munhib,
Wa 'alaykuma 's-salām,

Thank you for the valuable information about the samā' in Chishtī tradition. Yes, the differences between the practice of samā' in India and Pakistan and the Sema in Turkey can be confusing. The problem, as I see it, is that, while both have their origin in what I call the ancient Persian sam'ā (spontaneous spiritual bodily movements inspired by mystical music and poetry) which was supported by the Seljuk Empire (who had adopted Persian language and culture), when the Ottoman Turks became dominant in Anatolia, the ancient Persian sama' was changed into a ritual of choreographed bowing and whirling called "sema". As you may know, the 11th century Sufi, al-Hujwirī, wrote that in the samā', dervishes were not allowed to make intentional (or planned) movements, but could only move when inspired. This is the samā' in which Rumi  participated. What I call the "Ottoman Sema" developed more than a century after Rumi died and has little connection with the samā' in which Rumi engaged. It was so much based on whirling that to this day the word "Sema" means "whirling" (individually or in group) in Turkish. Whereas the Arabic Sufi word, samā', means "listening to mystical music and poetry as if hearing the voice of God, and feeling inspired to move (sometimes in ecstasy)." 

Ibrahim

Safa Kamdideh

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Oct 15, 2023, 7:49:04 PM10/15/23
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Dear Ibrahim,
Salam

Thank you for this enlightening info about the samā' Rumi practiced. Could you recommend books and articles - in English or Persian - for further research on this topic? 

Best,
Safa

Ibrahim

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Oct 16, 2023, 12:27:50 AM10/16/23
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Dear Safa,
Salām,

I wrote about it in an essay in a published book, The Routledger Handbook On Sufism;

I found only seven instances of Rumi's whirling (in John O'Kane's index of his translation of Afākī's hagiography). There are two cases involving a story. In one case, he walked outside after a samā' session until he encountered a millstone turning and he began to whirl. But it was the second story that became famous, in which Aflākī depicts Rumi as whirling in the street outside the goldsmith's shop and all the metal tools in the shop turned to gold. Aflākī adopted this story from an earlier account by Sepahālār in which Rumi did samā' inside the goldsmith's shop. Here, he did not state that Rumi whirled [charkhīdan]. So much of this famous story was fictionalized. I believe that this story led to Rumi's fame as a whirler, and possibly led to the creation of the whirling prayer ritual (Sema).

Ibrahim

Munhib Shah

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Oct 16, 2023, 12:27:50 AM10/16/23
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Jazaak Allah, Dear Shaykh.
This really clarifies the main confusion. I will also continue to read on this. Stay blessed!
Ma' Assalama.

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Ibrahim

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Oct 16, 2023, 12:45:01 PM10/16/23
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Dear Munhib,
As-salāmu 'alaykum,

This is part two of my response to your questions. There are some things in common between the Chishtī samā' and the Turkish Sema. Both begin in the traditional manner of Islamic gatherings with praises of God and the Prophet Muhammad (may God bless him and give him peace). The poetic form of this in the Sema is called the "Noble Praise" or "Noble Eulogy" [Na`t-i Shareef] of the Prophet. The poem used in the Ceremony is a Persian ode [ghazal] which consists of six lines (not composed by Rumi, as commonly believed). Then there is an instrumental (reed-flute) solo. This is followed by the first of four whirling sections during which verses from Rumi's ghazals (chosen by the composer of the particular composition that is performed) are sung (but few people can understand these — even native Persian speakers, because the verses are sung with such heavy Turkish accents, and without any understanding of the meaning of the words—for examples, see https://www.dar-al-masnavi.org/ayinler.html). In the Sema, the shaykh also sits apart (on a red sheepskin). 

In both, control is emphasized over ecstasy. The whirlers are not allowed to whirl wildly or out of control, even if experiencing an ecstatic state [vajd]. Rather, they must strive to whirl at a proper distance from each other (whirling skirts not touching) and at the same rate of rotation as the others. An ecstatic state can also be controlled (and concealed, to some extent) by channeling the increased energy into the effort made to maintain the whirling. 

For centuries, the Mevlevi Sema was done privately in specially built Whirling Prayer Ceremony halls. In 1925 it was outlawed completely and about thirty years later, it was allowed to be done as a public performance (mainly to attract tourists) on stages and in theaters in Konya on December 17 only. Many important rules for the Sema (such as respect for the prayer-direction [qiblah] towards Mecca) have been neglected. The Sema has become corrupted in many ways since becoming a performance (and not a dervish ritual), and its Islamic symbolism is less appreciated. Nevertheless, people who attend such performances often report feeling spiritually elevated by watching it and hearing its special music.

Ibrahim
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