Whirling mysticism comes to campus

Though one may believe meditation can only be actualized with clasped hands, crossed legs and the repetition of the word “Om,” the Whirling Dervishes praise God on their feet, spinning.

Close to 500 people gathered on campus Wednesday to see  them perform. Presented by the Turkish American Cultural Center of Tampa Bay (TACC), the Whirling Dervishes performed their world-renowned spinning ritual, a form of Muslim prayer and meditation.

Each Dervish rotates on his own axis with the help of intricate footwork. They spin seemingly in place with eyes closed in meditation while slowly rotating in a larger circle around the stage, similar to the earth’s axis orbiting the sun. The spinning motion can last up to an hour, and Dervishes avoid feeling dizzy through their practices in meditation.

While whirling, the Dervishes hold their right hand up to the heavens as their left hand faces the ground. This pose is said to transmit what is taken from the heavens and channel it to the Earth.

The whirling motion acts as an axis mundi — a cosmic axis that represents a pole between the heavens and the Earth, said Kathleen O’Connor, religious studies major. The movement symbolizes rotations found in the cosmos and is a popular invocation of creation.

The ritual is designed to bring participants into a state of consciousness in which they are closer to God, O’Connor said.

The whirling is not actually a performance but a meditation ritual designed for spiritual guidance, said Oguz Cimenler, a TACC volunteer and industrial engineering major.

The program opened with a Sufi music concert, which included chants and other traditional readings and songs. Male vocalists joined instrumentalists who played traditional string, wind and percussion instruments — such as the lute, frame drum, reed and kanun, an instrument similar to a sitar.
Everything in the performance holds symbolic meaning — the clothing worn, the instruments played, the sounds made and the materials used to make them.

The instruments are important in this tradition because they represent the soul, O’Connor said. The drum represents a heartbeat and emphasizes rhythm and balance, while the reed represents the “wailing of the soul to God,” she said. The lute also has special meaning as the essence of wood, Cimenler said.

Dating back to Rumi origins, the Dervishes’ apparel is made of wool and simple in design to represent their voluntary poverty and simplicity, O’Connor said.

The tall, flat-top hat worn by the Dervishes symbolizes the tombstone of one’s self, Cimenler said. The white outfit resembles a dress and the skirt flutters in a bell-like shape as the Dervishes spin in place. This white garb represents the shroud of the self, and the vest represents the actual self.

“I thought it was beautiful, and just to hear the live music and see the performance was very moving — I really enjoyed it,” said Leyla Aykin, a junior majoring in religious studies.

The Whirling Dervishes are part of the Sufi order created by followers of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi. Sufism is a following of Rumi’s teachings of love, knowledge, peace and harmony.

The Whirling Dervishes traveled to Tampa from their home city of Konya, Turkey. The group began traveling the world after 2007 was declared “the year of the Rumi,” Cimenler said.

“It seems almost artificial because non-participating and non-believing observers lessen the authenticity of the ritual,” O’Connor said. Live performances are not typical because the ritual was never meant to be performed as a visual spectacle.

Despite a potentially diminished sense of authen-ticity, TACC encourages people unfamiliar with the culture to attend so they can be introduced to it in an open, social environment, Cimenler said. In fact, the organization chose USF as a venue because of its diverse reach, she said.

 ”We hope these activities of music, dance and art will promote dialogue between the different cultures,” Cimenler said.