What is A Dervish & the Meaning of their Whirling

The term “dervish” is often used to refer to a Mohammadan holy man who is a member of a religious order and embraces a school of thought known as Sufism, which aims to enhance the human intellect via various philosophical and religious practices.

Many other orders and sub-orders exist, each with its own history, set of rules, and system of rituals, often traced back to the founder of the respective order.

Some modern examples are the Mevlevi sect, known for its spinning motions or “dance,” or the “howling” dervishes of the Rufai sect, who engage in ecstatic ceremonies.

A spinning dervish

Within Islam, each order is autonomous and may pursue its own doctrine. Aside from full members of an order, there are a large number of regular dervish followers, notably in the Turkish Muslim world, who are required to recite specific prayers every day.

Most observers get the false idea that dervishes are crazed zealots or madmen due to the striking contrast between dervish teaching techniques and those of Eastern and Western theologian scholars. In fact, this was the 19th-century Western understanding of a dervish: a bizarre zealot, wild-eyed and mad, engaged in bizarre, mystical rituals.

Many 19th-century visitors to the Arabic world from that period described dervishes who “whirled” and “howled,” which made for interesting tales but provided little real insight into the possible explanations of such bizarre behavior.

However, in Central Asia, a dervish would be seen as a person of science, arts, literature, and philosophy, and possibly more: a person with senses and abilities beyond those of ordinary men, something like a saint or magician, with healing and telepathic skills, and capable of miracles.

Most of the Muslim world, including medieval Spain and other regions of Europe, were familiar with dervishes. The Franciscan scholar Roger Bacon referred to dervish texts in his lectures at Oxford. 

Al-Ghazali (circa 1058–1111), better known as “Algazel” to other medieval thinkers, was a prominent dervish scholar, and the Spanish philosopher Raymond Lull of Majorca (approximately 1233–1316) has been demonstrated to have drawn on dervish writings for his ideas of love.

The purpose of Dervish philosophy

Many modern dictionaries still trace the origin of the term “dervish” back to the Persian word darvish, English for “poor man.”

A different possible explanation for the word “dervish” suggests it is derived from the Persian verb der-vekhtan, — to wait at a door — the reference being to wait at the door of enlightenment.

Recent research on the subject has shed new light on the dervish. According to Idries Shah, the Grand Sheikh of the Sufis and a lineal descendant of Mohammed, the nature of a dervish cannot be adequately expressed by words alone.

He says:

“A dervish is a Sufi … In Sufi literature, the words ‘Sufi,’ ‘dervish,’ and ‘fakir’ are used more rarely than ‘knower’, ‘lover’, ‘follower’ or ‘traveller’. The others are external labels.”

Dervish philosophy is centered around the notion of “essence” rather than the idea of God, and is primarily intended to enhance the quality of the human intellect, whether or not this involves religion. But regardless of the importance of religion, it is ultimately a means to an end: “He who understands his essential self knows his God.”

Omar Michael Burke, a contemporary traveler who visited dervish communities in Asia and Africa, provides the following definition of Sufism:

“A way of life said to have been handed down from remotest antiquity. Its training was designed to produce the perfected man — and woman. In order to achieve this, the Sufi had to go through a long training. The difference between this teaching and all other systems was that the Sufi training took place within the world, and not out of it.”

Dervishes believe humans are capable of a higher state of mental reasoning that can tap both into the material plane and a person’s inner self.

However, this ability of higher mental reasoning is blocked by the conventional thinking patterns that we use in our day-to-day lives. Thus, we cannot fully access the material plane and our own inner sense.

To reach this higher state of mental reasoning, dervishes have been known for their tendency to make shocking and cryptic statements, which have earned them a reputation for being crazy, phony, or otherwise unfit for normal society.

Nobody believed or could validate dervish theories that man was conditioned by society to think in a certain way until the events of the Korean War rediscovered Pavlov’s work.

Evolutionary theory was talked about by dervishes several hundred years before Charles Darwin. To people who had grown up with the Bible’s version of events and accepted it without question, this dervish theory seemed like complete nonsense.

Modern day dervishes believe their claims regarding precognition, bilocation (the ability to appear in two locations at once), and telepathy await similar scientific validation. They also believe individuals who have not reached the higher mental state of reasoning are not capable of experiencing, testing and challenging the existence of these abilities.

The dervish teachings

Dervish philosophy, developed in the past by Sufi sages, is taught through methods adapted to a specific period, place, and persons, as well as very specific procedures. A dervish school, in contrast to a traditional university or college, does not have a standard curriculum that is taught to all students and is stable through time. Instead, dervish teachings are only valid for a certain length of time and for a few specific people.

The majority of modern dervish texts are rewrites of previously existing works, updated to better reflect the period and culture in which they were rewritten. The dervish teachings will consider not just the qualities of each student but also those of the instructor.

Dervish masters use a variety of methods to help their students reach higher states of mind. One of these methods is to tell their students legends and parables that can give their minds not a “belief” but a “blueprint” or model to help them think in a different way, outside the box as it were.

Throughout Dervish philosophy, visual, auditory, and other sensory sensations are frequently used. There are additional methods for clearing one’s mind of biases and ingrained beliefs, creating mental “room” for the student to assimilate the dervish teachings.

How could a lifestyle dedicated to the improvement of man and “conscious progress” have given rise to the Victorian stereotype of the crazed fanatic? If those who witnessed dervish activity had no context for what they were witnessing, this could happen remarkably easily.

When Idries Shah describes an unusual Western European ceremony, he unwittingly offers an analogy for how dervishes came to be considered madmen:

“It is the night of Saturday, especially consecrated to a ritual which is awesome to us, faithfully followed by devotees of a certain cult. Two groups of 12, dressed in colourful costumes, carry out complicated movements in an enclosed space . . . The atmosphere is eerie, partly because of abrupt changes of emotion. . .”

This unusual ceremony, so fascinating to the dervish observer, was revealed to be nothing more than a nighttime football game.

Shah contrasts this with a similarly worded account written by a Victorian traveler after an encounter with “whirling” dervishes.

The traveler obviously took the time to thoroughly record the actions of the dervish but was not capable of understanding the motivations behind the actions.

This inability to understand dervish philosophy and the meaning behind their actions, combined with the dervish indifference to what cult a person believes in, has over time brought them a bad reputation.

Dervish orders are short lived and linked by a mystic force

Sufis existed historically mostly inside the boundaries of Islam; however, “Christian dervishes” were not uncommon since the dervish philosophy is believed to be applicable to all religions.

All dervishes are said to share a common bond through a mystical property called baraka (majesty, grace, impalpable splendor), and it is claimed that the combined baraka of the founders of the many Dervish Orders permeates and interconnects all of the various Dervish Orders with one another.

Schools, or Orders, can be found in a temple, a coffeehouse in Western Europe. The order can even be organized as a network of individuals and activities spread across a vast area unknown to outsiders because Sufis believe they have the ability to communicate with one another without requiring physical presence.

Chisti, Suhrawardi, Qadiri, and Naqshbandi are the four major Dervish Orders that have survived to the present day.

Most dervish orders are short-lived, consisting of individuals who have come together for a specific goal, and once the goal has been achieved, the rules cease to apply, and so the order disbands and stops existing.

Dervish influence in Europe and beyond

Evidence of dervish practice dating back centuries can be found all over Western Europe. The troubadours, the Knights Templar, and the witch cults of Western Europe all have elements adopted from dervish teaching.

One such example is the Chisti Order, who extensively use music in their meditations. When visiting a town, a wandering Chisti dervish would play a stirring song on the fife and drum and then deliver a “teaching” story. The jester represents a remnant of this tradition.

A dervish in the Middle Ages would have done the same thing, traveling from place to place while wearing a patchwork robe (the typical dervish robe) and instructing his followers through a combination of signs, enigmatic words, and silence.

The European spelling of the Arabic term for such an instructor is arlakeen, and there is no doubt that the modern harlequin perpetuates the image of the arlakeen of old.

A unique element of the dervish philosophy is its integration of the unexpected and use of unusual practices.

According to Arif Yahya:

“Do not expect the way in which they bring their teaching to be wholly within your ordinary way of understanding. A pearl may be carried in a leather purse. The ignorant cry out: ‘This square object with a flap does not look like the necklace which has been described to me.’”


References:

  • Mythology of All Races by Louis Herbert Gray and John Arnott MacCulloch
  • The encyclopedia of demons and demonology by Rosemary Guiley
  • Dictionary of gods and goddesses, devils and demons by  Manfred Lurker
  • Man, Myth & Magic The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Mythologyby Richard Cavendish
  • The Original Sources Of The Qur’an: Its Origin In Pagan Legends and Mythology by W. St. Clair Tisdall
  • The Oxford Companion to World Mythology by David Leeming
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