Indiana University Bloomington

Turning Towards Perfection: An Examination of the Sema

Sarah Biggs, anthropology and religious studies

Written for REL-D410: Self-Cultivation and Spiritual Exercises

Instructor: Prof. Aaron Stalnaker


“I am God.” This is the statement that catalyzed my interest in studying ecstatic states. Not only is this phrase contested among many Sufis, it is extremely heretical under what might be called “Orthodox Islam,” which could be called the epitome of religious monotheism with its quintessential phrase, La illaha ill’Allah ‘There is no god but God,’ a phase that Muslims must repeat and remember throughout their lives. The phrase “I am God” (Ana al-Haqq, literally translated as ‘I am the Truth’) was first uttered by the Persian Sufi master and martyr, Al Hallaj. Charged with heresy for this statement, Al Hallaj was later crucified by Muslim officials. Regardless of this heretical statement, Al Hallaj’s other writings were and still are of great influence and interest to later Sufi practitioners and masters alike, including the famed Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi (also known as Mevlevan ‘my master’ or simply Rumi), after which the Mevlevi Order of Sufism is named and fashioned. Although this particular phrase by Al Hallaj is mostly condemned, the ecstatic state he was in while pronouncing those words is widely accepted among different Sufi orders, especially those that have been modelled after Rumi’s understanding of Islam and God. Indeed, one of the most well-known spiritual exercises among Sufis is the “whirling” ritual ‘sema, which is directly based off of Rumi writings, practices, and life, meant to achieve an ecstatic state ‘wajd’ and unity with God ‘tawhid.’

In this essay, I will attempt to answer the question that remains about the announcement of “I am God” during ecstatic ritual: how can this even make sense if sema is only meant to lead a practitioner to God, and can it be justified in a normative understanding of Sufism, its practices and goals? I believe that it can; in order to do so, I must engage with a new interpretation of music, movement, and the goal of human perfection as it pertains to the sema of the Mevlevi Order.

William C. Chittick, an acclaimed 20th century scholar of Sufism, remarks that “[by] and larg…dance has played a minor role in Sufism, even in the Mawlawiyya [Mevlevi] order, where the whirling dance has had a certain importance.” In this specific book, Chittick is analyzing a more general Sufism, and only in this moment does he specifically speak of the Mevlevi Order. Though I agree that under a broader understanding of Sufism, dance may not actually be totally significant within a grander goal of knowing and loving God, I must part with Chittick’s brief analysis of dance in the Mevlevi Order. Rather, their sema ritual is of the utmost importance in regards to their unique path of what I shall call self-cultivation towards mystical knowledge of God ‘ma’rifah’ and the even greater Sufi goal of realizing and achieving all of God’s Divine Names ‘al-Asma.’ A Turkish choir director and Mevlevi sema teacher and practioner, Mete Edman, states that despite the use of music and movement, “For us [Mevlevis], sema is the most important form of praying.” This implies that sema is even above other sorts of prayers that Mevlevis do, including the five daily prayers of Islam ‘salat.’ The ritualized whirling that they do is what defines them and what they are known for. It would be odd for this “dance” to be anything but essential to their identity.

In Chittick’s analysis of dance, he discusses the fulfillment of the divine characteristics (also termed the Divine Names or attributes) of God as well as debating dance and what it might mean to human existence in the Sufi imagination. However, with a dismissal of dance as something that rarely has to do with the body, he does not link the fulfillment of God’s attributes with any particular spiritual exercise nor mode of self-cultivation. Though I am treading new territory in connecting the two, I theorize in this paper that the sema, as performed by the Mevlevis, is the ultimate spiritual practice of the order, allowing them to reach wajd as well as ascend to, realize, and embody God and the divine attributes towards and with the love of God.

My discussion of this subject will include three broader sections, in which I will delineate wider Sufi goals, including the achievement of al-Asma towards an esoteric human perfection; I will analyze the steps and symbolism involved with the Mevlevi sema; and I will finally discuss music and movement in Sufism and the specific understandings in the Mevlevi Order and how this relates to the sema’s distinct ability to bring its practitioners into ecstasy.

The Problem with “Dance”

I believe that one of Chittick’s primary issues in his analysis of “dance” in Sufism is the fact that he gave credence to the term itself, which is of course, a westernized classification of the patterned movement in which the Mevlevis participate. I relent a greater sympathy towards his understanding of dance as playing a minor, interior role in Sufism if we are, indeed, to be discussing dance. The western term greatly implies that the patterned movement is for a type of aesthetic pleasure for the viewer, and it usually remains a quite secular definition. Anthony Shay, a professor of Iranian dance at the University of California, Riverside, explains best why the use of the term dance in Islamic contexts is problematic for dance scholars:

None of the current definitions take into account dance and dance events in societies such as those of the Islamic areas of the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa where the term for dance (usually the Arabic word raqs) can possibly bear powerful or negative or, at least, ambiguous connotations. While dance, and a word to denote that activity, exists and we can perhaps come to an agreement over what constitutes dance, an even more crucial question is what dance is not in an Islamic environment. This question is important because many activities in which the participants perform patterned movements are devotional or spiritual in their own view, while some observers from the outside—and sometimes inside—the society unquestioningly term this type of activity dance because it is patterned, rhythmical movement.

Shay argues, and I agree, that it is the specific, devotional character in Islamic contexts that makes the word “dance” inappropriate for the patterned movements that the practitioners are performing. Shay also cites why the specific patterned movement of the Mevlevis cannot be called dance, articulating that because of the association with a remembrance of God ‘dhikr,’ Islamically  the sema cannot be considered dance as such. I concur with this definition, and therefore, in this paper, I will refer to the spiritual practice of whirling by either its proper name, sema or as a patterned movement.

Goals of Sufism and Human Perfection

Yasar Nuri Ozturk, a former professor of Islamic theology at the Istanbul University, explains that the “eye of the heart,” or the eye through which a believer may realize or metaphorically see God, is the most central aspect of Sufism. Indeed, many scholarly works on Sufism have included in their title, the word “heart.” I agree that the significance of “the eye of the heart” is how it pertains to the way in which Sufis read the Qur’an, which is inherently metaphoric and that by opening the “eye of the heart,” Sufis are able to read the Qur’an the way that they interpret it was and is meant to be read. Shems Friedlander, a senior lecturer and Rumi scholar at the American University in Cairo, quotes Sheikh Muzaffer “of the [secluded]…dervishes of Istanbul” in saying, “An animal…[and] you are alike, except that you can see through your hearts eyes. When you see through the eyes of the heart, all space opens for you.” Therefore, I argue that Sufi practices are also centered on opening the eye of the heart not only in order to read and interpret the Quran with better understanding, but also to realize God within the self, to which I will turn below.

Along with opening the eye of the heart, the heart in Sufism seems to have other sorts of sensory facilities as well. For example, Friedlander quotes the Turkish Sufi master, Hazrat Inayat Khan, who speaks of the ears of the heart:

God speaks to everyone. It is not only to the Messengers and Teachers. He speaks to the ears of every heart but it is not every heart which hears it. His voice is louder than the thunder, and His light is clearer than the sun—if one could only see it, if one could only hear it. In order to see it and in order to hear it, man should remove this wall, this barrier, which man has made of self.

The way to achieve an opening of the heart towards God is through love. Sufis oftentimes regard themselves as a love-centered interpretation of Islam with great emphasis placed on God’s love towards humans as well as the love that humans should always strive to return to God. In it is God’s love for humanity that led him to make them existent. Therefore, I contend that it is love that gave way to God creating humanity in a divine image with a potential to achieve the divine attributes.

Though I take issue with Chittick’s discussion of dance, I find his analysis of the goal of attaining al-Asma to be extremely useful. Both Chittick and Sa’diyya Shaikh, a professor of religious studies at the University of Cape Town, cite the 12th century Arab Andalusian Sufi Master, Ibn Arabi, in discussions of the embodiment of the divine attributes of God. Ibn Arabi places a distinctive importance upon this embodiment as the path towards human perfection, and Chittick cites Ibn Arabi as follows:

Within human beings is the potential of every existent thing in the cosmos, so they possess all the levels. This is why they alone were singled out for the Form. They bring together the divine realities, which are the names, and the realities of the cosmos, since they are the last existent thing…In human beings becomes manifest that which does not become manifest in the separate parts of the cosmos, nor in the separate names among the divine realities, for each of the names does not bestow what the others bestow in respect of distinctiveness. Hence, human beings are the most perfect existent things (Futuhat II 396.2).

One of the first parts of this passage is the idea of potential for humans and that they have a very specific type of potential that only they can achieve. This, in Sufi doctrine, is what separates human beings from other sorts of entities in the cosmos, from planets to trees to chimpanzees. However, they do firmly hold that every entity, as a creation of God, contains certain attributes of God naturally. In fact, Ibn Arabi writes that the names are all that really are, saying, “There is nothing in existence but God. As for us, though we exist, our existence is through Him (Futuhat I 279.6; SPK 94).” Humans are the only ones with the potential to possess all of the divine attributes in perfect harmony. They are, to quote a Quranic verse, “made upon the best of forms,” which is, thereby, interpreted, and I agree with this interpretation, as being made upon the form of God.

However, this does not mean that humans come into existence in a perfect state. Rather, Chittick writes, it is the duty of each human being to achieve such perfection in the sojourn of his or her life. Each human being must realize first their potential to achieve such attributes and then “[actualize]…the correspondence between the human being and the universe.” By this, Ibn Arabi means that humans, in order to achieve perfection, must realize a coherent display of the cosmos within themselves. Following this, humans must embody these attributes in order not only to achieve human perfection, but also to voluntarily ascend to God to hopefully assure their place in Paradise ‘Jana.’

Chittick cites both Ibn Arabi and Qunawi, a Persian Sufi mystic and scholar of the 13th century, who explain the significance of the attributes when entering either Jana or Jahannam ‘Hell.’

The properties of the divine names, in respect of being names, are diverse. What do Avenger, Terrible in Punishment, and Overpowering have in common with Compassionate, Forgiving, and Gentle? For Avenger demands the occurrence of vengeance in its object, and Compassionate demands the removal of vengeance from the same object (Futuhat II 93.19; SPK 55).

Those who leave the equilibrium of this middle, center point—which is the point of perfection in the presence of the all-comprehensive unity—will be judge in respect of their distance from or nearness to the center. Some will be near and some nearer, some far and some farther. Betweeen the complete disequilibrium specific to satanity and this divine, name-derived, perfect equilibrium become designated all the levels of the folk of felicity and the folk of wretchedness (I’jaz al-bayan fi tafsir umm al-Qur’an [Hyderbad-Deccan: Osmania Oriental Publications Bureau, 1949], p. 300; cf. Chittick, “The Circle of Spiritual Ascent.”).

What these two passages relate to the reader, I contend, is that in order to assuredly reach Jana (‘Paradise’), a believer must achieve al-Asma (‘the Divine Names’) in a state of equilibrium to each other. Qunawi, defines “the equilibrium of this middle, center point” as “the point of perfection in the presence of the all-comprehensive unity.” This is to say that not only must a believer achieve the divine attributes, but they must achieve them in perfect equilibrium with each other. Ibn Arabi explains that if one only achieves “Avenger,” then she or he will only receive vengeance; however, if they achieve that as well as its opposite “Compassionate,” the vengeance will be taken away. Qunawi goes a step further in relating that one must also end in the center of oneself and go towards the ultimate name of Allah. I believe that this can best be explained and nuanced after a discussion of the sema below in how it relates to the “center” as well as an ascent to God.

Steps and Symbolism in Sema

It is not surprising that today, after hundreds of years of practice and fashioned after the life and works of Rumi, the sema is highly ritualized. Of course, many westerners are familiar with the patterned movements of the “Whirling Dervishes,” whether or not they are aware. Dance scholar, Theodore Barber, wrote an article on four separate, westernized dance interpretations of the sema from 1920 to 1929, which was around the period western explorers had begun to encounter the whirling and interpret it as a dance. There are a multitude of steps in the ritual, which are meant to symbolize both different aspects of Rumi’s life and poetry as well as his perception of the cosmos. In order to have a full understanding of how sema can help one reach the aforementioned goals in Sufism, I must first delineate the steps of the sema and their inherent meaning, as well as a secondary set of goals that correspond specifically to Rumi and the Mevlevi.

Friedlander writes that sema is the “expression of the cosmic joy experienced by the simultaneous effect of annihilation and glorification” (or ‘fanaa’ and ‘baqaa,’ respectively). Chittick explains this well in relation to the phrase mentioned in the introduction, “There is no god but God.” The annihilation is the that of the self, more specifically I argue, the ego, or that part of the psyche, which is conscious and thinking, towards realizing a fulfillment of God. Chittick corresponds fanaa with “There is no god…” and the immediate baqaa with “but God.” The Mevlevis also recognize that, when done correctly, the sema will lead them into God-consciousness, ecstasy, and a sort of awakening. I contend that this directly leads them into an opening of the eyes and ears of the heart towards God, and thus, ables them to embody God and mimic the cosmos. However, the ritual must be done perfectly and correctly in order to achieve their aims.

First, I will explain the clothing that the dervishes, who are also called semazens, wear during the ritual. There are two larger ideals, which are symbolized in the clothing that they wear: death-consciousness, which is in relation to God-consciousness, and the previously mentioned awakening. All of the dervishes wear large, black hats ‘sikke’ (with the exception of the sema master, who wears a large, white hat), which are meant to symbolize the tombstone of man. They also don a long, white skirt ‘tennure,’ which is to represent the shroud that devout Muslim Arab men wear over their heads (called ‘emma’) as a reminder that death is near as well as a reminder of the goal of annihilation, which can be seen as another type of death. The black cloak ‘khirqa’ that they wear is also meant to symbolize man’s tombstone.

Beneath these cloaks, each practitioner wears a differently colored dress, the colors together representing Rumi’s mystical garden. However, on their own, they also have separate meanings: red is for dusk, dawn and love; green is for the soul’s search for peace; yellow is for the “face of unrequited love;” white is for Muhammad’s light; and black is for purity. Though each colored dress has its own specific meaning, the fact that they together represent Rumi’s garden is particularly significant in regards to the wider goal of opening the heart’s eye and achieving fanaa ‘annihilation’ and baqaa ‘glorification. Friedlander quotes a poem by Rumi, “The one who wants to be awakened/ Is the one who sleeps in the middle of the garden.” This garden is that of Rumi, but specifically his works, which Friedlander argues are meant for all people, beliefs, cultures, times, etc. However, I must add to this that it is not only Rumi’s writings but the enactment of them, which can lead the practitioner to an awakening. When Friedlander writes, “The deep feeling of Mevlana [Rumi] opens the heart, bridges the dialogue of culture, and through Mevlana [Rumi] man sees the human treasures,” I contend that this deep feeling can be contrived of a multitude of sources, including participation in the sema ritual; and though he does not say it, I argue that these “human treasures” are indeed the aforementioned divine attributes. All of this meaning is symbolized in just the dervish’s clothing; yet there is much more in the actual steps of the performance.

Before the whirling begins, the hafiz ‘sheikh who knows the Qur’an by heart’ leads the room in prayer, usually a passage from the Qur’an. Afterwards, the music of the ceremony begins, first with the beating of the drum ‘kudum,’ which symbolizes the creation of the universe, followed by the playing of the reed flute ‘ney, as a symbol of the breath of life into all creatures in order for them to exist. Simultaneously, the ney also represents the mourning sound of man’s constant yearning to return to the Creator and the foundation of existence.

This leads into the introduction of the performance, the ‘Devr-i Veled,’ in which the practitioners walk in a circle together three times while wearing their sikke ‘black hats’ and khirqa ‘black robes.’ The first circle represents God beginning to create a universe with the suns, moons, and planets; the second circle represents the creation of plants; and the third circle represents the creation of animals. Inherent in these three circle is the idea that none of these can perfectly represent nor give a voice to God, which is a task reserved for humanity. After the final circle, the semazens disrobe to reveal the tennure ‘dress’ beneath; they cross their arms; and they become human.

Then, they begin the first salem ‘sections of the ritual,’ of which there are four in total, each about ten minutes long until the sema master motions for the practitioners to stop their turning. However, each consisting of four important realizations, outlined as follows: 1) “Anything one wishes to do begins with rules;” 2) “One must take a path and go to somewhere;” 3) “human beings learn the truth” that God is in them;” 4) they quicken as they realize their proximity to God at which time they can “[serve] society with new abilities.” In this final step, their arms open up to embrace God, and their hands fall into place: the right hand up towards God and the left down towards other humans. They become a conduit from God towards the rest of humanity.

Throughout all of this, the semazens repeat the name Allah silently to themselves or in hushed tones. Some believe that they do not necessarily have to physically say the name itself; rather their feet, heart and breath say Allah naturally. This repetition, however, is one of the most important parts of the ritual. Remembrance of God, or God-consciousness, ‘dhikr’ is both the all-encompassing means and end to the performance. In fact, scholars have argued, and I agree, that the turning of the dervishes is nothing more than a form of dhikr unto itself. I will return to this subject in the final portion of this paper.

In the fourth and final salem of the sema, the sheikh, who has remained near his post, joins in with the semazens. He takes his place in the center in order to represent the sun while the dervishes, who continue to whirl, represent the planets. At the close of the salem, the sheikh returns to his post, followed by the dervishes, and the sheikh leads the room in a recitation of the first surah ‘chapter’ of the Qur’an, al-Fatihah. After this is done, symbolizing the end of the performance, the sheikh begins to pronounce the syllable “hu,” which is the final syllable of Allahu, or the vocative of Allah. The rest of the dervishes join him in this pronunciation, “[representing] all the names of God in one.”

Just as the clothes symbolize different, significant ideals, the performance itself is also symbolic. The beginning of the sema and the music being played represents a sort of evolution towards humanity, embracing the inherent possibility for perfection that humanity has as well as the necessary return to God, specifically symbolized by the ney ‘reed flute.’ The steps outlined for each salem symbolize the journey that a human must travel in order to reach God. Once they have reached God, they can help others on the path towards God. In the final salem, the semazens can become one with the cosmos as they mimic the turning of the planets around the sun, which is of course also turning. Reciting al-Fatihah after the final salem is necessary as the ritual is a form of prayer; and each ritualized prayer in Islam must include the first surah of the Qur’an. Finally, the pronunciation of “hu” together, I argue, represents the perfect equilibrium that the semazens are able to reach in their turning.

Music and Movement: Sema as a Way to Embody God

In this final section, I will address the significance of music, and its consequential movements, in Sufism; a theory of dance and religion as it relates to Sufism and the goal of wajd ‘ecstasy;’ and finally, I will conclude by relating the music and movement of the sema towards an ascent to, unification with, and embodiment of God.


The word sama (literally ‘hear’), from which sema is derived, means a multitude of things, but ultimately, it is a characteristic of the “primordial audition.” The primordial audition, which all existent entities have had in the cosmos is that moment when such an entity goes from nonexistence towards existence. It is the moment God says, “Be” to that which he is commanding to exist. All entities are in a state of nonexistence before coming into existence for whatever purpose God has laid out for them. However, despite being in a state of nonexistence, all of these nonexistent beings had to hear the primordial command from God, thus giving this primordial audition the name of sama. It is important to consider that the word has also come to mean a variety other things, such as “listen,” “listen to music,” and, thereby, becoming also a sort of “music,” itself. Music plays a controversial role in wider Islam, thought of as haram ‘forbidden’ by many Muslims.

However, the sort of music that sama indicates, as it is necessarily related to the primordial audition, should be viewed differently from music as purely means of entertainment. It can entertain, I believe, but that is not the goal. Rather, the goal is essentially spiritual and familiarly is a remembrance of God as well as a remembrance of the primordial “Be” towards a return to God. Why then should this relate to music at all? Chittick notes that earlier Sufis employed music as a mysterious way to remember God “in the heart,” and as a way to “transport people into the invisible world, to their very origin in ‘nonexistence,’ to that realm where God is still speaking.” I argue that this is because music, in this understanding, is similar to the voice of God.

Rumi believes that music is a way to remember human origin as he compares humanity to the ney ‘reed flute.’  Friedlander quotes Nazrat Inayat Khan’s explanation of why Rumi chose the reed as a symbol for humankind:

First [the reed flute] is cut away from its original stem. Then in its heart the holes have been made; and since the holes have been made in the heart, the heart has been broken, and it begins to cry. And so it is with the spirit of the Messenger…that by bearing and by carrying his cross, his self becomes like a reed, hollow…When [the reed flute] has become nothing, the player takes it to play the melody. If there was something there, the player could not use it. On one end of the reed flute are the lips of the Prophet, and at the other end is to be heard the voice of God.  

In order for the ney to be made, it must be cut away from the reed bed. This is similar from a human being torn away from God. The sound that the ney makes is mournful and suffering, symbolizing human suffering on Earth and a cry to return to the Creator. However, by way of this suffering, a human being “learns to turn his eyes to God.” Interestingly, the music from the reed flute, I aruge, is both the voice of God as well as the cry of humanity to return to God. This again implies sama (meaning ‘music’) as necessarily tied to the moment of creation, the moment when an entity hears the primordial “Be,” as well as the moment when it is torn from God. It is important to recall here that God would not have pronounced, “Be,” if love was not at its foundation. Therefore, necessary to sama and all rituals based around it is love. Necessary to human suffering is a love of and by God. Humans, I claim, make music because of suffering as well as love. Yet, is there another way that humans can yearn for their Creator?

Chittick cites a poem by Rumi, in which he states, “This sweet sound causes a movement of yearning towards the Real.” Hearing music, then, immediately causes a sort of primal movement or dance, whether it be spiritual or not. And under this understanding, it is as well a projection of suffering, longing, and love. For to dance is also a reminder of the necessary movement and agitation that all beings did upon hearing the primordial “Be” into existence. Therefore, I agree with Chittick and add that dancing becomes an automatic response to hearing the voice of God, which is simultaneously human love for God.

Chittick also writes that, in reality, dance is constant. Beings dance into existence, and they never stop moving from atoms to the stars. Sufism interprets this constant movement as an eternal celebration of God, and in the case of humanity as they are aware of their situation and ability to transcend it, it is also a yearning to return to God. Ozturk also contends that everything is in a constant state of prayer and worship through this agitated movement of existence, and “[sema] is a form of conscious participation in this prayer and worship, for its whirling movement is the characteristic motion of the microcosm and the macrocosm.”

I agree with the idea of everything as being in a state of constant worship through movement, but where I part with Chittick is his interpretation of one Rumi poem, which in his understanding allocates to dance and movement a minor role towards tawhid ‘unity with God.’ The poem is as follows:

People dance and frolic in the square—

Men dance in their own blood.

Freed from their own hands, they clap their hands.

Having leapt from their own imperfections, they dance.

Within them their minstrels beat their tambourines—

Their uproar makes the ocean clap its waves.

Chittick claims that poem shows how “dancing…has no necessary connection with the body, since it is experienced by the soul.” I disagree that this poem necessarily denotes a sort of longing, loving movement towards God as purely internal and only “experienced by the soul.” Rather, I contend, that the poem indicates that even when a being appears to be still, it is not. For even blood is in constant movement. The atoms that create everything are constantly active. I think that it also implies that humans have dancing in their blood, as in, it is a part of who they are. Indeed, the dance is quite physical.

A Theory of Ecstatic Dance as Ritual

Before entering into Senior Research Scholar of the University of Maryland, Judith Lynne Hanna’s, theory of dance and religion as it pertains to Sufism, I must first explain the term “ecstasy.” Arvind Sharma, a professor of comparative religion at McGill University, defines ecstasy as literally “to be placed outside of” or “to be displaced.” Among the religious, it can also mean a state of exaltation, transcendence from oneself or a “seizure of a human by a divinity.” Sharma defines three different types of religious ecstasies: shamanistic, prophetic, and mystical. I concur that Sufism falls into the mystical category of ecstasy, and Sharma notes that dance is often a common means to an ecstatic end. Ecstatic practices are common in Sufism, especially the Mevlevi Order, and the ecstatic experiences that Sufis have “[constitute] the ecstatic’s knowledge of God (‘ma’rifah’).”

In Hanna’s theory of religion and dance, she first outlines five spheres that religious dance can have: metaphor, metonym, concretization, stylization, icon. Using these spheres, I argue that the sema of the Mevlevi Order is both metonymic, defined as representative of a “larger whole of which it is a part,” and iconic, defined as “a dancer portraying most of a deity’s properties or characteristics and being treated as the god.” However, I must change this conception only slightly and remove the latter part of Hanna’s definition of icon as “being treated as the god,” which I do not see as necessary in the portrayal of a deity’s characteristics as I do not inevitably see the whirling dervishes as a group of dancers with a necessary audience. The sema is metonymic in its symbolism of the greater cosmos as well as evolution, of which humanity is a part. It is also iconic in its portrayal of the cosmos as well and its dance towards God. This is at the same time iconic with God because portraying the cosmos, the turning is also displaying the divine attributes, of which everything in the cosmos is made.

Hanna also notes eleven types of or reasons for religious dance. Though Hanna gives the example of the dervishes under one category, which she calls “Merging with the supernatural towards enlightenment of self-detachment,” I will extend the dervishes to yet another of her categories, “Embodying the supernatural and inner transformation.” She sites movement as an effective way to achieve ecstasy because of the vertigo to which it naturally leads. She specifically states that it is the “revolving movement and repeated chanting that vibrates energy centers of the body in order to raise the individual to higher spheres.” Because the whirling is iconic in nature, the sema is also about embodying the supernatural; and because the turning not only allows one to ascend to God in a state of fanaa and baqaa, but also to realize the perfection within oneself and open the eyes and ears of the heart, a practitioner can achieve both enlightenment of self-detachment as well as inner transformation.

A Turn Towards Perfection- A Preemptive Conclusion

In the sema, a practitioner is able to close his or her physical eyes and open the eyes of the heart. Music plays, and he or she is able to hear it through the ears of the heart and remember their primordial audition. Their automatic response to this music is movement, and through the specific patterned movement passed down from Rumi, they can open the eyes of the heart to see God and the “human treasures.” In the turning, a practitioner begins his or her path towards human perfection. Because of the mimetic and iconic nature of the sema, the semazens are able to mimic the cosmos, and thereby, portray and realize all of God’s divine attributes. The internal repetition of Allah keeps the ultimate goal of being at perfect equilibrium in sight and mind. The pinnacle of the ritual comes when by way of this music and movement, by realizing one’s constant yearning and longing and love for God, and by becoming one with the universe, the semazen is even able to break free of the confines of the ritual itself and ascend towards God; and in so doing, she or he comes to the final name of Allah and realizes a perfect equilibrium in the center, the heart, in which God resides. In this moment, he or she attains human perfection and truly embodies God. Chittick writes that only in “turning their minds and their whole existence towards Him…can they hope to become god-like in a true sense.”


The sema is the ultimate ritual among the Mevlevi Order of Sufism. It allows the practitioner to reach an ecstatic state, and thereby, ascend to and embody God by way of embodying each of God’s divine characteristics. In this sense, we can understand better why someone in an ecstatic state, such as this, might say the words, “I am God.” In that final moment of God-embodiment, in realizing that God is both within and without and everything that a person is, the phrase begins to make sense and seem correct.

But why does this theory, which I have proposed, of a single type of ecstatic patterned movement matter? I can argue that these religious phenomena and understandings of the cosmos that I have reviewed contribute to a number of relevant fields. For example, the idea of music as the voice of God can contribute to our understanding, albeit from a theological or even psychological perspective, of why music seems to be so inherently valuable to us. As well, it can help us to realize how music can make us feel from a religious perspective as a tool to help us realize something special within ourselves. I also think that it can contribute to a better understanding of spiritual patterned movement towards ecstasy as something other than dance in the burgeoning field of dance ethnography. Finally, I believe it can pave the way for more scholarly work and attention on theories of ecstatic dance as well as work on Sufism, specifically the practices and beliefs among the Mevlevi Order and other orders fashioned after Rumi.


Al Hallaj Mystic and Martyr. (2004). Retrieved from

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