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Rumi's Whirling Dervishes

“Silence is the language of God,

all else is poor translation.”

― Rumi

A trip to Istanbul is incomplete without mention of the 13th century poet, Rumi. I had heard of Rumi before my trip, of course. He wrote one of my favorite poems:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’

doesn’t make any sense.

But in truth, I didn't know much about him—perhaps because I know little about Islam...

That's not to say I don't know anything. In Dr. Diller's "Middle-eastern History and Politics" class, for example, I learned about the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims (they disagree on who Mohammed 's successor was supposed to be), and I know that Sufis can belong to both. But beyond that? I was raised Christian and attended Christian schools for most of my life. Learning the ins and outs of Islam wasn't really part of the curriculum.

Being in a mosque-filled city where muezzins issued a call to prayer, or adhan, five times per day changed that. Suddenly I found myself curious to know more. My guide was Muslim, naturally—most Turkish people are—and many of our conversations centered around the Islamic faith. As I listened to her, and when she translated Arabic verses from the Quran, I was struck by the similarities in the teachings of her religion and my own.

In particular, *G was passionate about Sufiism. Sufiism is the mystical and ascetic form of Islam through which Muslims seek to directly experience God—like taking prayer to the next level. Its practice consists of rituals and practices such as meditation, chanting, singing, dancing, and whirling dervishes.

And this is where Rumi comes in.

Image source: AmuraWorld
Image: AmuraWorld

Rumi (1207–1273).

Jalal al-Din Rumi was born on September 30th in 1207 in what is now Balkh, Afghanistan. He descended from a long line of Islamic jurists, theologians, and mystics, including his father who was known as the "Sultan of the Scholars." When Rumi was a child, his father led their family on a journey that took them 2,000 miles west (and nearly 22 years) to avoid the invading armies of Genghis Khan. They ended up settling in Konya, Turkey, where Rumi’s father became the Sufi leader.

After his father's death in 1231, Rumi took his place as a spiritual leader. He was widely respected and loved by his students. A significant event in his life happened around 1244. This is when he met Shams al-Din Tabrizi, a mystic who preached the possibility and necessity of direct communion with God. The two became close friends (and possibly lovers), and evidently Rumi's students became jealous. They became so jealous that they chased Shams away; some speculate that they may have even killed him. Either way, when Rumi realized his friend was never coming back, he was heartbroken. This is when he began composing poetry with a passion.

A few well-known lines from this era in his life include:

“As you start to walk on the way, the way appears.”

“Let yourself be drawn by the stronger pull of that which you truly love.”

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

What is interesting, though, is that he composed these verse by spinning in circles and dictating his ideas to a scribe. This is what led to the religious practice called "the whirling dervish."

The Galata Mevlevi House Museum

Whirling Dervishes.

My last stop of the day with *G was Mevlevi House Museum and Whirling Dervish Hall in Galata. While I did not get to see a whirling dervish myself, I did enjoy learning about the history of Mevlevi Sufism and about everything a Mevlevi must go through to prove themselves worthy to be a dancer. (It's a lot.) The dervish itself is complicated; in it, the dancers' attempt to leave this world and reach a trance-like state that they believe unites them with God. I will not attempt to describe all of the details—you can look them up on your own if interested—but I will share a few more photos from the dervish hall. (It was beautiful.) The hall was established in 1491 and represents one of the most important Ottoman works in Beyoğlu. It has been a museum since 2011.

"The Song of the Reed," by Rumi in the whirling dervish museum.

A whirling dervish at the Galata Mevlevi Whirling Dervish Hall.

Istanbul's other well-known entity: Cats chilling outside the museum.


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May 15, 2023

Great post, Jessica. Insightful on Rumi, which I really enjoyed and then the Whirling Dervishes would alone be a reason to visit Istanbul. I guy I work with here in Czech is taking his family for a vacation to Istanbul next week so I will show him your posts. Enjoy the week ahead.

Jessica Cyphers
Jessica Cyphers
May 16, 2023
Replying to

Thank you! Believe it or not, it took me quite a while to research Rumi and pare his story down to what I presented in this post. There is a TON of stuff out there about his life and writings. I hope your friend enjoys his trip. :) Thanks for your comment, and I hope you enjoy your week, too!


May 14, 2023

Hi Jessica,

I had no idea what or who whirling dervishes are. In my mind I was thinking of a spinning top. I didn't realise it described people of a particular faith community.

Jessica Cyphers
Jessica Cyphers
May 16, 2023
Replying to

Hi Gary :) I knew they were a religious dance before my trip, but I didn't know they were connected to Rumi. I knew very little about Rumi, either, before researching and writing this post. I definitely learned a lot on this trip, and I'm learning even more as I am writing these posts!

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