Who are the Whirling Dervishes?

Mary McMahon

The whirling dervishes are a sect within the Sufi branch of Islam. They perform a distinctive dance called the sema to honor Allah as part of their religious practices. The sect is well known for this dance, which is performed in flowing robes which create a whirling effect across the performance space. Technically, whirling dervishes are actually members of the Mevlevi Order of Sufis, but most Westerners are more familiar with the colloquial “whirling dervish.”

Sufis strive toward a personal connection with God that resists outside influences.
Sufis strive toward a personal connection with God that resists outside influences.

The Mevlevi order was founded in the 13th century by Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi. Rumi was a famous Sufi mystic and poet, and much of his work is still widely read around the world. Along with other Sufists, Rumi believed that self-discipline, love, and responsibility were an important part of the worship of Allah. Rumi developed the sema dance as a dhikr, or remembrance of Allah. The dance follows a set ritual of steps and motions which are intended to represent the spiritual journey of the dancers.

The whirling dervishes perform a distinctive whirling dance.
The whirling dervishes perform a distinctive whirling dance.

The term “dervish” comes from a Persian word, Darwish, which has historically been used to refer to a religious ascetic. A dervish takes a vow of poverty and service as part of his or her religious practice. The romantic associations with the sema dance led to the popular title of “whirling dervish” for members of the sect. The sect was actually briefly banned in its native Turkey before the national government realized the historic and cultural value of the dervishes. Whirling dervishes can also be found in other parts of the Middle East.

In addition to the traditional flowing robes which characterize the whirling dervishes, the dancers also use specific music. Mevlevi religious music can be heard throughout the Middle East, and it contains many elements which people associate with “Oriental” music. There is also a rich tradition of Mevlevi song and poetry linked to the whirling dervishes as well. Mevlevi cultural traditions are celebrated in many parts of the world, as is the Sufi branch of Islam in general.

Groups of whirling dervishes travel around the world offering performances and education, especially on 17 December, when whirling dervishes celebrate Rumi's birthday. Performances are also held as part of cultural festivals and similar events, and may also include a brief talk or lecture. To find a local performance of whirling dervishes, try searching for “whirling dervishes” in your area on your favorite search engine, or asking local cultural organizations about performance schedules.

Whirling dervishes are found in Turkey and other parts of the Middle East.
Whirling dervishes are found in Turkey and other parts of the Middle East.

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Discussion Comments


This order of Sufism is still banned in Turkey and the dancers you see in state performances are just that: dancers and performers and the spiritual part of the ceremony is largely diluted by removal or shortening of the taqasim, which was the improvised ney piece intended to open the soul to higher consciousness.


@turquoise- I saw the whirling dervishes in Turkey, when I went there for vacation. We were told after the performance that the dervish acts as a kind of medium between God and people. One hand looks up, to receive the blessings of God and the other down, to share these blessings with others.

Isn't it very beautiful? I think that should be a goal for all of us. We have so many things to be grateful for and so many others who are in need. If we could share some of what we have, the world would be a much better place.


@turquoise-- I think I had read somewhere that the movements of the whirling dervishes mimics the movements of the planets in the universe.

A Muslim friend once told me that the Qur'an talks about the entire universe praising God through their movements because all was created by God.

Just think about those dervishes you saw, one in the middle, turning around himself, and the others around him, turning both around themselves and around the dervish in the middle. The planets do the same. They are turning around themselves and around the sun.


The Turkish embassy in DC had organized a night of Sufi music and whirling dervishes several years ago. It was a really beautiful event. Even though I didn't know what they were saying, it was deeply moving. The whirling dervishes were really interesting too.

It was a group of five dervishes and they came to the stage all at once. A whirling dervish stood in the center and he seemed to be the leader of the group. Their hands were crossed at first and they started whirling. The whirling was different because it looked like one foot was pretty static. They used the other foot to turn their bodies around. As they whirled, one of their hands went up, pointing upwards, while the other pointed downwards.

Does anyone know if these movements have a specific meaning?

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