THE SEMA RITUAL began with the inspiration of Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi (1207-1273) and was influenced by Turkish customs and culture.
It is scientifically recognized that the fundamental condition of our existence is to revolve. There is no being or object which does not revolve, because all beings are comprised of revolving electrons, protons, and neutrons in atoms. Everything revolves, and the human being lives by means of the revolution of these particles, by the revolution of the blood in his body, and by the revolution of the stages of his life, by his coming from the earth and his returning to it.
However, all of these revolutions are natural and unconscious. But the human being possesses a mind and an intelligence which distinguishes him from other beings. Thus the whirling dervish or semazen, intentionally and consciously participates in the shared revolution of other beings.
Contrary to popular belief, the semazen‘s goal is not to lose consciousness or to fall into a state of ecstasy. Instead, by revolving in harmony with all things in nature — with the smallest cells and with the stars in the firmament — the semazen testifies to the existence and the majesty of the Creator, thinks of Him, gives thanks to Him, and prays to Him. In so doing, the semazen confirms the words of the Qur’an (64:1):
Whatever is in the skies or on earth invokes God.
An important characteristic of this seven-centuries-old ritual is that it unites the three fundamental components of human nature: the mind (as knowledge and thought), the heart (through the expression of feelings, poetry and music) and the body (by activating life, by the turning). These three elements are thoroughly joined both in theory and in practice as perhaps in no other ritual or system of thought.
The Sema ceremony represents the human being’s spiritual journey, an ascent by means of intelligence and love to Perfection (Kemal). Turning toward the truth, he grows through love, transcends the ego, meets the truth, and arrives at Perfection. Then he returns from this spiritual journey as one who has reached maturity and completion, able to love and serve the whole of creation and all creatures without discriminating in regard to belief, class, or race.
In the symbolism of the Sema ritual, the semazen‘s camel’s hair hat (sikke) represents the tombstone of the ego; his wide, white skirt represents the ego’s shroud. By removing his black cloak, he is spiritually reborn to the truth. At the beginning of the Sema, by holding his arms crosswise, the semazen appears to represent the number one, thus testifying to God’s unity. While whirling, his arms are open: his right arm is directed to the sky, ready to receive God’s beneficence; his left hand, upon which his eyes are fastened, is turned toward the earth. The semazen conveys God’s spiritual gift to those who are witnessing the Sema. Revolving from right to left around the heart, the semazen embraces all humanity with love. The human being has been created with love in order to love. Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi says, “All loves are a bridge to Divine love. Yet, those who have not had a taste of it do not know!”
The Form of the Ceremony
THE SEMA RITUAL consists of several parts with different meanings:
The Naat-i Sherif is a eulogy to the Prophet, who represents love. To praise him is to praise God Who created him and to praise all of the prophets who preceded him.
This eulogy is followed by a drumbeat (on the kudum) symbolizing the Divine command: “BE” (Kun).
The Naat is followed by a Taksim, an improvisation on the reed flute (the ney). This expresses the Divine breath, which gives life to everything.
The Sultan Veled Walk, accompanied by the peshrev music, is the circular procession three times around the turning space. The greetings of the semazens during the procession represent the salutation of soul to soul concealed by shapes and bodies.
During the Sema itself there are four selams, or musical movements, each with a distinct rhythm. At the beginning and close of each selam, the semazen testifies to God’s unity.
The First Selam represents the human being’s birth to truth through feeling and mind. It represents his complete acceptance of his condition as a creature created by God.
The Second Selam expresses the rapture of the human being witnessing the splendor of creation in front of God’s greatness and omnipotence.
The Third Selam is the rapture of dissolving into love and the sacrifice of the mind to love. It is complete submission, unity, the annihilation of self in the Beloved. This is the state that is known as nirvana in Buddhism and fana fillah in Islam. The next stage in Islamic belief is the state of servanthood represented by the Prophet, who is called God’s servant, foremost, and subsequently, His “messenger.” The aim of Sema is not unbroken ecstasy and loss of consciousness, but the realization of submission to God.
In the Fourth Selam, just as the Prophet ascends to the spiritual “Throne” and then returns to his task on earth, the whirling dervish, after the ascent of his spiritual journey, returns to his task, to his servanthood. He is a servant of God, of His Books, of His Prophets of His whole creation. In the Qur’an this is expressed in Surah Baqara 2:285. At the end of this salute, he demonstrates this again by his appearance, arms consciously and humbly crossed, representing the unity of God.
Afterwards follows a recitation from the Qur’an, especially the verse:
To God belong the East and the West,
and wherever you turn is the face of God.
He is the All-Embracing, the All-Knowing.
Surah Baqara 2:115
The ceremony ends with a prayer for the peace of the souls of all prophets and believers.
After the completion of the Sema, all the dervishes return silently to their rooms for meditation (tefekkur).