Bismillah arRahman arRahim
The Mevlevi Sema
Offered by Camille Helminski
Before one begins the Sema ceremony, one makes the ritual ablution and prayer, cleansing and focusing the body and the mind, heart, and soul. Then one dons the ritual garments. First one puts on long loose fitting white cotton pants and a collarless buttonfront shirt and black turning slippers that are ankle high (# please make sure they are wellbuttoned). Over this one places the tennure, the full skirted gown that is reminiscent of one’s shroud. This garment is inside-out as one first picks it up. One kisses the back of the tennure and briefly touches it to one’s forehead and then places one’s arms through the armholes and one’s head into the neck opening and flips the garment over one’s head so that it cascades over the body until it is right-side out. At the hem of the tennure there is a band of wool either holding in weights or quilted which helps the skirt to bell outward fully when the semazen, the dervish who turns, moves. This garment is first belted with a simple cord, the tiyg-bend (meaning “sword-belt”) and under it the skirt of the tennure is folded in eighteen pleats gathered around the waist (#please make sure that it opens evenly and is even along the bottom, to allow you ease of turning and not to display too much of one’s undergarments). Over this is placed the alif-lamad, a black wider belt about five fingers in width and long enough to wrap the waist about one and a half times. This belt is representative of the letter alif, testifying to the unity of God. A cord at the end of it is tucked into the tiyg-bend and tied to the jacket cord. Over the tennure is placed a short, white, long-sleeved, collarless jacket called a dasta-gul, a “bouquet of roses.” It has a tie on the lower right side that tucks into the waist and is secured into the belt. The left side hangs open. Covering the whole of one’s attire is placed the khirka, the long black cloak. As one dons the khirka, one again kisses the nape of the neckline, in respect and remembrance. The dervishes who will be turning leave their sleeves hanging loose until the end of the ceremony (the shaikh and semazenbashi, or dancemaster place their arms in their sleeves from the beginning)—underneath the khirka, the arms are crossed with the hands placed high on the shoulders. In this position, the semazen again symbolizes the letter alif, witnessing again and again to the Oneness of God. On the head is placed a tall honeycolored camel-hair felt hat, the sikke, which is symbolic of the tombstone of the ego (#please tuck hair and top of ears underneath).
After pausing for zhikr together and a Fatiha, one enters the semahane–the hall of Sema, of “listening,” the hall of the Mukabele, the “Meeting Face to Face.” As one approaches the center of the hall directly across from where the red sheepskin sits, one bows to the post, right toe covering the left toe in humility (in the manner of Atesh Baz Weli whenever we bow) before stepping across the center line ( hatti istifa) right foot first, and moving fairly quickly to the right to form a line along the right side of the hall when facing the post (#remember that the slow majestic step is only for the Sultan Weled walk, after one has first passed the post (peshrev)).
One then proceeds to stand in line upon a row of sheepskins, the semazenbashi leading and then in order of experience the semazens follow. One stands upon the animal self, the nafs, one’s body covered with the black cloak, the khirka, the covering of the grave of the ego, wearing the sikke, the tombstone of the ego. And we stand together, shoulder to shoulder, each in the muhur position, arms crossed, hands on shoulders, left toe covered by the right, in humility, attesting to God’s unity like the letter alif. The head is turned slightly left as the gaze is directed downwards towards the heart. Yet one keeps awareness of the approach of the shaikh, waiting for the one who represents Mevlana (and through him, Muhammad and all the prophets back to Adam, back to our Creator) to come near. As soon as the shaikh enters and bows at the center line, all bow with him (or her).
The shaikh then proceeds up the center line (the hatti istifa) directly to the post. Everyone else in the ceremony bows before that line and then steps over it whenever one encounters it when walking during the ceremony.
Then rather than stepping on the post from the front, the shaikh moves around it to the side and steps forward onto it right foot first, facing the court of the Sema. The post is a red sheepskin, the bright sun of being, reminding us of Shams and of the illumination of the dawn.
After the shaikh has stepped onto the post, he bows and sits down for a prayer. All bow together with him and sit, heads bowed to the left, inclined towards the heart. The Naat-i Serifi is recited. Each time Mevlana (Mevlana referring to Muhammad as “our Master” but also resonating for us with Mevlana Jelaluddin) is mentioned, Mustafa (another name for Muhammad), and Shamsi Tabriz, all participating in the ceremony bow their heads and raise them at the completion of the name.
Then comes the ney taksim, the breath of the Creator, breathing Life. This is followed by the “Slap of Glory”—with the first beats of the qudum, on the third beat, all the semazens and the shaikh slap the floor in prostration and stand up. We are called up out of non-existence to come into existence but first we stand, arms crossed, toe crossed over toe, erect as the letter alif, attesting to God’s unity.
Then as the music for the peshrev begins, the shaikh begins to lead the procession of the Sultan Weled walk. As he or she steps off the post to begin the cycling journey, he bows and all bow with him or her (always remembering to cover the left toe), and then each semazen proceeds before the post to bow in greeting:
The semazen bashi leads off and moves toward the post, bows to the post, takes a step forward with the right foot, then steps across the post line with the left foot, pivoting as he/she steps so as not to turn one’s back to the post and stands with toe covered, awaiting the approach of the next semazen who walks somewhat quickly towards the post, stops a little way away and bows to the semazen bashi across the post, each glancing at the third eye of the other in greeting, honoring the divine in each other. Then the semazen bashi steps back with the right foot, then left, and turns with the right to walk in the circle with slow majestic steps (step right, then left toe to that heel, etc). Each of the dervishes follows in a similar pattern, each bowing to the other. When the last semazen crosses the post line, he/she waits to bow to the shaikh who will be approaching.
This is repeated for a second circuit, and for a third circuit except that at the end of the third circuit, the last semazen does not wait to bow to the shaikh, but bows to the post and proceeds while the shaikh returns to the post as the dervishes return to their line, moving a bit more quickly into line as the shaikh steps onto the post.
The First Selam
Now the music shifts and the Shaikh steps forward and bows and all bow with him/her. The khirka, the long black cloak, the shroud of the ego, is taken off by the semazens–gently dropped behind, to the ground, after a kiss and the holding of the fabric to the forehead. It is folded three times as it is lain upon the ground: Bismillah arRahman arRahim. The arms of the semazen are now closed in the position of oneness, arms crossed, hands on the shoulders.
The shaikh steps forward and inwardly recites a prayer.
O beloved ones who turn here,
may Allah give you health.
May He make your awareness and your intention sound.
May He bring you in readiness
to the center of true beginning.
Standing forth now in the station of responsibility as a human being, the semazens bow again as the shaikh bows and steps back to the post. The semazenbashi then moves forward to stand before the shaikh, connects briefly eye to eye, bows, then leans to kiss the shaikh’s hand (this is the moment of permission to begin the turn and the shaikh kisses his or her sikke), and bowing forward again rises. As the semazenbashi bows, all bow with him/her; then as the semazenbashi takes a position facing the shaikh, just inside the sema circle, and just across the line into manifestation, he or she bows again to the shaikh and all bow. Then each of the semazens proceeds to greet the shaikh similarly and receive permission similarly with a kiss (#brief eye contact, bow, incline for the kiss, bow, and step forward). The semazen kisses the right hand of the shaikh which is held uncovered over the left hand over the solar plexus, kissing the receptive and bestowing qualities of the shaikh; the shaikh kisses the sikke, the tombstone of the ego, the humility of the dervish.
Then the dervish steps across the hatti istifa into manifestation. If the semazenbashi has moved her left foot back leaving the right foot forward slightly, then the dervish proceeds to a position in the center of the circle. Otherwise, the dervish continues around the circumference of the circle, passing further into manifestation and then back again as his position moves. The first dervish out unfolding (three steps, and three turns, then opening) proceeds to a position close to the shaikh to describe a circle. The other dervishes take positions behind him/her along the circumference. (#Be aware of your charks, that with each 360 degree turn—one pivots half-way with feet still in place, and then the right foot steps around and down only once for each 360degree turn, inshallah, rising and returning to where it began, facing the qibla and the shaikh, “Allah” remembered inwardly with each turn; arms raised and kept above the shoulders with right hand slightly higher than left and elbows smoothly open with arms extended, inshallah). Then the semazenbashi bows to the shaikh and begins to walk around the circle, adjusting the positions of the dervishes as needed to ensure proper spacing. The semazenbashi is the messenger for the shaikh who does not move at this point but stands watching from the post, as Witness and Source of rabitah. After adjusting the positions in balance of spacing and speed, the semazenbashi returns to stand at the left side of the shaikh (beside the sheepskins of the dervishes) within the realm of the Unseen. Then to shift the circle and continue the cycling, the semazenbashi moves forward and stands facing the first two semazens nearest him/her. As he/she moves between the two semazens, the one to the left moves across the hatti istifa and takes position on the other side of the shaikh. The circle shifts as a wave of the sea, each semazen shifting forward. This may happen three times before the music shifts to the next selam (or as needed).
As soon as the music shifts, the dervishes bow towards the shaikh and cluster shoulder to shoulder along the periphery of the circle, punctuating the contained space of the sema while they steady each other.
The Second Selam
The shaikh steps forward, bows and inwardly recites the following prayer:
Turn in the circle of true existence.
Be in harmony with your capacity,
with your created nature.
Be in active submission.
He/she then bows again (and all bow whenever the shaikh bows or the semazenbashi) and returns to the post. Thus begins the second selam or passage of greeting and turning. The semazenbashi comes before the shaikh, has eye contact and bows simply just once, steps across the hatti istifa, right foot first as always, and steps slightly back into the center of the circle. The semazenbashi then bows again to the shaikh and the semazens begin to come forward, fairly quickly one at a time, to greet the shaikh with a simple bow and begin again to turn. As the line of semazens begins to move, those who were clustered on the far side of the circle begin to walk back around to the side of the non-manifest. As each semazens comes to the hatti istifa, he or she bows, toe-covered, before stepping across that invisible threshold.
The turning proceeds similarly as it did in the first selam. As the semazen moves into the turn, after three turns, the arms uncross, moving down in front of the body to the waist and then back up in front of the body until they are raised above the head and then extended outward. The right hand is opened palm upward to receive the beneficence of our Sustainer (# please be aware of the right hand being cupped to receive the rain of grace, elbow extended open, rather than angularly bent, in order to allow the better flowing of that grace). The left hand is held palm-downward, allowing the grace of our Sustainer to flow through us and be bestowed through us to this earthly plane. The music shifts and the second selam comes to a close. The dervishes immediately stop in a bow towards the post and the shaikh, and then cluster on the periphery of the circle again.
The Third Selam
The shaikh bows (and all bow together with him/her as always) and steps forward and then recites the following prayer inwardly:
May Allah grant you total soundness
O travelers on the Way of Love.
May the Beloved remove the veils from your eyes
that you may see the secrets of your time and of the true center.
He then bows again and steps back onto the post and the third selam or cycle of turning begins. During the third selam, the music intensifies. The rhythm quickens as the servant approaches unity with his/her Lord. This is the time of union, the time of ecstacy when the human being merges within the Presence of his/her Creator and individual existence dissolves.
The Fourth Selam
Then again the music shifts, and the dervish is called back to the sober attestation of unity and moves to the periphery of the circle once more. The shaikh bows and steps forward to recite the following prayer:
O lovers and real ones,
soundness from Allah has made your turn complete.
It has purified your souls.
Allah has brought you to the true center,
the state of those closest to Him.
The shaikh then bows again and steps back onto the post. The greeting of the fourth selam begins. The semazenbashi first moves forward as in the other three selams and completes the two bows before the shaikh. The dervishes again file before the shaikh to bow simply before stepping across the hatti istifa, then after three steps, each semazen beigns to turn. This time though, as soon as all the semazens have come through into the side of manifestation, the semazenbashi and the shaikh bow to each other and as the semazenbashi moves around the circle and back to his place at the side of the post, the shaikh now enters the circle, moving straight forward in a slow turn along the hatti istifa. The shaikh proceeds until he arrives at the center of the circle. Here he continues to turn in a slow and majestic turn at the center of the universe–the pole around which all is oriented (the kutupnoktasi). As the shaikh turns, he holds slightly open the right side of his khirka, radiating. Each of the semazens becomes a part of that radiation as they are rendered pure servants of the One. After the blooming, the opening of human completion, servanthood is the true fruit. Service is the natural outflowing, the natural attestation to one’s unity with one’s Source.
The music of the fourth selam passes from the verse of the ayin to a taksim, a nonrhythmical instrumental interlude, and then traditionally to the segah illahi composed by Sultan Weled. This song speaks of the healing properties of sema for the body and the soul. The rhythm again increases into crescendo until the moment arrives when the Qur’an begins to be recited. Here all immediately stop, bow and quickly return to their places on the line of sheepskins, and not turning their backs to the post, don their khirkas, prostrate and sit, head inclined to the heart, as quickly as possible so as not to be moving during the recitation, but deeply listening. ( The shaikh has already returned to the post.) The verses that are usually recited are:
He is the Lord of the East and the West. Wherever you turn, there is the Face of God . . . (Qur’an 2:115).
No matter where one looks, wherever one is, there is the Face of God.
When the Qur’an recitation is completed, the shaikh calls for a Fatiha. All raise their hands in prayer, then prostrate and stand. The shaikh moves forward off the post and recites the Gulbenc, the special prayer of blessing recited at the end of a Mevlevi ceremony. At the end of the prayer, remembrance is held “by the breath of Mevlana, by the secret of Shamsi Tabriz, by the generosity of Imam Ali.” The Gulbenc is ended by everyone being called to say “Hu”. Everyone has bowed their heads at the mention of Mevlana, Shams, and Imam Ali. As the HU is sounded together, all rise together. The shaikh then calls out “Asalaam Alaikum.” “Peace be with you.” The semazenbashi responds, “Wa alaikum salaam, wa Rahmatallahi wa barakata Huuu .” (And with you be peace, and the Compassion of God, and the grace of Hu–the limitless God who is without gender and is beyond all that we may attribute to Him/Her). Then the shaikh proceeds to the center of the semahane and calls out again, “Asalaam alaikum.” The person who recited the naat and Qur’an returns the greeting on behalf of the musicians, “Wa alaikum salaam, wa Rahmatullahi wa barakata Hu u u. At the beginning of the response, he bows and rises as the Hu is said. The shaikh then proceeds out of the semahane. The semazenbashi leads the semazens out, each bowing to the post before departing the hall. Then the musicians each bow in turn and file out as well. Sometimes the post is left until after the musicians file out, the last one coming forward to bow before it and then pick it up, drape over his arm, and carry it out. Thus ends the ceremony.
In the room beyond, the shaikh waits to greet the dervishes. Each comes forward to bow and kiss the shaikh’s hand, and simultaneously, the shaikh also kisses the hand of the dervish in the Mevlevi greeting. Then each moves to the side of the shaikh to form a line and await the greeting of the next dervish passing, so that all who have participated move through to greet each other, standing in contemplation and prayer, and then pausing for prayer together for as long as possible before responding to social obligations of greeting guests, etc.
The Mukabele, the “Meeting Face to Face” has come to completion.