Led by a 22nd-generation descendant of Sufi mystic Mevl•na Jal•ludd®n Rumi, the Mevlevi Order of Whirling Dervishes brought their ancient ritual to a modern audience last Tuesday at Campbell Hall. Whirling, or spinning in place, is only one element of a seven-part ritual of ecstatic connection with the divine and with all humanity, one that begins and ends with prayer, and includes instrumental music. Ninety minutes into this performance there had been little movement, only the drone of mesmerizing music played entirely without harmony by eight men whose austere white shirts and brown tunics reflected the simple unity of their song.
When the dervishes finally entered in tall, cylindrical hats and black shrouds, a complex ritual ensued, one of bowing and gesturing, filing into formation, and bowing again. After the removal of their outer garments, the dervishes began their hypnotic whirling, abandoning themselves to meditation, their heads tilted to the side, the right palm turned upward and the left down as they spun in place, their long white skirts billowing in heavy white waves around their legs.
The traditions and customs associated with worship can seem odd or even meaningless when witnessed out of context. For those looking for entertainment, the droning music, sung incantations, ritualistic bowing, and spinning of these men apparently meant very little-so little that they coughed and giggled their way through the performance, and left in droves during the last half hour.
Was it simple boredom, or an inability to access the transcendent reverence onstage that made them squirm? My guess is that it was a deeper form of discomfort: with ritual in general, with a culture so unfamiliar, and with Islam itself-a religious tradition already mysterious to most Westerners that has taken on particularly dark and dangerous associations in the past decade. Ultimately, it was unwillingness to examine what emerged from within; a rejection of the evening’s invitation from Rumi himself, as delivered by the sister of the order’s spiritual leader. “There is a soul within your soul,” she read. “Search for the hidden treasure within the mountain of your body.”
In many spiritual traditions, meditation is the entryway to a place of stillness, from which the divine arises. Stillness-a cessation of judgment and thought, and a suspension or dissolution of the ego-is not common in modern Western culture. And so it was that last Tuesday night, some caught a glimpse of divine mystery, while others saw nothing but guys in goofy hats, spinning themselves silly.