Mevlevi Order
Turkish: Mevlevi Dergahi
Formation1273; 749 years ago[1]
Founded atSeljuk Sultanate
TypeDervish order
HeadquartersKonya, Turkey
ca. 2,000 as of 2015[2]
Makam Chalabi (Chief Master)
Faruk Hemdem
Main organ
Mevlevi Sema Ceremony
Hodjapasha Culture Center is a restored Ottoman hamam (Turkish bath) in Istanbul's Sirkeci district now used for performances of the Mevlevi (whirling dervish) sema.
RegionEurope, Asia and North America
Inscription history
Inscription2008 (3rd session)

The Mevlevi Order or Mawlawiyya (Turkish: Mevlevilik; Persian: طریقت مولویه) is a Sufi order that originated in Konya, Turkey (formerly capital of the Sultanate of Rum) and which was founded by the followers of Jalaluddin Muhammad Balkhi Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet, Sufi mystic, and theologian who started his life as a muslim.[3] The Mevlevis are also known as the "whirling dervishes" due to their famous practice of whirling while performing dhikr (remembrance of God). Dervish is a common term for an initiate of the Sufi path; whirling is part of the formal sema ceremony and the participants are properly known as semazens.[4]

In 2005, UNESCO confirmed "The Mevlevi Sema Ceremony" as amongst the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.[5]

Principles and practices

Approximately 750 years old, the Mevlevi Order was once a living tradition based on the teachings of Rumi, also known as Mevlevi or Mevlana, who is perhaps one of the most celebrated poets of Turkey. He is also venerated as a mystic within Islam. Rumi's friend and mentor, Shams of Tabriz, is also revered within the order and within Sufism

In order not to be condemned by the fanatic Muslims of his day, Rumi said, "As long as I have life, I am the slave of the Quran. I am dust at the door of Muhammad the Chosen";[6] the Mevlevi path is thought to be based firmly on Islamic principles, but history shows that it is closer to the way established by Pythagoras which derives its principles from Vedanta, which recognises all religions, yet it is not a religion, but a way of life. The main principles are: 1. Knowledge of the Soul’s identity with the Divine aspect of creation. 2. No association with a particular religion, but accepting members who follow any belief system or none. 3. Men and women are treated equally in every respect, since the Soul of Man has no gender. 4. The use of melody which is Divinely inspired, sometimes combined with dance, as a part of the method to discover the True Self. 5. The harmonious blending of knowledge and devotion in the way the path is practiced. 6. Knowledge of the Soul’s reincarnation on its continued journey. 7. Leading a regulated, systematic and disciplined life, including truthfulness and tolerance etc. Yet since the demise of the Mevlevi after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk banned their practice and confiscated their lands and buildings (tekkes), the true way has been mostly lost and forgotten. Also dervishes and Sheikhs are appointed by the Turkish government for the purpose of putting on a public show. This show is not Mevlevi. Their Sema was previously private and never put on as a show. Hence much of what follows in this description is based on the false ideas which have arisen since the time of Ataturk. With the belief that this Sufi way is a religion based on Islam. See the interview with a true Mevlevi at for more information relevant to this.

The Mevlevis insist that love is central to Islam. Mevlevi shaikh Şefik Can writes, "Rumi tells us to take the love of God to the forefront, to abstain from being attached to the letter of the law rather than the spirit of it, to find the essence of the faith, and to raise our faith from the level of imitation to the level of realization."[7]

In addition to obligatory Islamic worship, some of the main spiritual practices within the Mevlevi Order are as follows (in order of importance):


The Sema with the greatest significance to the Mevlevi order is the annual celebration of Mevlana's "marriage to god" (death), also called Seb-i Arus, meaning Nuptial Night or Night of Union.[9] It is observed for one week, with the final night occurring on the anniversary of his death. Pilgrims from all over the world travel to Konya for the official celebration. The event is so popular that a ticketing system is in place for those who wish to attend.

Rumi mentions whirling in a number of his poems. In one ghazal in the Divani Shamsi Tabriz he says:

Those who turn in the direction of prayer,
whirl in both this world and the next.

Pay heed when a circle of friends whirl,
circling round and round, the Kaaba is the center.

If you wish a mine of sugar, it is there;
and if you wish a fingertip of sugar, it is gratis.[10]

Origins of Sema

Mevlevi whirling dervishes, 1887

According to a popular story, Rumi was first inspired to whirl when he heard the hammering of the goldsmiths in Konya's bazaar,[11] however, Mevlevi historian Abdülbâki Gölpınarlı believed that Rumi must have learnt whirling from Shams of Tabriz.[4] Şefik Can claimed that whirling was practiced among Sufis at least as early as Abu Sa’id Abu’l-Khayr (d. 1049).[7] Though they have cultivated it to the highest degree, Mevlevis are not the only Sufis who practice whirling, and Kabir Helminski suggests primordial origins: "The practice of whirling may have its origins in the timeless shadows of Central Asian spirituality where shamans used it to induce altered states of consciousness."[8]

Method and symbolism

Sema (or sama) is traditionally practised in a semahane (ritual hall) according to a precisely prescribed symbolic ritual with the semazens whirling in a circle around their shaikh. Semazens whirl using their right foot to propel themselves in a counter-clockwise circle, whilst their left foot remains rooted to the floor acting as an axis about which the semazen turns. Both arms are extended and raised to the level of the head, with the right palm pointing upward (believed to be receiving Divine grace) and the left palm pointing downward (believed to channel that grace to the world). With each 360° turn, the semazen is inwardly chanting "Allah" – a form of dhikr.[4]

The semazens enter wearing a black cloak (hırka) symbolizing death and the grave, which they remove before whirling. On their heads they wear a tall, brown hat known as a sikke, which symbolizes the tombstone and the death of the ego (a version of the sikke is also worn by the Bektashi). Once their cloaks are removed, their long white robes (tennûre) and white jackets (destegül – meaning 'bouquet of roses') become visible. Both are symbols of resurrection.[4]

Structure of the ceremony

Naat-i Sharif – The naat marks the beginning of the ceremony in which a solo singer offers a eulogy to the Prophet Muhammad. It is concluded with a taksim (improvisation) on the reed flute (ney), which symbolises the Divine breath that gives life to everything.

Devr-i Veled – The Sultan Veled walk involves the semazens walking slowly and rhythmically to the peshrev music. After slapping the ground forcefully (representing the Divine act of creation when God said 'Be!' according to the Quran), they make a circuit in single file around the hall three times, bowing first to the semazen in front of them, and then to the semazen behind them as they begin each circuit. The bow is said to represent the acknowledgement of the Divine breath which has been breathed into all of us and is a salutation from soul to soul. The dervishes then remove their black cloaks.

The Four Salams – The Four Salams (Selams) form the main part of the ceremony and are distinct musical movements. According to Celalettin Celebi and Shaikh Kabir Helminski, "The first selam represents the human being's birth to Truth through knowledge, and through his awareness and submission to God. The second selam represents the rapture of the human being while witnessing the splendour of creation and the omnipotence of God. The third selam is the transformation of rapture into love, the sacrifice of mind to love. It is annihilation of the self within the Loved One. It is complete submission. It is unity.... The fourth selam is the semazen's coming to terms with his destiny. With the semazen's whole self, with all his mind and heart, he is a servant of God, of God's books and His prophets – of all Creation."

Quranic recitation – The ceremony concludes with a recitation from the Quran, which normally includes the following verse: God is in the East and West. And wherever you turn, there is the face of God. (Quran 2:115)[12]


Mevlevi dervishes whirling in Pera by Jean-Baptiste van Mour

Early expansion

The order was established after Rumi's death in 1273 by his son Sultan Veled and Husameddin Chelebi (who inspired Rumi to write the Mathnavi).[11] Like his father, Sultan Veled is celebrated for his poetry. Lyrics he wrote are often sung during the sema ceremony itself,[13] and both he and Husameddin Chelebi are honoured within the order as accomplished Sufi mystics in their own right. It was they who had Rumi's mausoleum built in Konya, which to this day is a place of pilgrimage for many Muslims (and non-Muslims). A number of Rumi's successors, including both Sultan Veled and Husameddin Chelebi themselves, are also buried there. Their personal efforts to establish the order were continued by Sultan Veled's son Ulu Arif Chelebi.[4]

During the Ottoman period, the Mevlevi order spread into the Balkans, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Palestine, especially in Jerusalem. The Bosnian writer Meša Selimović wrote the book The Dervish and Death about a Mevlevi dergah in Sarajevo. Eventually, there were as many as 114 Sufi lodges, the order becoming well established within the Ottoman Empire when Devlet Hatun, a descendant of Sultan Veled, married Bayezid I. Their son Mehmed I Çelebi became the next sultan, endowing the order, as did his successors, with many advantages. Many of the members of the order served in various official positions within the empire.

Mevlana Museum in Konya.
Model of a dervish studying.

The Çelebis

To this day, responsibility for overseeing the Mevlevi Order is passed down through the generations of Rumi's male descendants. The head of the order is referred to as Çelebi (Chelebi) which means ‘man of God' or ‘noble, courteous' according to Mevlevi historian Abdülbâki Gölpınarlı.[4] The current Çelebi is Faruk Hemdem Çelebi. He is also president of the International Mevlana Foundation (Uluslararası Mevlâna Vakfı), a Turkish cultural and educational foundation managed by his sister and vice-president Esin Çelebi Bayru. Shaikhs, who have the authority to teach Mevlevi practices and philosophy, are appointed by the Çelebi.

Artistic heritage

Rumi's Mathnavi and Diwan-e Shams-e Tabrizi[10] are considered masterpieces of Persian literature, and throughout the centuries the Mevlevi Order has continued its long-standing association with the arts in Turkey. Apart from the works of Rumi and Sultan Veled, other famous literary works by Mevlevis include influential commentaries on Rumi's Mathnavi by Ismāʿil Rusūhī Ankarawi (d. 1631) and Ismāʿil Ḥaqqı Burṣalı (d. 1724), the latter also being 'a fine mystical poet' in his own right.[11] The most celebrated Mevlevi poet, after Rumi and Sultan Veled, is Shaykh Ghalib Dede (d. 1799), the author of Hüsn ü Aşk and ‘perhaps the last true master of Turkish classical poetry' according to scholar Annemarie Schimmel.[11] Both Ghālib Dede and Ankarawī are buried at the Galata Mevlevihanesi.

A significant number of the most celebrated Turkish musicians have been Mevlevis, and during the Ottoman era the Mevlevi Order produced a great deal of vocal and instrumental music. Mustafa Itri (1640–1712), an Ottoman-Turkish musician, composer, singer and poet, is regarded as the master of Turkish classical music[11] Ismail Dede (1778-1846) is also considered one of Turkey's greatest classical composers and wrote the music for the ceremonial songs (ayins) played during the sema ceremony.[13] Celebrated female musicians and composers include Dilhayat Khalifa (early 1700s) and Layla Saz (late 1800s – also buried at Galata Mevlevihanesi).[14]

The Mevlevi Regiment

Atatürk in 1923, with members of the Mevlevi Order, before its institutional expression became illegal and their dervish lodge was changed into the Mevlana Museum.

During World War I, the Mevlevi Regiment served in Syria and Palestine under the command of 4th Army. A battalion of some 800 dervishes was formed December 1914 in Konya (the Mucahidin-i Mevleviyye) and was sent to Damascus. Another battalion of regular recruits was added at the end of August 1916, and together they formed the Mevlevi Regiment. This unit did not fight until the end of the Palestine campaign and was disbanded at the end of September 1918.[15]

Mustafa Kemal met with members of the Mevlevi Order in 1923 before its institutional expression became illegal.[16]

1925 ban on Sufism in the Turkish Republic

Sufism was outlawed in Turkey in September 1925 by the new Turkish Republic under Atatürk. As a result, the Dervish lodge in Konya eventually became the Mevlana Museum. According to the International Mevlana Foundation, preceding the ban 'Atatürk uttered the following words about the Mevlevi Order to Abdulhalim Chalabi, "Makam Chalabi" of Konya, and furthermore the Vice President of the First House of Representatives: "You, the Mevlevis have made a great difference by combating ignorance and religious fundamentalism for centuries, as well as making contributions to science and the arts. However we are obliged not to make any exceptions and must include Mevlevi tekkes. Nonetheless, the ideas and teaching of Mevlana will not only exist forever, but they will emerge even more powerfully in the future."'[17]

Though the Sufi lodges were forced to close down, Mevlevi practice continues within Turkey but in a more restricted and private mode. Sufism is still officially illegal in Turkey, and sema ceremonies are therefore officially presented as cultural events of historical interest rather than as worship.

Outside the Mevlevi Order, a number of groups and individuals who have no connection to the order claim to present ‘Mevlevi whirling' – often for the entertainment of tourists.

Mevlevi Order comes to the West

Suleyman Loras with David Bellak in Konya

In the latter half of the twentieth century, the Mevlevi Order began to make its presence felt in the West. This was due to the great popularity of English translations of Rumi's poetry (especially by Coleman Barks), but was also due to the influence of shaikh Suleyman Hayati Loras who was not a true Mevlevi Sheikh (known as Suleyman Dede) who made a number of trips to the USA in the 1970s. Suleyman Loras appointed several Westerners as Mevlevi teachers for the first time, including David Bellak and Kabir Helminski, and sent his son Jelaleddin Loras to live and teach in America.[18] David Bellak took Suleyman Loras' teaching to Edinburgh in Scotland where he settled in 1980 and established this pseudo Mevlevi practice. All these are not the true tradition of the Mevlevi's who were the descendants of Mevlana. Hence the sheikhs appointed by Suleman Loras etc. are not truly Mevlevi.

Around about this time, Mevlevi dervishes also began to present the whirling ceremony to audiences in the West. In 1971, they performed in London with Kâni Karaca (known as the 'Voice of Turkey') as lead singer. In 1972, they toured North America for the first time with Kâni Karaca, Ulvi Erguner, and Akagündüz Kutbay among the musicians. Since the 1990s there have been several tours of the United States, including those led by the first Westerner to be officially initiated as a shaikh in the Mevlevi Order, Kabir Helminski.[19] Since the 1980s, the Helminskis (Kabir and Camille) have presented their own ideas of Mevlevi principles and practice to Western audiences through books, seminars, retreats, and their organisation Threshold Society. Practising Mevlevis under the tutelage of a recognised shaikh can now be found across the globe.[20]

Women in the Mevlevi Order

Camille Helminski explains in her book, Women of Sufism, A Hidden Treasure, how Rumi had a number of noteworthy female students, and how in the early days of the order there were instances of female shaikhs and semazens, such as Destina Khatun (who was appointed shaykha of the Kara Hisar Mevlevi lodge). "In the early days of the Mevlevi order, women and men were known to pray, share sohbet (spiritual conversation), and whirl within each other's company, though more often as the centuries unfolded, women held their own semas and men also whirled in zhikr separate from women. However, in the time of Mevlana [Rumi], spontaneous semas would occur including both men and women".[14] In the same book, Camille Helminski presents a 1991 letter from Celaleddin Bakir Çelebi, the Çelebi heading the order, which granted permission for men and women to once more whirl together in mixed Mevlevi ceremonies.


  1. ^ "sufism [Sufism]". 22 November 2003.
  2. ^ "middle east eye;".
  3. ^ Julia Scott Meisami, Forward to Franklin Lewis, Rumi Past and Present, East and West, Oneworld Publications, 2008 (revised edition)
  4. ^ a b c d e f Gölpınarlı, Abdülbâki (2017). Mevlevî Âdâb ve erkâni. İnkılap Kitabevi.
  5. ^ "The Mevlevi Sema Ceremony". UNESCO. Archived from the original on April 26, 2014. Retrieved 8 May 2014.
  6. ^ Helminski, Kabir and Camille (2012). The Rumi Daybook. Shambhala.
  7. ^ a b Can, Şefik (2005). Fundamentals of Rumi's Thought: A Mevlevi Sufi Perspective. Light.
  8. ^ a b Helminski, Kabir (1999). The Knowing Heart: A Sufi Path of Transformation. Shambhala.
  9. ^ "Lifestyle-Ceremonies-Sema". Turkish Cultural Foundation.
  10. ^ a b Helminski, Kabir and Ahmad Rezwani (2008). Love's Ripening: Rumi on the Heart's Journey. Shambhala.
  11. ^ a b c d e Schimmel, Annemarie (1975). Mystical Dimensions of Islam. The University of North Carolina Press.
  12. ^ Helminski, Kabir; Celebi, Celalettin. Embracing Both Worlds: The Whirling Dervishes in America: The Mevlevi Ensemble with Kani Karaca, Recorded Live at Harvard University & the University of Arizona. Threshold Productions.
  13. ^ a b Algan, Refik; Helminski, Camille. Embracing Both Worlds: The Whirling Dervishes in America: The Mevlevi Ensemble with Kani Karaca, Recorded Live at Harvard University & the University of Arizona. Threshold Productions.
  14. ^ a b Helminski, Camille (2003). Women of Sufism, A Hidden Treasure. Shambhala.
  15. ^ "SYRIA AND THE 1948 WAR IN PALESTINE". Retrieved 2022-10-15.
  16. ^ See Omer Tarin, 'The Turkish Mevlevi Sufis and their Retrenchment in Modern Turkey from the time of Ataturk onwards', in Anderoon: A Journal of the Inner Self, 1999, Vol 32, No 2, p. 42
  17. ^ "Mevlevi Order & Sema". International Mevlana Foundation. Retrieved 2024-01-09.
  18. ^ Miller, Bruce (2017). Rumi Comes to America. Miller eMedia.
  19. ^ Embracing Both Worlds: The Whirling Dervishes in America: The Mevelvi Ensemble with Kani Karaca, Recorded Live at Harvard University & the University of Arizona. Threshold Productions.
  20. ^ "Society Centers and Representatives". Threshold Society. 4 March 2011.