|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
9 - 15 July 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
A feather on the breath of God
"A friend of Jalal's," Jalal being Jalal Al-Din Rumi, Mevlana, 13th century Muslim theologian, scholar, poet and Sufi mystic, writes Al-Aflaqi in the 14th century, "once took leave of him at Konya and went to Damascus. On his arrival there, he found Jalal sitting in a corner of his room. The friend asked Jalal for an explanation of this surprising phenomenon. He replied: 'the men of God are like fishes in the ocean; they pop up into view on the surface here and there and everywhere, as they please'."
Rumi's poems have recently popped up into view in media as diverse as Philip Glass's new score Monsters of Grace, a CD Love Poems of Rumi read by Madonna, Goldie Hawn, but mostly by Coleman Barks (whose reworkings of earlier translations of Rumi contributed to Rumi's being hailed in 1994 by Publisher's Weekly as the best-selling poet in America) and, in the form of voice-over accompaniment, at a Donna Karan fashion show.
Last week Mevlana manifested in Cairo when the members of the Istanbul Sema Grubu bowed their heads upon hearing the words "Ya hazrat Mevlana, haqq dost" (Praise be to our Master [Rumi], friend of the Truth). This they did as part of the Whirling Dervish Samaa Ceremony performed in the presence of audiences at the Cairo Opera House, the recently restored Samaakhana (Hall of Celestial Sounds) of the Mevlevi complex and the Mohamed Ali Club.
Why do whirling dervishes whirl? "They didn't really whirl" one member of the opera audience observed. And they didn't -- if your point of reference are the spectacular, colourful goings on at the Ghoury Palace. Despite the perhaps awkward voyeuristic set up (what are cameras and fine arts lovers doing at a religious ceremony?), the performance context in which the turners (whirlers) turned (whirled) did not completely veil the meaning of the ritual. Sieze upon the outward, Mevlana advised, even if it flies crookedly! In the end, the outward leads to the inward.
The turners come into view bearing symbols, wearing a honey coloured tombstone where a hat should be, a white shroud instead of a suit, the black tomb of worldly attachments in place of a cloak. God picks up the reed-flute world and blows. They listen -- to sacred words and to the reed flute telling you a story and lamenting the separation:/ Since I was cut from the stalk, my song makes men and women weep.../ The flute is the confidant of the one who is separated from the Friend; its accents break our veils.
We wait for the whirling spectacle. In complete control, pretending control,/ with dignified authority, we are charlatans./ Or maybe just a goat's hair brush in a painter's hand./ We have no idea what we are. With measured steps, they walk in a circle, take turns bowing to each other and to the sheikh at the post signifying the setting sun, bowing with the restrained courtesy that Gabriel shows the Blessed Virgin Mary in early Renaissance representations of the Annunciation. The samaa has become a window towards Thy rose garden; the ears and hearts of the lovers peer through the window. Three times they walk in a circle. We watch, listen to the music, wait for them to do something we can watch. You go ahead and listen to the form of the samaa; they have another ear.
Now they have shed their black cloaks. The cloak dances because of the body, the body because of the spirit, and love for the Beloved has tied the spirit's neck to the end of a string. Now they are lighter, white kites given leave to float by the semazenbashi (dance master) and the sheikh who keeps the black on throughout the ceremony, anchored by the knowledge that after the turning there is a return and that, towards the end of the ceremony, hands other than their own will wrap the cloak around them while the hafiz (Quran reciter) chants sacred words. Now they pass the sheikh, bow, arms crossed over the chest and are ready to turn.
So, why do Mevlevis turn? They do this in remembrance of Mevlana Rumi's turning in remembrance of his beloved friend Shams (Sun) who reminded him of the Beloved One. O daylight, rise! atoms are dancing/ The souls, lost in ecstasy, are dancing.../All the atoms in the air and in the desert,/ Let it be known are like madmen./ Each atom, happy or miserable,/ Is in love with the Sun of which we can say nothing.
Born on 30 September 1207 in Balkh, Khorasan and eventually settling in Konya, Turkey ("Rum", hence the name Rumi, meaning of Rum | ), Jalal Al-Din Rumi pursued the same vocation as his father Bahaa El-Din Walad, a theologian and Sufi master. "Before everything," Arberry writes, before the "love poet" appealing to modern sensibilities, "Rumi was a learned theologian after the finest pattern of medieval Islam, very familiar with the Qur'an and its exegesis, the traditional sayings of the Prophet Mohamed, the sacred law and its erudite expositors."
In 1244, when Rumi was 37, a stranger, Shams Al-Din Al-Tabrizi appeared in Konya. This appearance was the turning point of Rumi's life.
Rumi scholars on Rumi's meeting with the 60 year old wandering dervish? Nicholson: "Jalal Al-Din found in the stranger that perfect image of the Divine Beloved which he had long been seeking. He took him away to his house and for a year or two they remained inseparable. Sultan Veled (Rumi's son and biographer) likens his father's all-absorbing communion with this 'hidden saint' to the celebrated journey of Moses with Khadir (Koran, XVIII 64-80), the sage whom sufis regard as the supreme hierophant and guide of travellers on the Way to God." Arberry: The meeting with Shams "transformed Jalal Al-Din from the sober divine into an ecstatic wholly incapable of controlling the torrent of poetry which now poured forth from him." De Vitray-Meyerovitch: "The whole work and the whole life of Rumi became the echo of the bedazzlement of that meeting."
The Friend comes clapping, at once obvious/ and obscure, without fear or plans./ I am like I am/ because this one is like that. -- The sun is love. The lover,/ a speck circling the sun./ A Spring wind moves to dance/ any branch that is not dead. -- Without love I was one who had lost the way; of a sudden love entered. I was a mountain; I became a straw for the horse of the king. -- If you are Love's lover and in quest of Love, take a sharp dagger and cut the throat of bashfulness. -- What I most want/ is to spring out of this personality,/ then to sit apart from that leaping./ I have lived too long where I can be reached. --
Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy,/ absentminded. Someone sober/will worry about events going badly./ Let the lover be.
Rumi's disciples felt neglected by their Socrates who had found his Socrates, and in 1247 a group of Rumi's more possessive, jealous devotees murdered Shams. While still in the mourning attire which would become the model for what a dervish wears at a samaa ceremony Rumi started to dance. He was passing the shop of the goldsmith Salah El-Din Zarkub (who would soon become Rumi's closest friend) when he heard the sound Allah in the tinkle of the small hammer beating the gold to flatten it. Since I have been away from you,/ I only know how to weep.../ Like a harp, any sound I make is music. Rumi began to turn to the celestial sounds he heard. You have said what you are./ I am what I am./ Your actions in my head,/ my head here in my hands/ with something circling inside./ I have no name/ for what circles/ so perfectly.
Acute reactive psychosis due to the sudden disappearance of a man to whom the patient had formed an unhealthy attachment? An attempt, as Arberry puts it "to symbolise... the search for the Lost Beloved, now identified with Shams Al-Din?" Who knows? All we know is that the dance would continue for 700 years -- in spite of the repressive Law 677 issued by the vociferously secular Ataturk government in 1925 which, among other things, closed the dervish lodges and criminalised the wearing of dervish clothes.
I have lived on the lip/ of insanity, wanting to know reasons,/ knocking on a door. It opens./ I have been knocking from the inside! -- A secret turning in us/ makes the universe turn./ Head unaware of feet,/ and feet head. Neither cares./ They keep turning. -- I circumambulate with the pilgrims, I circle around the Beloved; I have not the character of dogs, I do not go around carrion.../ I am the companion of Khidar and momently seek his approach, foot fast and circling, for like compasses I circle.../ Count me not one of these men; recognise a phantom circling; if I am not a phantom, O soul, why do I circle about the secrets?/ Why do I not become still? I beat about this and that, for he has unminded me, made me drunk, therefore I circle unevenly./ You say to me, "Go not so hurriedly for that shows disrespect"; I am ashamed of respect, therefore I circle shame./ I made bread my pretext, but I am intoxicated with the baker; it is not about gold I circle, I circle about vision..../ Why do you bite my lips privily saying "Be silent, do not speak"? Is it not your doing, your craft too that I circle about speech?/ Come, Shams-i Tabrizi, like twilight although you flee; like twilight in the track of the sun I circle about these lands.
Despair turned dancing; grief, joy; separation, remembrance. Turning. No one dances until he sees Thy Gentleness. Thy Gentleness makes infants dance in the womb... /Thy Light makes bones dance in the grave!/ We have danced much over the veils of this world -- Become nimble, oh friends, for the sake of the dance of that other world!
It would take the efforts of several generations of an increasingly organised Mevlevi Sufi tariqa or order, starting with Sultan Veled and culminating in the 16th century, to transform the mysterious moment at the threshold of the goldsmith's shop into the highly stylised ritual circular "dance" that some witnessed in Cairo last week.
Many other things came to pass in Rumi's lifetime. Our death, Rumi believed, is our wedding with eternity. His sheb-i arus (wedding night) was on 17 December 1273. He was buried in Konya. Reproached for introducing hymns to the burial ritual, Jalal Al-Din, Al-Aflaqi tells us, replied: When the human spirit, after years of imprisonment in the cage and dungeon of the body, is at length set free, and wings its flight to the source whence it came, is not this an occasion for rejoicings, thanks and dancings? Is the human soul, Abbess Hildegaard of Bingen (12th century Christian mystic remembered for her passionate hymns to the Blessed Virgin Mary) would ask, not like a feather on the breath of God?
Full of grace, the samaa turning ritual is a "Yes it is" answer to the question. Arms crossed over chest as they bow, the dervishes begin to "whirl". "Like fledgling birds they unfold and stretch out their arms as their long white tennures trace circles in the air." (Friedlander). Within the egg of the body you are a marvelous bird; since you are inside the egg you cannot fly./ If the body shell should break, you will flap your wings and win the spirit. Their arms are extended, right palm up, left down, the body a turning point of intersection between earth and sky. They turn in samaa, hearing, and hence silently saying, Allah, making zikr, with every turn. Three times they stop turning. At the still point, the sheikh silently asks God to give His blessings to those who "whirl in the circle of love," to lead them "to the truth, which is the beginning," to "lift the veil from the eyes of their essence so that they may see the secret of the centre of the circle." Retaining his black cloak, the sheikh enters the circle, turning slowly at the qutb.
The turning comes to an end. Qur'an is recited. Black cloaks descend on kneeling figures in white. Salams and bows exchanged, one by one they go. The place is empty now. Do not think/ you must avoid the emptiness. It contains what you need.
We were asked not to applaud since the samaa is not a performance but a religious ritual. What to do now? Is it over? What is this? What are we doing here? Look for the answer in the same place you found the question.
A member of the audience who likes to think of herself as "spiritually serious" found the whole performance set-up (at both the Opera House and the Samaakhana) upsetting. If you have lost heart in the Path of Love/ Flee to me without delay: I am a fortress invincible. -- Do not try to steer the boat. Do not open a shop by yourself. Listen. Keep silent. You are not God's mouthpiece. Try to be an ear, and if you speak, ask for explanations.
Why the performance? Kings play polo in the field to show the inhabitants of the city -- those who are not able to participate in battle and warfare -- something of the combat of warriors: the lopping off of the heads of enemies and their rolling about just as balls roll about in the polo field; and their pursuit and attack and retreat. This game in the field is like an astrolabe for the serious business of fighting. In a similar way the People of God perform the ritual prayers and the samaa to display what they are doing within their inmost consciousness.
Mevlana can make you laugh. A perfect saint may look human, but there's a lion nature/ inside. If you are a cow, and you try to be friends/ with such a one, you'll be torn to pieces, instantly./ In fact, you'll become a lion!/ If you're happy being a cow, stay away. -- A lover gambles everything, the self/ the circle around the zero! He or she/ cuts and throws it all away./ This is beyond any religion./ Lovers do not require from God any proof,/ or any text, nor do they knock on a door/ to make sure this is the right street./ They run,/ and they run. -- How long will I keep caw-talking like a crow?
For further reading:
Rumi's works: Diwan-i Shams-i Tabriz which consists of 2,500 mystical odes, the Mathnawi in 6 books of 25,000 rhyming couplets, Rubaiyat (Quatrains), 1,600 of them, and Fihi ma Fihi (In it is what is in it, but "Discourses" is how this work is referred to).
Translations of Rumi used in the article above are from: A.J. Arberry's Mystical Poems of Rumi, 1 (U of Chicago Pr: Chicago, 1968), Coleman Barks and John Moyne's The Essential Rumi and Unseen Rain: Quatrains of Rumi (Threshold Books, 1986), and R.A. Nicholson's Rumi, Poet and Mystic: Selections from His Writings (One World: Oxford, 1995). The translators' introductions to these volumes are useful and help shed some light on Rumi's thought.
Books on Rumi on which, in varying degrees, the article above relied and which are well worth the read, are: William Chittick's The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi (State U of NY Pr: Albany, 1983), Shems Friedlander's The Whirling Dervishes: Being an Account of the Sufi Order Known as the Mevlevis and its founder the Poet and Mystic Mevlana Jalalu'ddin Rumi (State U of NY Pr: NY, 1992) and Rumi: The Hidden Treasure (Safina Books, 1998), James W. Redhouse's translation of Shemsu-d-Din Ahmed El-Aflaki's Menaqibu'l Arifin (The Acts of the Adepts) (Theosophical Publishing House: London, 1976), Erkan Turkmen's The Essence of Rumi's Masnevi including His Life and Works (Misket Pr: Konya, 1992), and Eva de Vitray-Meyerovitch's Rumi and Sufism, translated from the French by Simone Fattal (Post-Apollo Pr: California, 1987).
Further afield: G. Fanfoni's "An Underlying Geometrical Design of the Mavlavi Sama'hana in Cairo," Annales Islamologiques, t.XXIV, 1988, pp. 207-232.
See also: Bright lights in a dark world by David Blake