The Mevlevis, a mystical sect of Anatolia

The Mevlevis, a mystical sect of Anatolia

Niki Gamm
The Mevlevis, a mystical sect of Anatolia

The Mevlevı ‘sema,’ or whirling ceremony. PHOTO: Fatma Demir.

During the first half of the 13th century in Konya, a city in Central Anatolia Celaladdin Rumi - or “Mevlana” (our master), the name by which he is frequently known - met Şems-i Tabrizi a young itinerant dervish in search of a teacher. Whatever their relationship was, it became so intense that it aroused the jealousy of Mevlana’s other students. Then, in December 1248, Şems-i Tabrizi walked out of Mevlana’s house and was never seen again. However painful the loss, it led to Mevlana expressing his feelings through poetry - in which he espoused a doctrine of love and tolerance and peace in a time of warring tribes, invasions and anarchy. 

The 12th and 13th centuries saw several Sufi or mystic groups gain prominence throughout the Middle East, although the rise of Sufism can be traced back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century. Sects originated from a charismatic preacher or teacher and grew through that person’s students or disciples. They often operated “outside Islam,” but offered a means of approaching God and drawing closer to him while still living through the performance of various kinds of rituals. This differed from “orthodox” Islam, which taught that drawing nearer to God could only happen after death.

The Mevlevis, a mystical sect of Anatolia

Army Commander Lala Mustafa Paşa
watches a Mevlevi whirling ceremony
in Konya. 16th century.

The Mevlevis, or followers of Mevlana, were the result of the organizational skills of the Master’s son Sultan Veled and his grandson, Ulu Arif Çelebi, after his death in December 1273. Mevlana is thought to have worn the typical clothes that a member of the learned class would have worn in the 13th century, while consensus on the costume and headgear associated with the Mevlevis was only reached in later centuries. The same is true for the whirling ceremony. Mevlana believed in the importance of music and song as part of worshipping God, but it isn’t known if he himself participated in whirling. In any case, the highly structured ceremony we see today took centuries to develop.

The Mevlevis after Mevlana

Over time, the connection of the Mevlevis and the learned/ruling class in the Ottoman Empire grew and deepened. Mevlana had had a close relationship with the Seljuk rulers whose center was in Konya and the Melevis’ emphasis on peace and tolerance, quiet and good manners struck a chord with the Ottomans who followed in the Seljuks’ footsteps to wield power over very diverse groups of people in the Balkans, Middle East and North Africa. At the empire’s height, the Mevlevis had established some 114 lodges known as tekkes from Cairo to Bosnia although its center always remained in Konya. Their influence remained high in urban areas and in particular among the educated and ruling class in contradistinction to other, “more fanatical and popular orders” such as the Bektaşis and the Kalenderis.

Women also were able to become Melevis and some played prominent roles in the movement, serving as leaders and teachers. They were even able to participate in the whirling ceremonies, although they had to perform this ritual separately from the men.

Islamic historian Sedad Dizdarević has written that “It should be noted that Sultan Bayezid I (r. 1389-1403) married Devlet Hatun, one of the descendants of Sultan Walad, and that their son Mehmed I (r. 1413-1421) became sultan and bore the grand title of Mevlevi Çelebis.”

Their proximity to the ruling class meant that the sect, also known as a tarikat, benefitted from donations and assistance in erecting and maintaining lodges and providing education. According to Dizdarević, “That was the period when sultans like Murat II (r. 1421-1444 and 1446-1451), Bayezid II (r. 1481-1512), Selim I (r. 1512-1520) and Murat III (r. 1574-1595) offered the Mevlevi Tariqa full support, and with it the spreading of the Persian language and the Iranian culture on the territory of the Ottoman Empire. The rulers mentioned saw the Mevlevi Tariqa as [a] counterbalance to radical and heterodox Sufi orders, who supported the Safavid [Persian rulers] and regularly instigated riots throughout the Empire.”

The Mevlevis, a mystical sect of Anatolia

The interior of the Galata Mevlevi Lodge.

There were times when the Ottoman authorities attempted to crack down on the Sufi sects and this included the Mevlevis. For example, the Kazızadeli movement in the 17th century aimed at restoring a puritanical form of Islam. The preaching of Kazızade in Istanbul appealed primarily to those who felt left out of the system or at least didn’t benefit from the system. When it became clear that the movement was sufficiently large as to threaten Sultan Murad IV (r. 1623-1640), he attempted to work with it by reducing expenditures for the military and for the court. He also banned the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages, coffee and tobacco. However, when these concessions didn’t work but only emboldened Kazızade’s followers, Köprülü Mehmed Paşa was appointed grand vizier in 1656 and he quickly arrested and deported the leaders of the movement that then eventually died out.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the Mevlevis continuing to prosper as they had in the past.  While we don’t hear anything about them during the Tulip Period (Lale Devri, 1718-1730), we may assume that the sect played an influential role in the administration of the Empire. At the same time, the Bektaşi sect, which was in some ways a rival of the Mevlevis, was closely connected with the Janissary corps that grew insistently threatening and dangerous in their demands of the sultan. Sultan Mahmud II (r. 1808-1839) eliminated the Janissaries in 1826 and banned the Bektaşi sect throughout the empire, but the latter continued to exist underground - and in the Balkans especially - until the proclamation of Gülhane Park in 1839, an edict that announced a series of reforms in the empire in line with Western ideas and including the equality of all citizens, regardless of religion.

The Mevlevis continued to be favored by the sultan and the ruling class. Sultan Abdülaziz (r. 1861-1876) is supposed to have been a member of the Mevlevis. The latter even formed a regiment to fight in World War I. The imperial favor continued even after the end of the Ottoman Empire until a law promulgated in 1925 outlawing all mystic sects. In spite of the various lodges being closed down that year, the Mevlevi sect continued but underground. Today the sect is still outlawed but the whirling ceremony is permitted as a national folk dance and this has spread its fame worldwide. Ceremonies are already underway to mark the anniversary of his death, Dec. 17, 1273, in Konya.