Asian Music and Dance

Yearning for Oneness 

“What is the secret of the whirling dance of the Mawlawis, oh my friend? 
You have to go back to where you came from. It is the secret of the origin and of the return.”
Divan Mehmed Tchelebi

The whirling dervish spins, mirroring the rotation of the earth, spiralling ten, twenty, thirty times a minute, reaching out to harness connection with a synchronous universe. Followers of the Sufi philosopher, Rumi, formed the Mevlevi or whirling dervishes order after his death in thirteenth century Konya, Turkey.

“True love is nothing but drinking the wine of eternity.”

Rumi (1207-1273) believed in spiritual connection with the divine source. The steady tap-tap of a metal worker’s hammer in the bazaar inspired in him that repetitive sound and movement of whirling as a path towards a spiritual union. Repeated musical notes, syllables with breathy vibrations, and cyclical movements, mirror the rotation of the earth, electrons around a nucleus and circulating blood. While whirling had existed for many centuries in the Middle East, Rumi spread whirling as divine contemplation in the Sama ceremony. The Samazan in white robes whirls, arms outspread, right palm facing the sky for sacred guidance and left palm facing the earth, delivering the message. The lookers-on say one word. The dervish stops, the body frozen in time, the waiting stillness revealing the vulnerable core of the dancer, in pain or ecstasy, or both at once. 

Some followers of Sufism believe that anyone who reaches for communion with the divine is a Sufi. Sufism originated in the region now known as Iraq and is believed to be the limb of Islam that realises the intellectual and instinctual rather than legal and directive tenets. In the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, Sufism with its compassion and poetry, flourished in the Islamic world and Asia. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries colonial history was less benevolent, and in many regions such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the practice of Sufism was outlawed. There is the famous life story of Algerian Sufi, Abd al-Qadir, who led the resistance against French imperialism in the 1830s, and was forced to surrender and take exile in France. Like many Sufi philosophers, al-Qadir was a charismatic leader, with unrelenting faith in Islam, and undying devotion to freedom. 

A famous eighth-century Sufi saint, Rabia Al-Adawiyya had many disciples. She spent years in abject poverty, hard labour and abuse at the hands of landowners, but would spend each night in communion. When she was freed, she turned to the desert and lived her life as an ascetic, referring to the divine as the Beloved. Rumi married a devotee Gevher Hatun. The Mevlevi order encouraged equality, education and participation of women. Women have, over the centuries, been active devotees of Sufism, taking part in ceremonies equally with men. Sufi sayings, however, reveal a bias towards expectations of superior moral wisdom from women, a bias that has in many cultures and centuries led to abuse of women who do not follow the dictates of male moral law. 

‘All the world’s atoms are really your mirrors, drowned in your essence like drops in the sea.’ 
Walah Daghistani 

Contemporary UK-based kathak dancer, Sonia Sabri, used Sufi philosophy in her work Spill, commissioned for the Place Prize in 2006. She creates repetitive tonal vibrations, slapping her thighs, chest, stomach, and stamping her feet on the floor. “The concept of Spill is,” she says, “how one gets caught up in conflicts based on trivial experiences or lack of self awareness, and a feeling of entrapment. Sufi philosophy is to just be, and to comprehend that this takes time, patience and guidance.” 

She starts a choreographic exploration with the concept of oneness, using movement that is simple and repetitive. The work gets more complex with Sufi poetry, especially that of Hazarat Amir Khusrao, a thirteenth-century philosopher who composed taals. 

Dancers like Sonia and her kathak teacher, Nahid Siddiqui, use hand gestures, thumb simply turned in rather than tucked into the index finger (a Hindu devotional gesture) to signify Islamic heritage and the complexity of the dual cores of kathak – Hinduism from temple dancing and Islam from the Mughal courts of Northern India from the sixteenth century. 

Nahid grew up in Pakistan, and has choreographed and danced kathak in England and India. She believes that the divide between Islam and Hindu culture is artificial and that both cultures are enhanced by their contact with each other. “Sufi thoughts are about self realisation, self awareness, peace, love and freedom, and only a free spirit can dance through life.” She finds the concept of Bhakti present in Sufi philosophy since in both spiritual traditions, the single point of focus brings us closer to the divine. The role of the guru, shaikh, or ustad, she says, is to lead the disciple into light. In one of her works, Rung, Nahid uses Qawalli, a Sufi musical tradition. In Tehayee, she promises connection to all human beings.

kathak repertoire uses repetitive, anti-clockwise turns that originated in Persia, and the classic arms of the graceful gat mirror the hands of the dervish. Sonia elaborates on other repertoire elements, “Tarana uses universal sounds; Ghazal has words for a beloved following a strict meter; Taal utilises the concept of reaching the ultimate destination or ‘sum’, a rhythmical metaphor to reach the Creator; Thumri – conveys several interpretations of a word or a line of a romantic poem. Some say the centring of the hands is inspired by the dervish with folded hands in namaz.” 

Manjari Chaturvedi, of the Lucknow gharana explains her coining of the term Sufi kathak for her dancing, “Sufi kathak is a dance that spans from earthly romance of Hindu folk to the evolved Sufi imagery of love in Persian poetry; from a beloved in flesh and blood to the abstract presence of the Almighty; from form to formlessness.” Through Sufi poetry and kathak repertoire, Manjari says that spiritual connection streams through the spinning axis of the dancer. She stresses that Sufi kathak is not simply modified kathak. It uses abhinaya and mudras to explore formlessness. “What results then,” says Manjari, “is a dance that unifies movement, expression, emotion, poetry and music…” 

Amina Khayyam finds Sufism to be “a kind of shamanistic approach to discovering levels of spirituality and letting go of the ego.” She finds that besides spinning and body positions, the abstract is very important in Sufi-based choreography. “Coming from an Islamic background,” she says, “my creative ideas are drawn from Islamic thought. I like to draw on life’s emotions – shapes that include symmetry, like circles and triangles.” She discusses the difference in kathak’s two threads, saying, “in Hindu tradition we are given physical imagery of a deity, however in Islamic influence one is not allowed to picture images of God.” 

With keen insight into the place of women in Sufi philosophy, she elaborates, “aspects of Sufism are subversive to mainstream Islam. Though we find ourselves in different forms, ultimately there is no male or female, only Being. Within Sufism, the recognition of this truth has encouraged spiritual maturation of women in a way not possible in the West.” Amina’s alluring inwardness when she dances creates an aura of the sacred, a humility and lack of anxious attachment that vibrates with Sufi philosophy. Besides the poetry and the philosophy, this oneness in dance is the often-overlooked heritage of the Sufi mystics. 

“Glorious sun, are you setting?
- Yes, to rise again. 
Sublime nature, my ears did not hear your music. 
- Your heart heard it, your soul has danced to it.
Nature, where do you borrow your sublimity?
- From your loving spirit.”
Sufi message

A 21st Century Sufi

Abdul Rehman was born Nicholas Blanchette (French Canadian father and Greek Cypriot mother) in London on 17th  September 1967. Growing up as a teenager on a north London council estate he suffered sustained racial abuse. In an effort to tackle his tormentors he started to learn Shaolin Kung Fu and Judo.

Rasta friends introduced him to martial arts and the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. Nicholas’s Greek Orthodox mother exerted her quiet but strong religious influence. One day he attended a workshop by a martial arts tutor, to whom he felt very attracted. The form of martial art was based on movements of prayer and submission. “It was a way of connecting yourself to a higher Self” explained Rehman. Later the form was named as silat, a martial art widespread in Malaysia and Indonesia.

“I started to feel God in my prayer and movements instead of reading about them in books,” said Rehman. This teacher was a trained Imam and Nicholas Blanchette converted to Islam and choose the Sufi path of Sheikh Nazim. “My teacher never forced me into religion. I only observed the way he lived life and wanted to follow his example.”

Today, Abdul teaches silat and whirling dervish dance at the Sheikh Nazim Sufi Centre in Tottenham. He considers himself a spiritual seeker. “A sufi has to work on himself to lose his ego whilst remaining in the everyday world.”

Abdul, gentle, smiling and good-natured tells many stories of his spiritual master Sheikh Nazim and how he jokes and gently teases the crowds of visitors who flock to him from ministers and bureaucrats to the poor and marginalised. All are treated with the same respect and the master holds out a mirror so that the followers see themselves reflected back. 

Sheikh Nazim Sufi Centre, 277 St Ann’s Road N15 Silat dance Wed 8-10 pm Sufi Whirling Dervish gathering Thurs 8.30-10 pm.



Join the weekly Pulse newsletter and we will send you the latest news and articles straight to your inbox