The Sacred Dance

The majority of the turuq possess a mode of collective invocation that lends itself to corporeal movement. The Mawlawīs, the whirling dervishes, call it samā', spiritual concert, because it pertains to a rite in which dance is sustained by a complete musical ensemble -vocal, instrumental, and rhythmic. The music itself is considered a form of invocation.

Many other turuq such as the Qādiriyyah and the Shādhiliyyah speak rather of tadrat al-dhikr, meaning literally "presence of invocation," because the Name that is pronounced in the meetings is the Name of God Himself, Allāh, the Name in which God is present and through which He makes Himself present. Pronouncing the Divine Name, on which the rhythm of the hadrah is based, is thus a sacrament in the strictest sense of the term that is, a supernatural act that allows man to leave his nature and to be transformed, absorbed in a dimension that surpasses him. In the Maghreb, where there are numerous branches of the Shādhilī order, such as the Isawiyyah, the Zarrūqiyyah, the Nāsiriyyah, the Darqāwiyyah, etc., this form of sacred dance is also called 'imārah, or plenitude, because the name of the Divine Essence, Allāh (or simply huwa, He), in penetrating the human receptacle, fills it beyond measure.

There are numerous ways of invoking the name Allāh. The invocation can be silent, scarcely audible, or it can be spoken aloud. The Name can be pronounced slowly or quickly and rhythmically. The most widely used method of invocation, that of the Shādhilī or Qādirī, is rhythmic, called "the invocation from the chest" (dhikr al-sadr), because, after having begun by pronouncing the name Allāh in its entirety with all its letters, the participants finish by pronouncing only the final ha', in a breath that no longer uses the vibration of the vocal chords but only alternating contraction and expansion of the chest.

At the start of this rhythmic invocation, all the participants stand side by side and join hands, forming one or more either concentric circles or rows facing one another. In the center stands the shaykh or one of his assistants. This arrangement, which is also found among the whirling dervishes, evokes the symbolism of the circle of angels or the rows of angels that surround the Divine Throne. The session begins with a slow rhythm. The dancers pronounce the Divine Name in unison, bowing the trunk of the body rapidly and fully at the moment of exhaling the second syllable, lāh. When they inhale, they stand erect again. The rhythm increases in tempo little by little, and the movements of the body always accompany the two phases of the breath. The name Allāh is soon no longer clear and only the last letter hā' remains, which all the chests exhale in an immense burst of air. Each of these exhalations symbolizes the last breath of man, the moment when the individual soul is reintegrated into the cosmic breath, that is to say, into the Divine Spirit, which was blown into man at the time of creation and through which man always remains in communication with the Absolute. Keeping with the movements of the chest, the body is alternately lowered and raised as if at each instant it were being pulled toward the sky and then sent back toward the earth. All the eyes are closed; the faces express a kind of painful rapture. One need not fear pointing out that, if breathing of this dhikr evokes that of a rapture of a more sensual order, it is not an accident. There are precise correspondences between the higher order and that here below. That is why, for example, earthly love is able to serve as the point of departure for the realization of Divine Love, and it is also why the houris of paradise symbolize the delights of heaven.

The Mawlawī session, the samā', is also entirely woven from symbolic elements, which all concur on the same goal, the dhikr, the call to the Divine. The very costume of the dancers is charged with significance. Their headgear, a large tarboosh of brown felt, represents the vertical dimension, the axis that escapes the tribulations of desire and passion; it represents also the tombstone and reminds the wearer of the unavoidable door of death, the ephemeral nature of this lower world, and the necessity for seeking in this life the Truth which does not die. At the beginning of the session, the dervish wears a black robe which he removes at the time of the dance; this means that he is abandoning his gross individuality in order to appear purified before the master of the dance and before his brothers. The white robe in which he then dresses signifies the shroud in which his corpse will one day be wrapped, and at the same time it prefigures the resurrection and the joyous meeting with the Divine Beloved. During the session the dervish sings:

The frock is my tomb, the hat my tombstone...
Why wouldn't a corpse dance in this world
when the sound of the trumpets of death
raise him to dance? 24

In their orchestra the Mawlawīs use the small violin with three strings, the lute, the drum, and the reed flute (nay) as their principal instruments. The reed flute is their favorite instrument and their most eloquent means of expression. The reed from which it is made is the symbol of human existence -fragile, fragmentary, since it is cut off from its origin just as the reed was pulled from the reed bed. However, this existence can be regenerated when it is traversed and transformed by the Divine Breath and is lent Its strength, Its energy, Its voice. 25 Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, in the prologue to the Mathnawī (Mesnevī), his mystical epic in 26,000 couplets, likens the song of the flute to the call of the soul that longs to return to his Lord:

Listen to the song of the reed and listen to its story.
Weeping from the pain of separation
It cries: "Since I was severed from my native land,
Men and women have longed to hear my songs
And the agony of separation has broken my heart...."

One of the dominant themes of Mawlawī spirituality is that earthly music is an echo of celestial music. Harmonious vibration of strings, the repeated striking of the drum, and the voice of the flute are reminders of our Divine Origin, and they awaken in us the desire to find once again our distant homeland. The Quran teaches that in the beginning God made a solemn pact, the mīthāq, with souls before creation, asking them, "Am I not your Lord?""Yea!" they responded, accepting perpetual obedience (VII, 172). Nevertheless, souls were unfaithful to the pact; they desired to live a separate existence, which is the cause of all their miseries. To find again the original purity is therefore the most profound, the most normal aspiration of the human being. As a Mawlawī friend, a professor of French at the high school of Konya who had just cited in the text the first verses of the "Lake" by Lamartine, told me, "Each beautiful thing--a flower, the song of a bird-awakens in our soul the memory of our origin. Let us learn how to listen to the voice of beautiful things; it will make us understand the voice of our soul."

The dance itself, in the form that was realized by Rūmi, which he transmitted to his disciples, draws its efficacy from a rich and eloquent symbolism at the same time that its action concentrates and focuses on the human faculties. Gathered into an octagonal enclosure, the dervishes arrange themselves to dance in several concentric orbits, creating an image of the planets in the heavens. One dervish, usually the oldest, occupies the center of the room, where he represents the "pole." He turns slowly in place, while the others, arranged in a crown shape, spin around and at the same time turn around in the orbits in which they were placed. The dance is accompanied by several gestures of the arms. At the beginning, the hands are crossed over the chest in a gesture of humility and contraction of the soul (qabd). Then the arms spread apart in a sign of expansion (bash); the right hand opens toward the sky and the left hand turns toward the ground. By this gesture the dervish indicates that he is opening himself to the grace of heaven in a gesture of confidence and that he leads the grace thus received toward the terrestrial world and all the beings who inhabit it. Having become like a rotating cross, he moves about smoothly, his head slightly bowed, his shoulders held constantly at the same level. His white robe, swollen like a corolla, is the image of the fullness ('arh) of the universe penetrated by Divine Wisdom (al-hikmah). The vertical axis of his body, elongated by the high tarboosh, is the sign of the exaltation (tūl) to which the creature can accede only after his extinction in the All-Powerful (al-qudrah).

Reproducing on earth the movements of the stars, themselves symbols of angelic powers and hierarchies, the dervish is conscious of participating in the universal harmony and of contributing to making the order that is in the skies reign here below. Giving himself up to the rhythm of celestial harmonies, he becomes an instrument through which Divine Love communicates with creatures suffering from separation and from the cosmic illusion. Through his rotation, he affirms the unique presence of God in all directions in space, "Wherever you turn, there is the Face of God" (II, 115), and he identifies himself with this Center and omnipresent Principle.